This week’s New Yorker has a piece by James Wood — “God in the Quad” — that considers the “new atheists” and several books by their critics, most prominently Terry Eagleton. (You’ll need a New Yorker subscription to access more than the summary.) Both sides take a drubbing here, though I have to say that Eagleton (who is quasi-religious) and the faitheists get the worst of it.
Wood goes after the atheists because:
a. Their own beliefs are “religious”:
. . resurgent atheism [is] marked by its own kind of Biblical literalism, hostility to faith in a personal God, a deep belief in scientific rationality and progress, and, typically, a committed liberal politics.
How this constitutes “religion” is beyond me. Certainly the “new atheists” don’t have an unquestioned certainty in their ideas, nor a belief in some supernatural force.
b. They offer “an inadequate account of the varieties of religious experience” and address forms of faith that are not universal:
For the new atheists, as for many contemporary American Christians, faith is assumed to be blind — an irrational closing of the eyes to evidence and reason, a leap of faith into an infinite idiocy. The new atheists do not speak to the millions of people whose form of religion is far from the embodied certainties of contemporary literalism, and who aren’t inclined to submit to the mad mullahs and the fanatical ministers.
Yes, but they do speak to the billions of people who believe in a personal god who engages with the world.
c. They are dogmatic:
What is most repellent about the new atheism is its intolerant certainty; it is always noon in Dawkins’s world, and the sun of science and liberal positivism is shining brassily, casting no shadow.
Well, what are some examples of the “intolerant certainty”? (Wood gives none.) And what, exactly, is so bad about it being noon and sunny and all? More often atheists are accused of having a bleak world view, of demolishing religion but replacing it with nothing positive. Well, at least Wood gets our humanism right, though he apparently sees it as a failing.
Although these are serious charges, Wood fails to provide any examples of the dogmatism and intolerance of the new atheists, or of the “inadequacies” of their discussion of faith. His arguments against us, then, are merely assertions, unsupported with evidence.
In contrast, Wood provides many quotes from theologians and believers like Eagleton, hanging them with their own words. Indeed, his critique of this side is far more trenchant. The believers (and their running-dog faitheists) are accused of:
a. Ignoring the fact that the faith of many religious people hinges critically on the truth of religious claims. Religion isn’t just a philosophical exercise.
Of course, the truth claims of religious beliefs are precisely what the new atheists so loudly dispute. If all Eagleton can now say to them is that their lives are the “poorer” for not responding to a moving “political and historical” allegory, he is just being finely sentimental. He might as well have written a book about Anton Chekhov or Walter Benjamin.
b. Claiming that, despite dismissing the need for evidence, they somehow know the nature of God:
[Eagleton says} God “hates burn offerings and acts of smug self-righteousness, is the enemy of idols, fetishes, and graven images of all kinds — gods, churches, ritual sacrifice, the Stars and Stripes.” Well, how convenient. Quite apart from the awkward fact that the God of the Hebrew Bible clearly enjoys the right kind of burn offerings (after the Flood, Noah’s smelled particularly agreeable to Him), one wonders how Eagleton can possibly know that his spectral and not-of-this-world God is also an unneurotic aesthete who may regret His creation, and dislikes the Stars and Stripes.
c. Espousing a faith so rarefied that hardly anybody else shares it. (This is something I’ve been harping on for ages.)
It is no good for Eagleton to turn on [John] Rawls and say, in effect, “But I don’t mean your kind of belief in God, or even your kind of God; I mean something much more sophisticated and ethereal. There is really no such thing as what you call ‘the supremacy of the divine will,’ because God doesn’t ‘exist’ as an entity in the world.” Theologians and priests are always changing the game in this way. They accuse atheists of wanting to murder an overliteral God, while they themselves keep alive a rarefied God whom no one, other than them, actually believes in.
But what does Wood see as the solution to a debate whose antipodes are both inadequate? Simply this:
What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.
In other words, we need to express sadness that there is no God. That will make the atheists acceptable to the believers (NOT!). In this synthesis, Wood sees the atheists being less afraid “to credit the immense allure of religious tradition,” but who among us has ever done that? On the contrary, most atheists freely admit that religions and their traditions have considerable allure. But admitting that is not the same as saying that religious beliefs are facts. And on that point the gulf is unbridgeable. That is why Wood’s solution, like that of Steve Gould’s NOMA, fails miserably.