A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors



If this isn't the best answer to the New Atheists I've seen, it's certainly the best three-minute-and-fifty-nine-second answer I've seen.

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

It's a good explanation for the tone taken by the New Atheists. The most important thing pointed out here is that their tone is a reaction to an even greater bullying tone and attitude taken by a very coarse American religiousity. An occasional magazine column by Hitchens or an occasional book by Dawkins is nothing compared to the Texas school board rewriting textbooks, George Bush calling for a Crusade, Pat Robertson blaming Haitians for being cursed, millions paranoid about the President's religion, and Cardinal Law retreating to the legal protection of a sovereign theocracy to avoid justice.When it comes to spreading bad ideas, don't worry, the New Atheists are no threat to us.

Interesting. I have a few books by the "New Atheists," and I have not bothered to read them because I have assumed (without looking at them very closely) that they don't grapple with the philosophical issues that Wieseltier thinks they should. But of course what is provocative about Wieseltier's assessment isn't what he says about the New Atheists. It's what he says about the "new theists" (a term he doesn't use, of course). The reason why the New Atheists should be dismissed is that their attitude toward religion is the same as the prevailing attitude of contemporary religious people (as exemplified by George Bush). As someone observed in another thread, the New Atheists aren't arguing with Thomas Aquinas. They're arguing with Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, and the like. I think Brian (above) has said what I am trying to say better than I am saying it, but I want to get my 2 cents in anyway.

I can't hear the clip, but if Wieselthier is saying that the New Atheists of the Hitchens/Dawkins stripe give some of the old ones a bad name he's right. Non-belief has often been a matter of great sorrow for many atheists. I think the theologians need to re-think or at least re-articulate the matter of belief, just what it is and what evidence there is for it, which justifies belief in spite of the problem of the suffering of innocents.Perhaps I should add that philosophers are giving renewed attention to the latter problem, and, I think, their new perspectives have made a bit of progress with it. See "The Problem of Evil" (Oxford Press) edited by Marilyn McCord Adams. She's an Episcopalian priest and fine medieval scholar. Of course, one prominent Catholic theologian thinks it's a sin even to consider the subject, but pay him no attention.

Sorry to be off topic, but just when did "Crusade" become a naughty word? "Crusade in Europe," Eisenhower called his book about the last years of WWII. "Mao's Crusade" is the title of a scholarly work of 2001 about Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward. (Have I read it? No. Amazon lists it for $150.00, tho it does have free shipping). And the Atheist Foundation of Australia is, even as we speak, calling for an Atheist Crusade (I'm not making this up) against Tony Abbott, the new leader of that country's Liberal Party (he's allegedly in the Vatican's pocket). Perhaps there are good crusades and bad ones. Who's to judge?

There seems to be a problem with the host server for this video. After many tries, I was able to view it once. But when I tried to view it again, I couldn't get it to work. It's featured on the front page of )the original source), but nothing works there either. I am sure they will fix it soon.

Ann, Who is the theologian who thinks we should not think about evil? I missed that. A wonderful (and perhaps well-known to everyone here) discussion on the topic of atheism can be found on the BBC Atheism Tapes. It consists of an interview with Denys Turner and is really excellent, but it is closer to 30 minutes than 3.

Nicolas,George Bush using the word Crusade to describe a war in a Muslim country was clearly aimed at maintaining and boosting the support of Religious Right voters. The fact that such a word would gin up fanatical opposition and undoubtedly further imperil the lives of US soldiers was acceptable to the re-election politics of the first Bush term. It's not the same as General Eisenhower calling D-Day a great crusade. To answer your question - in the religious sense of the word, Crusade has been a bad word since 1096.

Mr. Sciglitano ==I misstated the author's position. What he says is that to theodicize is evil, that is, to produce a theodicy is to produce an evil. He thinks he cannot make a judgment that those who do theodicize are guilty. Unless one has God's eye-view it is impossible to do so. However, one "could have an opinion about the morality of theodicy. . ." (Terrence W. Tilley, "the Evils of Theodicy" p. 248 (originally published by Georgetown, reprint by Wipf and Stock, 2000).He gives various reasons, e.g. Job cautions against theodicizing, to theodicize could justify torture, to theodicize inevitably misrepresents the evil nature of evil. Can't say I read the whole book. It's truly weird.

Nicholas --Just recently (I forget where) I read a short revisionist history of the first Crusade. Not inspiring. What started out as a religious event ended in terrible atrocities, including the slaughter of Muslim women and children. if I'm not mistaken these days revisionist historians take a very dim view of the claimed idealism of the Crusaders.

Here's a good article on understanding the motives of the crusades by Thomas Madden:, seems to have it backward about revisionists. I thought Crusade was a code name for some operation. I don't believe Bush used it on the campaign trail.

"Code name for some operation."You must be kidding.George Bush on Sept. 19, 2001.This is a new kind of, a new kind of evil. And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while. And American people must be patient. Checkout the Hoover Institute's web site, which contains a transcript of an interview with Hamblin and Peter Robinson, at down to the section entitled: "It Takes a Pillage"Peter Robinson: Amin Maalouf, author of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, describing the Christian conquest of Cyprus in 1156, quote, "All the island's cultivated fields were systematically ravaged, women were raped, old men and children slaughtered, rich men taken as hostages, poor men beheaded." Pope Innocent III to participants in the Fourth Crusade, "Nothing has been sacred to you. You have violated married women, widows, even nuns." Things were pretty rough. By the standards of their day, how savage were they?Bill Hamblin: I think they were about average. [Ed. Note: !]

Ann, I thought you were referring to Tilley's book--I read it in Grad. school and remember it well and fondly. I didn't ask directly because I thought there was some sort of reason for dissembling as to the author's name (even though I couldn't fathom it!). I believe what he is trying to do in the book is establish (a) that "theodicy" is an 18th century rationalist phenomenon, and (b) that it tends to explain suffering so as to make it part of a larger system. In doing so, theodicy makes evil into something else, that is, a part that fits into a whole (and thus is justified and perhaps even intended). In this way, it silences the victims of evil and suffering. If I remember, Tilley does a lot of work with speech theory in the beginning to establish that certain sorts of speech perform actions ("I do", for instance, or the epiclesis) rather than merely giving voice to some intention or describing something after the fact. Theodicy, he thinks, is an effort to perform a speech-act of justification, but that speech-act is, for him, immoral in its disregard for human suffering and its inability to be silenced via system. Walter Lowe's The Wound of Reason is a fine example in the genre also. Thanks, Anthony

Ann, I guess I did ask directly!Anthony

JC ==It seems we have a time problem here. When I was in school ('36-51) the Crusades were taught as an honorable movement to protect the Christian interests in the Holy Land. It was only latter, well after I was in college that Runciman et al saw them as horrendous land grabs. Those are the historians I was thinking of as revisionists. Now you say they are being revised -- so we have a revision of a revision.I"d say it was just the Catholic schools that had the positive view, but my college (graduated in '51) was a secular one, and I don't remember my history classes putting down the Crusades. But maybe that was just a local phenomenon.

Antonio,Thanks for the quote. I didn't know that Bush did that. I was 21 in 2001. Ann,Thanks. You are right. Jonathan Riley-Smith, a Catholic, who teaches at Cambridge University, has demolished Runciman. His studies of the motivation of the Crusaders have been well accepted by unbelieving scholars also. The crusades began as "armed pilgrimage."I do not, by any means, intend to deny the many horrible things the crusaders did. It's just that there is more to the story.

JC --There seems to be so much going on in early medieval and medieval history right now who knows what's being revised and which revisions are being revised. Fascinating, though. All I'm ever sure of is that nothing is ever simple.

Anthony -The reason I didn't mention Tilley's name was because his thesis is so weird I wasn't sure I had read him right. I don't think he thought theodicy was some sort of 18th century project. Job plays too large a part in his system for him not to know the subject is of abiding interest. But I agree with you about b). He does seem to think that we falsify the evil of evil by trying to absolve God of His apparent guilt.I just don't see how we can do without a theodicy regardless of how badly it limps. To do so is to accept a brutal God, and to accept a brutal God is to falsify the teachings of Jesus.However, I do applaud Tilley's attempt to use some of the tools of the analytic tradition. It has so very much to offer theology. I can't imagine, for instance, N. T. Wright writing so forcefully if he weren't in the analytic tradition. Same with Rowan Williams to some extent. Not that I've read much of any contemporary theologians, but the analysts do attract me. Too bad more American theologians haven't followed Tilley's example.

Anthony S.I did not know the tape of Turner, and trusting your recommendation, I spent a half-hour watching it.Splendid! Thank you for alerting us to it.

Ann, Yes, I am finding that the Analytic folks can be very helpful, especially, I think, in the field of Theology of REligions. William Christian Sr. wrote a very sharp book a number of years ago called something like Doctrines of Religious Communities: A Philosophical Study, and the Yale School was certainly influenced strongly by analytic categories such as "grammar," which you can see in people like George Lindbeck and Hans Frei. Paul Griffiths too has benefited from analytical sharpness. Add Kathryn Tanner, Cyril O'Regan (who also does Contintental stuff), Nicholas Wolterstorff, Gene Outka, and Plantinga (philosopher, I guess) and you have a decent number of people using analytical methods as useful tools. It does come slowly to the Catholic field b/c so often analytic is opposed to metaphysics (not always, of course!). I don't have Tilley's book at home, but I could have sworn he works with a technical definition of "theodicy" and then uses Job as a critique of rationalist theodicy. In the end, I'm with you--I think we need a theological response to suffering (the paschal mystery, for one), and perhaps even a kind of ontodicy rooted in metaphysics, but Tilley's critique served as a cautionary tale for me at least. Is it not the case that he uses Job as a critique of theodicy, the comforters in the role of theodicists? Father Imbelli, I am glad that you liked it. I show it to classes at Seton Hall. Anthony

Anthony -Yes, indeed Tilley does use Job to criticize the theodzers (what a word!). My point about Job was only that Tilley's use of Job belies his contention that theodicy really begins in the 18th century. Though ultimately Job gives up looking for a justificaiton. he begins by questioning God severely about the inequities he has suffered, I guess I should go back and read all Tilley says about Job. But I doubt Tilley will change my view of Job. After all, at the very end God blesses Job again for having told the truth about Him, which tells me that God does want us to question His behavior. that is, theodicize.

My thanks too for the link provided by Anthony Sciglitano to the interview on BBC of Denys Turner by Jonathan Miller. The 30 minutes was far too short a time for the interview, and I would have liked to have listened to Turner and Miller for a more extended period of time. While much of the half hour was spent on an interesting discussion (in reality, a very polite debate) about something-from-nothing, the exchange became even more interesting IMO in the last five minutes when Turner speaks about revelation and what in nature reveals the existence of God to him. There was likely much more to the interview; too bad it's not available.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment