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”...

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About the Author

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