Over the past few months I’ve been on a reading-fest with regard to the new atheists and the authors who have critiqued their arguments. Some of the books I’ve read have included:
Karen Armstrong: The Case for God
Francis S. Collins: The Language of God
John Cornwell: Darwin’s Angel
Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion
Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell
Terry Eagleton: Reason, Faith, and Revolution
Anthony Flew: There is a God
Sam Harris: The End of Faith
Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation
Chris Hedges: When Atheism Becomes Religion
Christopher Hitchens: God is Not Great
Peter Hitchens: The Rage Against God
Bruce Sheiman: An Atheist Defends Religion
I have to say that it was rather weird, in the midst of all this reading about whether or not God exists, to see parts of the Anglican world taken up with the issue of whether or not the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church should have been required to forego the wearing of her mitre when she presided at the Eucharist and preached at Southwark Cathedral. It was actually rather refreshing to turn from the blogs of those who thought that this was an Earth-Shattering Issue to the arguments of atheists who were trying to find ways of grounding the search for human significance and a genuine sense of ethics and morality in something other than belief in God. I may have disagreed with their arguments, but at least they were arguing about something that really mattered! As I said in an earlier blog-post:
The people of the world are fascinated by Hitchens and Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris (so, at least, their book sales would lead us to believe), who are doing a pretty good job of convincing people that we are medieval ignoramuses, desperately clinging to the last vestiges of our long-lost power and influence in the face of mounting scientific evidence that our faith is a delusion. Of course, the spectacle of high priests in pre-medieval ceremonial robes waving incense around altars in huge ancient stone temples wasn’t exactly helping our case before – and the fact that now the international Anglican community seems to think it’s hugely significant in the eyes of God that one of the high priests wasn’t allowed to wear a part of her weird costume is just making it worse.
Of the so-called ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) I found the first two by far the best and most compelling. Hitchens is an ideologue and the subtitle of his book (‘How Religion Poisons Everything’) illustrates the fatal flaw in his approach. Now, I am quite prepared to believe that some religion poisons some things, or even that a lot of religion poisons a lot of things, but the blanket statement that ‘religion poisons everything‘ seems rather absurd to me. Everything? My wife and I have been married for over thirty years, and most of my non-Christian friends seem to think we have quite a good marriage; they don’t think that our religion has poisoned our marriage. There – I have disproved the premise of Christopher Hitchens’ subtitle – religion does not poison everything. I also found Hitchens woefully ignorant in the chapter in his book about the one thing I do know a lot about: the New Testament. I found a large number of basic factual errors in that chapter, and an almost equal number of what seem to me to be wilful misinterpretations. This did not improve my opinion of the quality of Hitchens’ research.
As for Harris, his defence of torture, and his statement that there are some ideas that are so dangerous that we should be prepared to kill people just for holding them, seemed so outrageous to me that I had difficulty taking anything else he said seriously. He has also been accused by serious students of the Middle East of being woefully (and perhaps wilfully) ignorant of the political, economic, social and religious complexities of the situation there.
It was a relief to turn from these two to Dawkins, who is a real scientist – a biologist, in fact – at the top of his game, and who really knows what he is talking about when he talks about evolution, natural selection and the whole Darwinian approach. And as long as he stuck to science, I thought he was on very firm ground. It was when he ventured into philosophy (i.e. the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’), ethics (his attempt to explain ethics and morality on the basis of Darwinism) and history (his rather naive opinion that the whole world is gradually getting better and better, from a moral point of view), that I thought he was weakest. Dennett, too, seemed to really know his stuff, and I found his book quite forceful.
Theist attempts to rebuff the new atheists tend to fall into two categories. Some (Collins, Tim Keller, Alister McGrath, Anthony Flew) debate the atheists on their own ground – rational reasons for or against the existence of God. Others (Armstrong, Eagleton) step back a little and question the hegemony of reason in the worldview of these new atheists. Armstrong in particular argues for the so-called apophatic tradition in Christianity – the view that, given the fact that God is the ground of all being and I am simply one of God’s tiny, limited, creatures, the idea that I can say anything at all about God that makes sense is rather unbelievable. God is far beyond the ability of human reason to comprehend or describe.
I found the following passage from Terry Eagleton’s book ‘Reason, Faith, and Revolution’ particularly compelling:
‘The Christian way of indicating that faith is not in the end a question of choice is the notion of grace. Like the world itself from a Christian viewpoint, faith is a gift. This means among other things that Christians are not in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in God. But neither is anyone in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in keeping fit, the supreme value of the individual, or the importance of being sincere. Only ultrarationalists imagine that they need to be. Because faith is not wholly conscious, it is uncommon to abandon it simply by taking thought. Too much else would have to be altered as well. It is not usual for a lifelong conservative suddenly to become a revolutionary because a thought has struck him. This is not to say that faith is closed to evidence, as Dawkins wrongly considers, or to deny that one can come to change one’s mind about one’s beliefs. We may not choose our beliefs as we choose our starters; but this is not to say that we are just the helpless prisoners of them… Determinism is not the only alternative to voluntarism. It is just that more is involved in changing really deep-seated beliefs than just changing your mind. The rationalist tends to mistake the tenacity of faith (other people’s faith, anyway) for irrational stubbornness rather than for the sign of a certain interior depth, one which encompasses reason but also transcends it. Because certain of our commitments are constitutive of who we are, we cannot alter them without what Christianity traditionally calls a conversion, which involves a lot more than just swapping one opinion for another. This is one reason why other people’s faith can look like plain irrationalism, which indeed it sometimes is’.
This rings true with my experience. Why am I a Christian? There are all sorts of reasons, only some of them rational. But then, why am I married to Marci? Did I sit down, write down a list of the arguments in favour of marrying her and the arguments against? Do I sit down on our wedding anniversary every year, update the list, and then make a decision about whether or not my faith in her and love for her is still valid? Of course not. That whole (central) part of my life is based on entirely non-rational factors. The same is true for my love for traditional folk music, or my preference for the sound of acoustic over electric guitars. I suspect, in fact, that many of the areas of our lives that make us the most human may also be the areas that are least susceptible to the hegemony of reason.
There are some huge questions which theism has traditionally addressed, and although I think the arguments of the new atheists have exposed some holes in the traditional Christian answers, I have yet to see what I regard as a convincing atheist answer to these questions. They include,
- Why does anything exist at all? Why is there something rather than nothing?
- Why does the universe seem to be intentionally designed in such a way as to favour the emergence of beings like us (and please, Professor Dawkins – the ‘multiverse’ is at least as irrational an idea as belief in God!)?
- What is consciousness, and where does it come from?
- What is evil and why does it exist?
- Why aren’t right and wrong just a matter of opinion? What is the ground of an objective system of morality (one that we can appeal to, for instance, on issues of human rights)? How do we make responsible ethical decisions in a way that goes beyond opinion-polls and personal preference?
- Why has humanity, historically, found materialism such an unconvincing and unsatisfying answer to human existence?
- Why is my life significant in any way that will survive my death?
- How can I be the sort of person I want to be? Why, so often, is a sense of failure the dominant human condition?
To me, these are some of the big questions of human existence. I find some of the traditional theist/Christian answers to these questions rather shallow and unconvincing, but I’ve yet to see what I regard as adequate atheist alternatives. And so the reading and thinking continues…