Excerpt of God and the New Atheism

John F. Haught, God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. 124 pages, $ 16.95

Anyone who keeps track of what sells well these days in the world of publishing cannot fail to have noticed the recent outbreak of provocative atheistic treatises. Bestselling books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have drawn an extraordinary amount of attention. Many readers, including some academics, have found these books not only interesting but, in some cases, convincing. Dawkins’s The God Delusion says extremely well, though not always accurately, what some scientists and philosophers have already been thinking. Likewise Harris, in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, and Hitchens, in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, have stated clearly and entertainingly what many of their readers also consider to be wrong with religion. The current label for this criticism is the “new atheism.”

I must confess that it has been disappointing for me to have witnessed the recent surge of interest in atheism. It’s not that my own livelihood, that of a theologian, is at stake—although the authors in question would fervently wish that it were so. Nor is it that the treatment of religion in these tracts consists mostly of breezy over-generalizations that leave out almost everything that theologians would want to highlight in their own contemporary discussion of God. Rather, the new atheism is simply unchallenging theologically. Its engagement with theology lies at about the same level of reflection on faith that one can find in contemporary creationist and fundamentalist literature.

Clearly the new atheists’ strategy is to suppress in effect any significant theological voices that might wish to join in conversation with them. As a result of this exclusion, the intellectual quality of their atheism is unnecessarily diminished. Their understanding of religious faith remains consistently at the same unscholarly level as the unreflective, superstitious, and literalist religiosity of those they criticize. Even though the new atheists reject the God of creationists, fundamentalists, terrorists, and “intelligent design” (ID) advocates, it is not without interest that they have decided to debate with these extremists rather than with any major theologians.

This choice of antagonists betrays their unconscious privileging of literalist and conservative versions of religious thought over the more traditionally mainstream types. The new atheists are saying in effect that if God exists at all, we should allow this God’s identity to be determined once and for all by the fundamentalists of the Abrahamic religious traditions. I believe they have chosen this strategy not only to make their job of demolition easier, but also because they have a barely disguised admiration for the simplicity of their opponents’ views of reality.

In preparing treatises on a-theism, one would expect that scholars and journalists would have done some research on theism, just to be sure they know exactly what it is they are rejecting. It is hard to be an informed and consistent atheist without knowing something about theology. And yet, aside from several barbed references, there is no sign of any real contact between the new atheists and theology at all, let alone studious investigation. This circumvention is comparable to creationists rejecting evolution without ever having taken a course in biology. They just know there’s something wrong with those crazy Darwinian fantasies. So the new atheists just know there is something sick and delusional about theology. There is no need to look at it up close. Furthermore, conversation with theologians, most of whom are not biblical literalists, would add a dimension of intricacy to the new atheist literature that would detract from the breeziness that sells books. Ignorance of theology simplifies the new atheists’ attacks on their equally uninformed religious adversaries. It allows their critique to match, point for point, the fundamentalism it is trying to eliminate.

Richard Dawkins’s own implicit version of theological method, for example, is the same as that of “scientific creationists,” notorious in theological circles for their belief that, if the Bible is inspired by God, it must be a reliable source of scientific as well as spiritual information. Dawkins’s uncompromising literalism is nowhere more obvious than in his astonishing insistence throughout The God Delusion that the notion of God should be treated as a scientific hypothesis, subject to the same verificational procedures as any other “scientific” hypothesis.

In considering the Bible, Hitchens also shares with his extremist religious adversaries the assumption that grasping the full substance of biblical faith requires that the sacred texts be taken literally. Particularly puzzling to Hitchens are the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most Christian scholars today delight in these factually irreconcilable accounts of Jesus’ birth since through them the two Evangelists are able to introduce idiosyncratic theological themes that they carry through the remainder of their Gospels. Hitchens, however, cannot get over how anybody could possibly take them seriously, let alone as the word of God, if they are so factually divergent (111-12). So he concludes: “Either the gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps an immoral one at that” (120). Hitchens also reveals to us that theism’s “foundational books are transparent fables,” and that, in light of today’s scientific understanding of the origin of the cosmos and the origin of species, those books (presumably Genesis in particular) and the religion they inspire are consigned to “marginality if not irrelevance” (229)!

By the time they have finished a good undergraduate course in biblical literature most Christian and Jewish students would have outgrown the naive idea that biblical inspiration entails scientific accuracy. Students would also have become reconciled to the idea that revelation has nothing to do with the communication of scientific information and that therefore a biblical theology of origins does not contradict Darwinian science. But Sam Harris is still wondering how a book allegedly “written by God (35)” or “authored by the Creator of the universe” (45) would fail to be “the richest source of mathematical insight humanity has ever known.” If the Bible is inspired, why does it have nothing to say “about electricity, or about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe” (Letter to a Christian Nation, 60-61)?

In thirty-five years of undergraduate teaching I never encountered a single instance where, at least after taking a theology course, a student would be capable of making such a farcical complaint. But Harris, like the creationists he denounces, and unlike theologically informed students, wants nothing to do with an allegedly inspired text that fails to give useful and accurate scientific information.

In 1893, even the very conservative Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, instructed Catholics never to look for scientific understanding in the biblical texts. On this point Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens take their stand far to the right of Pope Leo. They might easily have avoided this bungle had they but gone back several centuries and taken heed to Galileo. In the 17th century this scientific giant and devout Catholic, in his brilliant “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” pointed out that the biblical authors could not possibly have intended to deliver scientifically accurate propositions about the natural world. If that had been their intention, the least little slip-up in their science would also have made intelligent readers suspicious of their religious message as well. “Hence,” Galileo comments, “I should think it would be the part of prudence not to permit anyone to usurp scriptural texts and force them in some way to maintain any physical conclusions to be true, when at some future time the senses and demonstrative or necessary reasons may show the contrary.”

Yet the new atheists no less than biblical literalists still interpret religious doctrines and scriptures as though their intention is to solve scientific puzzles. Much earlier than Galileo, St. Augustine’s de Genesi ad litteram had advised readers of Genesis not to get hung up on questions about its astronomical exactness, nor try to defend the literal accuracy of its cosmological assumptions. Otherwise unbelievers are likely to dismiss the biblical writings “when they teach, relate, and deliver more profitable matters.”1 Of course, for the new atheists there simply cannot be any more “profitable matters.” If biblical truth cannot be reduced to scientific truth then it does not qualify as truth in any sense.

The business of good theology, on the other hand, is to make sure that our questions to the scriptures of a religious tradition will be directed in such a way as to allow ourselves to be challenged and even shaken at the deepest levels of our existence by what the text has to say. A good way to prevent any such encounter is to approach the texts, as do the new atheists, armed with nothing but scientific curiosity or simplistic questions about morality. Creationists are wrong to read the creation stories as science, but at least they can pick up some of the religious challenge of the texts in spite of their anachronistic exegesis. But the new atheists cannot even do this much. They share the untimely scientific reading with creationists, but being also deaf to the transformative intent of the scriptures, they completely disqualify themselves as interpreters of biblical faith.

This does not mean that their titillating books have no valid points to make about the many abuses sponsored by religions and theologies. Of course they do, and most readers will find themselves agreeing with the negative judgments on the barbarities that have accompanied human religiosity from the start. But readers have every right to expect balance and fairness from journalists and academics. They do not get it here. In a sense, this is not surprising since the authors bring no scholarly expertise to their diatribes, and everyone knows that ignorance about what one is rejecting always leads to caricature. Consequently, since fairness is not important, our critics rely mostly on rhetorical trickery, a very unscholarly way to convince people, but one that mimics in every way the demonizing mind-set of the various fundamentalisms they loath.

Of course, like their literalist opponents, the new atheists are so confident that they are in complete possession of the truth that they consider it pointless to expose their own beliefs to open dialogue. When it comes to the topic of religion, they mirror their extremist opponents in assuming that they are in complete and inalterable possession of the truth. As distinct from those who allow themselves to be gradually transformed by a dialogical encounter with the views of others, these extremists fear that open conversation will lead at best to a softening of the hard mound of certainty on which they believe they stand. Nevertheless, in the case of the new atheists the pulpit may not be perched as firmly on pure reason and openness to truth as they suppose. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens seeks to expose the many fallacies and flaws in their bestselling books.


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Endnotes

1 Ibid., 187.

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