Saturday, May 2, 2009

Defending Religion from the New Athiests

The New Atheists, led by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have brought atheism into the mainstream. While positing atheism as a valid and worthy worldview - the only rational worldview in their eyes - these authors criticize religion and Christianity especially. Theologians, however, find this criticism fraught with shallow mischaracterization and are debating back.

For example, Dawkin's sent out this letter Americans trying to garner subscriptions to the magazine, Free Inquiry:
Dear Friend,

If you live in America, the chances are good that your next door neighbours believe the following: the Inventor of the laws of physics and Programmer of the DNA code decided to enter the uterus of a Jewish virgin, got himself born, then deliberately had himself tortured and executed because he couldn’t think of a better way to forgive the theft of an apple, committed at the instigation of a talking snake.

Philosopher Eric Reitan argues this characterization is vapid and hollow, missing the entire point of religion:

The great world religions aren’t about literal belief in stories you might read in a book of fairy tales. Instead, they’re primarily about promulgating a holistic worldview and way of life infused with the sense that there’s something beyond the empirical skin of the world, something deeply important with which we can forge a relationship. They teach us that when we do so, our lives will be richer and our characters better. At their root, the stories and teachings and injunctions of a religion aim to bring about a transformation in believers, one in which the believers’ lives are informed by a relational connection to an Ultimate Reality that transcends them.

That, put simply, is what religion is about. It’s not about believing that talking snakes or flying horses are real—even if, sometimes, the adherents to a religion insist they are. Even among those who believe that religious stories are historical facts and not just myths, there is also an affirmation that the story is more about theology than about history. The story is remembered because it means something.
The important question here isn’t whether some soulless, cartoonish version of religious faith can transform one’s life. The important question is whether there’s a way of being religious, a way of living one’s life as if there were a transcendent good beyond the empirical world, that actually bears rich fruits.
Reitan offers his quick theological snapshot, one offering deeper holistic meaning, and he concludes with a challenge to Dawkins, Hutchins, et al.:
And so here is my challenge to Dawkins and other atheists who want to critique religion. Let’s set aside caricatures. If Dawkins wants to challenge religion, he should take on the soul-stirring versions of the Christian story rather than the mind-numbing ones, and show that these versions lack the transformative power that they promise.

Or he should explain why the transformative potential of a religious narrative is not a good reason to choose to live as if it were true, even if such pragmatic assessment may be the only tool we have for evaluating beliefs about what transcends the empirical world.

Caricatures can be useful in calling attention to things we might not otherwise notice. But caricatures cease to be useful when they’re confused with the real thing; when the critic invites his audience to deride the real thing based on the absurdity of the caricature.
In a similar fashion, Salon reviews a book by Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, in which he defends religion from the New Athiests. Money quote:
Atheists of the [Dawkins and Hitchens] persuasion have raised valid points about the sordid social and political history of religion, with which Eagleton largely agrees. Yet their arguments are fatally undermined by their own unacknowledged dogmas and doctrines, he goes on to say, and they completely fail to understand Christian faith (or any other kind) except in its stupidest and most literal-minded form.

A few years ago, I read an article by a Roman Catholic theologian who wryly observed that the quality of Western atheism had gone steadily downhill since Nietzsche. Eagleton heartily concurs. He freely admits that what Christian doctrine teaches about the universe and the fate of man may not be true, or even plausible. But as he then puts it, "Critics of the most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook."

To me, its not that theologians are upset with the New Atheists for espousing atheistic beliefs, its that their assault-style arguements of religion are elementary and entirely off-base. I'm glad theologians are reclaiming their voices and defending religion from this logic.


matt said...

one either believes that something created something, or that nothing created something. which is more logical to you?

Anonymous said...

Sorry Matt: Nothing has to create something at some point. If something (1) created something (2), what created something (1)? If something (1) wasn't created by anything, doesn't that mean that nothing created something? I guess that's hard to follow, but my point is this: either nothing created the universe OR nothing created God (who then created the universe), but either way nothing had to create something, right?

And I know that God is supposed to be eternal and without beginning or end, but you can just take all of the convenient descriptors that you use to get around the cosmology of God and apply them to the universe. Why can't the universe be eternal? Why does God have to get involved at all? If, in the process of explaining the existence of the universe, you're allowing for an entity that needs no causal explanation, why do you feel so obligated to give a causal explanation in the first place (for anything)? If you believe in God because you need an explanation of why or how everything is here, it seems like he's ultimately extraneous once you really dig into it.

Anonymous said...

As a person of faith, I share your concern here, but I have to say that the vicious politics of reactionary conservatism are the source of the new Atheism.

The radical injection of divisive religious dogma into the political sphere has damaged both the democratic process and the sanctity of communities of faith.

There has always been a place for religion in the American political debate, but what we've seen in recent years is the unconscionable introduction of bigotry and hate MASKED as religion and foisted upon the American public. This movement has been called Dominionism and it has its nexus around the "pro-life" movement.

The widespread use of the term "pro-life" is anti-intelligent, simplistic, and hypocritical. When the Pope first coined the term, he was talking about a comprehensive philosophy based on authentic Christian teaching which decries and denounces such abominations as war, chemical weapons, land mines, malnutrition, environmental degredation, the death penalty, torture, human traficking, the political causes of poverty, and, of course, abortion. What the dominionist movement did was co-opt the term and conveniently ignore every aspect of "Life" except for the litmus test of the binary abortion decions.

What we have in the current radicalization of the religious right is deviation from Christian principle so invidious and hypocritical that it harms both the political dialog and Christian faith itself.

Those who want to be "pro-life" should accept the full philosophy and practice it. Instead of a practice of self-respect and practical faith dominionist have created a movement of demogogues and through the Bushs of the world have effected no positive change in the world, but left us all much worse off.

To these purveyors of false religion and bigotry, I suggest a show on FOX news to engage a dwindling number of wrong-minded and ill-informed zealots. Meanwhile, those of actual faith and responsible vision can carry out actual discussions and influence policy and the world for the better.

Anonymous said...

One comment: you write "I'm glad theologians are reclaiming their voices and defending religion from this logic." I understand that, and I certainly agree that Dawkins tends towards windbaggery. But it seems weird to me hearing that sort of comment, given that people who don't subscribe to organized religion are unquestionably and have throughout history been the underdogs. The idea that theologians need to "reclaim their voices" and "defend themselves" comes across as the same as the rhetoric of so many people of different categories of privilege - elevating the danger of their least credible adversaries as an excuse to reinforce themselves. Perhaps a better way of putting it: pick on somebody your own size. I have very little respect for Dawkins, and I'm happy to see him argued with, but the level to which religious people attack him serves only to further reinforce attacks on unreligious, atheist, and agnostic Americans in general.

I don't mean to be accusing you of this, Drew - you do an extremely fair job of dealing with issues of religiousness and nonreligiousness. But understand what it looks like when the world's most prominent atheist - annoying jerk though he may be - is treated as a threat and constantly berated. Yes, he's vocal and gets himself all over the news; I don't have a problem with people making arguments against him and criticizing him in media. It's the defensive posture - that two of the only (I'm including Hitchens now) anti-religion activists represent a threat and that religious people need to "reclaim their voices" as though their voices had somehow been stolen from them.

As for me - I've posted before on this blog under my own name. And yet, I'm uncomfortable voicing even the slightest criticism of organized religion unless it's anonymous. I'm not alone (see above). It would be nice to have a voice in the first place, to reclaim. The way they treat Dawkins, though, who else would try?

Kent H said...

I'm not sure what media you watch and what voices you hear -- and I mean this with all due respect -- I can't think of one group that is as constantly mocked, berated, and criticized as people of faith. But that's fine. I'm not whining. Just don't see the "poor little Dawkings" thing you seem to be intimating.

On the other anon post - It is quite simple. People of faith don't need to postulate anything about a God or not. If all views were equal and mankind was left to his own devices to come to whatever conclusions he can on his own, then you are right atheism and theism are equally useless hypotheses for the origin of the universe. If, on the other hand, there is a God Who created the universe -- and He told us about it -- then postulations are unnecessary. There is no obligation for a casual explanation. There need only be the belief in One Who has already revealed Himself to us.

Kent H said...

P.S. As a person of faith, I do find it rather unsettling (referring to the posted article) that people defending faith and religion sound like unbelievers of different sort. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Kent H.:

3rd Anonymous here.

Look past the media at society. Without looking it up, name a congressman who's admitted to being a nontheist (and if you said Pete Stark, congratulations! You've found the only one). Name a movie star, a professional athlete, or a journalist. For each of those categories, I could probably name someone who publicly identifies their identity as Catholic, Jew, Protestant, and Muslim. I'm not saying there is a disproportionately small number of nontheists in these arenas - I'm saying they are silenced by society, and know it's a taboo that will hurt their standing (and possibly end their career, in some areas) if they are open about it.

I'm not saying "poor little Dawkins." I'm saying that there isn't just a bias against nontheism, there is an active silencing throughout society of all nontheists, which enters the realm of oppression.

That's where the "defending" and "reclaiming" comments bother me. Religious people absolutely occupy a position of higher status in this country - if you don't believe that, you probably don't have much experience being in the minority (just like white people are less likely to believe race matters in America, straight people are less likely to think sexual orientation is a big part of personal identity, people born rich are more likely to believe that America is a pure meritocracy, etc.).

So that's why it bothers me when vocal efforts by atheists are seen as threats to religious people. It's like when school prayer is criticized because parents want the right to raise their children without religion - and that is seen as an attack on religion. Or when a ten commandments statue is erected on public grounds but they refuse to allow the construction of a Qu'ran. Or when non-Christians try to advance secular alternatives to religious holidays, Bill O'Reilly calls it a "War on Christmas" and gets politicians to pick up the cry. I'm not saying the status of non-religious people is comparable to that of many other minorities. But if you can't see that this sort of rhetoric, whether in religion, socio-economic class, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., serves the purpose of perpetuating oppression guilt-free to the privileged... if anybody doesn't recognize that, then I'd suggest you have been far more lucky in life than you probably realize.

That said, I'm making a MUCH bigger point than is merited by Drew's words - I take no offense at them, but I want to use them as an example of the way that rhetoric like this is used throughout society to justify inequality and silencing.

Drew said...

2nd and 3rd Anons,

Interestingly, both of you fairly quibble with my words "defending" and "reclaiming," but for different, almost opposing, reasons. Hopefully, this comment can respond to both views simultaneously.

I think long time readers of this blog, and people who know me personally, know that I defend (sorry, I can't think of a different or better word) religion, especially fundamentalism, against atheism, and I defend atheism against ardent religious adherents. While I am neither a fundamentalist or an atheist, I feel both are valid worldviews, despite my disagreements with both. So, I am not really trying to belittle atheism, and I am sensitive to the systemic oppressions our society unfortunately bestows upon unbelievers.

With that said, however, the state of Christianity, during the past several years, is in flux. People are leaving their religions for many and sundry reasons. While I feel that Christianity and religion are both resilient, the current trend lines for both are unsettling. During the midst of this potential religious crisis, the New Atheists are attacking our faith, perhaps justifiably, yet unfairly. For many years now, their arguments have gone unanswered by the theological community, while defections from our faiths mount. So, when I read two articles of people standing up to the New Atheists, I was relieved and thankful. These authors stood up and said that religion offers more than shallow portraits, that if you are going to critique our faith, you must fairly understand our faith first. So during tough times, a result of many factors, for religion, I was glad to see theologians offer strong and correct responses to the New Atheists.

Perhaps, my words of "defense" and "reclaiming" were hastily chosen words, but that is what I meant to say. Does that make sense to both of you?

Darren Staley said...


As a person who respects both faith and the lack-thereof as long as neither are hoisted upon me personally, I see what you are saying.

It just becomes difficult to imagine a faith of over 2 billion worldwide adherents are some under attack by a small yet annoying group militant athiests.

Let's say I have an annoying neighbor. He tells me that I don't mow my lawn properly or paint my house to his approval. Unless there is a chance for him to come to my house, forbid me from, ever mowing or painting again, as well as all of the majority of my other neighbors who mow and paint like me, then he is what he is: a minor annoyance.

The best way to get back at him is to keep doing things the way that works best for me. Attacking him in kind merely justifies his outrage. Even if he makes a great point, I can choose to take his points or ignore them.

Just my thought.

Anonymous said...


Appreciate the response, and I fully understand and respect the intent and sentiment. This is one of those points, where, isolated to your comments on this blog, your comments present few actual problems.

It is in the context of American political and social discourse, however, that my concerns show up. If everyone using the rhetoric of "defense" and "reclaiming" in this context had the same intent as you, then that would be one thing. But in many cases it serves a more exclusive and ultimately repressive function, and the more pervasive that rhetoric is (that includes uses by people with differing intents), the more dangerous it becomes.

Anonymous said...

That was Anon 3, by the way.

Eric Reitan said...

As the author of one of articles quoted at length here, I find this discussion intriguing.

I think it is clearly right that there is something contrived about members of a major world religion, one with enormous influence internationally, representing themselves as under seige and as needing to defend themselves. I wince when I hear American Christians representing themselves as a beseiged minority. The truth is that, at least in the United States, atheists have far more right to that description.

But as a philosopher, my concern is with the pursuit of wisdom and insight (I hesitate to say "truth," since that is so elusive). As such, I am concerned with strategies of argument which impede that pursuit. Representing caricatures as if they captured what's most essential about the real thing is one such problematic strategy. Both theists and atheists are guilty of it--but on the current public stage, Dawkins seems to me to be a particularly aggregious offender.

My own view (which I defend in my book) is that religion can be intellectually respectable and morally benign, but that it often isn't. In fact, if you would believe some of my critics, it USUALLY isn't. Perhaps so, but this doesn't mean we are justified in throwing ALL religion aside in the manner that Dawkins and the other "new atheists" are inclined to do. But here, the concern is not about being a poor abused victim of Dawkinsian aggression. The concern is about what is most conducive to understanding the issues, appreciating the wisdom embodied in perspective that oppose our own, and promoting meaningful progress in our discussions with one another.

Dawkins' delight in caricature serves none of these aims, even if it may well serve the more political goal of providing a rallying cry for those who see him as their champion in a world that is still, quite often, hostile to atheism.

That said, I should note that there are subcultures in which atheism is the norm, in which those with theistic leanings are a minority often viewed with barely contained scorn. Academia is one such subculture. It is the subculture in which Dawkins lives and breathes. Part of my aim in my academic work is to challenge the assumptions of that subculture--not to say that atheism is irrational or immoral, but to say that there is nothing incoherent about an academic who is devoted to reason and evidence and serious about the lessons of science, but who affirms the hope that the universe is, in some fundamental way, on the side of the good.

Making this point was one of the main things that was motivating me when I wrote IS GOD A DELUSION? But as my book and its ideas begin to move outside the confines of the academy, this message moves from an environment in which it is a minority view facing a culture characterized by smug dismissal, into an environment in which the view that ATHEISTS are the ones who are in denial about reality, who are morally dangerous, is alive and well and far more commonly voiced that Dawkins' contrary charge.

This, obviously, is going to change the resonance of what I want to say in ways that I haven't, I think, taken into sufficient account.

Drew said...

Thank you, Eric, for participating in this conversation. I truly appreciate your presence here. Hopefully, you find some of the other threads (well, the religious ones at least) worth weighing in on also.

And, as I am a fan of your work, please keep up the good work.


arthur pearson said...

You cite that religion is not about believing in fairy tales, that it's about those fairy tales inspiring people do do right. That's good. The problem athiests have is with the folk who DO claim the fairy tales are real.

Stephen King's novel Carrie helped me control my anger problems by portraying a person who took it too far. Her revenge was versus a population of classmates too ignorant to care, much less actually *hate* her. It was fiction, and it helped me.

If the bible were taught by Christians to be fairy tales, but still relevant stories, they could have the same impact. I think you would agree with me.

But they aren't. That is the problem here. Until the religions change their ways, scientists like Dawkins will continue to rally against this promotion of ignorance. Simple as that.