On "Amateur" Atheism

On "Amateur" Atheism March 1, 2008

This week, the Christian Century published an article by the Catholic theologian John Haught, titled “Amateur atheists: Why the new atheism isn’t serious“.

Before I say anything more, I want to acknowledge that John Haught is not the real enemy. He testified for the side of the plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller v. Dover intelligent design trial, for instance, arguing that religious faith is compatible with scientific inquiry and that ID is pseudoscience. I’m appreciative of his service on this issue. That said, the rest of this post will show no mercy.

First of all, as the title implies, Haught presumes for himself the right to judge which atheists are or are not sufficiently “serious”:

For many years I taught an introductory theology course for undergraduates titled “The Problem of God.” My fellow instructors and I were convinced that our students should be exposed to the most erudite of the unbelievers… The recent books by Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris and Christopher Hitchens would never have made the required-reading list. Their tirades would simply reinforce students’ ignorance not only of religion but also of atheism.

Although Haught makes noises about wanting his students to be exposed to the best arguments for nonbelief, when it comes time for practical application of that policy, he swiftly pivots and says, in effect: “I’m going to decide which arguments for atheism are most convincing, and take it from me, these guys aren’t saying anything worthwhile! It’s not necessary for you to read what they’re writing. Trust me.” Despite his pretense of allegiance to open inquiry, it seems clear that his wish is to act as a censor, deciding which are the best (i.e., the safest) arguments for nonbelief, and sheltering his students from all the rest. If these extremely successful, influential modern atheist authors are not worthy of mention as far as Haught is concerned, then he’s doing his students a serious disservice by failing to acquaint them with what real atheists are actually saying today.

Who are the atheists that Haught wants his students to learn about? The next excerpt provides a revealing answer:

The classical atheists, by contrast, demanded a much more radical transformation of human culture and consciousness. This is most evident when we consider works by Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre. To them atheism not only should make all the difference in the world; it would take a superhuman effort to embrace it.

Haught is infatuated with those few atheists who proposed a sweeping, dramatic reinvention of humanity from the ground up. This is no surprise. Clearly, his aim is to make atheism seem as radical and disturbing a proposition as possible, the better to frighten his students away from embracing it.

By contrast, the modern atheists he sneeringly dismisses aren’t proposing any radical social transformation. They’re simply pointing out that enormous potential for good already exists in the human mind. We don’t need to make ourselves into totally different creatures; we just need to unleash the potential that’s already there. And one of the largest obstacles to that enlightenment is religion, which teaches that non-evidence-based faith and unquestioning obedience to authority are positive character traits. They are not, and people who erroneously believe so have caused terrible violence and other tragedies. It’s these unmistakably deleterious effects of faith that the modern atheists are calling attention to.

No attack on atheism would be complete without the obligatory slander that atheism can provide no basis for morality. Haught doesn’t disappoint:

Has Harris really thought about what would happen if people adopted the hard-core atheist’s belief that there is no transcendent basis for our moral valuations? What if people have the sense to ask whether Darwinian naturalism can provide a solid and enduring foundation for our truth claims and value judgments?

As an expert witness at a creationism trial, Haught should be well aware that no prominent atheist claims either of those things. In fact, Sam Harris (whom he derides) states in his books that he believes morality is objective, while Richard Dawkins (whom he derides) has argued that “we, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Either Haught is grossly ignorant of the actual views of the atheists he’s attacking, or else he’s lying about their positions for rhetorical advantage. I invite my readers to decide which is more likely to be the case.

Haught does say that “logical rigor” leads atheists to the conclusion of moral nihilism, implying that atheists who think otherwise just haven’t thought it through clearly enough. But, for obvious reasons, a Catholic believer has no authority to decide what atheism “really” implies. I’ve said it many times before, but it can never be said often enough: atheism is compatible with an objective morality, one that’s based on reason fused with compassion and conscience. We do not blindly mimic nature, but instead apply our rational natures to determine what would be best for us, independent of what does or does not happen in the natural world. The existence of God offers no surefire path to absolute morality, due to the Euthyphro dilemma: either God is simply communicating a preexisting standard which we could have discovered ourselves, or else his commands are wholly arbitrary and provide no objective basis.

I’ll close with these words from Haught:

In fact, a distinguishing mark of the new atheism is that it leaves no room for a sense of moral ambiguity in anything that smacks of faith. There is no allowance that religion might have at least one or two redeeming features. No such waffling is permitted. Their hatred of religious faith is so palpable that the pages of their books fairly quiver in our hands.

Even if we accept this insulting falsehood of a characterization, one thing Haught has notably failed to do is show any instance where these atheists are wrong. He doesn’t even attempt it. Instead, he just asserts that these atheists are nasty and mean (oh yes, and also “amateurs” and “unserious”), and so believers can safely ignore them, with no need to consider their argument on the merits. He may call us amateurs, but I’d like to return the compliment: If this shallowly fallacious reasoning is all he has to offer, then he’s the intellectual amateur, not the atheists who’ve examined religious belief more dispassionately and incisively than he ever has or will.

I note one final point: whatever they wrote or said, Camus, Sartre and the rest made little effort to actually establish atheism as an organized and vital force in society. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the other modern atheists are doing exactly that. I view it as entirely possible that Haught’s entire essay is an elaborate exercise in concern trolling. In effect, he’s saying, we should stop making all these practical criticisms, stop pointing out the evils that religion has wrought, and stop trying to found a social and political movement that advances the interests of atheists. All that is unserious and “amateur”. Instead, you should be nihilists, and you should recognize that atheists have no morality and that they want to turn human society inside out and change everything. In return, I’ll teach about you in my introductory theology course!

If that’s the bargain Haught is offering, then I hope he’ll understand that real atheists neither want nor need his approval, and that we are likely to be utterly uninterested in taking him up on it.

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