When I saw this on Twitter, I naively thought: “A ‘logical’ inquiry on faith! Nice! Maybe we’ll finally see a serious treatment of the Cosmological Argument, or the question of existence, or causality, or an attempt to wrestle with the contradictions of materialism, or the problem of grounding morality without transcendence!”
Instead, we get this:
Millions of people pray to God every day to cure their diseases, solve their financial problems, help them win in Las Vegas, and so on. Christians behave in this way for many reasons: Because so many other people talk about answered prayers; because prayer is a big part of the culture; because of the many statements in the Gospels claiming that God will, in fact, do something as a result of prayer.
What happens if Jesus, who is supposed to be God incarnate, who is supposed to be perfect, omniscient, and incapable of lying, says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name” in a book that the majority of adults in America claim to be literally true? In that case, a critical thinker reasonably expects Jesus to do what he says he will do.
Bracket the merits for one second. What we have here is someone who, seemingly, has never spoken with an actual Christian or ever made any good faith effort to find out about the tenets of the Christian faith from a reputable source.
Classic traits of New Atheist polemic: the ascription of motives to ordinary Christians that sounds fantastic to anyone who is, or frequently interacts with, actual ordinary Christians; the identification of Christianity with the cruder forms of conservative American Evangelicalism that treat the Bible as a literalistically-explicit set of instructions without any sense that a regional, 150-year-old form of Christianity might not be the most representative of a 2000-year-old movement that has taken root in every continent and every culture, and so on.
The New Atheist obsession with petitionary prayer is so telling, because this stuff is only possible for someone who has never made any good faith attempt to find out what Christians believe, experience, or write about prayer. There are tons of books about prayer out there! This is not hard to do. Of course petitionary prayer is part of the Christian spiritual life, but it is not the central focus, nor the justification. I mean, I wrote a post titled “Everything I Know About Prayer“, which aims to be just what it says on the tin, and doesn’t mention petitionary prayer once.
This is just astonishing to me. There’s the step: “Hey, here’s a totally obvious apparent contradiction in the beliefs/practices of Christians!” And there’s the step: “Therefore, Christianity makes no sense!” And no attempt whatsoever to insert an intermediary step, like: “Hey, wait a second, maybe over two thousand years there has been at least one smart Christian or two who thought about this objection, and maybe I should check out what they have to say before jumping to my conclusion?” or “Maybe a good argument takes on the strongest possible version of an argument, rather than the weakest, so I should really make a good faith effort to find out the strongest version?” When I say I am astonished, you can take me literally, like the Bible (ha!): I just do not understand how minds that work like that work. It is a Zen koan-level of bafflement.
And there’s another level of bafflement, which is that it’s 2015. I am not exactly the first Christian to make this complaint. Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, which is usually thought of as the starting gun of the New Atheist movement, came out in 2004, more than ten years ago. There has been absolutely no change, no growth in awareness that these guys are just gesticulating in a dark room, punching shadows. It’s like we’re screaming into a hurricane.
In the end, I have to agree with David Bentley Hart’s analysis of the New Atheism. Why is it that Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great” has a howling factual error on every page, when if there’s one thing everyone can agree with, its that you can certainly come up with a very long, accurate list of depredations committed in the name of religion? (And why is it that the New Atheists, with all their commitment to reason and facts, don’t care?) Why is it that none of the New Atheists–even the philosophically-trained ones!–have never been able to produce a restatement, let alone a rebuttal, of the Cosmological Argument, when pretty much the first ticket for admission into civilized debate is that you can restate your opponent’s position in a way they would recognize? Why is it that Jerry Coyne exists?
The New Atheism are not primarily a philosophical or “religious” movement, they are a political movement: the books are written in the service of a specific cause, to eradicate religion from public sphere (or, really, the world), because they believe that this will make the world a better place–a project fundamentally political in nature. Now, as such, there’s nothing wrong with a philosophy that is “political” in that sense. But it raises a troublesome question: given that every single time militant atheism has gained access to the levers of state power, the result has been mass murder on an unprecedented scale, one can no longer be certain that a world of proud unbelief will be a good one. Maybe it’s still possible, but it’s certainly no longer possible to be certain, and the New Atheists are nothing if not certain. So, how does one believe things that it is impossible to believe? By actively refusing to think.
This is how the fundamentalist mind works: the very act of thinking rigorously is dangerous, because it threatens to expose the gaping void on which the worldview rests. And so even when it would help their cause, the New Atheists are simply incapable of thinking rigorously, or critically, or rationally, because then they would no longer be New Atheists.
Of course, the other constant of the fundamentalist mind is bloodlust. I don’t think I’m the first person to notice that ignorance and barbarism often go hand-in-hand, and if there’s another thing that unites the New Atheists, it’s not just their ignorance, but the profound, atavistic character of their hostility to religious belief and believers. Is it really that far-fetched to suggest that people who proudly wear on their sleeve (a) their absolute contempt for [group X] which they view as the scum of the Earth and the source of all evil in the world; (b) their disbelief in objectively-binding transcendent morality would, if able to, deploy relentless violence against [group X]? When they have given every indication that this is exactly what they want?
Now, I don’t want to be guilty of the same strawmanning that New Atheists deploy. #NotAllAtheists. Many atheists are upstanding moral people, and many atheists are subtle thinkers. And some of them are aware of the problem.
One of the best responses to the conversion of my fellow Patheosi Leah Libresco was this one. Ultimately, Leah had found atheist philosophy lacking, and found Catholic philosophy and theology much more robust, and converted. This blogger basically blames “foolish atheists”, conceding that New Atheism is no match for sophisticated Christian (especially Catholic) philosophy, and pointing to the conversion of someone smart and open-minded like Leah as the predictable result. Now, he thinks that there is a better atheist philosophy than the New Atheism and if Leah had just read that she wouldn’t have converted; but I’m pretty sure Leah did her homework, and I’m pretty sure no atheist philosophy comes close to Catholic philosophy–but then I would think that, wouldn’t I.
In any case: while you guys are over there pointing out the fact that nobody ever noticed that petitionary prayer doesn’t always magically work, I’ll be over here, having a cup of tea on the intellectual high ground, and welcoming other smart converts.