Review of God and the New Atheism (2009)

Bart Klink

 

 Review: John F. Haught. 2007. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 156 pp.

The term "the new atheism" is used quite often lately to denote the current revival of popular atheism, especially in the United States. It seems to have arisen with the appearance of four books: The End of Faith (2004) by Sam Harris, The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins, Breaking the Spell (2006) by Daniel Dennett and God is Not Great (2007) by Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins' book has sold particularly well and has been translated in more than 30 languages. These authors have appeared in radio and television shows, given many lectures, and appeared in various debates. Atheism is much discussed these days, especially in the United States, where Christianity still has a prominent place.

The "new atheists" analyze not only arguments for and against the existence of God, but also the effects of religion on society, which are considered mainly detrimental by these writers. Their books therefore not only criticize the existence of God, but also religion itself. This is the main difference between these books and the more technical ones written by philosophers of religion.[1] The reader only interested in detailed and sophisticated philosophical arguments should read these books instead of the books by the new atheists.

Given the popularity of the new atheists' books, it is not surprising that (Christian) believers have launched a counteroffensive. A plethora of books have appeared with titles like The Delusion of Disbelief, The Dawkins Delusion, and The Irrational Atheist.[2] Apparently there is a great need among the faithful to counterbalance the recent popularity of atheism.

John F. Haught's God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens belongs to the same opposition genre. According to the back cover, Haught is "One of the world's leading thinkers in the field of theology and science." In this small book (less than 130 pages, including notes and index), this theologian tries to show why the new atheists are besides the mark in their criticisms. In this review, I will consider chapter by chapter whether his reply succeeds, mainly in critiquing the atheist position and defending the theist position. I limit my discussion to these issues not because the religious influence on society is unimportant, but because this question is different from the question about the truth of religious doctrines.[3]

Already in the introduction Haught laments that the new atheists are "theologically unchallenging," asserts that their tractates consist mainly of "breezy overgeneralizations," and that the authors "leave out almost everything that theologians want to highlight in their own contemporary discussion of God" (p. xi). This lamentation returns many times in the book. An important question is whether the new atheists concentrate on the views of a small theologically educated group, or on the views held by most ordinary believers. I think the latter. A theologian who is interested in refined and often technical analyses of theistic arguments can indulge in reading the philosophical literature on the issue. However, these are precisely the books that the majority of the believers would probably never read because of their sophistication and technicality. I think that the books by the new atheists are meant to fill this gap, to address the average believer without the details and sophistication of the philosophical literature. The criticisms of the new atheists are aimed at views held widely among ordinary believers, not at the mere handful of (liberal) theologians.

Polls about religious beliefs suggest that the new atheists do not attack a caricature of religion, but views widely held by the faithful. About half of Americans (45-55%) currently think that humans were created in their present form (and thus deny evolution), and this figure has been fairly steady when compared against earlier polls.[4] Other polls of Americans report more shocking results: 41% think that the Bible is completely accurate, 56% believe that Satan really seduced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, 58% think that a person cannot be moral unless he believes in God, and 75% believe that Jesus was born of a virgin.[5] Even in my own country, the "liberal" Netherlands, 42% of all church members (albeit 14% of the total population) believe that Adam and Eve really existed.[6]

Theologians themselves are far from monolithic in their views, as became clear to me after reading some of their work and hearing them speak. There is in fact great diversity among them. Even views that Haught explicitly rejects, such as Intelligent Design, are defended by some theologians.[7] Apparently the theological reality is more stubborn than he wants his readers to believe. Indeed, all theological claims are suspect because claims about God's nature evidently cannot be tested, and there appear to be no clear criteria through which theologians can settle theological disputes. On what rational grounds can Haught reject certain theological statements and accept others? Theologians do not agree on this crucial question, and Haught never even considers it.

Haught's main complaint in the first chapter concerns the use of the word "faith" by the new atheists: Faith is not "belief without evidence," as the new atheists claim, but "a state of self-surrender in which one's whole being, and not just the intellect, is experienced as being carried away into a dimension of reality that is much deeper and more real than anything that could be grasped by science and reason" (p. 13). What this vague definition may mean and how this justifies all sorts of religious doctrines remains obscure, however. On what grounds does Haught, as a good Roman Catholic, believe Jesus is God incarnate, born of a virgin, and that his body is edible after the transubstantiation, other than "belief without evidence"? He completely misses the main point the new atheists are making: the lack of reasonable justification for all kinds of religious doctrine.

Haught reproaches the new atheists because their appeal to evidence cannot itself be grounded in evidence, and thus the requirement that one's beliefs be backed up by evidence is also a kind of "faith" (pp. 5-6). Strictly speaking this applies to every starting point (unless you allow circular argument or going back ad infinitum), but that does not mean that every starting point is equally tenable. Haught's suggestion that this form of "faith" is on the same footing as religious faith is untenable. For reliance upon evidence has led to an enormous amount of reliable and consistent knowledge, many true and precise predictions about reality, and countless practical applications. Religious faith, on the other hand, has not advanced in these respects whatsoever, or in any other respect for that matter (except by reluctantly adjusting to new scientific insights, which are enforced from the outside, not by religious faith itself). The only reason that theologians no longer debate whether Adam had a navel[8] is because the question is absurd in light of what science tells us about human origins. On the divine nature of Christ, theologians took a vote[9], and many other questions have led to an almost endless number of schisms and heresies.

In chapter two Haught tries to show that the new atheists do not accept the (supposed) consequences of their atheism, as "classical atheists" like Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre did. He therefore calls the new atheists "soft-core," as opposed to the "hard-core" atheism of Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre. Haught states: "Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end.... [Y]ou will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism" (p. 22). Why nihilism should be the consequence of atheism is far from clear, however. And there is no need for atheists to eradicate every Christian influence, either, as there is an important difference between how we came to certain views and how we justify them. (The former is often called the "context of discovery," while the latter is called the "context of justification.") Many of our current views—including those held by atheists—were handed down to us by the Judeo-Christian tradition (and the Greco-Roman tradition, though this fact is often neglected). Given our sociohistorical circumstances, it could have hardly been otherwise. So long as there are secular grounds for these views, we can discard the divine justification for them without discarding the views themselves.

Haught's lamentation about the theological unskillfulness of the new atheists reaches its climax in chapter three. He complains that the new atheists neglect theology almost completely, and only aim at the biblical literalists. This, he says, makes them the atheistic counterparts of the creationists. Has Haught failed to notice that, according to multiple polls, more than half of his fellow Christians take the Bible more or less literally? Why does he not take this opportunity to explain to the majority of his fellow believers why their views are theologically irresponsible, instead of blaming the new atheists for attacking common Christian views?

Consider what the new atheists are said to have missed in ignoring theology almost completely. "The business of theology," Haught writes, "is to make sure that our questions to the Scripture of any religious tradition will be directed in such a way as to allow ourselves to be challenged and even shaken at the deepest levels of our existence by what the text has to say" (p. 35). But why look to theology, literally the study of God, in order to do this? One could just as well study literature, or absent a complete study, simply read the text in a right way.[10] What does theology have to offer besides literary, historical, sociological, and philosophical insights? In an entire chapter about theology, Haught fails to answer such crucial basic questions.

In the fourth chapter, Haught tries to explain—contrary to the new atheists—why God is no hypothesis at all: "Because thinking of God as a hypothesis reduces the infinite divine mystery to a finite cause, and to worship anything finite is idolatry" (p. 43). This is a striking comment coming from a theist like Haught, for whom God is certainly much more than an infinite mystery. If we take a look at the creeds formulated by Christians throughout the centuries, the Christian God is the creator of the world, the Bible is His inspired word, He intervenes in nature (through miracles), and He has even walked on the earth as a person (Jesus). Such an active, intervening God is certainly susceptible to scientific critique, at least in principle. But God as defined by Haught is characterized so vaguely that He hardly resembles the God of Christian tradition. Besides this, how does Haught show, as a consistent monotheist, that all the gods except his do not exist? Why couldn't Zeus exist as an infinite divine mystery? Or Krishna? Or Ammon-Ra?

Haught repeats the "atheists have faith too" cliché because rational atheists believe that reason provides us with reliable information about reality. According to Haught, this is even more of a problem for the atheist because he thinks that our intellectual faculties are the result of blind evolutionary processes alone. (This argument against "evolutionary naturalism" has been developed by his fellow theologian Alvin Plantinga.) Nonetheless, there are good reasons to think that our intellectual faculties are reliable. First, we would not be here if our intellectual faculties did not give a reliable picture of the world around us.[11] Had their picture of reality been terribly different, our ancestors would have been eaten by all kinds of predators, starved to death, or died before reaching reproductive age due to other avoidable accidents. Of course, this gives us no guarantee of infallibility, but it suggests that our intellectual faculties must at least approximate the truth about reality, and it is the best that we have. Second, we can test the reliability of our intellectual faculties. If our metal representations of reality did not largely coincide with reality itself, we would not be able to send spacecraft on very precise missions to other planets in the solar system. Nor would we be able to build computers of the sort that Haught (presumably) used to write his book.

But Haught thinks that theology provides a better guarantee of reliability: "We can trust [our minds] because, prior to any process of reasoning or empirical inquiry, each of us, simply by virtue of being or existing, is already encompassed by infinite Being, Meaning, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty" (p. 50). How does he know this, though? And how can he reach this conclusion without the use of reason itself? How does he know what words mean without observing how they are used? To conclude that his mind is reliable, he has to use his mind! So theology's "very good answer" (p. 50) is not as convincing as he thinks.

In chapter five, Haught criticizes attempts by the new atheists to explain faith in an evolutionary way. Again, he argues that an evolutionary explanation does not rule out a supplemental religious or theological explanation. He also repeats his view that the new atheists use the word "faith" in an erroneous way. When "faith" is used in the right way ("the state of being drawn toward or being grasped by something of utmost importance," p. 61), a religious explanation in addition to an evolutionary one is not problematic. Unfortunately, it is unclear what so vague and general a definition of "faith" means when explaining religion. For example, if faith is any guide to the truth at all, how it can explain why so many people believe so many different and contradictory things?

A big advantage of a completely naturalistic explanation of religion, compared to an additional religious one, is that the former has the strength to explain religion in general. As a good Roman Catholic, Haught would have to explain why the one true God has given so many people so many contradictory religious convictions. If he uses completely naturalistic explanations to explain the great diversity of religious views, he has to explain why those explanations do not also apply to his own religion. For example, how does he explain why so many people have been and are polytheists, if there is only one true God, as his church teaches? Why does a truth-loving God allows so many illusions, often with terrible consequences? (Think of all objectionable rituals and teachings that are or have been part of many religions and sects.) Furthermore, Haught does not give any good argument as to why we need an additional religious explanation at all.

The central issue in chapter six is morality. Fortunately, Haught rejects the view that one cannot be good without God, but he has trouble with a godless justification of morality (an issue I will return to in a moment). He even admits that for a lot of believers, morality is the most important issue in the Bible. He disagrees (p. 67), but without attempting to justify his own view. How does he know that morality is not the central issue of the Bible? This is an interesting question since many of his fellow Christians think that it is. Indeed, how does one settle such a dispute if a shared criterion of truth is never offered, as so often seems to be the case in matters of faith? Though Haught never touches this general epistemological problem, he is very confident that his own take is the correct one.

Haught judges Dawkins' critique of biblical morality unworthy of reply. This is a pity, as Haught never explains how the many gruesome and barbaric moral convictions endorsed in the Bible, and often instituted by God himself, could possibly be morally acceptable. What does Haught think of the many people (including children) and cattle killed by or under the authority of his God? The morally objectionable passages in the Bible are almost innumerable[12], but Haught only briefly touches upon this matter in the last chapter. His justification boils down to this: we ought to read these passages in the light of the liberation that God provides for his people (from Egypt and other perilous situations). Apparently, the end always justifies the means in God's case, even when the means include racism, torture, genocide, and infanticide.

Haught's next target is Dawkins' explanation of human morality. Dawkins argues that our good behavior towards nonfamily members is a "blessed" byproduct of evolution. And as Haught knows, there are analogous explanations in evolutionary biology. But Haught contends that Dawkins' explanation of morality is comparable to applying the laws of chemistry to how ink binds to paper in order to explain why someone is writing a book. This is a poor analogy, however, because unlike an appeal to the laws of chemistry, Dawkins' explanation is not a proximal explanation, but a distal one.[13]

In any case, Haught rightly notes that an explanation is not a justification, and so next turns to what justifies human morality on a secular worldview. On what grounds does an atheist determine what is right and what is wrong? This is a very complicated subject[14], so I'll confine myself to a short criticism of Haught's own views on this matter. According to Haught, our desire to do good and aversion to do wrong comes from God (pp. 74-75). But what, then, accounts for the major shifts in societal views about right and wrong (e.g., on slavery, women's rights, and gay rights)? The biblical God himself endorses a great many moral positions that Haught would undoubtedly contest. Has the Almighty become more humane in step with the course of human history? Has God realized the barbarity of his own behavior and changed accordingly?

In chapter seven Haught considers whether belief in a personal God is still tenable in light of our modern scientific knowledge. He complains that the new atheists overlook the personal aspects of nature, but never even attempts to account for the enormous amount of prima facie evidence for an impersonal universe. For example, he never tries to reconcile the cruelly impersonal and wasteful nature of evolutionary change with the supposed existence of a personal, intentional, loving, and almighty Creator (who could have created a more humane world).[15] His only evidence for a personal universe is the existence of human inner experiences; but experiences are quite compatible with an impersonal universe in which, after a long and gradual process, conscious minds emerge. And while there is good evidence that creatures have inner lives, there is no remotely comparable evidence that the universe is personal.

Next Haught tries to convince the reader that a naturalistic explanation of life, morality, and religion does not exclude a theological explanation. This is undoubtedly true, but it does not make a theological explanation plausible in any sense. Haught claims that there is no need to eliminate theological explanation as superfluous through applying Ockham's razor.[16] But Ockham's razor recommends that we trim our explanations such that they only consist of necessary entities. If postulating God is not necessary to make our explanations work, then God amounts to an entia praeter necessitatem—an unnecessary entity. Unfortunately, Haught never offers any argument why we should accept a theological explanation in addition to a naturalistic one. Following Haught's reasoning, one could just as well attach the will of Poseidon along with plate tectonics to explain earthquakes, or invoke the Devil in addition to neurological dysfunction to explain epilepsy. Neither can be excluded, but both are unnecessary and implausible, just like Haught's God.

In another book, Deeper than Darwin[17], Haught argues that different explanations of life and the universe are simultaneously tenable at different levels of explanation. He makes an analogy with reading literature: a small child may only look at the letters or words, an older child may read the story line, and an adolescent with a knack for literature may read the author's intended literary points. He repeats this undeniable point about literature almost ad nauseam. But how is it analogous to explanations for the universe? Is there some deeper meaning to the universe, beyond the blind interaction of matter, energy, and the laws of nature? Haught thinks that there is, and invokes a grand story about the development of the universe over and over again.

Of course, Haught's grand story might be true, but what evidence do we have that it actually is the case? Haught points out that there is development and an increase in complexity over time, and after 13.7 billion years, even conscious life; but why should this make the universe personal, or comparable to a story? These aspects of the universe could well be the product of mere physical development, and not the result of intentionality or the conscious planning of the development of a story. In any case, there is no evidence whatsoever that the universe follows any storybook plan. All of our unambiguous evidence about the world suggests that the universe is the product of interaction between purely blind forces. And as far as Haught's book analogy is concerned, many books have no deeper meaning; consider television manuals and cookbooks. So even when granting Haught's analogy more weight than we should, there is no reason to think that the universe is more like literature than a television manual.

Haught closes the chapter by paradoxically denying that divine action entails literal miracles: "The physical determinism, or lawfulness, of the lower levels in the hierarchy of explanations does not need to be suspended in order for the universe to be influenced by a personal God" (p. 91). This is a remarkable statement coming from a Christian theologian, for the most central event to Christianity, the alleged resurrection of Jesus, could not have taken place without a gross violation of physical laws. The same holds, one might argue by definition, for any miracle.

The last chapter is probably the weakest of all. Here Haught constantly assumes what he argues for—the Christian worldview—and describes God as "unabashedly incarnate; fully enfleshed in the world; and intimately related to its becoming, antiquity, creativity, pain, uncertainty, mortality, weakness, and hopes" (p. 96). Again, he fails to produce any good arguments or evidence for why we should believe all these religious contentions—which is the main point of critique by the new atheists! On what grounds should we believe the incarnation and liberation doctrines, other than "belief without evidence"? Haught does not undertake any serious attempt to defend his complex Christian conception of God against the reasonable critiques of the new atheists.

Finally, Haught attempts to reconcile all of the suffering (which is also intrinsic to biological evolution) with the Christian view of God. The atheist's contention that the world would be a much better place if there really was an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent Being is unreasonable, for according to Haught a world that is good from the start would "of course" have no life, no freedom, no future, and no adventure (p. 106). Although this is often said by believers, it is not clear why this would be the case. Is the modern Westerner less free than his starving congener in some parts of Africa? Would life be less adventurous if cancer or AIDS were banished? There is no reason to think that this much suffering is necessary for life, freedom, and adventure. A better world, which could have been created by an almighty God, is not hard to imagine, as Voltaire pointed out in Candide when objecting to Leibniz's theodicy after the terrible Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

In a nutshell, Haught does not succeed in parrying the criticisms of the new atheists. He laments frequently about their lack of theological study, but misses the points of their critiques. His definition of "faith" is not enough to justify the complex Christian view of God and of all of the additional doctrines—and so accepting these views is still a matter of "believing without evidence." Ironically, this is exactly the central point of the new atheists.

Notes

[1] Sophisticated philosophical treatments include: Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press, 1992); Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (Routledge, 2003); William Wainwright, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2005); and Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[2] For a complete overview of published religious responses to the new atheists, see Richard Dawkins, "Two More Fleas." Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason website. <http://richarddawkins.net/article,2352,Two-More-Fleas,RichardDawkinsnet>.

[3] For it is possible that the influences of society are detrimental but the doctrines are true, or that the influences on society are beneficial but the doctrines are false. These questions should be discussed separately.

[4] For an overview of Americans' beliefs about evolution and creationism, see "Results of Public Opinion Polls on Evolution and Creation Science." Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance website. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/ev_publi.htm>.

[5] See the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance overviews of trends in American beliefs concerning social issues, the role of religion in their lives, and the separation of church and state, and of American beliefs in ghosts, Satan, Heaven, Hell, and so on.
<http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_poll4.htm> and
<http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_poll3.htm>, respectively.

[6] Jos Becker and Joep de Hart, "Godsdienstige Veranderingen in Nederland" ("Religious Changes in the Netherlands"). Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (Social and Cultural Planning) website, 2006. <http://www.scp.nl/publicaties/boeken/9037702597.shtml>.

[7] For example, Intelligent Design is defended by cardinal Christoph Schönborn and notable philosopher and theologian J. P. Moreland.

[8] See chapter one of Bergen Evans' The Natural History of Nonsense (New York, NY: A. A. Knopf, 1946).

[9] This happened at the First Council of Nicea in 325 CE, convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine I.

[10] By this I mean taking into account the cultural context in which the text originated, the aim and audience of the text, etc.

[11] Natural selection "selects" traits that will result in the greatest reproductive success, producing adaptation. Though it is not necessarily true that natural selection will select for faculties that accurately represent the world, Haught provides no reason to think that this would not be the case. Thus this is a weak argument against the reliability of our cognitive capabilities. At best, it gives us reason to think that they are fallible; but then we already knew that.

[12] Many examples are listed in the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance overview "Bible Passages Considered Immoral by Today's Theologians and Secularists."
<http://www.religioustolerance.org/imm_bibl.htm>.

[13] These terms are used in evolutionary biology. A proximal explanation is a mechanistic explanation (the how question), while a distal or ultimate explanation is an evolutionary explanation (the why question).

[14] The complexity of the subject has resulted in somewhat different answers among atheists. See the Secular Web's Morality and Atheism index.

[15] I have used this problem as an argument against theism in my Secular Web essay "The Untenability of Theistic Evolution."

[16] Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity). This principle is usually attributed to the 14th-century scholastic William of Ockham.

[17] John F. Haught, Deeper Than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2003).


Copyright ©2009 Bart Klink. The electronic version is copyright ©2009 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Bart Klink. All rights reserved.

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