The ignorance and absurdity of the champions of left-wing theology

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book in progress, and also a follow up to this post.

It should be obvious by now that it’s possible to believe in a god in the sense that most people mean without being a fundamentalist. Thomas Paine is one example of a person who did exactly that. A still-living example is Richard Swinburne, who is professor emeritus of philosophy at Oxford and widely considered one of the world’s leading philosophers of religion.

In The God Delusion, when Dawkins is explaining what he means when he criticizes “The God Hypothesis,” and why it won’t do to say (as evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould did) that religion has nothing to do with matters of fact, Dawkins quotes Swinburne:

What the theist claims about God is that he does have a power to create, conserve, or annihilate anything, big or small. And he can also make objects move or do anything else… He can make the planets move in the way that Kepler discovered that they move, or make gunpowder explode when we set a match to it; or he can make planets move in quite different ways, and chemical substances explode or not explode under quite different conditions from those which now govern their behaviour. God is not limited by the laws of nature; he makes them and he can change or suspend them – if he chooses (Dawkins 2006, p. 58).

Swinburne, however, is clearly no fundamentalist. He is a Christian and affirms that Jesus literally did rise from the dead (Swinburne 2003), but he endorses the theory of evolution without qualification, has reconciled himself to the presence of “false scientific or historical presuppositions” in the Bible, and allows that some non-Christians may make it to heaven (Swinburne 2010, p. 52; Swinburne 2007, p. 244; Swinburne 1989, p. 191).

This is where Dawkins is a more reliable source of information than many of the people who accuse him of being theologically ignorant. Some of Dawkins’ critics give the impression that our only choices are fundamentalism or else a left-wing theology that would be unrecognizable to most people.

For example, literary theorist Terry Eagleton, writing in the prestigious London Review of Books, writes:

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…

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it…Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. (Eagleton 2006)

This, according to Eagleton, is “mainstream theology.” Dawkins, he says, “tends to see religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same.” A few years later Karen Armstrong, a former nun and author of the previous bestseller A History of God published The Case for God, which made similar criticisms of Dawkins and other popular atheist writers:

The more recent atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris… has focused exclusively on the God developed by the fundamentalists, and all three insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religions… their analysis is disappointingly shallow, because it is based on such poor theology. In fact, the new atheists are not radical enough. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have insisted for centuries that God does not exist and that there is “nothing” out there; in making these assertions, their aim was not to deny the reality of God but to safeguard God’s transcendence. (Armstrong 2009, p. xvi)

Armstrong says she is “concerned that many people are confused about the nature of religious truth,” which suggests she takes herself to be dispensing the real nature of religious truth (Ibid. p. xvii). And this nature of religious truth turns out to be a brand of theology known as “apopheticism,” which is based on “the absolute unknowability of what we call God” (Ibid. p. 126).

Eaglton’s comments about Scotus, Eriugena, etc. are unfair because if they prove Dawkins’ incompetence, they prove the incompetence of the majority of religion scholars. “Religion” is a big field, so no one has time to discuss everything or even read everything. That’s why most academic books on religion do not discuss the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Scotus. Similarly, I have no doubt that there are many esteemed religion scholars who have not read Eriugena on subjectivity, for reason of not being specialists in that period in the history of religious thought.

In fact, Eagleton sets a standard for discussing religion that is not merely unreasonable, but actually impossible. What if Dawkins had discussed the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Scotus, and read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace, and Moltmann on hope? There would still have been other topics he would not have found space to discuss, other works he would not have found time to read. Someone else would have been able to point to those omissions and dismiss Dawkins as ignorant.

The accusation that atheists like Dawkins only deal with fundamentalists is unfair not only to the atheists, but also to religious moderates. If you took Eagleton and Armstrong seriously, you might conclude that Richard Swinburne must be a fundamentalist (or worse, a televangelist), since Dawkins is taking him as representative of what religious believers believe.

And Eagleton and Armstrong’s comments on the question of God’s existence are utterly bizarre. I’m at a total loss to understand how Eagleton could claim that it’s true “for Judeo-Christianity” that “it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist.” A few theologians may have said things like that, but I doubt most ordinary believers could make any sense of that claim, and plenty of respected religious thinkers (Swinburne included) are very clear about the fact that they think God does indeed exist.

In Armstrong’s case, her claims about “the nature of religious truth” are defended via an appallingly incompetent history of theology. One major problem is that she can’t seem to make up her mind about when people first made the mistake of actually believing religious doctrines. She seems to want to claim it didn’t happen until the rise of fundamentalism around 1900, but there are hints throughout the book that this cannot possibly be right. For example, she admits that Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis was actually pretty literalistic. (Armstrong, pp. 122-123)

One of the most ridiculous parts of Armstrong’s book, though, is her treatment of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas seems like a rather obvious example of a theologian who does not fit Armstrong’s story about religious folk saying God does not exist. One of the first questions Aquinas asks in his Summa Theologiae is whether God exists. He first considers and rejects some arguments for the view that God does not exist, and goes on to argue that the existence of God can in fact be proven in five different ways.

To deal with this, Armstrong makes a couple of claims. First, she claims the purpose of Aquinas’ proofs was not to convince skeptics of God’s existence. This is false, something that the opening of Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles makes clear. Second, she claims all the proofs do for Aquinas is to show us that there is nothing in our experience that can tell us what “God” means. This is obviously false from the context of Aquinas’ remarks. Not only is he very clear that he thinks he can prove people who deny the existence of God are wrong, in the Summa Theologiae the proofs of God’s existence are just the beginning of a long series of arguments which, Aquinas thinks, can teach us a great many truths about God.

Eagleton and Armstrong are excellent examples of why I said what I said at the beginning of the last chapter: the fact that many people find atheism unfamiliar and scary is the most important thing to understand about anti-atheist backlash. The Eagleton’s and Armstrong’s words are impossible to take seriously as arguments, they only make sense as automatic negative reaction to forthright atheism.

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