Does Theology Matter

Science has become the preeminent sphere tor che demonstration ot intellectual honesrv. Pretending to know things you <Jo not know is a «¡rear liability in science; and yet, it is the sine fftut non of faith- based religion,

The new atheists unveil religion at its absolute ugliest. They are not interested in taking a balanced approach essential to real scholarship. Serving up the most extreme forms of rabid religiosity, they try to convince their readers that this repugnant material is the essence of faith. ^X hat most of us consider the most objectionable religious expressions sum up for the new atheists what rhe theistic faiths are really all about. Like their religious opponents, the new atheists are just as closed off to open-ended dialogue with theologians as ate anti-Darwinians such as Henry Morris, Ken Ham, and Duane Gish. Harris complains that 'there is just no talking to some people," but after reading his two books and those of Dawkins and Hitchens, it is hard to imagine how an open-minded theological conversation with any of these uncompromising critics could ever get off the ground either.

Unfortunately* the new atheists do not care at all whether theologians read their books. In bet, they would prefer not. They are not writing for theologians but for the masses of theologically uninformed readers. Anyway, in their view theology is just a tedious, nit-picking defense of the emptiness and idiocies of religious faith. Why waste time actually reading theol

ogy, let alone studying or taking a course in it? Having been trained to recognize what constitutes appropriate 'evidence/5 the three critics find it incredible that anyone would pay attention to theology at all.

In each of the books under review, theologians come in for the most venomous sarcasm of all. u Surely there must come a j time/1 Harris remarks, "when we will acknowledge the obvious: theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings" (173). Dawkins, for his part, thinks he has gained sufficient expertise to dismiss all of theology simply by virtue of his being schooled in science. Questions about whether Mary was a virgin, whether Jesus rose from the dead, and even whether God exists are for him strictly scientific questions and deserve stricdy scientific answers (58—59), The methods a good theologian should use "in the unlikely event that relevant evidence ever became available, would be purely and entirely scientific methods1 (59).


In preparing treatises on ¿-theism, one would expect that scholars and journalists would have done some research on the-tsm7 just to be sure they know exactly what they are rejecting, It is hard to be an informed and consistent atheist without knowing something about theology, but aside from several barbed references there is no sign of any contact between the new atheists and theology, let alone studious investigation of the topic. This circumvention is comparable to creationists rejecting evolution without ever having taken a course in biology, ¡ hey just know there's something wrong with those crazy Darwinian fantasies, just as 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 new7 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 march, point for point, the fundamentalism it is trying to eliminate. In fact, on the wide spectrum of contemporary atheism Daw kins, Harris, and Hitchens epitomize the scientifically literal ist extreme almost in the same way that the religious fundamentalists thev condemn represent the literal ist extreme in the wide world of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought. The resemblance is not coincidental. Both scientific and religious literalisti share the belief that there is nothing beneath the surface of the texts they are reading—nature in the case of science, sacred Scriptures in the case of religion, Scicnrism, the scientific community's version of literalism, assumes that the universe becomes fully transparent only if it is packaged in the impersonal language of mathematics or other kinds of scientific modeling. Any intuition that a deeper drama might be going on beneath the surface of nature, as religion and theology maintain, is pure fiction. Similarly, the religious literalist assumes that the full depth of what is going on in the real world is made evident to the true believer in the plainest sense of the sacred texts. So there is no reason to look beneath the literal sense, or raise newT questions about the meaning of these texts when circumstances change dramatically from one age to the next. Both sides steer clear of theology.

In order to give uninformed readers the impression that he has done at least some theological research, Richard Daw-kins drops the names of several reputable contemporary theologians and even provides a few brief quotes (147—50). But these insignificant morsels are not enough to cover up the more typically creationist and historically anachronistic mentality that he brings to his reading of the Bible and theology as well. I lis own implicit version of theological method is exactly 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. The only significant difference that I can sec between Dawk ins and his creationist antagonists is that Daw kins considers the Bible and theology to be unreliable sources of scientific information, whereas the creationists do nor, His 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 verification al procedures as any other '"scientific" hypothesis* He has no doubt that the hypothesis will not hold up under investigation, but determining whether it will or not is not a theological but "a scientific question ' (48). I have more to say about Dawkins and the God hypothesis in the next chapter.

In considering the Bible, Ilitchens 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. Why else, for example, would he argue seriously that because of the evangelists' contradictions on dates, the details of Jesus crucifixion, and other topics, the four Gospels cannot all claim "divine warrant' (112), He seems unaware that exegetes and theologians have known about these discrepancies since antiquity, but they have not been so literalist as to interpret insignificant factual contradictions as threats to the doctrine of biblical inspiration. Particularly puzzling to Hitchens are the infancy narratives in the Gospels Matthew and Luke. Most Christian scholars today delight in these factually irreconcilable accounts of Jesus1 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 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), As if this were not enough to make educated readers wince, any prospect that Hitchens is trying to impress scholars completely vanishes when he says in passing that Jesus' very existence is 'highly questionable" (1 14), Hitchens also reveals to us that th cisms "foundational books are transparent fables," and that, m light of todays scientific understanding of the origin of the cosmos and the origin of species, those foundational books (presumably Genesis in particular) and the religion they inspire are consigned to ' marginality if not irrelevance' (229)1

Few theologians today would take Hitchcnss method of measuring the Bibles worth in terms of its scientific credibility any more seriously than they do the scientific creation ism from which Hitchens seems to have picked up his own exegetical style. Students who take an introductory course in biblical literature learn to take all these contradictions in stride, seeing them as opportunities to explore deeper levels of the sacred texts or as invitations to study the diverse theological perspectives in the Bible. By the time they have finished a good undergraduate course in biblical literature, most Christian and Jewish students will have overcome their initial puzzlement at the historical inaccuracies* the sinfulness of characters in the Bible, and the crudity of some of its images of God. They would have outgrown the naive idea that biblical inspiration means divine dictation—something that Harris has not yet discovered, Students would 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. Meanwhile, Hitchens remains outside the classroom door grousing about the non-Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (104), And Harris is still wondering how a book allegedly "written by God" (35) or "authored by the Creator ot the universe" turns out to be lrhc work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat., ? (45).

So the important difference between the new atheist and the creationist is not that one side claims to take science seriously and the other does not. They both at least profess to do so. Nor is ir that one side expects the Bible to provide scientific information and the other does not. They both assume that allegedly inspired literature should do at least that much. Rather, the significant difference is that the creationist considers the Bible a reliiible source of science whereas the new atheist does not. But the important point to keep in mind is that the new atheist places the same literal is t demands on the Bible as do Christian and other fundamentalists.

This literalism is disappointing to those who wish to avoid confusing religion with science. But none of our critics wi 11 permit any such clear distinction, and in this respect as well they dwell comfortably within the company of creationists. Harris, for example, insists that the same evidentiary demands"—that is, the same scientific standards—must be used to measure the truth status of religious propositions as any others. He wonders why all benighted Bible readers are not as befuddled as he is that "a book written by an omniscient being' would fail to be 'the richest source of mathematical insight humanity has ever known," or why the Bible has nothing to say "about electricity, or about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe" (Letter to a Christian Nation y 60-61). In thirty-five years of undergraduate teaching I never encountered a single instance where, at least after raking a theology course, a student would be capable of making such a farcical complaint. But Harris, like die 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 Providentissimiis Dens; instructed Catholics never to look for scientific information in the Bible, On this point Dawkins, 1 larris, and Hitchens take their stand far to the right of Pope Leo. They might easily have avoided this btingle had they but gone back several centuries and taken heed of Galileo. In rhe seventeenth 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 wrorld. If that had been their intention, the least little slipup in their science would also have made intelligent readers suspicious of their religious message as well. Tie nee," Galileo comments, "I should think it would he the part of prudence not to permit anyone to usurp scnptu nil texts and force them in some way to maintain any physical conclusions to be true, when at some future rime the senses and demonstrative or necessary reasons may show the contrary/'- Yet even today scientific naturalists no less than biblical lireralists still interpret religious doctrines and Scriptures as though their intention is ro solve scientific puzzles. Much earlier than Galileo, Augustines De Genesi ad literam 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/ -'

Of course, tor the new atheists there simply cannot be any more profitable matters." If biblical truth cannot be reduced ro scientific truth, then it does nor qualify as trurh in any sense. And it should be known that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens arc not alone among new atheists who chastise the biblical authors for not getting their science right. For example, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, reading the Bible at the same lit-eralist level as creationists, remarks that evolutionary biology is incompatible with biblical belief. Contrasting the sorry state of scientific information in the Bible to that of present-day biology, he tries to shock us into confessing with him that "science has won and religion has lost," and that "Darwin's idea has banished the Book of Genesis to the limbo of quaint mythology. 1 Here again it is only because he embraces a creationist herme-neutical method that Dennett can claim so triumphantly that evolutionary biology has exposed Genesis as a mere fossil.

If theologians were cooperative enough to deal in the currency of scientific "evidence' and information* the new atheists suggest, then theology might be worth a second look. As it is, however, big bang cosmology and the biological sciences are enough to convince Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins that [heological tracts on such topics as divine creation or God's authorship of life are now obsolete. Since ancient texts and modern theological interpretations fail to improve our scientific understanding, we can safely ignore them. For the new atheist, therefore, apparently it is scientific questions th at can unlock the deepest content of classic religious texts. Yet one of the first lessons college theology students learn is that if they fail ro ask the right questions of any classic text, religious or otherwise, thev will miss its meaning altogether. This is a basic principle of textual interpretation in general, and of theological method in particular. To read Homer only for the purpose of learning about ancient culinary habits may be informative, but that kind of questioning will not lead us to learn any lessons about life that The Haul and The Odyssey may have to teach us. Any deeper wisdom in these great works would pass us by

Likewise, asking the Qur an or the Bible to inform us about things we can find out for ourselves by reason or science alone can only distract us from any possible deeper illumination they may have ro offer. The business of theology is to make sure that our questions to the Scriptures of any 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 But one way to prevent any such encounter is to approach the texts, as do the new atheists, armed with nothing but scientific curiosity or, as we shall see later, simplistic questions about moralitv. The accounts of origins in the Bible have the purpose of awakening gratitude, humility, confidence, and hope in the communities for whom they were composed. Creationists are wrong to read the creation stories as science, but at least theyr 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. I hey share the untimely scientific reading with creationists, but being also deaf to the clearly transformative intent of the Scriptures, they completely disqualify themselves as interpreters of biblical fiuth.

The new atheists, none of whom exhibits scholarly expertise in the field of religious studies, have methodically avoided theologians and biblical scholars as irrelevant to the kind of instruction their books are intended to provide- Instead, they have acquired their expertise in religious studies by limiting their research almost exclusively to the doctrinaire radicals and reactionaries about whom they are warning us. In order to grasp what religion really is, the atheists imply, all we need to focus on are its extremists, literalist interpreters, super-sectarians, inquisitors, and terrorists. I am surprised that they left out the history of the papacy, wherein one can find some of the most indecorous instances of religious degradation. Our self-taught experts in religion, in contrast to the thousands of academic scholars and literate ministers they ignore, are saying to their readers that the only features of faith worth talking about are those to which fundamentalists and fanatics have turned our attention.

I his does not mean that the books we are reviewing 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 havt accompanied human religiosity from the start. For this reason the cataloging of the evils of religion and theology in these bestsellers may be instructive to nonscholars. But readers have every right to expect balance and fairness from journalists and academics. They do not receive that from Hirchens, Dawkins, and Harris, 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 wav to convince people, but one that mimics in every way die demoni/iug mind-set of the various fundamentalisms they loathe. Very seldom, if ever, do they invite readers to inspect anything bur the seamiest side of religious life. In fact, all three authors go through contortions to convince readers that no other side exists. This is nowhere more painful to watch than in H itch ens s awkward attempt to disassociate the message of Martin Luther King jr. from that of the prophets and Jesus. If one really believes that "religion poisons everything," then Kings message, which Hitch ens admires, must be disentangled from the Bible as well as the vile history of religion and theology.

I hcologians, meanwhile, have known about rtie evils o f religion much longer and in much more sordid detail and depth than our ill-informed new atheists. They have also presented much more impressive critiques of religion than have the latter,^ Not to be outdone, however, the new atheists deem it necessary to say a few nasty things about the discipline of theology (or what they call a ^non-subject") and then throw ir away with everything else religious. To discredit it completely Dawkins, Hitchens, and especially Harris first have to convince their readers that theologv is a most blameworthy accomplice of religious atrocity How so? Simply by making room for faith and belief in God. theology has created the cultural and cognitive space in which religious abuse can occur. The most efficient way to rid the world of religious fanaticism is thus to close up any plausible opening for religious faith in the first place. Ridding the world of theology would be a major step on the road to a world without fanatics. Such a program is comparable, of course, to abolishing sex abuse by first abolishing sex.

The main reason for Harris's contempt for theology is that theologians have been the most irresponsible promoters of what he calls the liberal tolerance of faith, A good example, one that the new atheists leave out as far as I can tell, is the Second Vatican Councils document on religions liberty. The theology that went into shaping that document, they would point out, promotes the sort of tolerance of faith that gives rise to so much of the world's recent religious violence. Simply by accepting the rights of people to subscribe without penalty to the religion of their choice, and therefore to have a "faith," theology has granted extremists the opportunity to kill people in the name of their gods. The councils statement, therefore, should be considered just one more expression of the liberal theology that is to blame for the persistence of religious immoderation anywhere, The new atheists scarcely notice the irony in their intolerance of religious tolerance. On the one hand they bring up past inquisitions as evidence of the evils of religion, but on the other they now excoriate theological moderates who espouse the new spirit of tolerance. Moreover, they seem not to notice that the very same liberal tolerance in modern Western history that influenced the Catholic Church to change its stand on religious freedom provides the cultural space and freedom of expression by which che new atheists themselves are permitted to vent their own literal is t ideas. Even the vaguest knowledge of humanity S sorrowful struggle toward tolerance and religious freedom would make most people hesitate before promoting the intolerance of tolerance.

Science, the new atheists claim, now proves that theology no longer matters at all. And yet their own cult of science parallels the most inflexible versions of theology in making the world smaller than it reallv is. Scicntism is to science what literalism

is to faith, it is a way of shrinking the world so as to make it manageable and manipulable. [t is a way of suppressing the anxiety char might arise from a more open, courageous, and wholesome encounter with mvsterw Scientism's main motive is fear j j of losing control. We can observe the narrowing instinct at work in the religious literalism that reads sacred texts as though their purpose is to provide scienti fic information or lists of sexual acts to be avoided. And we can also see it at work in the cascade of shrinkages that the new atheists have to push through in order to take religion out of the hands of theology and put it in the steadier hands of scientists where they think it really belongs. The shrinkages include*

• Reducing, or trying hard to reduce, the entire monotheistic religious population to scriptural literalists3 dogmatic extremists, escapists, perverts, perpetrators of human stiffen ng, and fanatics.

• Reducing the cultural role of theology to the systematic underwriting of religious abuse,

• Reducing the meaning of faith to mindless belief in whatever has no evidence.

• Reducing the meaning of ' evidence to ''what is available to science. '

• Reducing the whole of reality to what can be known by science.

* Reducing the idea of God to a "hypothesis'1 (Dawkins

Of course, like their 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, the new atheists 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, extremists fear that open conversation will iead at best to a softening of the hard mound of certainty on which they believe thev 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. The following chapters provide further grounds for this suspicion.

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