Gertrude Stein lay dying. Stomach cancer had finally forced her to undergo surgery in an American hospital on the fringes of Paris. Preparing for the operation, she asked her lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas, “What is the answer?”
Alice said nothing. Time passed. Gertrude spoke again: “In that case, what is the question?” Attendants came to move her cot into the operating room. Alice never saw her again.
Professor Herbert Lamm loved to repeat the story. He thought her last words a triumph: “That’s the smartest thing that woman ever said.”
Over the centuries, questions have shaped the development of human beings and their culture. Latent or confused, they have opened up new lines of inquiry and spurred progress. Most human enterprises recognize themselves to be as vital as their questions.
The Pre-eminence of the Question
The absence of probing questions may well warrant a sweeping indictment of the “new atheism.” It is an astonishing world, one with clever moments but with none of the searching, troubled inquiry in which human beings must “wrestle with the concept,” as Hegel put it. Christopher Hitchens once promised that his questions would be resolved by evidence in contrast to religious faith, but there seems little attempt to secure adequate evidence or to present it cogently. Much of his argument amounts to zingers. His new atheist peers use similar strategies. “We know,” writes Sam Harris, “that no [italics in original] evidence would be sufficient to authenticate many of the pope’s core beliefs. How could anyone born in the twentieth century come to know that Jesus was actually born of a virgin?” So much for the facile weighing of religious literary forms and the happy hegemony of evidence. A literalist reading of the Christian story of creation, or of the ages of the earth, or of the genealogies of the infancy narratives or of the reconstruction of the passion and resurrection of Christ easily sets the stage for ridicule through shallow and clumsy commentary.
Many of these attempts confront the question with the answers already in hand. Seldom do they rise to a painstaking examination of a serious problem, one that in history or ethics or religion has for centuries driven philosophical struggles into the unknown. Little discussion can emerge out of Sam Harris’s judgment (which Christopher Hitchens reports with approval): “While religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.” The question is lost. Unfortunately, comprehensive invective does not supply a serious substitute.
Even here, however, the religious intellect may still find significant engagement. Until this current spate of books made its appearance in popular culture, was the reality of God taken as an admissible question in popular circles? As noted by The Wall Street Journal, the new champions of atheism have sold close to a million books. The question of God has seldom been argued more publicly than in these latter decades. It is being raised in the strength of its denial. Do honest convictions deepen if they are forced to pursue one of the problems with which St. Thomas opens the Summa Theologiae, “Whether God exists”?
What must figure in this matter is the commitment to the absolute in an intellectual honesty that is itself an unqualified subservience to truth. If these claims of the nonnegotiable in human experience are not in some oblique way an experience of God, then do human beings have some experiences that are more demanding than the experience of God? Does the question of God itself in its absolute quality bear the evidence for its own resolution?
The Failure in Method
Closely allied to the new atheists’ weakness in questioning is a cognate failure in arguments and method. Atheism has historically favored the contradictions of debate. As in Roman rhetoric, so it is today. The spate of books carrying the water for the new atheism begins not with a question to be explored but with the conclusions to be sustained. One begins with the answer: that God does not exist. The task of the author is to collect or construct evidence to support this thesis. Anything can be made to serve, so the contemporary arguments inevitably wander across the pages and often lack simple coherence. Hitchens’s argument from metaphysics runs the gamut from naming scientists who happened to be religious to medieval arguments about the length of angels’ wings to quarrels between the papacy and the emperor, finishing with a grand finale on the notion of a leap of faith. All of this is placed within a single chapter on “the metaphysical claims of ‘religion.’”
Serious inquiry, by contrast, moves in the opposite direction: it begins with the question and then looks for the evidence or arguments that can resolve it. Concern about question and method in the discussion of the existence of God is not a pedantic nicety. It is required if one is to think carefully through the great issues raised by contemporary atheism, and it urges the directive primacy of the question and its care. The central challenge is not that someone has denied the existence of God. In one form or another that denial has been with us for millennia. The central challenge is that much of the eristic manner of interchange has so corrupted the question and the method as to make discussion impossible.
Dawkins transmutes the question of God into the question of religion, but seems to think the question of religion comprises not the beginning of universities and hospitals, nor the cathedral of Florence and the music of Palestrina, nor a pervasive care for the poor and the suffering, but instead an index of evil events and stupid choices throughout history. His selection of “examples,” however overstated, instantiates what the history of rhetoric has asserted over thousands of years: that the choice and marshaling of examples is the induction of the sophist. A thesis can be asserted, or a list constructed and examples selected to prove anything.
Care for the Subject Matter
The inadequacies of the new atheism lie not only in its failure to keep the integrity and depth of its question or to sustain an effective methodology with which the question of God could be credibly pursued. There is also an astonishing theological illiteracy that runs through all of these works, an illiteracy that invites comparison with the great atheistic thinkers of the 19th century, such as Ludwig Feuerbach, Arthur Schopenhauer or George Eliot. One representative will have to suffice. The most serious and paradigmatic of the great atheisms of the past century was that of Friedrich Nietzsche; probably his most celebrated advancement of the atheistic option was his parable of the madman in the marketplace, which I relay here with comment.
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” The people in the marketplace convulsed with laughter and screamed mocking questions after the madman: “Has he got lost?” asked one. “Did he lose his way like a child?” asks another. “Or is he hiding?”
Only the madman can answer this question: “I will tell you. We have killed Him—you and I. All of us are his murderers.” The full enormity of the deed and of their loss breaks in upon them. “But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns.... God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed Him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives.… Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?”
The people in the marketplace did not believe that God exists; they thought the search absurd. But for Nietzsche, the determining factor was that they had no understanding of what they had done and what they had lost. They took their disbelief for granted, held faith in contempt and had no sensible awareness of the new emptiness. The death of God existed among them, but it was an epistemological reality, not an ontological one; Hitchens misses this point completely. The death of God in Nietzsche means that Christian belief was no longer believable. Only the madman knew the unspeakable value of what had been destroyed.
It is here in the marketplace that the new atheism both resembles and differs from the old. The new atheists possess contempt for religious belief, but theirs is the contempt of the crowd in the marketplace, not the agony of the madman, who held what was destroyed in awe and reverence. The new atheism does not think the subject worth a decent argument. In the old atheism, only the madman knew what had taken place. The crowd, nameless and strident, had simply accepted the impossibility of belief: “The greatest recent event,” Nietzsche wrote, “that God is dead, that belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable—is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe.” As those shadows lengthened over what had once been Christian faith, atheism became a more commonplace conviction.
This became not the heroic disbelief of the prophetic voices of the 19th century, but rather the bourgeois indifference to transcendence and the superficially secured contempt of the crowd. Feuerbach, Marx, George Eliot, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Freud yielded place to Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Peter Atkins and Richard Dawkins. It seems painfully obvious that the second string is of lesser caliber than the first; indeed, they should not besport themselves on the same field. Harsh but warranted is the judgment of the Oxford mathematician and author John Lennox: “On matters of theology, their arguments are a disgrace: assertion without substance, demanding evidence, while offering none, staggeringly unscholarly.”
Lennox is not alone in discounting the attainments of the new atheism. The impoverished argument advanced by some recent atheist authors reveals, as perhaps nothing else, its weary and pervasive ignorance of what was regarded by their adversaries as “[w]hat was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned.” If one stays with the parable of Nietzsche, the frame of the marketplace can remain the same. The new atheism has simply given recent and celebrated names to the faces in the crowd. They have become the crowd, but the superficiality and self-assurance remain.
The Advance of Atheism
Criticism of the new atheism cannot take up each one of its charges against religion and respond. The procedure of the new atheists has made such a reply impossible. What is lacking in the attacks is a fundamental evenhandedness and balance. The argument and discussion require a pervasive and fundamental presence of the liberal arts tradition, the grammar, rhetoric and logic that would discipline language and thought into reasoned conversations and arguments.
It is evident that recent attacks on religion do not issue from a profound knowledge of theology, history, philosophy and disciplined intellectual capacities. One will often look in vain for a cogent argument or a sober appeal to history. Even more disappointing is the ignorance of Christian fundamentals. In The London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton begins his review of Dawkins’s The God Delusion: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” What one comes across are “vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.”
Criticisms leveled at religion and at religious practices can be of immeasurable service to the purification of religion from pretense and facility, but what is one to do with this confused mass of imprecisions and travesties? One certainly cannot take the statements one by one, or the process would never end. Perhaps one should do nothing at all, insisting that real argumentation demands care, skill and honesty, and that the alternatives are a waste of time. But this is little more than cultural submission. Perhaps the best strategy is to adopt the procedures of the Mississippi River pilots: take soundings. Select a particular region on the fast-moving river, drop in a lead line to test out the depth and the shallows of the water, register the findings and compare them with the results of similar explorations. The knowledge gained could be of incomparable value in navigating the waters.