Taking Religion Seriously (and Critically)

Taking Religion Seriously (and Critically) August 24, 2015
vaticanphoto (1)
Students at the Vatican Library examine a Syriac manuscript. H/T to Kristian Heal.

Hi there! I’m Stewart, an atheist scholar of early Judaism and Christianity, and this is my first post on Patheos—which I hope marks the beginning of much constructive dialogue with many different people.

I won’t bore you with biographical details here, but I guess I should at least mention that my background in Jewish and Christian studies—combined with the global dominance of the Abrahamic religions in general, naturally—will frame a lot of what I write about on Patheos. I do have quite a bit of experience with the broader comparative study of religion, though, too; so I think you’ll find plenty of discussion on everything from ancient Greek religion to modern Vaishnavism, and the importance of these traditions in both past and present.

Hope you’ll stick around!

I’ve sort of themed this blog around the idea of (ir)religious literacy, and this question are we doing the best we can be doing to understand religion?

We’re born into a world where religion is ubiquitous, and few places escape its influence. This means, on one hand, that for many of those raised in families or communities that are deeply religious, (practicing) religion is probably no less reflexive than, say, the motion of walking itself—and, like walking, this is hardly an impassioned act, and often not even contemplated at all. For others, though, religion is something that is confronted, epistemologically and existentially: is this something worth believing and practicingDoes this really express fundamental truths about our reality?

Naturally, for many of those who would confront religion in this way, the answer to these questions is a yes. Some struggle; and among some of these, this evolves into a practiced apathy or agnosticism. For others, the answer is an emphatic no: religion not only fails to pass the test of usefulness, but of credibility.

In any case, however, most of the public dialogue about religion and theology, whether casual or academic, is produced by those who have made at least some pretense toward examining religion in this way. These are those who the bloggers at Patheos represent, along with its readers; and it’s this group that I have a particular interest in.

Discerning who fits into which category—and how critically these various types have engaged the religious traditions—is difficult. There are some interesting pieces of data that are at least somewhat relevant to this: for example, according to a widely publicized 2010 Pew survey, atheists and agnostics led the way in terms of their general religious knowledge, and ranked just below Mormons and “white evangelicals” in terms of their knowledge of “Bible and Christianity” in particular, surpassing every other Christian group. Further, among those who identify as Christians, the poll revealed widespread misconceptions about some of the fundamentals of their own faith.¹ (That being said, the survey did not purport to ascertain the views of those who consider themselves to be theologically discerning; and there are several other caveats here that should give us pause about drawing too many conclusions from it.²)

What of those who dominate the conversation on religion and its truth-value?

While we can reasonably expect that someone like, say, the Pope will have attained a comprehensive theological education—if only in the Christian tradition—there’s no guarantee that other popular voices on religion follow suit. We only need think of the Ken Hams of the world here, who are seemingly devoid of genuine theological literacy and incapable of nuance, but have still managed to make themselves irresistible to popular media outlets (who have discovered the lucrative appeal of their preposterousness).

What about the popular non-theist voices? Here, we naturally think of the figureheads of the “New Atheism,” including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. And what can we say about their theological acumen?

As appealing as many of their views and talking points are for me, it appears that, for many others who have invested much time studying philosophy of religion or related sub-fields, the tenets of these New Atheists’ anti-theologies ring familiar as rather elementary objections that have not particularly advanced the conversation in any substantive way; and consequently, it appears to be the opinion of many theological literati that these New Atheists’ chief accomplishments have been little more than in finding ever more creative and/or condescending ways to express these rote objections.

Now, lest I give the impression that any of these men should be ignored or dismissed because of their style, I think the value of creative polemic in itself shouldn’t be underestimated; and in the sense, everyone is worth listening to. One of the most prominent and incisive voices among the studied theistic reaction to the New Atheism is that of theologian David Bentley Hart, whose eloquence, too, is matched only by his biting condescension, which attains to heights that match if not surpass those of Christopher Hitchens when he was in his finest form. Paul Horowitz (The Agnostic Age), also noting the condescension of “New Anti-Atheists” like Hart and Terry Eagleton, writes that, nonetheless, they “argue convincingly that the New Atheists offer a crabbed definition of religion and a narrow understanding of theology.”

And, indeed, there’s a common thread among Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens that’s not shared with David Hart—other than the obvious one, that is—in that none of the former have any formal training in the fields of theology or religious studies, nor have ventured to produce any academic work in these, whereas those like Hart have. Of course, this doesn’t automatically mean that the New Atheists are wrong (on any given topic) and that Hart is right; but, again, “listening” means listening to both sides.

Over the past few years, Hart has produced two important works, published by Yale University Press, that take direct aim at the New Atheism and its perceived shortcomings. Just to take a single example of the type of invective contained within these, he lambasts Sam Harris’ The End of Faith as “a concatenation of shrill, petulant assertions, a few of which are true, but none of which betrays any great degree of philosophical or historical sophistication. . . . In his remarks on Christian belief, Harris displays an abysmal ignorance of almost every topic he addresses.”

In reading Hart’s works, a common theme that appears repeatedly is that the New Atheists haven’t yet even quite understood what theists are (really) saying to even be in a position to formulate a good rebuttal, and that the ultimate vision of God that various religious traditions points at is far more subtle than supposed (“the source and ground and end of all reality,” which all human language only inadequately conveys, etc.). And while I disagree with Hart on a great number of things here, I think there’s certainly something to be said in favor of Hart’s criticisms. Perhaps even well-meaning atheist responses inadvertently end up attacking straw-men: for example, writing of some of the criticisms proferred by Stephen Hawking, Hart suggests that

Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question. . . . Hawking naturally concludes that such a being would be unnecessary if there were some prior set of laws—just out there, so to speak, happily floating along on the wave-functions of the quantum vacuum—that would permit the spontaneous generation of any and all universes. It never crosses his mind that the question of creation might concern the very possibility of existence as such, not only of this universe but of all the laws and physical conditions that produced it, or that the concept of God might concern a reality not temporally prior to this or that world, but logically and necessarily prior to all worlds, all physical laws, all quantum events, and even all possibilities of laws and events. (The Experience of God, 40)

Similarly, Hart accuses Richard Dawkins’ critique of Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways as missing the mark on almost every count, as to what these theses ultimately aim at (21-22), and that they are “far richer and more interesting than Dawkins grasps”—though Hart does admit that they “are certainly not irresistibly persuasive (nor are they intended to be).”

This is a nice segue into mentioning one of the other main figureheads of the Anti-Atheist movement: William Lane Craig. Craig has made a name for himself as a champion of certain logical and cosmological arguments for the existence of God, especially the kalām argument. One of the main points I’m getting at in this post is that, even if these arguments are still not found to persuasive, that these sorts of arguments are—and deserve to be—taken seriously among professionals is clear: for example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a lengthy article on “Cosmological Argument“; the atheist philosopher of religion Graham Oppy devotes some 70 pages to this issue in his Arguing about Gods (Cambridge University Press); and there’s a steady stream of articles on the issue in academic journals.

The most convincing counter-response to the type of critique that Hart offers is—as Hart himself admits—that, at the end of the day, many if not most religious traditions aren’t ultimately satisfied with this barely-utterable, ground-of-all-being God—something that certainly applies to Hart’s own preferred faith tradition, Eastern Orthodoxy, which certainly stipulates many (perhaps increasingly unfashionable) tenets about our more “profane” reality and contingent historical events. This is where those like William Lane Craig have taken up the apologetic mantle, defending some of the more ground-level aspects of Christian theology and historicity: the reliability of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, theodicy, and numerous other interpretive issues.

Again, as atheists, we’re under no obligation to find these arguments ultimately persuasive; but we owe it to ourselves to take them seriously: seriously enough to not neglect looking at the best theological literature out there—and serious enough to truly learn about the origins and evolution of early Judaism and Christianity (and, indeed, all religions that we critique), and their doctrines and diversity.

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