With a nuke up their cultured sleeve

24 December 2008

Militant atheism has its extremists, too. . .Andrew Davison on new responses to a spectrum of ideas

Personal: The Kiss (1907/08) by Gustav Klimt, from the McGrath book reviewed below

Personal: The Kiss (1907/08) by Gustav Klimt, from the McGrath book reviewed below

The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in dialogue
Robert B. Stewart

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reviewed with

Alpha £4.99 (978-1-90588719-4)
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Is God a Delusion? A reply to religion’s cultured despisers
Eric Reitan

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Wiley-Blackwell £45 (hbk), £12.99 (pbk)
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The Edge of Reason: Science and religion in modern society
Alex Bentley

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Continuum £12.99 (978-1-84706-218-5)
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I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The dangerous rise of the secular fundamentalist
Chris Hedges

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THERE is a new and bellicose atheism abroad in the English-speaking world. It stems from the “new atheists”, a handful of independent public intellectuals. Richard Dawkins is a biologist, and Daniel Dennett is a philosopher of mind and evolution. They argue for atheism on the basis of science. Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are political commentators, and they concentrate on “the threat of Islamic terrorism”. All four appeal to both science and religious violence to some extent.

Since the publication of Daw­kins’s The God Delusion in 2006, there has been a steady stream of Christian responses, notably from Alister McGrath and Joanna Colli­cutt McGrath, Keith Ward and John Cornwell. The five books under review are the next batch.

The Future of Atheism is the most eye-catching. It contains the tran­script of a “dream debate” between a leading exponent of atheism (Den­nett) and a prominent Christian respondent (McGrath). It is striking enough that the host for this leading atheist was a Southern Baptist college.

As it happens, Stewart’s book is a disappointment. Much of the space is given to accompanying essays by less interesting writers. Ideally, McGrath and Dennett would have been given the opportunity to continue their dialogue. As it stands, the discussion does not move far beyond definitions of religion and whether genes have a cultural parallel. Readers would do better turning to these authors separately: to McGrath’s important reply to Dawkins, and to Dennett’s recent books, where he emerges as the most thoughtful of his band.

If Stewart’s book is the surprise disappointment, then Nicky Gum­bel’s Is God a Delusion? What is the evidence? is the surprise success. Holy Trinity, Brompton, does certain things extremely well — including philosophically engaging apologetics.

The book began as a series of talks. The Alpha-style clarity to the structure and arguments works to great effect. Gumbel works through a handful of grounds against belief in God drawn from The God Delusion. He is willing to give simple replies when simple replies will do.

Gumbel clearly sees himself as a communicator rather than an aca­demic theologian, and leans on others in matters of content. What emerges is a sparkling anthology of material for use in the “atheism debate”. His range is thoroughly catholic (and often Catholic), spanning C. S. Lewis, John Paul II, Augustine of Hippo, and Giles Fraser. The book fails only where we might expect “HTB” to excel, in matters of pre­senta­tion. The layout, typography, and editing have a slap-dash feel.

As an annexe comes a “theo­logian’s perspective” from Graham Tomlinson. I would throw in my lot with Gumbel as a theo­logian over Tomlinson, not least because Gum­bel gives a stronger endorsement of the place of reason in theology. Much of what is at stake in the argument with atheism is showing that faith does not mean fideism, and Gumbel simply does this better.

Eric Reitan’s contribution to the growing pile of Christian “Dawkins books”, Is God a Delusion? A reply to religion’s cultured despisers, is most firmly in the school of Anglo-American philosophy of religion. He teaches in Oklahoma, which he describes as the “buckle” of the Bible Belt, but is a self-confessed liberal. He was writing How the Religious Right Gets Religion Wrong when the publication of The God Delusion offered him the op­por­tunity to strike at two enemies at once: both Dawkins and his “mis­taken and dangerous” fundamental­ist target.

Reitan’s hero is Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose On Religion: Speeches to its cultured despisers is reflected in the subtitle of his own book. Reitan wishes to show that both our current-day “cultured despisers” and many Christians (the conservative ones) have missed the point about “religion”. He argues that religion “is neither a ‘knowing’ nor a ‘doing’ . . . but a distinctive feeling”. It is innately benign and, consequently, when a religious person does evil, he or she is simply not being religious in this proper sense. Outraged atheists might need a little more convincing. His conviction that belief is simply “a matter of faith” hardly sees off the spectre of fideism.

Alex Bentley’s edited volume The Edge of Reason addresses science and religion rather than atheism, but it is highly relevant to that debate. The essays average ten small pages apiece. They form a stimulating series of brief forays into the science-theology-atheism border­lands which will send the reader off to follow up leads here and there.

Highlights are the discus­sions of evolution in terms that go beyond the individual gene or creature (and the observation that these inter­preta­tions were frowned upon by Thatcherites), and of the part played by “mirror neurons” in the fledgling evolution­ary history of selfhood.

In relation to atheism, the discus­sions of the earliest archaeological evidence for religion deserve attention. Today, the New Atheists give us untested evolution­ary histories of religion, just as Freud gave us untested psychological histories. Bentley’s book points to the beginnings of an empirical assessment of these New Atheist claims, along with an equally empirical analysis of whether religions are indeed a cause of evil.

I Don’t Believe in Atheists is a book with a ridiculous title but an important purpose. Hedges was the Balkan bureau chief for The New York Times until 2003. Since then he has written a series of angry books. The latest has three targets: right-wing atheists, right-wing Christians (although they had their turn in his American Fascists), and, to a lesser extent, liberal Christians.

He was a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School, but declined ordination on that basis that the “liberal Church” is “a largely vapid and irrelevant force”. The charge is laid down with disappointment rather than bile.

The book comes out of debates in the middle of 2007 with Harris and Hitchens. These encounters opened his eyes to an atheist belief system that is “as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious funda­mentalists”. Since this strand of New Atheist writing is not so well known in the UK, Hedges is likely to open our eyes, too. The hatred these writers show toward religious believers, especially Muslims, chills the blood.

It goes to the point of advocating violence and even genocide. In the words of Harris: “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing in them,” with a nuclear first strike against the Islamic world perhaps inevitable. Torture “would seem to be not only permissible, but neces­sary.” Hitchens emerges as barely less bellicose.

Hedges addresses religion and conflict in an entirely personal way. On the basis of his eyewitness experience in war-torn former Yugoslavia, he argues that the conflict arose out of “economic collapse” and not religion, and that fundamentalist violence is fuelled primarily by despair. Here is a man who has made enormous efforts to understand other cultures angered by the hatred of commentators who have not done the same.

For Hedges, they are like Christian fundamentalists: they address the most significant questions in the impoverished language of television, and are “linguistically, culturally, historically, and socially illiterate”.

Hedges argues for compassion and a strong sense of sin to dissuade us from utopian campaigns. Here he draws on the Christian tradition, but he departs from it in that his warnings bear with them no hope of redemption. His book is beautifully written, but profoundly gloomy.

It is striking, in conclusion, how powerful a part science plays in the “new atheist” attack on religious belief. In her introduction to The Limits of Reason, Mary Midgley describes “a new cold war” between science and religion. Dawkins wishes to reinforce the perception that one must side either with religious belief or scientific knowledge. To counter this, the Churches must show that they embrace science, in its proper domain, and this must include evolution.

It is disappointing that three of these books hold out against evolution to some degree. Nicky Gumbel writes that “there are different interpretations of Genesis held by sincere Christians.” It seems that it is a respectable option for Christians to discount evolution. For Stewart, evolution “has been a hugely successful theory of biological development”, but this does not mean “that a believer must accept Darwinism”.

Reitan is subtler, advocating not creationism per se, but “intelligent design”. In other words, evolution is not enough, even at a scientific level, and God must sometimes “intervene” in the natural process. This is theologically and scientifically spurious.

The scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming. Creationism is only a respectable option if it is respectable for Christians to believe that the material universe and its apparent history are a sham designed by God to test our credulity, a more than usually elaborate film set. Theologians and Christian leaders should endorse evolution and be clear that creationism is false. Apologists should dust off their thinking caps. And the general public should read Harris and Hitchens, and be disgusted.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is tutor in Christian Doctrine at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. His summer school on apologetics runs from 23 to 25 June.


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