Answering the “New Atheists”

No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers

Michael Novak. 2008. Doubleday, New York, New York. 336 pages. 

America’s Secular Challenge: The Rise of a New National Religion

Herbert London. 2008. Encounter Books, New York, New York. 100 pages.

Reason, Faith, and the Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

Terry Eagleton. 2009. Published with assistance from the Lewis Stern Memorial Fund. 200 pages.

Why is it that my local bookshop has suddenly sprouted a section labeled ‘Atheism,’ and might even now be contemplating another marked ‘Congenital Skeptic With Mild Baptist Leanings’? Why, just as we were confidently moving into a posttheological, postmetaphysical, even posthistorical era, has the God question suddenly broken out anew?” quips Terry Eagleton, author of Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

No doubt the recent success of a spate of books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens has stocked the bookshelves and stoked the controversy. Collectively, these polemics portray believers as borderline delusional, infantile and incapable of rational reasoning. 

As might be expected, the acrimonious tone and proselytizing theme of the new atheists have produced a pushback by academic believers.

Eagleton, Bailrigg Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, England, and Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland, Galway, enters the fray showing no fear and takes to task both unbelievers and believers. He chastises the skeptics as those who “buy their rejection of religion on the cheap” through “intellectual indolence” and chides believers for their betrayal of the revolutionary ideas of the New Testament resulting in an institutionalized Christianity. He suggests that postmodern religion has been rolled into the social order, representing business as usual and thereby rendered irrelevant—more part of the problem than a powerful source of salvation.   

Professor Eagleton admonishes atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens for rejecting a caricature of the real thing when they cavalierly dismiss Christian doctrine. 

Dawkins makes an error of genre, or category mistake, about the kind of thing Christian belief is. He imagines that it is either some kind of pseudo-science, or that, if it is not that, then it conveniently dispenses itself from the need for evidence altogether. He also has an old-fashioned scientistic notion of what constitutes evidence. Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on in neither of these places. Christopher Hitchens makes much the same crass error, claiming in God Is Not Great that ‘thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.’” 

The debate over whether belief in God is rational or not is often mistakenly framed as an adversarial relationship between science and faith. The new atheists accuse religion of stifling intellectual investigation. They depict faith in a divinity as a primitive crutch that a sophisticated society has outgrown. In their view, scientific inquiry has demonstrated its prowess and revealed the path to unending progress. Utopia awaits, if we follow its lead.  

Professing believers, without rejecting science, are nevertheless skeptical that the meaning of life can be found in mechanisms and molecules, especially when the intricacy and beauty of the universe are described as the result of random and undirected processes. Scientism reduces life to lab research and many remain reluctant to accept that the purpose of life will be discovered as a by-product of the sterile results it renders. 

The idea that everything important in life can be explained by the telescope and microscope contradicts the intuition of many. The human experience is made mechanistic and sterile by such a simplification. What about love, inspiration, loyalty, forgiveness and sacrifice? Is there a looking glass to examine these life encounters? 

Eagleton explains, “God for Christian theology is not a mega-manufacturer. He is rather what sustains all things in being by his love, and would still be this even if the world had no beginning. Creation is not about getting things off the ground. Rather, God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever. Not being any sort of entity himself, however, he is not to be reckoned up alongside these things, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects. God and the universe do not make two. In an act of Judaic iconoclasm, we are forbidden to make graven images of this nonentity because the only image of him is human beings.” 

The doctrine that the world was made out of nothing is meant to alert us to the mind-blowing contingency of the cosmos—the fact that like a modernist work of art it might just as well never have happened, and like the most thoughtful men and women is perpetually overshadowed by the possibility of its own nonexistence. Creation 'out of nothing' is not testimony to how devilishly clever God is, dispensing as he can with the most rudimentary raw materials, but to the fact that the world is not the inevitable culmination of some prior process, the upshot of some inexorable chain of cause and effect. Any such preceding chain of causality would have to be part of the world, and so could not count as the origin of it.  Because there is no necessity about the cosmos, we cannot deduce the laws which govern it from a priori principles, but need instead to look at how it actually works. This is the task of science.” 

Science searches “how” and nonbelievers seem content with that. Believers wonder why atheists don’t demonstrate the need to know “why?” Theology is eager to pursue this compelling question. Science considers it outside its purview. This explains why science and religion seem awkward and uncomfortable together. 

But are scientific reason and faith inherently adversarial? Don’t both science and religion represent pursuits that spring forth from inquiring minds? Aren’t both fields staffed by those who search and seek to understand the human life experience? Both claim enlightenment—science by the knowledge gained by observation, and religion by the insight gained from revelation and reflection. Both can make a case for their contribution to humanity. Both have embarrassing episodes in their history that should humble the haughty among their adherents.  

Eagleton elaborates, “The quarrel between science and theology, then, is not a matter of how the universe came about, or which approach can provide the best ‘explanation’ for it. It is a disagreement about how far back one has to go, though not in the chronological sense. For theology, science does not start far back enough—not in the sense that it fails to posit a Creator, but in the sense that it does not ask questions such as why there is anything in the first place, or why what we do have is actually intelligible to us.”

Michael Novak is a theologian, author, and former U.S. ambassador who holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at American Enterprise Institute. He is the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. In his latest book No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Novak laments the vitriolic voice of the current debate and calls for a civil conversation based on mutual respect. He expresses empathy for nonbelievers disillusioned by untold sadness and senseless suffering in the world around them. Novak understands why they are unsatisfied to hear that a loving and powerful God reigns on high, but has not intervened. He suggests that in many ways nonbelievers and believers share the same trials and trauma in life and grope together with the inexplicable experience of tragedy.   

He wonders what separates them on their shared journey. 

Is the ability to give thanks to God, even the natural aptitude for giving Him thanks, the bright yellow line between atheism and knowledge of God? For those who hold that metaphysically everything is random, rooted in chance, without design or narrative line, and based upon a fierce competition for survival, to What or to Whom might thanks be given? If any thanks are due at all.” 

He suggests that we “should inquire more intensely into the natural human impulse to express gratitude—gratitude toward nature at large, gratitude toward the whole of which we are part, perhaps even toward the loving Source of all that is. In that intellectual landscape, may lie hidden the key to the inner door.”

Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, sees the reemergence of the “God Debate” in large part as a reaction to the traumatic events of 9/11.  Responding to a wake-up call, Western civilization is wondering what it believes in and what’s worth defending. Will the face of terror with radical religious overtones cause the West to renew its connection with God or recoil from those who claim to know and do his supposed will? 

In, America’s Secular Challenge: The Rise of a New National Religion, London decries the societal shift toward secular humanism that has taken its toll on traditional values and exposed the vulnerable underbelly of the West. “In many respects secularism is itself not unlike a religion. It is grounded in several ideas that are valued by its adherents as deeply and unquestioningly as any spiritual creed. One of these ideas is that truth is relative—that is, contextual. That some truths may be divinely ordained and therefore universally applicable is regarded as simplistic, naïve, or worse. If a particular moral position is to one’s benefit, it may be considered ‘valid,’ however it offends traditional morality. All judgment becomes a function of pragmatism: If it works for me, it must be true. Overarching moral considerations emanating from natural law or even historical antecedents take a back seat to personal choice. The secularist doctrine discards the notion that truth and knowledge consist of the humane teachings of two millennia of Judeo-Christian philosophy; it accepts only what may be ascertained and tested by scientific inquiry.” 

It would appear that nonbelievers have faith in science, while professing believers are skeptical that science is the source of mankind’s salvation. If nonbelievers are capable of expressing faith and believers able to be skeptics, then both are rational parties who through reason choose to place their confidence in different saviors. 

Atheism would appear to be the philosophy of a comfortable man, the perspective of one that doesn’t need help. Declaring self-sufficiency is a freedom that believers ascribe to God, the self-existent one. Atheists take to themselves the attributes of a godlike figure. A secularist who assumes the prerogative of setting his own personal moral code is, in essence, serving as a god unto himself.   

Eagleton explains, “There is a sense in which replacing a transcendent God with an omnipotent humanity alters surprisingly little, as Nietzsche scornfully pointed out. There is still a stable metaphysical center to the world; it is just that it is now us, rather than a deity. And since we are sovereign, bound by no constraints which we do not legislate for ourselves, we can exercise our newfound divinity by indulging among other things in that form of ecstatically creative jouissance known as destruction. In Nietzsche’s view, the death of God must also spell the death of Man—this is to say, the end of a certain lordly overweening humanism—if absolute power is not simply to be transplanted from the one to the other. Otherwise humanism will always be secretly theological. It will be a continuation of God by other means. God will simply live a shadowy afterlife in the form of respectable suburban morality, as indeed he does today.”  

When ideas are embraced, consequences ensue, intended or not. Could our culture unwittingly wind up denying the existence of evil if each of us is entitled to do what is right in our own eyes? Nothing can be considered wrong if everything comes down to personal preference. 

London warns, “Take away the precept of an ethical structure whose genesis and moral authority is external to man, and he is left with a pernicious relativism of his own making with a cold, all-encompassing scientism unable to give sufficient answers to man’s ontological questions.”  

The closest secularism comes to offering an ethical guide to life is not to offer one at all, at least not a systemic one,” he continues. “In secularism, each human is ultimately his own moral guide. So in our time, ‘self-actualization’ and ‘reaching one’s potential’—which elsewhere in history would have seemed clichés nearly devoid of meaning—have come to represent a significant, if not the most significant, goal of human existence.”  

By contrast, Scripture instructs the Christian believer that divesting one’s life in sacrifice and service is the way to salvation and ultimate fulfillment. 

London adds “Tolerance is generally a positive thing, but it has run amok in America, and has permitted the degradation of the very culture that values it. . . . But a society in which tolerance is the highest calling renders each man’s judgment a law unto itself. And so the community standard becomes the lowest common denominator of human discernment and taste.”

Much is at stake in the current debate. The issue is not so much about whether a deity exists, but rather who will exercise the godly prerogative of establishing a moral code of conduct and in whom or what we will stake our future. 

In that sense, today’s debate is a reenactment of the scene in Genesis where humankind’s progenitors determined that they could dispense with divine revelation and decide right from wrong on their own. 

As we brace for the next bevy of books in the battle of belief and before we are tempted to jettison the Judeo-Christian ethic, perhaps we should reexamine the Book of books that reveals its richness only when we make a sincere effort to grasp its depth and discover our own undetected blindness to it.