The New Atheists' Mistake

God and the New Atheism author Dr. John Haught explains

Interviewed by Jon M. Sweeney

Dr. John HaughtExplorefaith sat down recently with Dr. John F. Haught, Ph.D., a Senior Fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center and Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University. He has taught religion and science for 35 years at Georgetown, and he is the author of a new book, God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens (Westminster John Knox Press).

Dr. Haught, how would you characterize the “new atheist” worldview?

I call it scientific naturalism. Scientific naturalism claims (without scientific proof) that apart from nature, which includes human beings and our cultural creations, there is nothing. There is no God, no soul, and no life beyond death. Nature is self-originating, not the creation of God. Nature has no overall point or purpose. Since God does not exist, the new atheists insist that only science can put our minds in touch with reality.

This means for them that all the various features of living beings, including human intelligence, ethics and religion, can be explained ultimately in purely natural terms, and today this usually means in evolutionary, specifically Darwinian, terms. To these tenets of scientific naturalism, the new atheists would add that belief in God is the cause of countless evils and should be rejected on moral grounds.  And they also claim that morality does not require belief in God, and that in fact people are, ethically speaking, better without faith than with it.

So, then, what is materialism?

Materialism is the mostly modern belief that matter is all that exists. Materialism has no room for God or the soul. So the new atheists embrace materialism and make it the basis of their scientific naturalism and atheism.

The new atheists also interpret the biblical stories literally, in the manner of creationists. Like the creationists they read the Bible as though its intention is to provide scientific information. The difference is that they consider the Genesis accounts of origins to be poor science whereas creationists consider the Genesis accounts to be good science. Both sides cheapen the Bible’s creation accounts by reducing them to the same mundane level as scientific information. 

How is this current debate similar or different from the debates between Darwinism and Creationism in the first half of the 20th century? You are not a creationist, right?

No, I am not a creationist, even though of course I believe in the creation of the world by God. I believe that God creates by way of natural processes such as evolution. A God who can create a world that can “make itself” is a much more impressive Creator than one who would fashion everything directly.Creationists,” as the term is used today, are people who think the biblical creation stories are incompatible with evolution. I don’t. In fact in my book God After Darwin and many other writings I have shown how the Christian faith can make very good sense of evolution as long as we distinguish evolution from the materialist way in which it has often been interpreted.

For those who have trouble understanding how evolution is compatible with a belief in a personal, omnipotent and omniscient God, can you elaborate a bit more on how Darwinism and faith can support one another?

After Darwin, Christian theology may still think of God as powerful, but it needs to define carefully what is meant by divine “power.” An evolutionary theology still confesses that God is creative and redemptive, but it can do so without rejecting the data of evolutionary science. (By the way, I try to avoid the term Darwinism since it sounds like an ideology or belief system, and some people use the term as almost equivalent to materialism or atheism. I prefer the expressions “evolutionary science” or “Darwinian biology.”)  Anyway, if the God of Christian faith is a God of love then God would not overpower the world and force it to conform too closely to a rigid design. A God of love would not compel the world to follow a stiffly prefabricated itinerary. Otherwise freedom would not exist.

If God loves the world, then we may assume that God would graciously grant to the world, and to us human beings, a certain degree of freedom to experiment with an array of possibilities. A God who truly loves the world is intimately related to it, but in a way that allows the world to remain forever distinct from God. The process of evolution is the story of the universe trying out various ways of becoming distinctively itself. Divine power, therefore, is manifested as loving self-restraint, as a "letting be" that permits the world to emerge as something other than God. It takes more power and goodness to respect freedom than to compel everything in dictatorial fashion.

Furthermore, God, we may now assert with the Bible, is not exclusively “up above,” but also “up ahead.” In some sense God is the world’s future just as God was Abraham’s and Jesus’s future.  Reflecting on the evolutionary process allows theology to retrieve a deeply biblical sense of God as One who makes promises and thus always opens up a new future not just for us but for the whole universe. God is the “One who makes all things new.” This is not so much a qualitative change in our understanding of God as a radical recovery of forgotten biblical insights. The epic of evolution expands our sense of God by making us realize that divine care embraces the destiny of the whole cosmos. 

Finally, evolution, by its emphasis on the role of chance or accident allows us to understand better what theology has traditionally referred to as divine grace. Divine grace allows for a "contingent" universe, one in which chance or accidents can occur. Only an independent cosmos could dialogue or be truly intimate with God. From this point of view, therefore, the epic of evolution is the story of the emerging independence and autonomy of a world awakening in the presence of God's grace. 

Woody Allen once said, “I don’t believe in afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear”—the sort of comment that would make almost any person of faith chuckle. It seems that the long and somewhat healthy skepticism about religion (like the kind that makes reformations possible) is going away, and a more militant atheism is taking its place.

Woody Allen also said that he would believe in God if the deity would make a big deposit in Woody’s name in a Swiss bank account!

God and the New Atheism by John F. HaughtDon’t you think that the new atheists have changed the tone of the debate? It seems angry in ways that it wasn’t, before?

The unprecedented dangers that threaten us today, they insist, will only get worse unless a drastic solution can be found. Liberals and socialists naively suggest that if we want peace we all need to practice justice. But such a solution is not extreme enough for the new atheist. The root cause of the most insane forms of violence is not poverty and injustice anyway. To them, it is faith and theology.

Faith and theology may lead some people to worship services, but since prayer is based on the irrationality of faith, by worshipping God we are only perpetuating the suffering of humanity in the long run. The day after 9/11, instead of participating in a religious service, my wife and I would have made better use of our time, according to Sam Harris, by working toward a radical secularism that denies any status to faith of any sort. Only “the end of faith” holds any promise of saving the world.

If Sam Harris were to ask you why you and your wife participated in a religious service after 9/11, what would be your response?

Having read his books, I can say that Harris hasn’t the foggiest idea of what goes on in a Christian worship service such as this. He mockingly refers to the Mass as eating crackers with a bit of your favorite burgundy. His flattened world allows no sense of symbol or sacrament.  He thinks of the Bible as obsolete attempts by ignorant ancient writers to express scientific truths. He considers every religious act to be irrational because it does not fit into his (now obsolete) rationalist wordview. In a scientific age there is, he claims, no need or room for faith. Science, for him, is the only reliable way to truth, and worship is a childish groveling in the presence of an imagined heavenly tyrant.

… I would begin by replying that what Harris means by God, faith, and worship has nothing whatsoever to do with what I and countless other Christians mean by them. I agree with his atheism insofar as I reject the same crude caricatures of God, faith and worship that he does.

Then I would try to show how much his own mind is itself beclouded by the narrowest kind of faith one can imagine. This faith is known as scientism, the unscientific and unquestioning belief that only science can be trusted to give us truth. But since there is no scientific proof that science is the only road to truth then it is irrational to embrace scientism. To worship science as Harris and other new theists do is as irrational a belief as one could imagine.

On the other hand, the kind of worship your question mentions is not at all irrational.  To be irrational is to be unrealistic, but there is nothing unrealistic about people gathering together to admit our finitude and weakness in the face of such irrational acts as 9/11, and to ask for grace, forgiveness and courage to work together, in whatever way we can, to prevent such events in the future. In common Christian worship we affirm the Resurrection and the ultimate victory of life over death, and I don’t see how the atheistic worldview, in which death is the final word (since for scientific naturalism the universe is ultimately unredeemable and headed toward utter nothingness), can be the basis for a robust ethical aspiration intergenerationally. For a fuller response to your question, however, I must refer readers to my book God and the New Atheism.

This new atheism leaves little room for agnosticism. What’s the difference between the two?

“Agnosticism,” a term invented by Darwin’s defender T.H. Huxley, literally means “not-knowing.” It has now come to refer to those people who say they neither affirm nor deny the existence of God. They just don’t know. A lot of them say they would believe in God if there were sufficient “evidence.” The new atheists make the same point when they justify their atheism by declaring there is no evidence for God’s existence.

What do they mean by evidence?

They mean the kind of evidence that science looks for. However, theologians usually point out that God would not be God if evidence for God’s existence could be gathered as cheaply as evidence to support a scientific hypothesis. To encounter God we must allow ourselves to be grasped by the divine Mystery. To have a sense of God, as all the great religious thinkers have argued, requires that we undergo a personal transformation, that we risk ourselves in a life of ongoing and deepening trust. The militant atheism that you mentioned is perhaps getting a bit more vocal today, but, most inappropriately, it still tries to defend itself intellectually by appealing to the same scientific naturalism that I mentioned earlier. The rules of evidence it employs have nothing whatsoever to do with genuine faith and theology.

If we are not to rely on evidence in matters of faith, what can we look to for reassurance that believing in God is a force for good?

I would not myself ever say that there is no evidence for faith, just that such evidence cannot be gathered as cheaply as the evidence for a scientific hypothesis. When the new atheists reject religious faith for lack of evidence they mean evidence in a scientific sense. They think of the idea of God as like a scientific hypothesis that requires that we suspend belief until scientists have collected the same type of “objective” evidence for God as a scientific proposal needs in order to gain acceptance. If believers then reply that there is indeed scientific evidence for God I believe we end up trivializing the idea of God by turning God into an object to be controlled by our cognitional powers.

This in no way means that there is no evidence for God.  But God is an Infinite Subject, not a scientific object. And an encounter with any personal subject, even in our ordinary human experience, requires a risk and a leap of faith. In fact some risk is involved in our relationship to anything worthwhile, and the more valuable something is the more we have to risk ourselves in vulnerable acts of trust in order to encounter it. I cannot encounter the evidence of another human subject’s love for me, for example, unless I open myself to the possibility of being hurt. Analogously, I cannot place myself in a position to meet the subjective reality of an Infinite Love without risking myself.

Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris often reflect that religion causes people to live lives that are essentially unhappy. Do you think that they have a point?

Faith is the cause of so much unnecessary distress, Sam Harris declares, particularly in the form of belief in God. He says that faith is “belief without evidence,” and for Christopher Hitchens this is what “poisons everything.” Richard Dawkins agrees, and all three authors try to convince their readers that the monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—underlie a sizable portion of the evils human beings have afflicted on one another throughout the last three millennia. But it is not just horrifying ideas of God such as those of al-Qaeda and other fanatics that causes so much unnecessary pain. They say it is faith, pure and simple. note 

You write in God and the New Atheism about how you hardly recognize the Christian faith that is caricatured by the new atheists. It seems to you to be old fundamentalism, and not representative of the more complex faith of most Christians today?

Theologians today understand faith as the commitment of one’s whole being to God. But the new atheists, echoing a now obsolete theology, think of faith in a narrow intellectual and propositional sense. The seat of faith for them is not a vulnerable heart but a weak intellect.

The new atheists clearly feel that it is wrong for a person of faith to stay within the fold unless they have rational reasons for doing so. Do you think it is necessary for someone to know why they believe?

Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens consider all forms of faith to be irrational, and abusing reason by harboring faith in one’s mind is shockingly unethical as well. They believe that it is morally wrong to believe anything without sufficient evidence. In this respect the new atheists adopt what an older generation of atheists called the “ethic of knowledge” as the foundation of both moral and cognitional life.

Of course, all knowing has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is rightly called faith, even if our critics are offended by the term. At some foundational level all knowing is rooted in a declaration of trust, in a “will to believe.” For example, we have to trust that the universe makes some kind of sense before we can even begin the search for its intelligibility. Unacknowledged declarations of faith underlie every claim the atheist makes as well, including the formal repudiation of faith.

How would a new atheist argue that the world would be a more ethical place without religion?

They teach that the way to avoid unnecessary human suffering today is to abolish faith from the face of the earth. The Buddha’s Third Noble Truth states that the way to overcome suffering is to find release from clinging desire. The new atheists, especially Harris who favors a very highly edited version of Buddhism, believe that release from bondage to faith can help rid the world of unnecessary suffering. Here “faith” is the bottomless cave in consciousness that gives domicile to everything from belief in UFOs, to witches, souls, angels, devils, paradise, and God.

Most of these beliefs seem harmless enough, but [in the minds of the New Atheists] if we allow people to get away with even the most innocuous instances of faith, what is to prevent a Muslim radical from believing that God’s will is the destruction of Israel and the United States, or a Zionist from believing that God wants us to murder innocent Palestinians, or a Christian from believing that it is God’s will to bomb abortion clinics? Once God’s will is fancied to favor such acts of violence, then anything is possible—including the most unthinkable horrors.

As a Christian, what do you believe is a truly Christian response to the claims the new atheists make regarding the evil and destructiveness of religion?

A truly Christian response would require, first, that the churches and their members confess their own sinfulness and complicity in the evils that the new atheists so fervently and entertainingly catalog.  Such a confession would be a powerful witness to our much more fundamental belief that the world is enfolded by an infinite goodness and love, a goodness that our sinfulness has violated and obscured from view, thus creating a space in which the new atheism finds its confidence and justification.

Second, however, we can point out that ironically the atheists themselves witness to this same dimension of goodness in the very act of accusing Christians of gross immorality. How else can the new atheists be so sure that we religious believers are evil unless they too are hiddenly in touch with a realm of goodness that provides the standards for their own accusations. We call the source of this dimension of goodness “God.”

Third, our response should be to point out the irrationality and incoherence of a worldview that, by repudiating the idea of God, is also explicitly denying that there is any ultimate basis for the goodness the new atheists implicitly invoke in their rejection of religious faith for its immorality.

Why do you think that the new atheists are garnering so much attention, and why now?

One reason is that in academic, journalistic and even popular culture the belief system that I am calling scientific naturalism is slowly making headway in shaping the minds of many people. Attraction to scientific naturalism and the new atheism, however, has in great measure been provoked by religious extremism in many parts of the world. People who lack a nuanced understanding of religion (and this includes especially the new atheists) simply lump every creed, every religious believer, and the great body of religious wisdom all into the same pot with the most exaggerated forms of fundamentalism that have recently made our world so dangerous.

When combined with the general illiteracy about religion and theology in contemporary culture, the ignorance of science by Christian and other opponents of evolution creates a setting in which even educated people think the only acceptable option for them is to avoid religion altogether. There are many other reasons for the new atheistic confidence, of course, but I cannot develop them here.

Are the new atheists right about anything, in your opinion?

They are right in pointing out how so many other belief-systems than their own are often intolerant and barbaric. But surely they must realize that their own belief system, scientific naturalism, would never have established itself in the modern world were it not for the tolerance extended to “freethinkers” by the same religious cultures that gave rise to science.
Their reply is that religious cultures themselves never had any real moral or rational justification for existing in the first place. Faith, since it is intrinsically evil, should ideally never have been tendered any right to exist at all. Furthermore, when human intelligence first emerged in evolution it should never have allowed itself to be taken captive by faith, no matter how biologically adaptive this alliance of mind with unreason happened to be.

The truly thoughtful scientific naturalists—Einstein is a good example—have been honest enough to admit that faith, especially faith that the universe is comprehensible at all, is essential to ground the work of science itself. Moreover, the claim that truth can be attained only by reason and science functioning independently of any faith is itself a faith claim. Complete consistency would require that the new atheists’ world of thought be cleansed of scientific naturalism as well.

You have said that you are a man who loves science, but that, “There are levels of depth in the cosmos that science simply cannot reach by itself.” Can you elaborate a bit on that statement and what it says about how we would best proceed in exploring our universe, including ourselves?

Huston Smith has pointed out that religion and science share the assumption that things are not what they seem to be.  For both, there is always something more beneath the surface. Every science leaves something out that future generations may partially uncover. And every religious symbol or teaching leaves something out too. The depth beneath the surface is inexhaustible.  For that reason we can say that both science and religion have an indefinitely long future ahead of them

However, science is rigged in such a way that it can never reach certain aspects of reality beneath the surface. Scientific method, by definition, leaves out our everyday as well as religious concerns about values, meaning, purpose and subjective experience. It also leaves out any consideration of God. It has every right to do so—as long as scientists remain humbly aware of what science has to leave out in order to be science.

Unfortunately, scientific naturalists and the new atheists believe that science can in principle capture everything that exists beneath the surface. They have lost all sense of the limitations of science. As a result they present us with a world from which God, purpose and values are inherently missing.  This is what scientism, belief in the unlimited range of science, leads to:  a shallow, dimensionless world.

Copyright ©2008 Jon M. Sweeney

note Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group USA, 2007). Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005).

God and the New Atheism by John Haught

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