John F Hacght




1. How New Is the New Atheism?_1

2. How Atheistic Is the New Atheism?_L5

3. Does Theology Matter?_28

4. Is God a Hypothesis?_40

5- Why Do People Believe?_53

6. Can We Be Good without God?_

7. k God Personal?_78

8. Christian Theology and the New Atheism_92

Su&ftesfion^for lJurther Reading_109

Notes 111 Index_LLZ


The popular press and internee discussions have brought considerable attention to the recent atheistic declarations of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, hut they have seldom looked very far into the background assumptions of these authors, f have attempted ro do so here, and my hope is that the following pages will provide readers of many backgrounds, interests, and persuasions a compact set pf reflections that will prove helphil and interesting in the never-ending discussion ot religious belief and modern skepticism,

[ want to thank Westminster John Knox Press lor the opportunity to write this succinct critique ot the "new atheism. 1 am especially grateful ro Philip Law for the invitation to put down these thoughts, for his most skillful assistance from start to finish, and for the many substantive suggestions he has offered for making the book readable ro a wide audience. Ir has been a most pleasant experience working wirh him on rhis projcct, Thanks also to Daniel Braden as well as to Tom King and Kathleen Rotten born for reading the manuscript and offering helpful suggestions* Most of all) thanks to my wife, Evelynt tor her generous encouragement and always wise editorial advice.


Anyone who keeps crack of wjiat seJls well these days in the world of publishing cannot fail to have noticed the recent outbreak ot provocative atheistic treatises. Best-selling books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hire hens have drawn an extraordinary amount of attention. Many readers, including some academics, have found these books not only interesting bur also, 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 Hicchens, 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, I shall reler to these works collectively as the "new atheism/'1 A number of other intellectually comparable books are now trying in the name of science to debunk religion and especially the idea ol God.- I was i nil ¡ally tempted to include Daniel Dennetts Breaking the Spell: Religion as it Natural Phenomenon more focally in my survey of the new atheism, but Dennett s book is an unnecessarily lengthy argument for a relatively simple, and by no means exceptional way oi assaulting religion/ Moreover, in responding to the three books [ have chosen to evaluate, I am in crtect also addressing Dennetts chief claim, namely that religion should be studied naturalisiically, especially in terms of evolutionary biology, Dennetts name will come up often enough anyway, but because of constraints on this book's length and intricacy, I have decided to deal most explicitly with the other three authors, and with Dennett more occasionally ix

Dennetts main point is thai evolutionary biology provides the deepest explanation of all living phenomena, including ethics and religion. Looking for an evolutionary understanding of religion, I shall argue* is theologically unobjectionable. In fact, theology, as I understand it, has no objection to pushing evolutionary explanations of all living systems, including religions, as far as it is logically possible and scientifically fruitful to do so. To science, after all, religions are as much a part of nature as ail other observable realities. However, Dennett does not stop with the acknowledgment that religion is a natural phenomenon that science has every right to study. For him, as for Dawk ins, a naturalistic understanding of religion leaves no meaningful room ar ail for plausible theological accounts of why most people are religious. Theology for Dennett, as for Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, is now completely superfluous. Science alone can cell us what religion is really all about, and it can provide better answers than cheology to every important question people ask. According to Dawkins, science is even qualified to decide whether or not God exists. Although Dennett is not quite that self-assured, be shares the belief that sciences cognitional sweep is exhaustive, and hence that it leaves no meaningful space for a theological explanation of religion.

Dennetts belief that science can provide an adequate understanding of religion is obviously not a scientifically proven or even provable claim. It is a dogma, a declaration of faith. No massive accumulation of sarcastic putdowns or intellectual gymnastics can conceal this fact from the critical reader. The belief system thar Dennett and the other new atheists Subscribe to is known as "scientific naturalism/' Its central dogma is that only nature, including humans and our crearions, is real; that (¡Lid docs notcxisr; and that science alone can give us complete and reliable knowledge of reaiity. Since God does not fall within the realm of "evidence * that science deals with, any reasonable, scientifically educated person must therefore repudiate belie I: in God. Since almost everything Dennett wTrites about religion is based on his own belief in scienti fic natural ism, 1 shall be responding critically to his writings even if 1 do not always mention him by name.

According to Dawkins and Dennett, one must decide between theological and Darwinian explanations. Each reader must choose one rather than the other. It cannot be potJu In issuing this dogma Dennett and Dawkins are simply restating one o( the central assumptions of almost all science-inspired atheism. G^arl Sagan, Michael Shermer, Steven Weinberg, Owen Flanagan, and Victor Stenger, just to name a few, have made similar claims,4 so there is no need here to make a separate study of these writers. The authors I examine cover the same territory and more anyway Numerous other cur rent books, articles, and reviews subscribe ro the central tenets of the new atheism, but 1 have seen little in these other works that has not been said as well, it not better by the three authors I highlight in this volume,

I must confess* however, my disappointment in witnessing the recent surge of interest in atheism. It's not that my livelihood as a theologian is remotely at stake—although the authors in question would fervently wish that ir were so. Nor is it that the treatment ol religion in these tracts consists mostly of breezy overgeneralizations that leave out almost everything that theologians would want to highlight in their own contemporary discussion ot God, Rather, the new atheism is so theologically unchallengmg. Irs engagement with theology lies at about the same level of reflection on faith that one can find in contemporary creationist and fundamentalist literature. This is not surprising since it is from creationists and intelligent design theiscs thai the new atheists seem to have garnered much of their understanding ot religious faith. Mainline theologians, as well as students of intellectual history, will find in these publications very little thar they have not seen before. Nevertheless, I can assume that many readers of this book will not have the theological background to know quite how to deal with them, and so it is not only for specialists, teachers, and students, but also for the general reading public that I otter in these pages a theological response.

Bv using the term 'theological1 here I mean ro indicate, first of all, that my reflections arise our of my belonging to a theistic religious tradition, that is, one rhat professes belief in a personal God, a God of infinite power and love, who creates and sustains the world, and who forever opens up the world to a new and unprecedented tutu re, a God who makes ail things new. This essentially biblical understanding ot God holds that the divine mystery can be approached only by way Or faith, trust, and hope (which are almost indistinguishable concepts in biblical literature), not as a present cognitive or religious possession, Nevertheless, even though God cannot be known apart from faith and hope, mosr theology allows that faith and hope are entirely consistent with and fully supportive of human reason, including its pursuit ol scientific understanding.

Second, theology, as I use the term, is an appreciative but also critical, philosophical reflection on religions that profess belief in God. When 1 refer to "theology" henceforth* 1 employ diis term as a general label for the work ot many biblically informed, critically reflective* religious thinkers whom I have found to be helpful in shaping my own understanding of faith and atheism. Specifically, 1 mean thinkers such as Paul Til lief u Alfred North W hitehead, Paul Ricoeur, Rudolf Bultmann, Edward Schille-beeckx, Bernard Lonergan, Karl Earth, John Bowker, Elizabeth Johnson, Karl Rahner, Jiirgen Moltm&tm, Wolfhart Pannenbe^g, lan Barbour, David Tracy, Dorothee Soelle, Sallie McFague, Henri de Lubac, Hans Jonas, Emil Fackenheim, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, just to mention a handful.

Clearly the new atheists are not familiar with any of these religious thinkers, and the hostility to what they call "theology" has almost nothing to do with theology as I use the term. Occasionally our critics comc close to suspecting thar there may be a whole other world oi relevant religious thought out there, but they want to make things easy for themselves and their readers, so they keep theology, at least in my sense ot the term, out of their discussion altogether. Their strategy is to suppress in effect any significant theological voices that might wish to join in conversation wi rh them. As a result of this exclusion, the intellectual quality of their atheism is unnecessarily diminished, Their understanding of religious faith remains consistently at die same unscholarly level as the unreflective, superstitious, and literalist religiosity of those rhev criticize, Moreover, amid all their justified outrage at religious abuses, they cannot fathom the possibility that folk religion also often rises to heights of nobility, courage, and authenticity that no fair and objective scholarship should ignore.

Ideally the authors of the books 1 shall be evaluating will also peek into the following pages, but since their own writings so tar show no interest in theology, it is probably too much to expect that they would wish to tune in now. 1 should also be pleased it Jewish and Muslim rhcists would find something of interest in rhis study, although rhey certainly have their own unique responses to the new atheism.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment