Gopnik on legitimate forms of knowledge and increasing prosperity

In another article in the same issue of The New Yorker, Alan Gopnik reviews several books that provide both histories of atheism and apologetics of religion. What’s notable about the essay is that Gopnik doesn’t seem to have a horse in this race – he’s neither an apologist nor especially an atheist. He’s an observer, standing outside the conflict and trying to understand it in cultural terms. Still, you can see what he matter-of-factly observes to be true, as any self-aware, intellectual person in the 21st century would. Consider the flavor of this paragraph, in which he discusses the “noes”, those who have for one reason or another dismissed belief in a god.

And here we arrive at what the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now, and that is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: the advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident. What works wins. We know that men were not invented but slowly evolved from smaller animals; that the earth is not the center of the universe but one among a billion planets in a distant corner; and that, in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession with the laws of nature. We need not imagine that there’s no Heaven; we know that there is none, and we will search for angels forever in vain. A God can still be made in face of all that absence, but he will always be chairman of the board, holding an office of fine title and limited powers.

It’s a great essay, again, focusing on how social and economic conditions have led attitudes about belief in a god to change. One more para:

What if, though, the whole battle of ayes and nays had never been subject to anything, really, except a simple rule of economic development? Perhaps the small wave of ideas and even moods are just bubbles on the one great big wave of increasing prosperity. It may be that the materialist explanation of the triumph of materialism is the one that counts. Just last year, the Princeton economist Angus Deaton, in his book “The Great Escape,” demonstrated that the enlargement of well-being in at least the northern half of the planet during the past couple of centuries is discontinuous with all previous times. The daily miseries of the Age of Faith scarcely exist in our Western Age of Fatuity. The horrors of normal life in times past, enumerated, are now almost inconceivable: women died in agony in childbirth, and their babies died, too; operations were performed without anesthesia. … If God became the opiate of the many, it was because so many were in need of a drug.

As incomes go up, steeples come down.

This entry was posted in Atheism, Culture, Religion, Science. Bookmark the permalink.