A Pietist’s Bookshelf: Responding to the "New Atheists"

by John E. Phelan, Jr.

Reason, Faith, and Revolution

Terry Eagleton

Yale University Press, 2009

Atheist Delusions

David Bentley Hart

Yale University Press, 2009

Absence of Mind

Marilynne Robinson

Yale University Press, 2010

In the years following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, a number of books attacking religion in general and Christianity in particular became extremely popular. These works, in John Lennonesque fashion, encouraged us to imagine a world without the quarrelsome religions and their attending violence and bloodshed. Writers like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins poured scorn on people of faith and their absurd beliefs. They espoused reason and science as an antidote to the superstitions and cruelties of religion. If the human race was to leave its childhood behind, they reasoned, it would require dispensing with the immature tutelage of religion.

There is, of course, nothing new in this. Christianity has endured the scorn of its “cultured despisers” since the earliest days of the church. Early on writers as diverse as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Athenagoras and Origen defended the faith against the mockeries of Greco-Roman intellectuals. Centuries later, enlightenment critics of Christianity raised objections and proposed solutions very similar to those being touted by the “New Atheists.” Many European intellectuals were horrified by the religious wars, the burning of heretics, and theological intransigence of both Protestants and Roman Catholics. Reason unencumbered by faith, they thought, would overcome such violence and intransigence and lead to a world of peace and justice. The French Revolution suggested this was, at the very least, somewhat optimistic. The 20th century pretty much nailed the coffin shut. Unencumbered “reason” demonstrated its capacity to be every bit as violent and cruel as the most violent religious traditions. Getting rid of religion did not lead to an end of conflict and the victory of sweet reason. But you would not know this from reading the “New Atheists.” Some of them write as if the 20th century never happened or as if Hitler and Stalin were, in actuality, as religious as the Pope. Be that as it may, these critics have stimulated a variety of responses. I will take a quick look at three very different assaults on the New Atheists.

David Bentley Hart is a theologian best known for his book The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. The burden of Atheist Delusions is to show that the New Atheists’ reading of history is frankly wrong. The major section of his books is entitled “The Mythology of the Secular Age: Modernity’s Rewriting of the Christian Past.” Many modern scholars, he argues, are still looking at the Christian past through the lenses of discredited Enlightenment critiques of the church. Christianity was not the enemy of reason and science it was deemed to be by its most savage critics. Neither has Enlightenment rationalism been the panacea its apologists make it out to be: “The savagery of triumphant Jacobinism, the clinical heartlessness of classical socialist eugenics, the Nazi movement, Stalinism—all grand utopian projects of the modern age that have directly or indirectly spilled such oceans of human blood—are no less results of the Enlightenment myth of liberation than are the liberal democratic state or the vulgarity of late capitalist consumerism or the pettiness of bourgeois individualism.”

Hart sets out to correct historical misunderstandings of Christianity and to demonstrate the dangers of secularism and individualism. He also engages in a savage polemic with the New Atheists. He ridicules “Richard Dawkins triumphantly adducing ‘philosophical’ arguments that a college freshman midway through his first logic course could dismantle in a trice. Daniel Dennett insulting the intelligence of his readers with proposals for the invention of the silly pseudo-science of ‘religion’. Sam Harris shrieking and holding his breath and flinging his toys about in expectation that the adults in the room will be cowed, Christopher Hitchens bellowing at the drapes and potted plants while hoping no one notices the failure of his assertions to coalesce with any other into anything like a coherent argument.”

In many ways Hart is the critic the New Atheists in their ignorance and condescension deserve. He asks no quarter and gives none. His book is a helpful antidote to their poisonous absurdities.

Terry Eagleton is something else entirely. A distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Lancaster in England, he is also a Marxist and agnostic. Reason, Faith, and Revolution contains his Terry Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy given at Yale University in 2008. He criticizes both Christianity and the New Atheists. He attacks the Christianity for forgetting the radical character of its beginnings: “What is at stake here is not a prudently reformist project of pouring new wine into old bottles, but an avant-gardism epiphany of the absolutely new—of a regime so revolutionary as to surpass all image and utterance, a reign of justice and fellowship which for the Gospel writers is even now striking into this bankrupt. . . washed-up world.” Unfortunately, Eagleton suggests, the church has frequently domesticated Jesus and turned his message into bland recommendations for self-improvement. Eagleton’s description of the message of Jesus and its implications is thrilling and engaging—not bad for a Marxist!

His criticism of the New Atheists is every bit as scornful as that of Hart. It benefits from a sense of humor (something noticeably lacking in Hart). He accuses Dawkins and Hitchens (whom he combines as Ditchkins) of understanding neither the faith they claim to excoriate nor the reason they claim to honor: “Ditchkins holds forth on religion in truly shocking ignorance of many of its tenets—a situation I have compared to the arrogance of one who regards himself as competent to pronounce on arcane questions of biology on the strength of a passing acquaintance with the British Book of Birds.” And consider: “Though Dawkins’s The God Delusion is astonishingly tight-lipped about the cock-ups and catastrophes of science (he castigates the Inquisition, for example, but not Hiroshima), most of us are aware that, like almost any interesting human pursuit… science is a lot more dicey, precarious, anomalous, and serendipitous than his publicity agents would have us believe.” This is an engaging, humorous, and insightful work and well worth the effort to track down and read.

Marilynne Robinson is best known for her novels Gilead and Home. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Absence of Mind was also given as the Terry Lectures at Yale. More sober than Eagleton and less disputatious than Hart, Robinson’s “essays examine one side in the venerable controversy called the conflict between science and religion, in order to question the claim its exponents make to speak on the authority of science and in order to raise questions about the quality of thought behind it.” Critics of religion like Daniel Dennett, she argues, tend to use reductionist definitions of religion so as to “bypass John Donne and the Sufi poets and to move on to a description of the cargo cultists.” This is only one example of “scientist” critics of Christianity assuming the worst about “pre-scientific” peoples in general and people of faith in particular. She asks E. O. Wilson who argues, with breathtaking arrogance, that before the advent of modern science people “only saw the world in little pieces.” “Where is the evidence that prescientific people see the world ‘only in little pieces’? Is he speaking of Herodotus? Dante? Michelangelo? Shakespeare?” And one could add Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul to this list. In fact, she argues modern science can actually reduce the scope and scale of the human vision of the world.

Robinson argues cogently that far from enhancing the human mind and imagination “the renunciation of religion in the name of reason and progress has been strongly associated with a curtailment of the assumed capacities of the mind.” Modern “scientific” critics have reduced the mind to the status of a “lump of meat.” This is actually an ancient form of dualism that despised the physical in favor of the “spirit.” Ironically these critics in the name of humanism have set themselves against Christianity and Judaism that give human beings an elevated, even godlike status (Psalm 8). Seeking to debunk faith by denying the existence of anything but the material, they diminish human beings and make their elimination easier. “Humankind,” she writes, “never ceases to express itself in new terms, and the data at hand are inevitably flawed and partial. But the complexity of the object, the human brain and all associated phenomena are at the center of the question, inextricable from it. The schools of thought I have criticized exclude the great fact of human exceptionalism, though no one would deny that it is a pure expression of the uniqueness of the human brain.” For Robinson human beings themselves refute the reductionism of religion’s critics by raising the very questions science finds itself incapable of addressing. Hart corrects Enlightenment myths about religion and history. Eagleton questions the New Atheists understandings of theology and reason. Robinson raises the question of whether science can give an adequate account of human existence. Three differing, but powerful and engrossing approaches and critiques.

John E. Phelan, Jr. is Senior Professor of Theological Studies at North Park Theological Seminary where he previously served as President and Dean for 14 years.

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