Model Atheist

Jeffrey Stout & the Culture Wars

For years now, Christian culture warriors such as Richard John Neuhaus and James Dobson have been railing against the secularists who want to repress religion and eradicate the effect of religious beliefs on public morality and law. Until recently, however, they’ve been shadowboxing—they have had no adequate foil, no one who publicly demonizes religion the way they demonize the godless “culture of death.” But a recent trio of bestsellers written by militant atheists has given substance to the shadows. In The God Delusion (2006), Richard Dawkins warns that all religion, not merely fundamentalist religion, is irrational and therefore dangerous. In God Is Not Great (2007), Christopher Hitchens argues on behalf of an aggressively secular society in which religious belief has no legitimate place in the public discourse. And in The Atheist Manifesto (2007), Michel Onfray trots out the tired canard that religion is the enemy of knowledge and learning.

Neuhaus and Dobson might be energized by the appearance of opponents who mirror their own black-and-white view of the world. But how should those of us already weary of the culture wars respond? We need, of course, to call the authors on their prejudices and inaccuracies. (See Eugene McCarraher’s review of Hitchens in the June 15 Commonweal.) But another step is equally important. We shouldn’t lump all atheists together, any more than atheists ought to lump all religious believers together. It’s worth talking to nonbelievers who also see some shades of gray. For example, Jeffrey Stout, a philosopher of religion at Princeton, is the sort of atheist with whom believers can have a useful conversation. His award-winning book Democracy and Tradition (excerpted in the October 10, 2003, Commonweal), offers helpful counterpoints to Dawkins, Hitchens, and Onfray.

Are religious believers essentially unreasoning and therefore dangerous to public life? No, says Stout. Stout vigorously disputes the idea that all religious believers are irrational, and he opposes any attempt to limit their voice in public discussion. He criticizes the late Harvard political philosopher John Rawls, who was much more nuanced than either Dawkins or Hitchens, for using an overly narrow conception of what counts as rational or reasonable public argument. This criticism should be welcome to many Catholics. Rawls famously opined that it was unreasonable for people to argue that first-trimester abortions should be outlawed (he later changed his mind) or that gay marriage should be prohibited. Stout might disagree with arguments for outlawing abortion or same-sex marriage, but he doesn’t view the people making them as necessarily unreasonable. For Stout, the key to political reasonableness is the willingness to participate in the actual give-and-take of public, democratic argument. That means giving reasons for one’s own position, and due consideration to the reasons put forward by others. Stout refuses to let anyone, religious or nonreligious, win an argument on the cheap by declaring those who hold opposing views “irrational” or “unreasonable.”

Is a secular society inevitably hostile to religious belief? Again, Stout’s answer is no. Here, Stout insists on two senses of the word “secular.” Our political discourse is secularized, he says, in the straightforward sense that participants cannot “take for granted that their interlocutors are making the same religious assumptions they are.” But this does not entail a commitment to a secularism that demands the public denial of theological claims and the expulsion of theological perspectives from the political sphere. Stout emphasizes that believers can draw on any language or arguments they like in making their case. What they can’t expect is that everyone else will share their theological perspective. Far from wanting to strip public conversation of rich theological language, Stout thinks we might benefit from more of it: he believes that our “democracy would profit if more citizens engaged in the ‘lengthy, even leisurely unfolding’ of their commitments.” But we must have the patience to listen to others explain their commitments in response.

Are religious communities by nature opposed to knowledge and learning? Hardly, says Stout. Deeply indebted to Alasdair MacIntyre, Stout takes for granted that all intellectual inquiry takes place within a tradition that carries a community’s thought, practices, and institutions forward through time. He explicitly acknowledges that religious traditions support rigorous intellectual inquiry. Then Stout turns the tables. He asks religious believers to consider the possibility that our democratic republic might carry forward a rich intellectual and moral tradition of its own, one that values equality, individual freedom, and self-expression, but also virtue, responsibility, and many other valuable communal practices. A reasonable request, in my view.

Neither religious faith nor pluralism is going away any time soon. If you want to think about the relevant issues in conversation with a serious nonbeliever, forget about Christopher Hitchens and read Jeffrey Stout.


Related: Liberty for All and The Contested Sacred, by Jeffrey Stout

Published in the 2007-07-13 issue: 

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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