Don't Assign These Books

The best-selling atheistic manifestoes by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are now in the paperback phase of their remarkable cultural tour. Affordable editions of Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Harris’s The End of Faith (and Letter to a Christian Nation), and Hitchens’s God Is Not Great will soon show up not only on beach blankets but also on college-course reading lists.

Do they merit the attention of college students? Perhaps their depictions of the poisonous effects of religious faith will remain instructive and entertaining. But beyond that do they have any lasting intellectual or religious significance?

Other readers will have their own responses. I have to confess my own disappointment at the popularity of these books. It’s not that my own livelihood, that of a Catholic theologian, is in peril—although the authors in question might fervently wish that were the case. Nor is it that the new atheistic tracts consist mostly of breezy generalizations that would exasperate most scholars of religion.

Rather, it is that these celebrated works are so unchallenging theologically. Unlike the classical atheism of a Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Marx, Camus, Sartre, and even Freud—a body of criticism that still commands the attention of religious thinkers—the new atheistic provocations are as theologically limp as the fundamentalist religiosity they attack.

An older and more cultured generation of secular critics at least understood that one cannot be a convincing atheist without knowing some theology. Yet, apart from dropping a name here and there, the new atheists exhibit no real contact with theological literature. This evasion renders their predictable attacks on faith about as convincing as a repudiation of evolution by someone who has never bothered to take a course in biology.

The pedestrian quality of the new atheistic tracts comes through most palpably in their inability to get beyond the scriptural literalism of their fundamentalist opponents. Like contemporary creationists, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens all view the Bible as incompatible with evolution. No less than Christian fundamentalists, they expect ancient religious texts to prove their relevance by being sources of reliable scientific information. And they are peeved that theologians are not disturbed by the failure of allegedly “inspired” texts to deliver at least that much in the way of “truth.”

Particularly troublesome to Hitchens, for example, are the infancy stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most Christian scholars take delight in these factually irreconcilable narratives of Jesus’ birth. They recognize that the Evangelists were introducing theological themes that they would amplify in the rest of the Gospels. These accounts are concerned with spiritual transformation, not scientifically exact information. But Hitchens wonders how these writings could possibly be inspired if Matthew and Luke can’t even agree on the historical facts. “Either the Gospels are in some sense literal truth,” he grumbles, “or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps an immoral one at that.”

Dawkins shares Hitchens’s taste for literalist exegesis. He keeps telling us that Darwin has exposed biblical faith as pure fiction. But he would see no conflict between Genesis and evolution at all unless he shared with creationists the expectation that a truly inspired Bible should be a font of trustworthy scientific information.

Most painfully literalist of all is Harris. This Stanford University scholar wonders how the Bible, if it is “written by God,” would fail to be “the richest source of mathematical insight humanity has ever known.” If the Bible were inspired, it would at least have something to tell us “about electricity, or about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe.”

During thirty-five years of teaching undergraduates I can honestly say that I never came across a single student who, after taking an introductory theology or biblical literature course, would be capable of such farcical anachronism.

The new atheists’ books are now more affordable in paperback form, but I hope teachers will think carefully before putting them in the hands of their students, at least as introductory texts. These tirades simply add to the sad spectre of global fundamentalism. In their own way they reinforce the growing—and dangerous—ignorance about religion in the world today. Ironically, they also fail to offer readers an accurate and substantive understanding of atheism.

 


Related: Eugene McCarraher on Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great: This Book Is Not Good
Lawrence S. Cunningham on Michael Novak's No One Sees God: New Atheism, Old Apologetics
Terry Eagleton, Culture & Barbarism
John Garvey, The New Atheists
Jonathan Luxmore, The Dawkins Delusion

Published in the 2008-05-09 issue: 

 John F. Haught is Distinguished Research Professor at Georgetown University and author of The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (Yale University Press, 2017).

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