The National Catholic Review
Elizabeth A. Johnson

A recent spate of well-publicized books has set off a new round in the several-centuries-old atheist attack against faith. The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, dismisses God as a monster; according to Sam Harris in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, God is evil; in God Is Not Great Christopher Hitchens argues that religion poisons everything. Underlying these broadsides is the conviction that science is qualified to decide whether God exists. Placing divine activity within the nexus of physical causality, they use standard scientific methods to conclude: No. God does not. Their case is buttressed by citing gross evils perpetrated by religion: the Crusades, the Inquisition and other violent ventures. Maturity in our day calls us to shed religion like an old skin and emerge into the sunlight of reason.

John Haught wrote God and the New Atheism as a response. Intended for the general reading public, it is short, clearly written and blessedly non-polemical. Haught has spent decades teaching and writing theology in dialogue with science. He is the U.S. Catholic community’s most accomplished and prolific scholar in this area. Here he directly engages these recent attacks, attempting to show their inadequacy to both faith and reason. His main criticisms can be distilled into three areas: the new atheists’ idea of God, the logic (or illogic) of their method and the intellectual and moral flabbiness that results.

Idea of God. Haught traces how the new atheists first shrink God into a discrete individual who acts directly within the causal chain of natural events and then wipe “him” out. This idea of God, however, has almost nothing to do with what Christian faith and theology today understand by that name: an ineffable mystery of infinite being, truth, goodness and beauty. Vexed that the new atheists completely ignore mainstream theology, Haught exposes how the silliness of their gross caricatures makes their job of demolition easier. Anyone can set up a straw God.

But where do they get this idea? Obviously, from fundamentalist proponents of creationism and intelligent design. In a series of comparisons that runs through the book, Haught details the similarities between the two contenders. Both interpret Scripture literally; both accept an either-or stance regarding religion or science; both make ignorant assumptions about the other; both employ intemperate rhetoric. Enacting the proverbial “A plague on both your houses,” Haught endorses a third front, where faith and reason, working fruitfully together, approach God as something more than a cartoonish figure.

Method. It is fine to approach religion as a phenomenon that can be studied by scientific method. After all, religion is a part of nature in the sense that it is an evolved human behavior.

But the new atheists claim that science can give an adequate explanation of the reality of the One toward whom human devotion is directed. Haught criticizes this assumption on the basis of its own internal logic. Where is the scientific experiment that could discover the infinite? By its own standards, science is not wired to make this discovery, positively or negatively. In truth, the philosophical stance of scientific naturalism/materialism cannot justify the new atheists’ enormous “cognitional swagger.” With a touch of irony, Haught notes that to carry forth their argument they have to make a leap of faith beyond what their methods warrant.

Intellectual thinness. Haught’s main, and perhaps surprising complaint against the latest round is that it is intellectually disappointing. Given its non-scholarly and illogical bases, it raises no genuinely interesting questions. The deepening of theology that occurred in previous conversations between serious atheists and Christian thinkers has little chance of happening here. Examples of fruitful conversations that Haught adduces include those of Paul Tillich with Friedrich Nietzsche; Karl Barth with Ludwig Feuerbach; Karl Rahner and Rudolf Bultmann with Martin Heidegger; Jürgen Moltmann with Ernst Bloch; Gustavo Gutiérrez with Karl Marx; many contemporary theologians with Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Jürgen Habermas. Those atheists had enough understanding of theology to make conversation engaging and productive. In marked contrast, the level of theological knowledge held by the new atheists is too shallow and inaccurate even to begin such a conversation.

Moral flabbiness. The new atheists write in comfortable circumstances. Unlike the hard-core older challengers, they do not demand any radical transformation of human society. Pale in terms of social justice and ecological concern, they permit the same old values and meanings to govern society, only now sanctified by a conservative Darwinian orthodoxy. While they make valid points about abuses in the name of religion, they ignore human rights abuses from nonreligious political powers that cost millions of people their lives in the 20th century. One is not inspired to work for a better social or ecological world by these critics.

This lucid and learned book makes clear that the new atheists are trying to topple a deity that mainstream Christian theology has no interest in defending. By contrast, what theology means by “God” is not a link in the causal chain but an infinite mystery, a personal God of unbounded love, a vulnerable, self-emptying love present as source, sustaining power and goal of the evolutionary world. In religious traditions people find themselves addressed by this God and invited into relationship. In this context faith in God, rather than being an immature, irrational leap without evidence, is an adventurous movement of trust that opens reason to the inexhaustibly deep dimension of the world. It keeps reason from collapsing in on itself, suffocating in its own self-enclosure. It gives the human spirit room to breathe. Far from being the enemy of reason, faith is its cutting edge.

A large amount of media publicity has surrounded the work of the new atheists; their books have been bestsellers. Readers of Haught’s small treatise will find an excellent compendium of defenses, answers and counterthrusts to use in personal reflection and public conversation. The one postscript I would add is that readers would do well to attend to the extent to which the fundamentalist mentality also affects segments of Catholic life. Elements of popular piety, preaching and the teachings of the ordinary magisterium have not always imbibed the understanding of God’s infinite mystery prevalent in mainstream theology. Contact with the new atheists may well offer the opportunity for the church’s everyday teaching and preaching to become more mature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University. Her most recent book is

Comments

Elaine Tannesen | 7/20/2008 - 9:25am
Elizabeth Johnson's writings and speeches have been for me a profound invitation to step closer and open my eyes wider to see the magnificence and mystery of God. This book review again provided information and inspiration. Her thoughts on fundamentalism both within and outside of the Catholic Church certainly provided a timely challenge. God is so very intimate and so very much more than we can even begin to imagine. And so is God's mercy. Those who are quick to judge their fellow human beings would do well to keep this in mind. I look forward to reading more contributions to America by Elizabeth Johnson.