In a post on July 26 I kvetched about the continuing Sophisticated Theology™ of poet Michael Robbins, who, as I wrote about a whle earlier, had an annoying penchant to use book reviews as a club to bash New Atheists. Robbins’s faux review on Slatebrought out a number of angry responses, and he took a shellacking not just at my site (390 comments, very few of them favorable), but also at reader Maggie Clark’s site, and even at Andrew Sullivan’s site, The Dish, where a number of readers went after him.
Much as I differ with Sullivan on matters like God and Israel, and despite his failure to allow comments on his posts, he has the admirable habit of allowing some pushback from readers, usually picking the best comments and presenting them anonymously in a separate post, much as I do with the religious and creationist trolls who annoy me. Sullivan, however, treats his comments with respect, for he chooses the good ones.
I had missed the fact that Sullivan allowed a secondset of comments criticizing Robbins’s views, particularly his annoying but persistent argument that New Atheists, by attacking literalists or garden-variety believers, are attaking “strawmen” and missing The Best Arguments for God. Further, Robbins likes to argue that the New Atheists aren’t dolorous enough. Failing to realize the huge hit that the absence of God gives to morality, or on our personal finitude, we are not nearly as sad and miserable as we should be. Most atheists are fairly cheerful and well-fed people, and Robbins can’t stand it that we don’t mope around or put guns to our heads (or, like Camus, crash our cars into trees). These are simply trite and refuted claims, but they’re especially annoying coming from a wannabee hipster poet like Robbins.
And so the venerable Sullivan put up another dollop of Robbins criticism in a post called “Nostalgic for Nietzsche, Ctd.” I love ‘em! I’ll reprise three; the last (though anonymous) comes from one of our readers.
Michael Robbins’ latest defense of his essay review of Spencer’s book, which you posted, conveniently skips past a colossal point that one of your readers quite cogently articulated in dissent:
The religious intelligentsia want to embrace the vast majority of Christians (who believe nothing like they do), as part of their faith, and at the same time decry atheists who focus on that vast majority as failing to engage “true” Christianity and the deep, meaningful arguments for the faith.
Robbins goes on to prove your reader right when he, like John Haught and David Bentley Hart and other “Sophisticated Theologians”, makes the boring mistake of saying that “religious fundamentalism is a soft target.” Is it really that soft when almost half of America believes that God created the world in its current form according to Genesis? Is it really?
I’m going to take credit right now for the term “Sophisticated Theologians,” which of course I trademarked from the outset. It seems to be becoming a term of art. Oh well, I suppose the coining of a widely used neologism, even uncredited, is a mitzvah. And of course Reader 1 makes a good point. Hart, for example, would have to repudiate the many Orthodox Christians whose notion of God is not a nebulous Ground of Being.
Here’s a comment sent to Sullivan by another reader:
Dammit. I never said anything, positive or negative, about the Hart quote other than Robbins wanted us to focus on it. More to the point: When Michael Robbins writes “Christians have recognized the allegorical nature of these accounts since the very beginnings of Christianity”, or “it’s not God, at least not God as conceived by a single one of the major theistic traditions on the planet”, he’s ignoring the belief of most Christians in the US and elsewhere. To be clear, most living Christians do not recognize the allegorical nature of these accounts (a statement easily proven).
When Robbins says, “I had assumed it was obvious that Origen and Augustine would hardly have taken the trouble to deny literalist readings of the Bible if such readings did not exist” he’s faking left and going right. Reading the Bible literally came after the Reformation (a fact Robbins flags in his article “He Is Who Is“). And while I am insufficiently educated to speak to Origen, I’m happy to go head-to-head on Augustine: $50 for every place Augustine denies literalist readings of the Bible vs. every place Augustine did not. For example, did Augustine believe in a literal Adam and Eve and original sin? (Yes.) Does evolutionary theory destroy both? (Yes.) Will I make good money if Robbins takes me up on my offer? (Yes.)
You go, reader! He/she continues, and makes some good points.
“Young-earth creationism” is “of course” not based on the Bible. He seriously said that. Robbins’ use of the phrase “of course” illustrates a startling ignorance of the mass of Christianity and their scriptural exegesis. Apparently Ken Ham and Bill Nye’s debate on a 6,000 year-old earth missed the point – nobody watched it.
OK, enough whining, to the heart: Michael Robbins continues to miss the point.
“But the New Atheists did not write books that simply attacked creationism. They wrote books that purport to challenge theistic belief as such. They therefore have a responsibility to address the best cases for God, not the dullest.
They wrote books to challenge the theistic belief … of the vast majority of Christians. The audience that believes Noah stuffed 9 million unique species on a boat, and the kangaroos hopped from Mount Ararat to Australia without leaving a single skeleton. That doesn’t require challenging the best cases for God, that requires pointing out that 18 million animals would require a lot of food, produce a lot of waste, and the wolves would probably eat the rabbits. If the target audience doesn’t care (or understand), the best cases, why should atheists focus on them?
Yes “religious fundamentalism” is a soft target – but it is the important target, and the target on which atheists should focus. If Robbins disagrees, he needs to make the argument that attacking the best cases for God is worth doing, not that it’s the “right” thing to do.
I suppose, in response to the last paragraph, Robbins would respond that if you really want to kill the notion of God stone cold dead, you have to refute people like David Bentley Hart or Karen Armstrong. But they’re deliberately designed their concepts of God to be irrefutable, so that’s not on. Further, even if you kill that Sophisticated God, the mass of believers will keep on believing their Unsophisticated One. They don’t care if you refute the Ground of Being, since that’s not their God.
Finally, here’s a comment Sullivan calls “Another piles on.” In fact, this was written by reader Thomas. who posts here under the name “Another Tom”. He emailed me proudly that this came from him:
I’ve found Michael Robbins essay and response both unconvincing. The “New Atheists should be more like Old Atheists,” trope aside, there are other tropes I saw in Robbins’ response. Let’s play spot the trope!
“But the New Atheists did not write books that simply attacked creationism. They wrote books that purport to challenge theistic belief as such. They therefore have a responsibility to address the best cases for God, not the dullest. When Dennett asks if super-God created God, and if super-duper-God created super-God, he is simply revealing a lack of acquaintance with the intellectual traditions of the major religions. If you want to argue against something, you have to understand what you’re arguing against. That’s axiomatic.”
I would say there are two standard tropes in here. First is the atheists don’t address “the best cases for God.” As far as I can tell atheists always deal with the argument for God being made. Whenever I see that phrase I’m reminded of the practice of goal-post shifting. Often when an atheist addresses a “case for God” they’re told that they haven’t addressed the “best case for God.” Which makes me wonder, why don’t proponents of theism use the “best case for God?” Maybe Robbins should check out Jerry Coyne’s website (not blog)Why Evolution is True; he has addressed various “best cases for God.” Most recently he covered David Bentley Harts’ latest book and found that that “best case for God” was a series of non-sequiturs. X exists therefore God is hardly a convincing argument.
The second I noticed has already been addressed through the Courtier’s Reply. I don’t need to spend several years studying fashion to point out someone’s naked just as I don’t have to spend several years studying theology to point out arguments for theism are not rational.
Another thing, this sentence: “Some atheists believe that their faith in scientific naturalism suffices to disprove the existence of God, for instance.” Speaking of caricatures … I will admit that there may be atheists like this but I know of no atheists who make arguments like that. Science simply eliminates various things from various gods portfolios and finds natural explanations. Germ theory of disease is one example. Do bacteria and viruses disprove God? Of course not, it simply means that God is not needed for people to get sick.
The atheists I know are atheist because they found the argument for theism unconvincing. Personally I’ve always found evidence for theism lacking and the philosophical arguments for theism either irrational or creating an irrelevant deity whose existence is identical to it’s nonexistence. Robbins should check out QualiaSoup’s three–part series on morality without God if he wants to some idea of what he’s arguing against.
[snark] Oh wait, stuff like that can’t exist because of the intellectual shallowness of atheists. [/snark]
I love my family and friends. I help others because it is right. I share what pleasure I have with the people I care about. I celebrate life as best I can and share what joy in life as best I can, because this is all we get. There’s no way I’m going to celebrate life any less just because someone told me I should be sad about the death of God.