Tackling the atheists
Published: Sunday | October 11, 2009
Many Christians in Jamaica have been deeply disturbed for the last few weeks with the publication in these columns of the disconcerting views of a group called the New Atheists, who have sparked a major firestorm in the North American and British media, as well as in academia.
Left to many of these Christians, these views would never see the light of day, lest the fragile faith of Christians crack. Many have never thought about the issues brought to the fore and others simply don't know how to respond to them. They believe purely by faith. Reason, or "head knowledge", as many Jamaican Christians contemptuously call it, is anathema in the eyes of many. Of course, there are exceptions. The kind of rigorously rational approach taken by many ancient Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers is generally eschewed by Christians today.
Because philosophy has not been given pride of place in popular Christianity - the way it has traditionally in Catholicism, for example - the Christian church is largely powerless to deal with the onslaught coming from the aggressive New Atheists who have become darlings of the big American and British media. Six books published by New Atheists since 2006 have been major best-sellers in the United States, and cable channels like Discovery, A&E, and The Learning Channel regularly carry all kinds of sceptical documentaries, casting doubt on every Bible story and religious idea accepted by many for centuries without question.
not a good season
It has not been a good season for religious believers. Interestingly enough, some of the finest and most sophisticated responses and critiques of the New Atheists have come not from professional Christian philosophers and theologians but from secularists, including agnostics and even Marxists!
One of the truly brilliant critiques to have emerged has come from Britain's most influential literary critic, Bailing Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster and Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland, Galway, the Marxist, Terry Eagleton. Even before he issued his orgasmically profound philosophical rejoinder to the New Atheists this year, the book titled Reason, Faith and Revolution: reflections on the God Debate, he had written a devastating critique of the fellows in The London review of Books.
One of the charges which even atheists have made against the New Atheists is that they generally lack philosophical sophistication. Certainly, anyone who is steeped in philosophy and reads Richard Dawkins in particular would realise that he is grossly deficient in philosophical grounding, though he is a well-known and Distinguished Professor of Science at Oxford. Dawkins, the most obnoxiously arrogant of the atheists (perhaps equalled by Christopher Hitchens) would be an embarrassment to sophisticated non-theists like J.L Mackie, William Rowe, Michael Martin, Taner Edis, William Oppy, Thomas Nagel and Theodore Drange.
He is certainly an embarrassment to the Marxist, Terry Eagleton, who, with indescribably elegant prose, trounces his much-hailed The God Delusion in that October 19, 2006 review in The London Review of Books. Says Eagleton: "Card-caring rationalists like Dawkins ... are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate since they don't believe there is anything there to be understood or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince." This is from a Marxist, a philosophical naturalist, mark you.
Continues the towering intellectual: "The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms tend to be". Eagleton makes the same point made by some others in critiquing the New Atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens and Sam Harris: They know little about theology and Christian philosophy; they have not read the most serious Christian philosophers and theologians and rely on popularisers and fundamentalists found in televangelism or among right-wing fanatics such as Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, Jerry Falwell and Ted Haggard etc.
Many complain that the texts they draw from the Bible show no sensitivity to context or sub-text and hence their sensationalist conclusions drawn are illegitimate. Professor of Theology, David Bentley Hart in one of the number of books which have rolled off the presses in response to the New Atheists titled, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies says dismissively of the New Atheists: "Among Christianity's most fervent detractors, there has been a considerable decline in standards in recent years. In its early centuries the church earned the enmity of genuinely imaginative and civilised critics such as Celsus and Porphry who held the amiable belief that they should make some effort to acquaint themselves with the object of their critique". Ouch! Same point made by Eagleton.
Continues Hart scornfully: "And, at the end of Europe's Christian centuries, the church could still boast antagonists of real stature." In the view of some sophisticated Christian and non-Christian philosophers, people like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Daniel Dennett just don't pass the philosophical muster. They are seen playing to titillate the increasingly secular gallery.
Of the many responses to the New Atheists which I have read there are two works by non-theologians - one of whom is an atheist - which constitute an excellent critique of these New Atheist and which I highly recommend: The controversial but highly-engaging research scholar Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity and one of France's most prominent philosophers, the atheist Andre Comte-Sponville's The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.
the problem of Evil
D'Souza takes on the New Atheists frontally and sharply. In a book worth every cent spent on it, he answers the New Atheists' arguments about Christianity's role in history, the problem of Evil, human nature as well as grounds for belief in God. D'Souza is not a professional philosopher or scientist but he is a deeply rigorous, intellectually challenging thinker. (He, Thomas Sowell and Robert Kagan are among my favourite conservative scholars.)
D'Souza is excellent at turning the atheists' own arguments against them. You put down What's Great About Christianity with a greater appreciation for the depth and comprehensive sweep of this religion.
Just a snippet: "Now imagine two groups of people - let's call them the secular rebel and the religious tribe ... Which of two tribes is more likely to survive, prosper and multiply? The religious tribe is made up of people who have an animating sense of purpose. The secular tribe is made up of people who are not sure why they exist at all. The religious tribe is made up of individuals who view their every thought and action as consequential. The secular tribe is made up of matter that cannot explain why it is able to think at all."
Dinesh D'Souza, whom I think is Catholic, is no fideist or blind faith believer. He says openly that "doubt is the proper habit of mind for the religious believer". But he blows the whistle on an arrogant and intemperate science which would seek to pass itself off as "all-knowing". Says D'Souza, countering the argument of the New Atheists: "The point is, the game of science is conducted in one field and the most important questions of life - Why am I here? What should I love? What should I live for? - lives outside of that field. Empirical evidence is unavailable because the senses cannot penetrate a realm beyond experience."
The Catholics have produced the most sophisticated and intellectually-appealing responses to the New Atheists, apart from one major evangelical work I shall mention shortly. Tina Beattie, vice president of the Catholic Theological Society of Great Britain, has produced a nuanced and closely reasoned rebuttal to the New Atheists in her The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion. You should not read Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett and Victor Stegner without this work. But there is another work by two well-known apologists Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker which, though a small volume, is among the most deadly responses to the New Atheists. It is titled Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins Case Against God. You have to admire these Catholic intellectuals and the Catholic-intellectual tradition.
I can't begin to tell you how these two scholars unpack and pull apart Dawkins' arguments against God, the Bible and Christianity. This book deserves a review all by itself - and is worth your investment. Dawkins' Christian philosopher colleague at Oxford the noted apologist Alistair McGrath has produced the oft-quoted Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. It is not as rigorous as it could be and is certainly inferior to the Hahn-Wiker book
But there is one Protestant work which has won the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award for 2008 that you must invest in: Timothy Keller's The Reason for God in an Age of Skepticism. This is another work that deserves treatment by itself. This work is comprehensive in its scope, providing a point-by-point critique of the major arguments of the New Atheists.
The kind of rigorously rational approach taken by many ancient Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers is generally eschewed by Christians today.
The Reason for God is one of the best evangelical apologetic works available. Simply written but displaying keen familiarity with some of the finest thinkers, this book should be read by the New Atheists.
Sadly, in Victor Stenger's book just released last month The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, which is his critique of the many works which have critiqued their works, Keller's book is not mentioned. I was impressed with the many works which Stenger reviewed but it was major detraction from his otherwise serious work that it did not engage Keller or Eagleton, Hahn-Wiker or Hart.
The debate is still hot - and there is still more to say.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.