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Authors criticize shallowness of contemporary atheism

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GOD AND THE NEW ATHEISM: A CRITICAL RESPONSE TO DAWKINS, HARRIS, AND HITCHENS
By John Haught
Westminster John Knox Press, 124 pages, $16.95

I DON’T BELIEVE IN ATHEISTS
By Chris Hedges
Free Press, 224 pages, $16.99

A number of prominent authors and scientists have published books in the last two years advocating a “new atheism.” The books, which include philosopher of science Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, have sparked controversy as they present a case for atheism while disparaging religion as being the cause for many of the world’s problems.

Basic to their viewpoint is the notion that science’s discipline of evolutionary biology is the best explanation for all living phenomena, and that includes human ethics and religion.

Four books have appeared in their wake that comment on and counter this new atheism.

Well-grounded in the philosophy of science, Georgetown University theologian John Haught attacks the validity of the methods by which he believes Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and others have come to their “new atheism.”

Fr. Haught believes these new atheists are pale imitations of the great 19th- and 20th-century atheist philosophers such as Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre, who all realized the devastation the absence of religion would cause. Thinkers in the past believed it would take courage to be an atheist.

“Sartre himself said atheism is an extremely cruel affair. He was implying that most people wouldn’t be able to look it squarely in the face.”

An impoverished viewpoint results when these secular intellectuals dismiss theology because it’s not derived from science, Fr. Haught writes. “They are almost completely ignorant of what’s going on in the world of theology. They talk about the most fundamentalist and extremist versions of faith, and they hold these up as though they’re the normative, central core. They miss the moral core of Judaism and Christianity, the theme of social justice, which takes those who are marginalized and brings them to the center of society. They give us an extreme caricature of faith and religion.”

The new atheism is thus theologically unchallenging, says Fr. Haught, “consisting of breezy over-generalizations that leave out almost everything that theologians would want to highlight in their own contemporary discussions of God.”

Chris Hedges, author of I Don’t Believe in Atheists, says that the agenda of the new atheists is disturbing because “they embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists.”

Mr. Hedges points out that in the best-selling book The End of Faith, Sam Harris demonizes Muslims. “His assertion ... that the war in the former Yugoslavia was caused by religion was ridiculous,” says Mr. Hedges, a journalist for The New York Times stationed in Sarajevo when it was under siege.

The new atheists, Mr. Hedges says, have found a following among people disgusted with the chauvinism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism and self-righteousness of religious fundamentalists. Mr. Hedges shares this disgust, having recently written American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, in which he charges the Christian right with being the most frightening mass movement in American history. “We dislike the same people. But we do not dislike them for the same reasons. This is not a small difference,” he writes.

Believers or atheists don’t present the greatest danger, but the threat comes “from those who, under the guise of religion, science or reason, imagine that we can free ourselves from the limitations of human nature and perfect the human species.” There is wisdom in the notion of “sin,” Mr. Hedges writes, since all human beings are flawed. “Sin is the acceptance that the struggle for morality is a battle that will always have to be fought.”

Tina Beattie, an English Catholic feminist theologian, concedes that evils have been done in the name of religion, but she says the challenge coming from these secular intellectuals demands a more wide-ranging and creative dialogue across religious and cultural boundaries.

“The alternatives currently presented to the world of scientific atheism, religious fundamentalism, or a return to traditional Christian values are probably all equally unattractive to the majority of the West’s citizens,” she writes.

What’s needed, she says, is a move beyond the sphere of polemics and conflict to “a space of encounter and engagement” where all sides “can speak and be heard.” She asks for a new kind of creativity in religious exploration that will take us beyond acrimonious debate between extreme fringes.

THE NEW ATHEISTS: THE TWILIGHT OF REASON AND THE WAR ON RELIGION
By Tina Beattie
Orbis Books, 208 pages, $20

NO ONE SEES GOD: THE DARK NIGHT OF ATHEISTS AND BELIEVERS
By Michael Novak
Random House, 224 pages, $17.95

Religion, she writes, shares with art the goal “to explore the unknown, to spread the net of understanding a little wider. In this time when both religious and atheist extremists are seeking to close off these spaces of encounter, discovery and exploration with their conflicting versions of truth, we urgently need to rediscover the forgotten art of conversation, the quiet and courteous voice of wisdom, and the value of kindness in our dealings with one another.”

A well-known Catholic liberal who turned conservative, Michael Novak comes at the atheists from an entirely different angle in his new book due out in August, No One Sees God. He shares in their feelings of darkness, relating some of his own experiences, including his response to the senseless murder of his younger brother in 1964. He takes journalist Christopher Hitchens in particular to task for holding “that believers think of the Creator as a simple-minded Geometer ... a two-times-two-equals-four kind of god, a flawless Watchmaker, a bit of a Goody-goody, a cosmic Boy Scout.”

Mr. Novak writes that God is not like this. “Suppose that the Creator God (like a great novelist) deliberately made a world of probabilities and failures, of waste and profusion, of suffering and hardships and frustrations. Suppose that he loved the idea of an unformed history, slowly developing, nearly everything good won the hard way.”

Mr. Novak believes that in the end believers and unbelievers can find common ground in wrestling with doubt, in enduring and making sense of dark nights of the soul. Mr. Novak’s wide-ranging meditation is the most absorbing of the four books on today’s atheists.

Notable authorities from the worlds of science, philosophy and journalism assert that the idea of God is a failed hypothesis and the widespread “delusion” of religion is one that wreaks havoc in the world. “Not so,” say others, with equal wit, passion and rigor.

Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is rheffern@ncronline.org.

National Catholic Reporter June 27, 2008

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