One of my resolutions for 2014, which I’ll undoubtedly violate repeatedly, is to spend less time dissecting atheist-bashing articles, for the arguments against atheists are simply recycled endlessly. But even if I can’t keep my resolution, I’ll try to be briefer, as in the case of poet Michael Robbins‘s review in Slate of Molly Worthens’s new book Apostles of Reason, a history of modern evangelical Christianity.
Unfortunately, Robbins can’t stick to the book, but winds up using his article, “Your being here: the fundamental questions at the heart of the wars between fundamentalism and modernity,” to club atheists. Discussing a transformation among some evangelicals from “naive theism” to doubt that can shade into unbelief, Robbins simply goes off the rails:
One unfortunate consequence of this background shift is that as unbelief seems to more and more people the only plausible construal, they find it difficult to understand why anyone would adopt a different one. Thus “they reach for rather gross error theories to explain religious belief,” and we are subjected to ignorant books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Take Dawkins on Thomas Aquinas, for example, a discussion so inept that it’s as if Noam Chomsky had decided to publish a primer on black metal. (See David Bentley Hart’s elegant demolition of Dawkins’ analysis in The Experience of God.)
The “undergraduate atheists,” as the philosopher Mark Johnston dubbed them in Saving God, have been definitively refuted by Hart, Terry Eagleton, Marilynne Robinson, Johnston himself, and others. As intellectual bloodbaths go, it’s been entertaining—like watching Jon Stewart skewer Glenn Beck. But of course Richard Dawkins is merely a symptom. I have encountered atheists who seem not only to have never met an intelligent, educated believer, but to doubt that such a creature could exist.
I don’t know what Robbins considers a “definite refutation” of “undergraduate atheists”, but I’ve read Eagleton and Robinson, and they have no new arguments for God’s existence—arguments that are, after all, the focus of New Atheism. All they do is carp endlessly about how Dawkins and others don’t truly understand Sophisticated Theology™, as if that’s what most believers embrace. Please, Drs. Eagleton and Robinson (and, for that matter, Mr. Robbins), do tell us the definitive proofs of God’s existence that Sophisticated Theologians™ have adduced. Because if you don’t, then the simple request, “What reason do you have to think that?” is a definitive refutation of all religion, sophisticated or otherwise.
Yes, of course there are intelligent, educated believers, just as there are intelligent, educated creationists and homeopaths—but they all have at least one blind spot. Just because someone is intelligent and educated doesn’t automatically make all her arguments valid.
But Robbins’s big beef about the atheists is actually quite funny:
Such unbelievers seem to me to have missed something quite fundamental about the nature of being, as it appears to the human animal, something that the major theistic traditions attempt to address with rather more nuance and generosity than contemporary updates to logical positivism can muster. You don’t, obviously, have to believe in God to feel humbled and bewildered before what Heidegger called “the question of the meaning of Being.” (Indeed, I often think the notion of “belief” is more trouble than it’s worth.) But you do have to acknowledge that there is a question, “the major question that revolves around you,” as John Ashbery puts it: “your being here.” And you have to recognize that it concerns something outside the scope of the natural sciences.
If, as we suspect, there is no God, then—contra Robbins—there is no question of “the meaning of Being.” There is only the question of how things came to be. If you presume that that “means” something, then you’re presuming a Meaning-Giver, i.e., a god. Robbins tells us that we have to acknowledge that that’s an important question, but I dismiss it as a Deepity.
I also reject his insistence that we “have to acknowledge that the question is meaningful” or that it has an answer “outside the scope of the natural sciences.” Those sciences tell us how the universe came about (the Big Bang, which may be one of many Big Bangs that created other universes), and they certainly tell us how humans and other species came about, via evolution. Yes, it’s humbling to realize that a simple naturalistic process can evolve a fly out of nonliving matter, or that physical processes can bring a universe into being, but my real humility is not before the meaningless Big Questions, but before the authority of fact.
Theistic traditions try to imbue humanity with Purpose and Meaning, but to do so they do what they must, which is to make up stuff about gods. Robbins apparently considers this admirable. But what would really be admirable is to finally expose theology and “major theistic traditions” for what they are: fictions that once served as explanations to our prescientific ancestors, but are now passé, and whose embrace should embarrass a thinking person. As for nuance and generosity, well forget about them, for they’re trumped by the truth. It’s not “generous” to cater to beliefs that are not only unfounded, but imposed on others who reject them.
To that end I’ll quote from an email I got this morning from a Christian who pretended to be interested in whether one “kind” of animal could evolve from another (he had apparently seen Ray Comfort’s new film, “Evolution vs. God: Shaking the Foundations of Faith”). After I spent several emails giving him the explanation that it takes millions of years to create a new “kind” of animal (whatever “kind” means), showing him examples of evolutionary transitions between fish and amphibians, mammals and reptiles, birds and mammals, explaining that we can’t observe major evolutionary transitions over a human lifetime, and finally referring him to several books about fossils, the Lying Christian dropped his cover and got to the point in a followup email:
I want to tell the following things because I care about you and others. I care about where you will go when you die. Isn’t it worth thinking about? The Bible says that God “has put eternity in our hearts” and “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse”. Also, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness”. Don’t suppress the truth or God’s Word.
“Unrighteousness” is lying, cheating, fornication, adultery, hate and many others. [JAC: clearly my correspondent, who lied about his motivations, is guilty of “unrighteousness.” He’s going to Hell LOL!]
The Bible also says “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God”. Because God loves us so much He sent Jesus to die on the cross to take the punishment for your sins, to declare us not guilty, so we wouldn’t have to go to Hell. Please consider God’s free gift of salvation from Hell. I am pleading with you to give God a chance. Just be as honest and open as you can. God is “rich in mercy” and if you turn from your sins and trust in Jesus, God will forgive you, save you and give you eternal life. The Bible says, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
Why don’t I ever learn that these people are not sincere?
The writer was not an American but a Kiwi—from New Zealand (Ray Comfort’s birthplace). It’s time for Robbins to understand that this is how most believers see their faith, not through the beer glasses of Terry Eagleton, Karen Armstrong, or Marilynne Robinson. And this is how discerning the “Meaning of Being” makes people behave.