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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The New Atheists & their Imaginary God(s)

The following is the talk I gave recently to the community at the Abbey of Gethsemani while on retreat.  There's little that is original here, but I thought it might be of interest.

During a conversation with Br. Paul when I was here at the Abbey of Gethsemani a few months ago, he asked me what I was teaching at Bellarmine University.  I mentioned that I was teaching an honors introductory theology course, and that the focus of the course was to read the works of the New Atheism and critically analyze them from the perspective of Christian theology.   He suggested that this topic would probably be of interest to the brothers, and asked whether I might be willing to give a talk one evening.  One thing led to another, and here I am at the Abbey on a week-long retreat and here with you this evening.

I should preface my brief talk this evening by saying that my specialty is actually patristics, and specifically the Trinitarian theology of Greek Fathers, particularly Cyril of Alexandria.  That said, I regularly dabble in various other aspects of theology, and an ongoing fascination for me has been the rise and popularity of the New Atheist movement.  So while I am by no means an expert on New Atheism, I've had the opportunity to study it and teach it, as well as to study and teach some responses to it by some contemporary theologians.

So...what is the New Atheism?  At the conclusion of his 2008 film, Religulous, comedian and vocal atheist Bill Maher provides a monologue regarding the dangers of religion that, for those unfamiliar with the New Atheist movement, gives its general tenor.  The monologue is delivered on the ruins of Megiddo in Israel, known from Revelation 16:16 as Armageddon.  Here is what he says:     
Religion must die for mankind to live...Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking.  It's nothing to brag about.  Those who preach faith and enable it and elevate it are our intellectual slaveholders keeping mankind in bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.  Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't like all the answers to think that they do.
In case the viewer doesn't understand just how dangerous religion is, the director of the film very helpfully intersperses Bill Maher's monologue with the sights and sounds of numerous explosions of varying intensity.  In the span of a monologue that lasts about six minutes, I calculated that the viewer is exposed to about twenty explosions.   Count the number of explosions for yourself as you listen to the whole monologue:



Thus concludes a 'documentary'  focused entirely on discrediting religion and making converts to the atheist cause; a documentary that took in a not insubstantial $13.7 million at the box office.

The popularity of this film, starring a well-known celebrity, is indicative of the popularity of the New Atheist movement.  While atheism as such is not new, the New Atheism has emerged in the last decade as an aggressive and powerful movement.  The leaders of this movement, who dubbed themselves the 'Four Horsemen of the New Atheism,' are Sam Harris, an American neuroscientist; Daniel Dennett, an American philosopher and cognitive scientist; Richard Dawkins, an English evolutionary biologist; and the late Christopher Hitchens, an English-American author and journalist (he died 15 December 2011).  The movement itself ostensibly began with the 2004 publication of Sam Harris' book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Religion, a book that spent 33 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.  While Daniel Dennett's work has garnered some attention, the most popular and prominent spokespersons for New Atheism have been Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, and it will be their work upon which I will focus my attention.  Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion has thus far sold over two million copies worldwide.  And Christepher Hitchen's 2007 book - the subtly titled god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - rocketed to number one on the New York Times Bestseller list and was a finalist for the National Book Award.  Both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have established non-profit organization/foundations to promulgate the New Atheism.  In 2007 Harris founded Project Reason devoted to "spreading science and secular values."  And in 2006 Dawkins founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, whose mission "is to support scientific education, critical-thinking, and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance, and suffering."  Dawkins' website - which identifies itself as a "clear thinking oasis" - contains videos and documents to spread the New Atheism, and indeed his website contains a link called "Converts Corner" wherein those once trapped in religious superstition can freely express their thanks to Dawkins for leading them to become free-thinking atheists.

It is perhaps this evangelistic aspect of New Atheism that has made it such a force over the past decade.  The New Atheists are quite forthright about their desire to make converts.  "If this book works as I intend," Dawkins writes in the preface to The God Delusion, "religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down."[1]  And indeed, if one takes a look at "Converts Corner" on the Richard Dawkins website, one can find the stories of hundreds of men and women who found themselves 'enlightened' by Dawkins or another of the New Atheists so as to give up their faith and become atheists.  Why this desire to have people reject religion entirely?  It is the conviction of the New Atheists that religion and religious faith have outlived their usefulness, add nothing positive to the world, and therefore must be rejected fully and completely.

It appears to me that this rejection of religion is primarily founded upon two premises.  First, a belief that religion is inherently irrational and nonsensical, a belief based upon adherence to, and inability to think outside of, a rigid scientific materialism.  Second, an assessment of religion's influence throughout history that is radically negative.  I'll address the first premise before looking at the second.

The scientific materialism of the New Atheists - that is, the assumption (dare I say belief) that there exists nothing that cannot be, or potentially be, verified empirically - is not defended by Dawkins, et al.  It is simply a given for them that such a premise is obviously good common sense.  Throughout The God Delusion, Dawkins continually appeals to the lack of any real 'evidence' - by which he means, scientific proof - for the existence of God.  God is reduced by Dawkins to a scientific hypothesis, and the fact that God's existence is not immediately scientifically verifiable leads him to conclude that God does not exist.  Science and reason, both of which the New Atheists see as being opposed to religion, are now the order of the day.  While 'God' and 'religion' may have been helpful  devices to provide comfort in the face of inexplicable mysteries, humankind has progressed beyond such things.  Science, both Dawkins and Hitchens posit, now provides - or can potentially provide - the answers we need to questions about the cosmos and our own existence.  Thus, according to Christopher Hitchens, Charles Darwin can be seen as "the great emancipator."[2]  Religion, he writes, comes from a period when nobody "had the smallest idea what was going on."[3]  Now we do thanks to science, and in this scientific age faith is "plainly impossible."[4]  "Religion has run out of justifications," Hitchens writes.  "Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important."[5]

This kind of faith in 'objective' and 'impartial' science is, it would seem to me, remarkably simplistic insofar as it completely ignores the reality, affirmed by many scientists themselves, that total objectivity is an impossibility within the sciences.  Moreover, the scientific materialism with which the New Atheists approach reality is remarkably limited in scope.  I'm reminded here of a lovely chapter in G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy called "The Maniac."  Here Chesterton uses the analogy of a madman trapped in his own circle of thoughts that prevent him from being able adequately to assess the world around him.  Chesterton compares this madman to some of his contemporaries whose allegiance to materialism results in the limitation of their understanding of reality.  The point of his analogy is to highlight the limitations of a purely materialistic way of thinking.  To illustrate his point he writes: "The madman is not the man who has lost his reason.  The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.  The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory."[6]  His error lies simply in the fact that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.  There is in him a combination of logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.  Thus, "[t]he lunatic's theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way."[7]  And "what a great deal it leaves out!" exclaims Chesterton.  In comparing the madman to the materialist, Chesterton writes words that, I think, are an appropriate response to the New Atheists' rigorous adherence to scientific materialism: Here "we have at once the sense of [an idea] covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out...[The materialist] understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding."[8]  "[I]f the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos," Chesterton concludes, "it is not much of a cosmos."[9]

Of course, the New Atheists reject the idea that their scientific materialism is a limiting of their perception of reality.  For to their minds, the problem isn't that they are limiting their perception of reality.  Rather, the problem is that religion harmfully expands peoples' perception of reality.  They simply cannot comprehend why anyone would believe anything that cannot be empirically and scientifically verified.  The very thought that one would want to go beyond the scientifically verifiable boggles their minds.  As such, the New Atheists, from the perspective of their scientific materialism, look with loathing on belief in God, consistently referring to it as "blind faith" given that there is no rational justification for such belief.

According to the New Atheists, therefore, religion must be rejected because its basic premise - i.e., that God or gods exist - is irrational and contrary to common sense.  Such belief in God is, as such, a diminution of humanity's rational potential, holding us back by keeping us enslaved to a childish idea akin to believing in Santa Claus.  The inherent irrationality and unintelligibility of religion in general is made clearer, according to Dawkins and Hitchens, when we delve even further into these religions.  Although Dawkins and Hitchens attack any and all religions, they are particularly keen to attack Christianity, mainly, I think, because they grew up within Christian families in the context of a culture shaped by Christianity.  It is worthwhile to examine their treatment of Christianity as a way of understanding their way of approaching, and dismissing, religion in general.  I want first briefly to outline their characterization of the basics of Christian theology.

According to Dawkins and Hitchens, not only do we Christians irrationally believe in God, but we believe in a God who is, to put it mildly, a divine disaster.  He is, as Dawkins put is, "arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."[10] (Not to put too fine a point on it!).  Dawkins and the other New Atheists believe we Christians worship such a God because the New Atheists see such a God in the Christian "Old Testament."  And given that this is, according to them, the depiction of God in the Old Testament - part of our scriptures - it must be that we believe our God to be the 'malevolent bully' Dawkins reads him to be.  None of this is new as you, I'm sure, know.  In fact, what is astounding is just how superficially the New Atheists read the Hebrew Scriptures, and how simplistically they understand Christian teaching about what we mean when we say that the scriptures are inspired.  According to them, Christian understanding of scripture is as follows: The scripture is inspired = it was literally written by God himself = we have to understand it absolutely literally.  Any attempt to add some nuance to our understanding of scriptural inspiration and interpretation - i.e., any attempt to read the scriptures other than literally - is consistently seen by the New Atheists as overly convenient and an easy way out.  According to Dawkins and the other New Atheists, we are obligated to read the scriptures literally.  Why we must do this is not explained.  But, if we do read the scriptures literally, the New Atheists insist, the picture we receive of God is not pretty.

So, the God of the Christians is, as the New Atheists declare on the basis of their reading of the Old Testament, an ugly God.  The ugliness of this God, and of Christian beliefs in general, is further reinforced by Christian teaching on Jesus.  Now, the New Atheists are willing to agree that the ethical teachings of Jesus (if he actually existed; the New Atheists regularly bring this up to question) are - at least in comparison with the "ethical disaster area that is the Old Testament"[11] - somewhat admirable.  But just look what Christians have done with the doctrine of original sin.  Early Christianity, Dawkins asserts, shows a very unhealthy preoccupation with sin, and developed an understanding of atonement that is "viscious, sado-masochistic and repellant."[12]  For God, displeased with the sin of Adam that is passed on to all of us, decided to incarnate himself to be tortured and executed in order to impress and satisfy himself.  The focus, Dawkins asserts, "is overwhelmingly on sin sin sin sin sin sin sin."[13].  And God is a sado-masochistic crazy who decides that he needs to kill himself as a man in order to forgive the overwhelming sinfulness of humankind.  Nowhere does Dawkins question whether he is actually articulating the fundamentals of Christian theology accurately.  He simply assumes that he is.  And this theory of atonement Dawkins dismisses as "barking mad."[14]

To sum up thus far, the New Atheists assert that we Christians believe in a viscious, jealous, and sado-masochistic God, a humanity that is abysmally sinful, and a theory of atonement that is absolutely ridiculous.  So, why, according to the New Atheists, do we believe such things?  Out of fear.  Fear of what?  Eternal damnation, of course.  The New Atheists are flummoxed regarding what could possibly be the attraction of something like Christianity, but it appears to them that really the only reason why any person would possibly be Christian is for the eternal life that is our reward and our fear that we will experience eternal damnation otherwise.  At the heart of this notion is, once again, an understanding that God is little more than a domineering, jealous God who craves attention and who threatens with eternal punishment those who don't become his toadies by showering him with praise and obeying the numerous seemingly pointless rules he has established for us.  What kind of God is this who expects us to "gather every day, or every seven days, or any high and auspicious day, to proclaim our rectitude or to grovel and wallow in our unworthiness?"[15]  And then what kind of God is it who gives us rules that are, in the esteem of Hitchens at least, quite impossible to obey?  For example, Hitchens says that the commandment to love one's neighbour is all well and good, but it is itself completely unrealistic.  "Humans are not so constituted as to care for others as much as themselves," Hitchens writes.  "[T]he thing simply cannot be done (as any intelligent 'creator' would well understand from studying his own design)."[16]  This is not morality, Hitchens says.  It is tyrany, for "[t]he essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey."[17]  To urge humans to be superhumans, on pain of death and eternal torture, is nothing short of totalitarianism of the worst kind.

Such then is Dawkins' and Hitchens' assessment of basic principles of Christian theology.  I'll address this assessment very shortly, but want first to touch briefly upon the second foundation of the New Atheists' rejection of religion.  The first, as I've been outlining, is the idea that religion is inherently irrational and nonsensical.  The second foundation underlying the New Atheist rejection of religion is this: That religion is the principal cause of the violence, division, and oppression in the history of the world.[18]  Why such a negative assessment of religion?  Even if one thinks, as the New Atheists do, that belief in God is nonsensical as are the theological ideas that follow this belief, why argue that religion itself is such a scourge that it needs to be entirely purged from the earth?  The answer is this.  If one begins from the premise that religion's foundation - belief in God or gods - is irrational, then all that flows from that foundation is necessarily going itself to be irrational.  Irrationality is going to breed irrationality, and Dawkins and Hitchens are very fond of parading out the very worst manifestations of religion and characterizing these manifestations as being typical of religion and the logical endpoint for a system founded upon radical irrationality and stupidity.

I needn't go into the various things to which Dawkins and Hitchens point to demonstrate their claim regarding the violence and divisiveness of religion.  The following quotation from the beginning of Dawkins' The God Delusion, in which he articulates his perception of religion's negative contribution to the world, suffices to understand the thrust of the argument:
Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion.  Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers,' no Northern Ireland 'troubles', no 'honour killings,' no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money...Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it.[19]
Token nuclear explosion
That is quite a litany; no wonder Dawkins wants to get rid of religion!  According to Dawkins and Hitchens, religion has been the direct cause of almost all of the worst expressions of human behavior in the history of humankind.  Indeed, it is quite interesting to learn about history from these fellows.  Turns out that all the good that has ever occurred in human history – i.e., advances in philosophical and scientific thought, humanitarianism, peace – was the result of reason triumphing over the irrationality of religion.  And all that was bad – i.e., war, racism, intolerance, etc. – can be laid at religion’s feet.  So jaded are Dawkins and Hitchens that they can scarcely bring themselves to admit that religion of any sort as provided any kind of good whatsoever in the history of the world.  Anything beneficial we might associate with religion – compassion, love, not to mention the development of universities – are all, according to Dawkins and Hitchens, purely accidental and occurred in spite of religion, not because of it.  How can they be so sure?  Because, they assert, religion is necessarily intolerant, hateful, and intellectually backwards.  Their logic is as follows.  Because religious faith is irrationally unverifiable empirically it has to be “blind faith,” meaning that one has to dispense with reason – and therefore, dispense with thinking, to have faith.  Moreover, to choose faith is to choose a false sense of certainty and so dispense the healthy doubt and skepticism that is a part of using one’s mind.

This idea that religion provides certainty is a constant refrain for Dawkins and Hitchens.  “To ‘choose’ dogma and faith over doubt and experiment,” Hitchens writes, “is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.”[20]  And it is this certainty that most irks the New Atheists, for it is this certainty that has led to religions fighting with one another, imposing their beliefs on their fellow human beings, and committing all kinds of atrocities all in the name of a supposed certainty they have that they are absolutely right.  Religion, Hitchens, laments simply will not and cannot leave him alone; it is utterly incapable of doing so: “As I write these words, and as you read them” he writes, “people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon.  Religion poisons everything.[21]

So much for New Atheist thought on religion.  Cheerful, no?  Of course, what you have probably figured out by now is that the real target of New Atheism is not religion broadly speaking, but really fundamentalist manifestations of religion.  Unfortunately, however, the New Atheists appear quite unable to understand that it is extremism within religion, not religion itself, that is their target, and to understand that many people of religion, including (I'm guessing) most of us, are as bothered by fundamentalist Christianity, indeed fundamentalism of any sort, as they are.  What I'm saying is that the New Atheists, in arguing against religion, do little more than set up a series of 'straw men' that are so easily toppled that one needn't even break an intellectual sweat doing so.  This has, of course, been pointed out to the New Atheists who, predictably, find the criticism thoroughly worthless.  For, you see, they are convinced that fundamentalism is the natural flowering of religion, the natural concomitant of an irrational belief in God.  As Dawkins writes in answer to critics who accuse him of setting up straw men, "subtle, nuanced religion" is "numerically negligible" in the world.[22]  "To the vast majority of believers around the world," he argues, "religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of [Pat] Robertson, [Jerry] Falwell or [Ted] Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini."[23]  That is too easy.  On what 'evidence' (to borrow his favourite argument) does Dawkins posit that most of us are fundamentalists or that we are simply fundamentalists in waiting?  Simply to say that he needs only to intellectually dismantle fundamentalist religion to tear down the very fabric of religion entirely is a very easy way out.  As Terry Eagleton, a British intellectual points out, the New Atheists are buying "their rejection of religion on the cheap."[24]

The result is that listening to the New Atheists on religion is the intellectual equivalent of listening to a Floridian expounding upon the finer points of ice-hockey (I speak now as a Canadian).  Neither have the first clue what they're talking about, and frankly, neither really want to delve that deeply into the subject matter.  Dawkins and Hitchens simply cannot imagine why anyone would believe in the existence of the divine; it is totally unfathomable to them.  Once this very premise of religion is discounted, there is nothing that would compel them to explore the finer points of theology.  That's fine.  Not all of us are theologians.  The problem, however, is that one cannot, on the basis of the most cursory of glances, completely dismiss religion in its entirety as stupid and dangerous.  To quote Eagleton again, "it belongs to justice and honesty to confront your opponent at his or her most convincing."[25]

In terms of Christianity, this means confronting an understanding of the divine that is radically different from Hitchens' and Dawkins' portrayal of the God we Christians worship (many of my comments in this paragraph are derived from observations Terry Eagleton made in Reason, Faith, and Revolution, an excellent book on the New Atheism).  This is a God who is wholly other than us, not a God who is a person like us, only much bigger and angrier.  This is a God who created the universe, not in order to form a bunch of toadies who need to grovel before him, but simply created out of freedom, having no need whatsoever to create.  And because God did not create out of necessity, but out of freedom, it would appear that God created out of selfless generosity and love.  As Eagleton writes, "God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant no end."[26]  And this creation, created out of divine freedom, shares in the divine freedom.  Christianity affirms that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God, and the very least this means is that humanity shares in God's freedom.  Thus, the relationship of God to humanity is not akin to that of master and slave, as Dawkins and Hitchens would have us think.  God's selfless generosity and radical love is further demonstrated in and through the Incarnation, the wholly incredible idea that God became a human being like us.  Jesus is born to a working-class family and born in ignoble circumstances.  This Jesus works with his hands.  This Jesus devotes an exorbitant amount of his time and energy with the marginalized, and even goes so far as to say that the Kingdom of God is precisely to be made up of those society rejects.  In short, Jesus manifests a God who is, in his very essence, love; who exists as and is love.  And Jesus' death is a demonstration of where selfless love often leads, while his resurrection shows that such love transcends the power of sin and death.  Through reflection on their experience of Jesus and of his Father through the Holy Spirit, Christians came to an understanding of God as Trinity, which is not some entirely abstract notion of divinity designed to confuse.  Rather, we have come to an understanding that God exists as community, that God exists, most significantly, as an eternal embrace of selfless love where each person of the Trinity gives the totality of themselves to one another in a dance of love so profound, so complete, so giving, so unifying, that threeness comes to equal oneness.  This is what it means to believe, as 1 John 4.8 reads, that “God is love.”  Love – self-giving, totally gratuitous, all-consuming love – is at the very heart of God’s essence.  This Trinitarian love, this notion that God exists eternally and completely as love, is at the heart of the beauty that is essential to the Christian faith.    It is the idea that God is love that makes sense of why the created order ever came into existence.  It is the idea that God is love that explains the gift of God’s very self to us in the Incarnation, when God became human.

Not only does Jesus Christ reveal God to be love, but he reveals to us the degree to which all of humanity is loved.  We are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore have the stamp of the divine marked within our very existences.  By virtue of our humanness, therefore, we all have what the church calls an inherent dignity and surpassing worth, and the Incarnation reveals to us the infinite value of humanity in God’s eyes.  The church, the community we believe was established by Christ to be the nascent kingdom of God on earth, is itself to be a community of selfless love that exists in imitation of the love that is God.  And we are created and sustained as such a community of selfless love in and through baptism and the Eucharist.  For it is in baptism that we receive God’s very own Spirit who lovingly and selflessly descends upon each of us and lifts us up to become part of the dance of love that is the life of God.  Through the gift of God’s very self to us in baptism, we are drawn into communion and intimacy with God.  Through God’s Spirit, God ceases to be merely our creator.  God now becomes, through the Spirit, our Father.  Through the Spirit of Christ, Jesus becomes more than our Lord and Saviour.  He becomes our brother and our friend.

And in the Eucharist, the selfless love of God is made manifest as God continually gives the gift of himself in the bread and the wine.  Pope Benedict XVI outlines the implications of the Eucharist as follows in Sacramentum Caritatis in a way that I find beautiful:
The union with Christ brought about by the Eucharist also brings a newness to our social relations: this sacramental ‘mysticism’ is social in character. Indeed, union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own.  The relationship between the eucharistic mystery and social commitment must be made explicit…In the memorial of his sacrifice, the Lord strengthens our fraternal communion and, in a particular way, urges those in conflict to hasten their reconciliation by opening themselves to dialogue and a commitment to justice.
Overwhelmed by the love of God truly experienced in and through the Eucharist, we must and can love God and others in return.  We become united to God and to one another, and learn to view others with the love God has for all.  And in imitating the selfless love of God in the church, the church comes to manifest God to all. 

Now admittedly we as Christians don't live up to the ideal and we have, frequently in fact, portrayed an understanding of God that bears little resemblance to our theological tradition.  But, unless I'm very much mistaken, my brief summary of Christian theology is far more accurate than the one given by my New Atheist friends.   Moreover, this notion of God as love and as humanity as infinitely loved and of surpassing worth had revolutionary moral and political implications in the Roman Empire that continue to reverberate down to our time.  We are in our culture - whether we identify as Christians or not - inheritors of an anthropology and morality that has been shaped by the Christian ethical revolution of love (David Bentley Hart's book, Atheist Delusions, is particularly good on this theme).

Of course, one can look at Christian theology as I've outlined it and declare it to be hogwash.  One can study it and see it as no more plausible than unicorns or leprechauns.  But while what I've articulated about Christian theology may not be true, it certainly cannot be dismissed as ugly, ridiculous, absurd, and vicious.[27]   Unfortunately the New Atheists don't even bother looking at this understanding of Christianity, and prefer instead write off "a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion's own."[28]  Even more unfortunate is the fact that many of the Roman Catholic faithful in this country are not exposed to the depth and beauty of their own religion.  And Dawkins' "Converts Corner" is filled with the testimonies of those who have left a faith that, frankly, they were never correctly taught.

Perhaps that is what we can learn most from the New Atheists.  As Hitchens writes in what surely is the most accurate sentence in god is not Great, "most ostensible believers are quite unsure of what they actually believe."[29]  My experience as a professor of theology at a Catholic university confirms Hitchens' observations.  Students who arrive in my classes almost universally associate Christianity - and Catholicism in particular - as being principally about 'rules' about what not to do, and have little or no perception of Christianity as being beautiful or even of having anything worthwhile to say.  Part of that has to do with being a young person, but a larger part, I think, has to do with the way our leaders – bishops, priests, theology teachers, Sunday school teachers – present Christianity to them.  There is, in my opinion, a crisis of catechesis within Roman Catholicism, and it is long past time that our church, particularly in these United States - start focusing its attention on articulating more fully the third of St. Thomas' transcendentals - the divine beauty that is a God of utterly selfless love.


[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Mariner, 2008), 28.
[2] Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), 66.
[3] Ibid., 64.
[4] Ibid., 63
[5] Ibid., 282.
[6] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image, 1991), 13-14.
[7] Ibid., 14.
[8] Ibid., 17
[9] Ibid., 18.
[10] Dawkins, 51.
[11] Ibid., 284.
[12] Ibid., 287.
[13] Ibid., 285.
[14] Ibid., 287.
[15] Hitchens, 6.
[16] Ibid., 213.
[17] Ibid., 212.
[18] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 10
[19] Dawkins, 23-24.
[20] Hitchens, 278.
[21] Ibid., 13.
[22] Dawkins, 15.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), xi.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching,” London Review of Books, 19 October 2006, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/terry-eagleton/lunging-flailing-mispunching
[27] A point reiterated continually in Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution.
[28] Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, xi.
[29] Hitchens, 285.

5 comments:

  1. Very good article. It's true that the problem with christians is not just that they don't follow their religion but that they don't even understand it. And as you said, it's quite obvious they are just attacking a straw man, which is why I've come to the conclusion that it is just better to ignore them. They do raise certain good points, but nothing that is new. However, I do have to thank them to bringing me closer to my faith. Even though my spiritual journey initiated before, reading atheists has also expanded the scope of my spirituality.

    ReplyDelete
  2. WHy do atheists spend so much time talking about God! Maybe the flip side of this talk is "God as a Drug: The Rise of American Megachurches" that can be found here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120819153536.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily%2Fliving_well+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Living+Well+News%29

    ScienceDaily (Aug. 19, 2012) — American megachurches use stagecraft, sensory pageantry, charismatic leadership and an upbeat, unchallenging vision of Christianity to provide their congregants with a powerful emotional religious experience, according to research from the University of Washington.

    Wellman calls it a "good drug" because the message provides a conventional moral standard, such as being a decent person, taking care of family, and forgiving enemies and yourself. Megachurches also encourage their members, such as by saying, "Things can get better, you can be happy," he added.

    This comforting message also is a key to megachurches' success, Wellman said. "How are you going to dominate the market? You give them a generic form of Christianity that's upbeat, exciting, and uplifting."

    Read the rest for it is interesting

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    1. You are right and I couldn't agree with you more. However, the problem with some atheists, specially those in the internet, is that they end up using flawed reasoning and using the same tactics the religious right uses: demonizing their opponent. I'm of those catholics who really wants a reform in the Church and that the modern Church doesn't even allow thinking and its more concerned with mantaining its own power and completley obsessed with abortion and contraception and sex that its just beyond what is tolerable and unreasonable. However, only demonizing the Christian religion by using strawmen and believing that Christianity hasn't done anything for humanity and putting up already discredited myths like the conflict thesis, is not helping. Besides, what about the Episcopal Church and Anglican communion and the individual independent churches that are doing great good and are not deceiving people like the charismatic movement is doing?

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  3. Very nice article!

    After reading Chesterton, Christianity makes total sense to me. I also could understand that we usually tend to use reason in the void, and when that happens we start to think in circles as a result create hell on earth.

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  4. Why do atheists keep on jamming the internet with stuff like this im a catholic and the bible tells us about 50% of whats going on in my religion. Us Catholics believe one day the dead and living will rise and be judged for what we have done on earth. Sure, I would rather believe in the Baptists while they believe that we all stay on a much improved earth whether it is good or bad. But,in the bible it states that the first church made by god is the Catholic church. and please don't say catholics shouldn't be christain

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