David Bentley Hart on the New Atheism

In this article from the April issue of First Things, Hart provides a reliably incisive commentary on the many flaws of the New Atheists’ writings, and especially their failure to understand the gravity of their own proposals to abolish religion compared with their atheist forbears like Nietzsche.

* On the recent book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists:

Simple probability, surely, would seem to dictate that a collection of essays by fifty fairly intelligent and zealous atheists would contain at least one logically compelling, deeply informed, morally profound, or conceptually arresting argument for not believing in God. Certainly that was my hope in picking it up. Instead, I came away from the whole drab assemblage of preachments and preenings feeling rather as if I had just left a large banquet at which I had been made to dine entirely on crushed ice and water vapor.

* On the lack of conceptual seriousness and scholarship among the New Atheists:

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that todays most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants. . . .

But how long can any soul delight in victories of that sort? And how long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists–with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for? . . .

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

* On Christopher Hitchens who frequently illustrates these serious shortcomings:

On matters of simple historical and textual fact, moreover, Hitchens’ book is so extraordinarily crowded with errors that one soon gives up counting them. Just to skim a few off the surface: He speaks of the ethos of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as “an admirable but nebulous humanism,” which is roughly on a par with saying that Gandhi was an apostle of the ruthless conquest and spoliation of weaker peoples. He conflates the histories of the first and fourth crusades. He repeats as fact the long discredited myth that Christians destroyed the works of Aristotle and Lucretius, or systematically burned the books of pagan antiquity, which is the very opposite of what did happen. He speaks of the traditional hostility of “religion” (whatever that may be) to medicine, despite the monastic origins of the modem hospital and the involvement of Christian missions in medical research and medical care from the fourth century to the present. He tells us that countless lives were lost in the early centuries of the Church over disputes regarding which gospels were legitimate (the actual number of lives lost is zero). He asserts that Myles Coverdale and John Wycliffe were burned alive at the stake, although both men died of natural causes. He knows that the last twelve verses of Mark 16 are a late addition to the text, but he imagines this means that the entire account of the Resurrection is as well. He informs us that it is well known that Augustine was fond of the myth of the Wandering Jew, though Augustine died eight centuries before the legend was invented. And so on and so on (and so on).

The whole essay and the material on Nietzsche’s atheism in contrast with the contemporary version is worth pondering.

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Richard Dawkins’s Defective Understanding of Religion

The God Delusion

Image via Wikipedia

A recent post mentioned Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion as an example of the way the New Atheists present their arguments against God’s existence. These New Atheists often show such a disdain for religious thought that they seem not to bother to understand the beliefs that they criticize. As The Nation states in a favorable article about four New Atheist books, including Dawkins’s, “They show little understanding of religion or interest in it.”

That lack of understanding is one of several serious flaws in The God Delusion. Dawkins tries to refute the popular arguments for God’s existence, and presents his arguments against God’s existence. Many of these arguments are misinformed or not logically sound. He makes no bones about his lack of respect for religious people in general: “What works for soap flakes [marketing] works for God, and the result is something approaching religious mania among today’s less educated classes.” That attitude toward the other side of the issue doesn’t seem to encourage thoughtful debate.

Dawkins’s main attempt to prove that the universe was not created by a God is as follows: He proposes that any intelligence complex enough to design anything must have taken a long time to evolve, therefore must appear late in the timeline, and so (voila!) could not have designed the universe in the first place. There are several fairly obvious objections to this reasoning:

1. Many Christians believe (and there is scriptural support) that God created time along with the universe, and is therefore outside of time. This is not an esoteric view, or a new one.

2. Almost no one believes that the creator God is a biological creature subject to natural selection. Most Christians do not believe that God is physical. There is no reason to accept Dawkins’s assumption that any intelligence that exists, anywhere, inside or outside of our universe, must be physical or must have evolved by Darwinian means.

These objections are based on fairly common points of view, yet they are not addressed.

In some cases, Dawkins actually makes his case worse by ignoring the obvious. In a section denouncing the “argument [for God] from personal experience,” he says:

“On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun ‘tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude’, are harder to write off. […] It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. […] But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing.”

Visions are, well, visions – no one claims that they are actually occurring in a physical sense (except perhaps inside the brain). Omitting such an obvious, mainstream interpretation of the event and claiming that those who accept the Fatima event believe that the solar system no longer exists doesn’t help his case.

The passages in TGD that cite scripture are particularly badly reasoned. He omits or misinterprets important passages and does not seem to be aware that the Bible authors recorded some events that they considered bad. For example, he describes a wrenching story in Judges 19 about a woman being raped and murdered in a strange city and uses it as an example of the misogyny of scripture, implying that the Bible condones such actions; however, he strangely omits any mention of the last verse of the chapter, which contradicts his point: “Everyone who saw it [the body of the murdered woman] said, ‘Such a horrible crime has not been committed since Israel left Egypt. Shouldn’t we speak up and do something about this?’” (Judges 19:30, NLT)

Dawkins believes that religion is evil because it sometimes motivates evil actions. Although Dawkins implies that the evils done by various religions are reasons not to believe in any God, he doesn’t believe that the good things done by religions are reasons to believe in God. He says, “When I pressed him [obstetrician Robert Winston], he said that Judaism provided a good discipline to help him structure his life and lead a good one. Perhaps it does; but that, of course, has not the smallest bearing on the truth value of any of its supernatural claims.” I agree – but I would add that the fact that some religious people lead bad lives does not have much bearing on the truth of a religion. It’s not possible to fairly weigh the overall good and evil done as a result of any religion. The question isn’t, “Do I like religion X?” or even “Will religion X make me a better person?” The question is, “What is the truth?”

– Cloud of Witnesses thanks Desmognathus for this guest post.

Desmognathus is a follower of Jesus Christ, a wife, and a mother. She has an M.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology, and enjoys philosophy and theology. She likes rock climbing and dislikes celery.

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On Doing Your Homework before Critiquing

Several commenters were surprised by Michael Ruse’s judgment of the overall quality of the New Atheist’s argumentation, which I referenced in a recent post.  This was the meat of Ruse’s rebuke:

But I think first that these people do a disservice to scholarship. Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing. As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the ontological argument. If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant. . . . Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.

Similarly, Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books surmised,

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

And Roman Catholic theologian John Haught observes in a Salon interview,

My chief objection to the new atheists is that 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 of faith. And they miss so many things. 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.

Rather than spelling out the details here of where the New Atheists often go wrong—at least in relation to arguments for God’s existence—I highly recommend William Lane Craig’s recent article on that topic available here.  An informative (and technical) exchange between Craig and Daniel Dennett on arguments for God’s existence is available on audio here.

Speaking in a different context, but applicable to those authors mentioned above (who are obviously intelligent and capable, but lacking in this area), Ben Witherington writes:

Might I suggest that before you go pontificating on matters about which you are ill informed, that you do a little research first? . . . I suggest you . . .  [not write] again until you have something well-informed, carefully researched, peer-reviewed, and of general value to the public to say.

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