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on June 7, 2012
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Recently I was "surfing" my TV trying to find something interesting to watch when I encountered Turner Classic Movies and saw Jeanette MacDonald singing. I love Jeanette MacDonald and immediately recognized the scene as one appearing near the end of the 1936 movie "San Francisco," which also starred Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Jeanette plays the part of a classically trained singer who is down on her luck and forced to seek employment in the nightclub of Clark Gable where she sings "pop" songs ("San Francisco".) Gable plays the most sinful, scoffing but adorable scoundrel in all of San Francisco. He is, of course, a Godless atheist. Spencer Tracy plays the part of a priest who was a childhood chum of Clark Gable and who seems to spend most of his time trying to bring Clark back to the faith. Near the end of the movie they are visited by the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Gigantic buildings are toppled, fires erupt everywhere, water mains are broken, thousands of people are killed, injured or rendered homeless. It was the greatest natural disaster in the city's history. But something happens to Clark. Instead of being confirmed in his Godless cynicism he sinks to his knees in prayer as a large crowd sings, "Nearer My God to Thee." End of movie!
How often when natural disasters strike do survivors thank God for their good fortune? Why is there such blindness to the incontrovertible conclusion that, if God exists, he must be a sadist or an incompetent or both? Why is such wilful blindness so difficult to expunge? That greater and lesser evils have always been with us ought to be a problem for believers in an all powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God. Experience raises this problem continually and relentlessly. One would therefore expect believers to protest against God's sadism or at least to concede that God has much to answer for. However the faithful seldom inveigh against the Creator.
Andrew Levine believes that people who hold beliefs that they know or should know are unworthy of serious consideration are, in what he calls, "bad faith." Rather ingeniously he has selected four 19th and early 20th century thinkers to explore this point: Ludwig Feuerbach, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Neitzcshe. Each of these authors believed that, because we are reflective beings, we cannot abide a meaningless existence and that this fact of human nature, joined with a universal human capacity for constructing meanings, accounts for religion's ubiquity and durability. They also believed that humankind can rise above faith in God or gods. And they each wondered why modern men and women had not done so long ago. They therefore each set out to account for the persistence of the idea that God exists.
Levine says that his purpose in this book is not to concoct a story about the emergence of an idea or set of ideas that draws on the successive contributions of these thinkers but rather to establish the cogency and plausibility of a diffuse but nevertheless cohesive explanatory and normative project - one that indicts the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam)on grounds of bad faith.
The French Revolution, which was supposed to have set humanity on the path to real freedom, had not ushered in anything like heaven on earth and a few dauntless and enlightened thinkers wondered why. One reason, they all agreed, was resistance, on nearly everyone's part, to enlightenment itself. Feuerbach, Durkheim, Freud and Neitzsche were among those who tried to account for this resistance especially with regard to the Abrahamic religions, which they all assumed would have vanished like night into day had enlightened thinking prevalied. Their differing explanations for faith's persistence point in a similar direction: theism's durability can be attributed to a universal human need to find meaning in a meaningless world. Unfortunately, their respective explanations, separately and together, are incomplete and far from satisfactory. Still, theirs are the most illuminating attempts at explaining theism's persistence to date.
Levine thinks that it has been plain for a long time what ought to happen: the Abrahamic religions should go the way of the pagan faiths. Thanks to Feuerbach, Durkheim, Freud and Neitzsche, we also have some idea why this has not yet occurred. Feuerbach expressly and the other authors implicitly advanced a suggestion about how to get from where we are to where we ought to be: put reason in control. That suggestion certainly reflects the inherent optimism of enlightenment thinking - but is it realistic?
However, says Levine, reason does not have to be in control for faith to subside. For most people, progress towards enlightened ends depends less on reason winning hearts and minds than on sheer, but beneficent, indifference. Where secularism has made headway, it has not been, for the most part, because people became atheists first (or ever), but because faith came to seem unimportant to them. As a result they lost interest and drifted away. This has happened gradually in most of Europe for more that half a century and there are signs that it is currently taking place in sectors of the American population, especially among the young. This may be all for the good but it is not what enlightenment thinkers had in mind. Their expectation was that reason would triumph frontally; not that unreason would be defeated in a protracted war of attrition. Too bad for that expectation but if the forward march, not of reason but of indifference gets us from here to there, then so be it.