Stephen J. Pope
Christian witness can be the best response to atheist polemics.
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Who are the “new atheists”? Broadly speaking, they are a collection of writers who have come together in recent years in their disdain for the very idea of God. They regard religion as the last bastion of superstition, obscurantism and fear and see the Christian churches as dedicated to inhibiting progress and human freedom. They regard biological evolution as providing the best overall account of who we are, where we have come from and where we might go as a species.

Religion “poisons everything,” proclaims the journalist Christopher Hitchens, and religious morality amounts to psychological abuse. The sociobiologist Richard Dawkins describes religion as a “virus,” and in The God Delusion proclaims that monotheism is “the great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture.” Dawkins regards theistic ethics as commanding obedience to a biblical God whose jealous and violent character is anything but morally admirable. The philosopher Daniel Dennett depicts religion as a willful attempt to pass on ignorance through promises that can never be kept. He asserts that religious morality based on sacred texts immunizes people from asking critical questions. And in The End of Faith, Sam Harris argues that faith only generates “solidarity born of tribal and tribalizing fictions.” Its promotion of irrationality dangerously sanctions a habit of acting out of religious conviction unrestrained by humility or compassion.

One can certainly raise questions about the accusations of the new atheism, but practical constraints narrow my focus to three issues: first, the relation between belief in God and morality; second, the relation between morality, reason and religion; and third, the relation between morality and the Christian ethic of love. The new atheist critique of Christian morality usually applies (if at all) only to a fundamentalist minority of Christians. Yet because this literature hits home with many readers, we Christians have to take seriously both its criticisms and our responsibility to present a better public witness to the truth of the Gospel.

Is God Necessary for Morality?

Much of the new atheist literature is reactive in that it begins by sharply criticizing what it rejects. The new atheists react against a triple claim often advanced by religious people: that belief in a personal God is necessary for people to have moral knowledge, for people to do what is right and avoid wrong, and for people to justify moral absolutes.

First, some Christians claim that belief in a God who reveals the divine law presents the sole (or most reliable) basis for knowing right from wrong. Reason takes people all over the place, but only religious authority can settle things once and for all. Yet the value of a given moral authority does not prove either its legitimacy or reliability. Such an approach to moral security is made the more troublesome by the fact that Christians who rely on the same scriptural authority, as well as Catholic Christians who profess loyalty to a single hierarchy, often disagree on moral issues. Belief in God does not exempt one from the difficult work of interpreting the significance of specific biblical texts or church teachings for our own day. On the contrary, it can make moral reasoning at least as complex as anything one finds in texts of moral philosophy.

The Catholic tradition walks a middle way between the religious positivist, who says we ought to rely only on religious authority, and the new atheist, who claims reason to be self-sufficient. Catholics affirm the need for community and the value of the accumulated wisdom of the past; Catholics also hold that each person is created with a conscience and has access to the natural law through the exercise of his or her moral intelligence. God teaches us through the exercise of our reason within the church and the broader social world within which we act.

Second, some Christians assert that belief in God supplies a necessary motive for doing right and avoiding wrong. The so-called sanction argument holds that fear of divine wrath keeps people on the narrow path; without it people are capable of anything. The new atheists properly target those who take this deeply pessimistic view of the human person, curbed from evil only by threat of eternal punishment. As Harris puts it, our “common humanity is reason enough to protect our fellow human beings from coming to harm.”

On this point, Catholic moral anthropology is closer to the new atheists than to Christian fear-mongers. It regards each person’s conscience as capable of being moved by an innate “connaturality” with the good. God does not inspire in us a servile fear, which, as David Hume noted long ago, is an essentially egocentric position. Rather, Christian life calls us toward authentic love of God, neighbor and self and teaches us that we ought to fear sin and love God as our savior and redeemer.

Third, the new atheists reject the claim that only belief in God provides the basis for exceptionless moral prohibitions. Harris regards moral absolutism as proposing a “certainty without evidence” that “is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing.” Even Christian critics see the question-begging nature of an apologetic tack that takes for granted the legitimacy of moral absolutes. It also ignores the fact that some atheists display a very strong moral code, justified by reasons independent of belief in God. The new atheists recognize the wrongfulness of murder, rape and the like. Yet one might argue that this thin concession does not provide a sufficiently detailed ethic regarding morally complex and contentious cases, especially concerning the most vulnerable among us. Moral absolutes against abortion, embryonic stem cell research and physician-assisted suicide can be maintained, Christians might argue, only by reliance on divinely mandated or church-endorsed morality.

Yet the fact that Christians themselves are sharply divided over the ethics of life indicates that belief in God does not necessarily guarantee consensus over the content of particular moral absolutes. The significant gap between the small minority of Christians who accept the absolute prohibition on artificial contraception and the vast majority who differentiate between its proper and improper uses illustrates this point. The Catholic natural law tradition does not teach that we come to know the strictly binding character of these norms only through divine revelation or ecclesial instruction. It affirms that one can attain knowledge of moral norms through the use of human moral intelligence.

Is Christian Ethics Irrational?

A major issue raised by the new atheists concerns the relation between Christian morality and reason. The new atheists want us to reject Christianity for the sake of moral progress, then to draw an antinomy between two massive domains of human agency—reason and religion—in order to promote the dominance of the former and the destruction of the latter. At times they concede that the Christian tradition has made some important historical contributions to human well-being (including universities and hospitals), but they argue that everything good in the Christian tradition is because of the operation of reason within it. Conversely, everything bad in the tradition is because of religion, not reason. This line of argumentation is arbitrary, tendentious and viciously circular. It ignores the fact that the global (and ill-defined) categories of “reason” and “religion” are not alternatives but rather two forms of human activity that can be related variously: competitively, cooperatively or in other ways. From a Christian standpoint, the cause of evil can be attributed neither to religion nor reason, but to human sin—the willful decision to put what is essentially good to evil uses out of greed, pride or other twisted motivations.

There is no question that sometimes evildoing has been pursued under the guise of religion, but the same can be said of science. The new atheists display their innocence of the complexity of historical causation when they simply point to “religion” as the prime cause of the wrongdoing of Christians, ranging from Augustine’s defense of using violence to repress heretics to the “silence” of Pius XII during the Holocaust. One could just as easily (and cheaply) blame reason for similar horrors. If the Nazis had not been so intelligently organized, they could not have managed their factories of death so efficiently. I say this facetiously, but the writings of the new atheists are replete with such simpleminded rhetoric from self-appointed champions of reason.

Is the Christian Ethic of Love Unrealistic?

Some of the new atheists, informed by sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, hold that Christian morality proposes an impossibly high norm of love; meanwhile, the actual conduct of Christians tends to conform to neo-Darwinian expectations that we care for “our own” and not others. In their view, what we need is a more realistic ethic, less lofty but more effective.

Dawkins regards morality as a set of normative standards that rewards good acts with social approval and punishes bad acts with social disapproval, and within which an individual promotes his or her evolutionary self-interest through morality. Altruism typically takes one of four forms: “kin altruism” toward relatives and especially our own children; “reciprocal altruism,” which trades benefits with friends in mutually beneficial relationships; generous acts, which accrue “reputational benefits”; and acts of assistance, which enhance an individual’s own social status. In every society morality promotes individual conformity to socially agreed-upon patterns of reciprocity that allow communities to function with some degree of order, regularity and peace. Christian morality does the same.

The new atheists regard Christian love as a completely unrealistic form of altruism. Despite high-flown sentiments, most Christians channel their resources to their own loved ones rather than to the poor. A small degree of altruism can be taught by culture, but instructing human beings to be altruistic is, to use Dawkins’s metaphor, like training a bear to ride a unicycle. Altruism toward a stranger is an “evolutionary mistake,” and those who regularly practice indiscriminate altruism can expect to be evolutionary failures as well as impoverished.

Advocates of Christian morality can respond to this position in several ways.

First, it is important to admit that the actual conduct of Christians often leaves a great deal to be desired. In-group favoritism and out-group oppression, sometimes against one another’s subgroups and more often against outsiders, can do more damage to the Christian community than any new atheist tract ever could. The new atheists echo Freud’s denunciation of the contradiction between the universal ethic of the Gospel and the history of Christian brutality toward the Jews.

Second, the new atheists’ moral critique replicates the Christian tradition’s own internal criticisms of religious hypocrisy, apathy and self-deception. The prophetic tradition, for example, launched its sharpest criticisms against those who practiced liturgical correctness while being indifferent to the suffering of the poor. And it is clear that we have yet to grasp fully the implications of Jesus’ mission to save sinners, not the righteous. Christian prophets have recognized, as Dorothy Day once observed, that the Christian must live in a state of “permanent dissatisfaction with the church.”

Third, the critique applies to sectarian Christians who suggest that the Christian ethic constitutes a completely radical way of life that transcends all normal human needs and limitations and to those who interpret discipleship as an ethic for saints and heroes, but not for ordinary people. Yet Catholic ethics regards grace as the perfection of human nature, not its enemy. The church acknowledges that divine grace enables people like Oscar Romero to lead heroically self-giving lives. The church also understands that grace calls most of us to follow the Gospel in everyday life as we take care of our families, friends and neighbors. Even the most demanding Christian ideals, such as the preferential option for the poor, are sustained when they are are pursued within life-giving personal relationships and communities.

Learning From the New Atheists

The anti-religious polemics offered by the new atheists are often unfair, uninformed and hysterical. Yet their body of work offers us a salutary reminder of the importance of two dimensions of moral integrity: the intellectual and the practical. Christian ethics is based on the belief that the purpose of human existence is neither the “replication of genes” nor the “survival of the fittest,” but the development of our capacity to understand and to love.

The new atheists rightly complain about the unreflective and ill-informed nature of much Christian belief. Harris laments, for example, the pervasive superficiality and anti-intellectualism of popular Christianity; Dawkins criticizes the “distressingly little curiosity” that religious people show regarding their own faith. It is no consolation that secular people in our society display similar weaknesses. While the attacks of the new atheists reveal their ignorance of the Christian faith, their call for greater intellectual honesty within the Christian community is appropriate and ought to be heeded.

The new atheists also consistently point to a gap between Christian beliefs and Christian conduct. But if the flawed conduct adds fuel to the new atheists’ fire, does not the highest Christian witness snuff out at least some of the flames? Beliefs begin to make sense only when they are embodied in real lives. True Christians exemplify the love of God and neighbor in everyday life in work, family and community life; and the examples of Christians who selflessly serve the poor and neglected are worth more than 1,000 books on moral theology.

For most of us, belief or unbelief has little to do with proofs for God’s existence or the intellectual cogency of Trinitarian theology. Most people are attracted (or repelled) by the quality of the lives of the individual Christians they encounter, rather than by the intellectual appeal of Christian beliefs. The primary response of Christians to the new atheism, then, should not be to marshal better moral counterarguments, but to engage in concrete actions that show that Christian beliefs are not sentimental illusions. As the author of 1 John put it, “let us love not with word or with tongue but in deed and in truth” (3:18).

Stephen J. Pope is professor of theological ethics at Boston College and author of Human Evolution and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Comments

laura sabath | 4/26/2008 - 8:59pm
Thank you, Stephen Pope, for your article. It speaks in many ways to my condition. I would not offer my way to any who have a full faith, but when the options have all let someone down, I want to say that on one path at least, I have found, literally, the bread of life, and in hope, the Bread of Life. Burned out by the environmental movement in the 60"s, I was clearly losing my desire to live. A world-view centered on a simple evolutionism had reached the end of its ability to sustain me. And so I returned to the God of all comfort I had experienced almost two decades earlier. I could not come saying, "I believe", but only "I need you. Even not believing in you, I need you, and I will follow you—I will live into you— because you offer me life." "Religion is the opiate of the people." Yes, and an opiate with the most outrageous side effects. For me, it regulates a mind turned murderous towards self and others from the evolutionary ability to anticipate the future—from grief and outrage, terror, hopelessness, and profound angst. It gathers the broken fragments of my self into a wholeness that lets me drink nurture and be the most loving-caring that I can be. The strength I have been given now goes to end the devastation of war on children and on our earth, not only its direct horror but also its diversion of time and resources from addressing global warming. May we learn in time the power of strategic nonviolence lived in love in imitation of he who lived it on a cosmic scale. I have not abandoned an evolutionary world-view. A fundamental identity for me is that of scientist. And for me, though I hope not for all, this chains my limited mind to an agnosticism that ebbs and flows between living into mystery and living into Mystery. If my Catholic religion is nothing but evolution's mechanism of imagination, of the capacity for interpersonal relationship with only fragments of reality to build upon, who can argue atheism with me when I am alive and not dead and have passed on both physical and cultural genes of that imagination? and so am I not an evolutionary success in the conditions of our times? Praise be that something so precious as this re-ligio is not entirely lost to me or to the world. And if my Catholic Christianity is more? Praise God!