Deirdre McCloskey has changed my life several times, and always for the better. I had my first economics lessons from friends who were so inspired by Deirdre’s lectures that they felt compelled to repeat them to me over dinner; she was one of my most influential teachers long before I’d ever laid eyes on her. Later on, I had the privilege of knowing her personally, counting her as a treasured friend, and being repeatedly re-inspired by her twin passions to understand the world and to make it work better.
When I decided to write a textbook that competed directly with Deirdre’s own, she was my strongest booster. When I decided to follow up with a book for the general public—the book that became The Armchair Economist—Deirdre told me exactly how to sell it to the publishers. Fifteen years later, the Armchair Economist remains one of the bestselling popular economics books in at least six languages, and at multiple levels—intellectual, practical and personal—I owe it all to Deirdre.
So it was with considerable delight that I received Deirdre’s recent email with subject line “Your Splendid Book”. But as I fully expected (having had this conversation with her more than once), her praise was tempered with disapproval of my “adolescent” atheism:
As you know, I don’t think the assault on religious belief is among its charms. You are very indulgent towards the on-going, searching, preliminary character of faith in physics but, in the style of a adolescent who has just discovered that “the stories they’re liable/ To tell in the Bible:/ They ain’t necessarily so,” unwilling to extend the same indulgence to the faith that a lengthy roster of idiots including Galileo and Newton worked on. You need to read, say, Polkinghorne, but haven’t.
With Deirdre’s permission, I’m responding here on the blog:
- Aside from a snarky comment or two, The Big Questions is not, in whole or in part, an assault on religious belief. I do offer a non-religious account of the fabric of the Universe that I find compelling; while this account could be certainly be wrong, I’m not sure that the act of offering it counts as an assault on the alternatives. I do point to inadequacies in several of the standard arguments for belief in God, just as I point to inadequacies in Richard Dawkins’s arguments to the contrary; this is largely equal-opportunity carping. And I do mention in passing that I find all religions to be patent hokum (just as gratuitously as I mention my taste for Diet Coke), but I’ve not attempted to write a sustained defense of that judgment. That’s not what the book, or even any part of the book, is about.
- What I do claim in The Big Questions is that to a large extent, religious believers do not believe so much as they believe that they believe. That is, they “believe” only because they’ve never stopped to think hard about what they really do believe. (This is not a pejorative judgment; none of us has the time to think deeply about more than a small number of things, and there’s no particular reason God should be among them.) Take your average devout Christian, transport him back to the cave where the newly crucified Christ has just been laid to rest, ask him to predict whether this body is going to be resurrected in the next week or so, and somehow convince him that the lives of his children depend on getting the answer right—and I’ll bet that in most cases good old-fashioned materialism will displace religion in a hurry. Obviously I could be wrong about this, but it’s my defense of this assertion, as opposed to any mockery of Bible stories, to which I’ve devoted substantial space in The Big Questions.
- In fact, my expectation that most belief is shallow is precisely the reason I don’t think it’s worth assaulting.
- What exactly is wrong with “adolescent” insights, anyway? Early adolescence is when a lot of people first realize that reindeer can’t fly.
- I have, in fact read Polkinghorne. (That’s John Polkinghorne, the theoretical physicist who keeps writing books defending his simultaneous faith in science and Christianity.) In fact, I’ve read Polkinghorne for the sole and sufficient reason that Deirdre once told me to. And he has, actually, some interesting things to say, though they don’t prove what he thinks they prove. (Indeed, I think they come pretty close to confirming the non-religious vision I offer in The Big Questions.) He also spouts what seems to me like an extraordinary amount of nonsense. I’d meant to elaborate on all this here, but I think this post has gotten long enough as it is. So let’s add John Polkinghorne to the list of topics I promise to blog about soon.