On November 10, I criticized a HuffPo article by theologian David Dunn, who argued that theology is not about God, but about people. That is, studying theology is supposedly a valuable exercise because it gives us insights into the religious views (and behaviors) of our godly ancestors. Well, there may some truth in that if you conceive of “theology” as “religious studies,” and I do see a place in the halls of the academy for the history and doctrine of religion. But I see no use for entire schools devoted to theology, nor for most courses in theology. If you read Alvin Plantinga, for example (I seem to be obsessed with the man, perhaps because he’s so clever yet so misguided, and was once a president of the American Philosophical Association), you’ll find a lot about God and reasons why we should accept the Christian deity and his ways, but not much about human psychology. The same goes for John Haught, who bangs on endlessly about embracing the Reality Beyond Reality, but doesn’t show keen insight into the human condition. (By the way, Dunn’s Ph.D thesis was called “Symphonia in the Secular: An Ecclesiology for the Narthex”.)
Dunn responded the next day with a post on his own website (“David J. Dunn”), called “Three reasons why New Atheism is freak’n adorable!!!”
It’s snarky—so much for the politeness of theologians—and somewhat incoherent. He misspells Daniel Dennett’s name as “Daniel Dennet,” but that’s the least of his errors.
But what are the reasons why we’re so “freak’n adorable”? (He’s trying to be funny here, of course, but fails.) I would think it’s because we love cats, because we (unlike theologians) have a sense of humor, and because we remain upbeat despite constant vilification by the religious masses. But no, Dunn has other reasons, and they’re quite familiar to us all:
1. We completely lack irony. That is, we’re just as fundamental as religious fundamentalists. Sound familiar? I quote Dr. Dunn directly
Only two kinds of people have told me about their religious beliefs within two minutes of speaking with them: Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists. Only two kinds of people have ever met me outside a convention center with some kind of tract about religion: Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists. When it comes to religion, two kinds of people troll blogs and leave the same kinds of comments over and over again. Do I have to say who those kinds of people are at this point? The thing about being anti-something is that you need the thing you oppose in order to be what you are, and you also end up replicating a lot of the behaviors you find so despicable in others. But it’s okay, you tell yourself, because you are the good guys. New Atheists have tracts, radio programs (that discuss conversion techniques), blogs, conferences, and even churches. I mean…come on!
What expertise in psychology he’s attained from his studies of theology! If you oppose something, you end up replicating the behaviors you oppose! That’s why civil rights advocates in America used dogs and water hoses against segregationists, and why atheists issue fatwas and try to kill the Muslims whose faith we decry.
No, we’re not the “good guys” (we had no choice in that matter), but we have the good beliefs—the ones that aren’t delusional. And exactly what is wrong with atheist bl*gs, conferences, and radio shows? (The churches I could do without, but I doubt many of us go to atheist churches.) Don’t we have a right to say what we think? Why does he make fun of those outlets?
Finally, Dunn needs to learn what “fundamentalist” really means.
2. We lack philosophical gravitas.
One of the things I say in a recent critique of the prominent New Atheist and evolutionary scientist, Jerry Coyne, is that New Atheism seems to confuse philosophy with science. This leads to a kind of intellectual hubris and conceptual naiveté. Why pay attention to actual philosophical questions if you think you already have an expertise in that area? Thus New Atheism fails to do what Marx and Nietzsche did so well: take religion seriously. Otherwise, New Atheism might be less prone to act so fundamentalist.
Sorry, Dr. Dunn, but you’re dead wrong here. We do take religion seriously, and that’s why we have all those bl*gs, radio shows, and conferences. If we thought it was a joke, we wouldn’t do those things. What Dunn really means, of course, is that we’re not sophisticated enough to deal with the Serious Arguments about God (which, of course, aren’t convincing at all). We’ll start paying more attention to actual philosophical (he means “theological”) questions when we get evidence that the subject of that inquiry really exists. Why engage in endless lucubrations about a deity for which there’s no evidence?
3. Our atheism depends on faith. (What Dunn actually says is that atheism “requires a leap of faith.”) There, you have it—three old chestnuts in a row, and this is the third—and most ridiculous. No, our atheism depends on a lack of faith—an unwillingness to accept things for which there’s no good evidence. In all his blathering about the virtues of theology, Dunn never mentions that the evidence for the subject of theology isn’t there.
What he proffers instead is a word salad. Get a load of this:
New Atheism likes to tout itself as being reasonable, but a New Atheist is no more reasonable than a Christian who takes science seriously. It might seem logical to conclude that religion is false because religions have similar myths. The idea of a virgin birth and resurrection are repeated in various paganisms. But that is reasoning by analogy. It is to say that if x is false, and y is like x, then y must also be false. Resemblance is no basis for judgment, especially when it comes to “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” That is how St. Anselm of Canterbury defined God. We are dealing with an inherently unthinkable “being” here. So no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to make God appear at the end of a scientific experiment anymore than you can make God appear at the end of an argument about the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in the birth of Jesus (Christian apologetics is another form of atheism). “God” means that whatever we think must always be transcended by itself. It is an inherently impossible concept. Therefore, agnosticism is the only philosophically defensible position. Anything else, whether belief in God or atheism, is an act of belief. No logic. Just faith.
No, there are far better reasons for thinking that religion is a man-made fiction than the resemblance of some religions to others. (And, by the way, there are striking and profound differences between the tens of thousands of religions practiced on this planet. How does Islam resemble Scientology?)
And Dunn’s definition of God is what’s really adorable here: “Whatever we think must always be transcended by itself.” What the bloody hell does that mean? What is the sweating professor trying to say? What Dunn doesn’t realize is that agnosticism, defined as “lack of belief in Gods”, really is the kind of atheism that most of us embrace. I suspect that Dunn’s “agnosticism” means something like this: “Well, we don’t know there’s a God, and we don’t know that there’s not, so let’s call it a tossup, say that there’s about a 50% chance of God existing and call that agnosticism.” Does Dunn think that agnosticism in that sense should also apply to belief in Xenu, Thor, UFOs, and the Loch Ness Monster? What Dunn fails to realize is that this kind of stuff, both its weaselly redefinition of God and its terrible use of logic, is the very reason why theology is so lame.
What is “philosophically defensible” is not what is reasonable, for you can philosophically defend anything on the grounds that it’s logically possible. But you can also defend beliefs on whether there are good reasons for them, and that’s where we have the advantage over people like Dunn, sworn to defend not what’s true, but what appeals to them.
He ends his article like this:
I am posting my thoughts today because, for various reasons, I am exacerbated. Now I plan to shut-up and keep holding out my olive branch. What happens next is not really up to me.
I think he means “affronted” or “angry” rather than “exacerbated.” And, of course, “shut up” is not hyphenated. All the more reason to abjure those theology classes and head over to the English Department.
And pardon me if I don’t accept that olive branch, for taking it means giving credibility to harmful delusions.