Good Faith

What the New Atheists Get Wrong

Condemnation of religion has become the fashion of the day. Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris, David Dennett, and, most lately, the elegantly irascible Christopher Hitchens have hit the bestseller lists with screeds against faith. The critics claim to offer wholesale condemnation of religion, but they all focus on the activist Abrahamic religions: Old Testament Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Meditative agnostic religions like Buddhism are hardy touched. I will concentrate here on Christianty.

Just how do the critics define “religion”? In their view religion is belief in a set of factual and moral claims such as one would find in, say, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The main strategy of the critics consists of lining up a set of religious claims and comparing them to the claims of science and common-sense morality. When this comparison is made, the religious claims appear factually implausible and morally reprehensible. Biblical miracles are bizarre, they say, while the morality of a God who asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son is downright atrocious.

All that is very bracing. But is affirming some catechetical list of strange facts and unusual moral injunctions the essence of religion? The devils in hell know that the catechism is true; they just don’t like it. We want what Karl Rahner calls the “interior catechism,” the catechism of the heart. In a fictional “Platonic” dialogue, the novelist Iris Murdoch presents a young “seeker,” Anacostas, who says that “religion is an intense attitude and no time off.” Murdoch’s “Plato” expands on that comment:

[Religion] has to be the magnetic center of’s beyond us, more real than us, we have to come to it and let it change us.... We’re not volunteers, we’re’s about what’s absolute, what can’t not be there.... It’s happening all the time. If it’s not everywhere, in the air we breathe, it isn’t what I mean.... It’s to do with life as a whole and not a lot of random choices...if it’s anything it must be everything.... It’s not retiring from the world, it’s knowing the world, the real world, the world as it really is, in all its details.... Everyone knows this.

Religion understood in this way defines the believer’s whole personality. As a total personality structure, it is more like sanity or insanity than like a single commitment—say, to a political cause or to an art. In this way, it is more like paranoia, which is also “an intense attitude and no time off,” a core of personality that colors the entire life of the sufferer. Is Christian belief, then, like paranoia, “out of touch with reality”? Or is it, rather, the sanest stance toward reality? Earlier critics of Christianity, like Nietzsche and Freud, criticized Christian belief as a deep personality disorder. Drenched in impossible guilt, the penitential Christian turns away from the exuberance of life (Nietzsche’s critique) or suffers from the paralyzing neurosis of false consciousness (Freud’s). To respond to such criticism, Christians need to show that the Christian personality fits reality better that the Nietzschean hero or the Freudian stoic.

Our modern antireligionists cheerfully agree with Nietzsche and Freud that Christianity is delusory, if it isn’t full-blown insanity. The critics’ best arguments for this claim are derived from the clash of science and religion. Creation in seven days, the virgin birth, raising the dead—sober science dismisses all such claims as absurd. Christians cannot simply ignore the skeptics’ appeal to reality. Murdoch’s religious person does say, after all, that religion means “knowing the world, the real world, the world as it really is.” The critics reply that it is science, and not the Bible, that tells us how the world really is: Darwin trumps Genesis.

The flaw in this criticism is its complacent reliance on science as the key to understanding the whole human condition. According to the antireligionists, one must first tidy up one’s view of reality through science, and then decide on a proper ordering of the personality—an ordering that depends only on verifiable facts. But this won’t do. A sane view of the world and a scientific view of the world are not the same thing. The scientific view of the world is the view of a neutral, detached observer. The philosopher Thomas Nagel characterized it as “the view from nowhere.” Is this neutral view from nowhere an adequate model of sanity? Should the methods of scientific observation structure one’s whole personality?

No. The “mad scientist” is mad precisely because he lives as a detached observer. One can, and should, adopt the perspective of a detached observer in scientific investigation; this perspective has immense value to us when we are trying to arrive at a description of the natural world. But the idea that one can live a full life as a neutral, detached observer seems odd right away because it contradicts what we ordinarily regard as some of the marks of a person: history, gender, and desire. All these personal markers would seem to threaten or compromise the ideal neutrality of the person who wants to order his whole life according to the perspective required for scientific investigation. Science is interested only in what is general and repeatable. The personal characteristics of scientific observers are irrelevant to their enterprise. And the same goes for what they investigate. A biology of humans is possible because of the extensive uniformity of our physiology. Even special variations can only be described and classified according to their resemblance to other variations. In short, there is nothing relevantly unique or personal in either the scientific observer as a scientific observer or in the things he or she observes. But the experience of human beings is very different: that reality is not a spectator sport. It must be lived from within, rather than observed from without.

What is reality for real, particular people, who are historically embedded and limited in ways beyond their control? An obvious requirement for sanity is the possession of some moral sense. Individuals without a moral sense are sociopathic: they live in a world without other persons. Incorporating morality into our definition of sanity shows up the inadequacy of scientific detachment as the key to human well-being. But if we bring morality into the evaluation of the religious personality, what should we make of the antireligionists’ condemnation of religious morality?

The moral dimension of Christianity is problematic for both its critics and its defenders. It is hard to make any moral condemnation of religion apply to all religion, since so many different moralities have religious warrants. Also, daft and destructive actions have marched under the banners of both religion (the Crusades) and antireligion (Mao’s Cultural Revolution). And it is not so easy to find “obvious” moral standards by which to judge religion, since human beings, like religions, show an alarming variability in their moral views. If the critic of religion accepts the variability of moral views across cultures, it may be hard to see why the moral condemnation of some particular piece of religious practice is any more than the expression of a local moral commitment. If the critic claims that his position is the rational one, a quarrel about the meaning of “rational” will arise, and no resolution is likely to be reached. Some critics of religion may claim scientific backing for their preferred moral position-for example, by seeking to deduce morality from the principles of evolutionary science. Philosophers generally reject such an effort, referring to it as “the naturalistic fallacy”: the attempt to pass immediately from fact (evolution) to value. In a recent talk titled “Darwinism Is the Only Game in Town,” Duke philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg acknowledges the problem of the naturalistic fallacy and proposes a “nice nihilism” as the only ethical extension of Darwinism that isn’t susceptible to this critique. So the moral criticism of Christianity seems to involve critics in at least one of several problems: an impossible relativism, quarrels about what counts as “rational,” dubious efforts to derive moral prescription from scientific fact, or nihilism—nice, or not so nice. In short, the moral critique of religion is no “slam dunk.”

But if criticism of Christianity on moral grounds won’t quite work, neither will a wholesale defense of Christianity on moral grounds. In response to new scientific challenges to the miracles recorded in the Bible, nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism sought to recast Christianity as an exalted morality. Jesus became the great moral teacher of humankind. It is just such liberal, “moral” Christianity that Karl Barth inveighed against when he wrote, “You can’t talk about God by talking about man in a loud voice.”

“Moral” Christianity is no less problematic than a “scientific” Christianity. For Christians, morality without a religious dimension decays into mere moralism. Moralism claims for morality a neutral objectivity modeled on the objectivity of science. The biologist regards the individual only as an instance of the general type: this frog is an instance of the species. In the lab, any old frog will do. Similarly, moralism regards my moral action only as an example of a general moral law. My meaning and value as a unique person are lost, as my actions are understood merely in terms of the universal principles they exemplify or violate. This kind of moralism is incompatible with a theological morality that holds that each individual is the unique creation of the one and only Creator. As Rahner put it: “It would be absurd for...theological morality to think that God’s binding will could only be directed to human the realization of a universal norm.” A creator wants creative individuals, not impersonal instances of general laws, scientific or moral. Each of us becomes a saint or scoundrel in his own way.

From a biological point of view, the individual can be understood wholly as a confluence of laws. From moralism’s point of view, the moral worth of individuals is wholly defined by the moral laws they break or obey. But a person must be understood as more than a collection of natural laws and moral duties. The inadequacy of moralism is most clearly seen when we are faced with another person’s moral suffering. What are we to think about the woman caught in adultery? Adultery is to be rejected, not the woman. The individual sinner is always more than the sin. God knows this, and this is, for Christians at least, the true basis for a theological morality.

If Christian religious claims are neither scientific fact nor universal moral norms, what are they? Obviously this is the subject for a lengthy book, but perhaps I can at least suggest the character of genuine religious language. Christianity is grounded in a Creator of individuals in their full historical messiness. An acknowledgment of the uniqueness of personal experience is the ground for the Christian’s “intense attitude and no time off.” Of course I know, scientifically, that human beings die, but receiving my death sentence from the oncologist creates a very “intense attitude and no time off.” Love, beauty, loss, failure, and—if you are Julian of Norwich—a hazelnut can also create “an intense attitude and no time off.” Religious language speaks from within this unique personal experience. We are not spectators describing something external to ourselves, or judges applying moral law to an external subject. We speak as participants in our own unique history.

Christians believe that this individuality is not trivial or illusory: they believe its source is the One God. Thus, when we talk about the value of our individuality we keep grounding this talk in God’s individuality. Once God is in the picture, we find a dimension of miracles and heavenly messengers. We try to speak about what it is like to live as persons rather than as biological specimens or moral case studies. We strain language to say something about what cannot be universalized. Wild as biblical stories may be, they express the conviction that real sanity requires speaking when sullen silence might seem to be the more rational response. We do not go gentle, or silent, into that good night.

Nor, of course, does the antireligionist. The poet Dylan Thomas called us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Christopher Hitchens values literature and even the Bible as literature. The critical issue for both religion and antireligion is the relation between “poetry” and whatever we regard as reality. Is poetry celebration, protest, prayer, defiance, or, worse, whistling in the dark? That will depend on what we say about reality, and about nature itself. Nature can be seen as neutral, nasty, or maybe nicely nihilistic. For the antireligionists who champion science, the intensely personal flights of human poetry are at best tragic protest in the face of an uncaring cosmos. The critics object to the glossing over of human anguish in sentimental visions of heavenly recompense. Their atheism, like Ivan’s in The Brothers Karamazov, owes as much to moral outrage as to scientific conviction. Even if there is a God, they (like Ivan) “turn in their ticket” to protest his moral mismanagement. And their challenge is not easily met. Christians all too easily rush past Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the Cross. He could not be the Christ without going through forsakenness and descent into hell. The miracle is that the story of Jesus ends as good news. The gospel story is not an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett or the oft-told tragedy of the failed prophet. For the gospel, there is a story beyond death, and the story of Christ still continues. Christian theologians will claim that the Bible story of a creator, a true story, is the ground for all our human stories: poetry and reality are not disjunctive. Which brings us back to the question: Which story fits reality? Wittgenstein got it right when he said, “Within Christianity it’s as though God says to men: Don’t act a tragedy.” Strangely enough, the truly human story is also la divina commedia.


Related: New Atheism, Old Apologetics, by Lawrence S. Cunningham
The New Atheists, by John Garvey

Published in the 2007-09-14 issue: 

Dennis O’Brien, former president of the University of Rochester, is a longtime contributor to Commonweal.

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