New Atheism, Old Apologetics

Energized by the recent success of books by such vigorous atheists as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, Michael Novak returns to a theme he first wrote about decades ago in books such as Belief and Unbelief (1966) and Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove (1978). That theme is our human incapacity to understand completely who God is. Because of this incapacity, every authentic searcher, whether or not he or she is a believer, will undergo some version of the Dark Night that St. John of the Cross wrote about. Novak’s early work was very much in dialogue with the thought of existentialists such as Albert Camus, but, in its analysis of the human drive to know, its main debt was to the late Bernard Lonergan, Novak’s former teacher. Novak’s new book on the subject, No One Sees God, rehearses many of the same arguments—and draws from many of the same sources—he used in his first books.

Novak does not seem to have read much theology in the intervening decades. That is not meant as a damning criticism, since Novak’s more recent work has taken him in other directions. Still, it must be said that his response to the contemporary atheist seems at once comfortably conventional and totally innocent of the work of contemporary theologians who have tried to recover the apophatic tradition, which emphasizes our inability to define God. This tradition has a genealogy that goes back to Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Aquinas, who wrote that it is easier to say what God is not than what God is. Of course, the tradition also has in its background the biblical insistence that nobody sees the face of God and lives. Novak’s new discussion of the God question should have at least mentioned the recent developments in apophatic theology.

That Novak’s response to a new generation of militant atheists is constructed within a scaffolding he built decades ago does not mean that the response is without merit. Novak is at his best in criticizing the arguments of Hitchens, et al.; yet his counterproposals sometimes disappoint. Two features of his criticism of the new atheists deserve extended comment.

First, Novak points out that the very concept of God against which these writers rail is extraordinarily anthropocentric. The deity they reject—one who is subject, like us, to the laws of time and space—is not really the God of most believers but an image of God borrowed, consciously or unconsciously, from certain artistic representations such as the one found in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It doesn’t take much courage or cleverness to critique a god who sits on a cloud fulminating against sin. In fact, the new atheists read the Bible more literally than any fundamentalist. They would be shocked by Augustine’s interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts. Novak wonders why the best-selling evangelists for unbelief are unable to say anything positive about the goods that religious belief brings, and has brought, to civilization; their hatred for religion is fervent and unqualified. Given their judgment that religion is essentially juvenile, bemused contempt would seem to be a more appropriate attitude. So why the hatred? Novak believes it is because America’s widespread religious faith has discredited their belief that in the modern developed world religion should be disappearing, or have already disappeared. But there is another reason for their hatred: for them, religion, all religion, is not just idiotic but also wicked because all religion is a kind of fanaticism and therefore potentially violent.

Second, Novak argues that the time has come to put an end to the cheap theatrics, ad hominem arguments, and media grandstanding, and instead begin a serious conversation between unbelievers and believers. My own sense is that this approach is not going to work with the current crop of atheists for the simple reason that they do not want a discussion; they want a fight. Can anyone even imagine Christopher Hitchens entering into such a conversation? His specialty is the intellectual duel as spectacle, not the real exchange of ideas. As Novak suggests, the situation is somewhat different in Europe. There, debates about the God question are as serious as the question itself. Thus, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini and Umberto Eco can exchange ideas and questions about belief without evident animosity, and Jürgen Habermas, himself an atheist, can upset Europe’s bien-pensant secularists by reminding them of the Continent’s Christian roots. This eventually led to a well-mannered and intellectually sophisticated debate at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences between Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger.

Novak’s plea for a serious discussion between believers and unbelievers is therefore a welcome one. But it remains an open question whether that discussion should take place on a purely philosophical level as a disagreement between two static theories. What would a dialogue between a deeply convinced atheist and a Christian look like if the topic wasn’t “Does God exist?” but instead “Who is Jesus?” What about a public dialogue between a sophisticated atheist and someone like Jean-Luc Marion, who conceives of God not under the rubric of being but under that of caritas? As Pascal wrote centuries ago, we are taken up not by the god of the philosophers but by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom Jesus called “Father.”


Related: Eugene McCarraher reviews Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great

Published in the 2009-02-27 issue: 

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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