On January 8 I discussed a review by Michael Robbins in Slate of Molly Worthens’s, book Apostles of Reason, a history of modern evangelical Christianity. As I wrote at the time, Robbins didn’t review the book so much as use it as a club to bash us “ignorant atheists.” As I said in that post (my words are in Roman type, Robbins’s in italics):
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.
It’s the same tired old canard we keep seeing: the new “modern” atheists are simply ignorant, construing religion as fundamentalism and not seeing the subtle nuances of faith as espoused by Sophisticated Theologians™ like David Bentley Hart and Thomas Eagleton. Yet regardless of nuance, sophistication, subtlety, and apophatism, the question remains in the room like the Big Unexplained Elephant: “How do you theists know that?” Where is evidence for what they claim? And why is so churlish for us to ask for it?
Robbins, as far as I can tell, is not formally trained in either theology or biology, but he is a celebrated poet (see this article in the New York Times). Well more power to him as a poet, for he has no skills in atheist bashing—or, apparently, in theology. For in his new article in Slate, “Know Nothing” (subtitled “The true history of atheism”), he pulls the same misguided stunts he did before: purporting to review a book and then talking not about the book, but the stupidity of New Atheists. If he actually had something new to say, that would be one thing, but he doesn’t. This is the kind of piece that belongs in the atheist-bashing Salon, not the more respectable Slate. It’s simply recycled atheist-bashing.
Robbins’s thesis is, as it was last time, that New Atheists are crazy to think that religion is about factual claims, and that, in reality, it’s all metaphor. We need to go back to those good old days of the Church Fathers like Aquinas, Augustine, and Origen, none of whom, he argues, saw the Bible as something meant literally. Further, atheists simply aren’t dolorous enough about our nonbelief; Like Nietzsche, we should be mourning the death of God, which takes away from us a grounded morality, and one that we haven’t replaced it with a solid secularly-based morality. We lack gravitas.
The book Robbins is reviewing, or rather ignoring, is this one, which came out July 3 (click cover for Amazon link):
It doesn’t seem to be doing all that well, with a rank of 21,552 this morning at a ranking of #28 in the “atheism” category.
Anyway, here’s Robbin’s major points that he makes in his “review”:
1. Atheists are a bunch of morons, especially Dawkins, me, and the “pop-cosmologist” Lawrence Krauss. That’s because we are intellectually lazy and haven’t taken the trouble to really understand religion. He drags me in twice, obviously butthurt that I sent after him before, and lumps us all as “evangelical atheists,” which simply means that we’re passionate about our ideas. Have you ever heard someone describe as “an evangelical Democrat”? To wit:
Several critics have noted that if evangelical atheists (as the philosopher John Gray calls them) are ignorant of religion, as they usually are, then they aren’t truly atheists. “The knowledge of contraries is one and the same,” as Aristotle said. If your idea of God is not one that most theistic traditions would recognize, you’re not talking about God (at most, the New Atheists’ arguments are relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and deism). But even more damning is that such atheists appear ignorant of atheism as well.
For atheists weren’t always as intellectually lazy as Dawkins and his ilk. (Nor, to be sure, are many atheists today—Coyne accused me of “atheist-bashing” the last time I wrote about religion for Slate, but I really only bashed evangelical atheists like him. My father and sister, most of my friends, and many of the writers I most admire are nonbelievers. They’re also unlikely to mistake the creation myth recounted above for anything more than the dreariest parascientific thinking.)
LOL: “Some of my best friends are atheists”! This implies, by the way, that Robbins is a believer, for he doesn’t include himself in the list (see photo at bottom). That brings us to the next claim.
2. Religion isn’t about epistemic claims. Robbins’s whole theme is that scientists have no business attacking religion because, á la Gould, religion and science occupy different spheres. Religion doesn’t make reality statements that can be tested. In fact, Robbins has his own definition of religion that completely insulates it from empirical and rational examination:
A formal definition of religion is notoriously difficult to formulate, but it must surely involve reference to a particular way of life, practices oriented toward a conception of how one should live. “You must change your life,” as the broken statue of the god Apollo seems to say in Rilke’s poem. Science does not—it isn’t designed to—recommend approaches to what Emerson calls “the conduct of life.” Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins claims that religion “is a scientific theory,” “a competing explanation for facts about the universe and life.” This is—if you’ll forgive my theological jargon—bullshit.
. . . Nor is the existence of God a scientific proposition: “Christians aren’t talking about a math problem, they’re talking about a Person. And in the vast experience of people who claim to have had a genuine encounter with the Personality called Christ, there are certain things that are involved, such as willingness [and] humility.”
What? How does Robbin’s definition of religion differ from moral philosophy, or any kind of life guidelines? What’s clearly missing there is any notion of a deity, of the supernatural, of a being that wants praise and propitiation, and can reward and punish you. I much prefer Dan Dennett’s defintion in Breaking the Spell:
Religions are “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”
with the addition that the Abrahamic faiths, about which Robbins is writing, also posit that one often has a personal relationship with the deity, and that the deity has a certain approved moral code, which comes with reward for obedience and punishment for disobedience. This is the first time, in fact, I’ve seen someone define religion without mentioning supernatural powers or deities.
Robbins does this, of course, to make fun of us stupid New Atheists for seeing see religion as a hypothesis: as a set of claims about what exists that are, in principle, testable or susceptible to reason. And if they’re not, then there’s no reason to accept them. But if religion is just a “way of life,” like secular humanism, then Robbins exempts religion from rational scrutiny.
Robbins of course is dead wrong here, for the vast majority of believers (well over 90% in the U.S.) believe not only in God, but in a personal theistic God, and about 70% of all Americans believe in things like Heaven, Hell, Jesus’s divinity, and so on.
To show this, I reproduce the Nicene Creed, with the epistemic claims highlighted in bold. What part of those claims are metaphorical, Mr. Robbins? Do recall that this creed is recited millions of times a week, by both regular believers and Sophisticated Theolgians™:
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
But to Robbins, the views of the vast majority of religious people are irrelevant. What matters is what the church fathers thought, which brings us to the third claim:
3. The church fathers like Augustine and Aquinas saw scripture as metaphorical. Therefore, things like the Genesis story and creation were never taken seriously until recently. This is getting to be a very common claim (see my recent piece on Denis Alexander, who said the same thing), and it’s dead wrong. But first, Robbins’s assertions:
Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism.
. . . To be sure, several scriptures offer, for instance, their own accounts of creation. But Christians have recognized the allegorical nature of these accounts since the very beginnings of Christianity. Basil, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine—they all assumed that God’s creation was eternal, not something that unfolded in six days or any other temporal frame. In the third century Origen of Alexandria wrote:
To what person of intelligence, I ask, will the account seem logically consistent that says there was a “first day” and a “second” and “third,” in which also “evening” and “morning” are named, without a sun, without a moon, and without stars, and even in the case of the first day without a heaven (Gen. 1:5-13)? …. Surely, I think no one doubts that these statements are made by Scripture in the form of a type by which they point toward certain mysteries.
Well, no one but Richard Dawkins. As Marilynne Robinson writes:
The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading of them at all. . .
Robbins quotes Spencer’s book approvingly (Spencer’s words):
The creation myth in which a few brave souls forged weapons made of a previously unknown material, to which the religious were relentlessly opposed, is an invention of the later nineteenth century, albeit one with ongoing popular appeal.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep.
. . . O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.
Is that “furnace of wrath” only a metaphor for “removal from God”? I don’t think so. Hell as a literal place of eternal fiery torment is not a 20th-century invention.
And even if the Church fathers did see everything metaphorically, which of course they didn’t, who cares? Who says that their interpretation of the Bible is the right one? I should have said “interpretations” in the plural, because of course all Christian denominations differ in how they interpret scripture. If you’re a literalist, there are far fewer ways: the Flood was a flood, and only eight people and a couple individuals of each “kind” survived it. What we should deal with is what kind of religion is on tap in our era, for that’s the version that does the harm (and perhaps a soupçon of good). Nobody, especially Robbins, can claim that the scriptural interpretations of the Church Fathers were the right ones. And of course he distorts what those Church Fathers said.
4. You can’t fathom religion until you’re a believer. That’s a trope taken from David Bentley Hart. Robbins quotes with approval a statement by someone named “Saint Cecilia,” who comments on Richard Dawkins’s website (her words):
If someone is really interested in whether or not God exists, I’d say the best way is to have a little humility and experiment, with an open mind and heart, with the paths that Christians have claimed take you directly to him, in the ways that have worked. If someone isn’t willing to do such a thing, and insists that a discussion about painting be one about mathematics, then the conversation isn’t going to go anywhere.
Yes, you can’t criticize any belief until you’ve actually believed it yourself. I needn’t refute that, for it refutes itself. If you’re not willing to write a novel, you can’t be a literary critic. If you’re not willing to don a sheet and burn crosses, you can’t criticize the Klan. It’s ludicrous.
I see this is running on, so I’ll end with Robbin’s other claim, one that we all know well:
5. Atheists aren’t serious and dolorous enough. The words are familiar: whatever happened to the really serious atheists like Nietzsche—the ones who fully grasped the message of atheism and its dire implications for the human condition? Now those were atheists!!!
Nietzsche’s atheism is far from exultant—he is not crowing about the death of God, much as he despises Christianity. He understands how much has been lost, how much there is to lose.
. . . Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority of the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem.)
. . . The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments.
Wrong again. Morality exists because a). we’ve evolved to have feelings of right and wrong and b). on top of our evolved emotions is overlain a veneer of secular morality derived from our preferences about how we should behave if we want a fair and harmonious society. As for us not being miserable and serious enough, life is too short, and there’s nowhere to go after it’s over. Many of us are perfectly happy with a secular morality, and don’t spend time bawling about its supposed “metaphysical grounding.”
I could go on, but the ground is familiar and leads nowhere. And you’ve seen these arguments before. What I want to convey is the frequent and palpably false claim that scriptural literalism is a 20th century invention, a kind of interpretation scorned by Church Fathers. That’s refuted by the merest investigation of the history of theology. (I’m not mentioning Islam here, but of course that’s about as fundamentalist as it comes, and not just in in the 20th century.)
Robbins ends his piece with a Gouldian call for comity and dialogue:
This spirit of invitation and inquiry is far from gullible, a calumny better directed at the evangelical-atheist faithful who thoughtlessly parrot what Emerson called “the tune of the time.” Again, the point is not whether God does or does not exist, but that, as Cecilia writes elsewhere in the thread, “Everyone is talking past each other and no one seems to be elevating the conversation to where it could and should be.”
And where, exactly, should the conversation be?
What Robbins doesn’t realize is that the point really is whether God does or does not exist, along with Jesus, Muhammed, Moroni, Xenu, Brahma, and the rest. If there is no God, then religion loses its point, and theology has no subject. The reason scientists and rationalists are talking past theologians and believers is because the religious keep shuffling sideways, trying to avoid admitting that their faith rests on claims about reality. Until they do that, there is no conversation, and nonbelief wins by default.
Here’s Robbins showing his faith:
I think the reason people like Robbins hate us so much is because we’ve got them dead to rights, asking them to give us reasons for what they believe. That’s a perfectly fair question. But they have no answer save wish-thinking, indoctrination, and revelation. They know that, and, to avoid having to give us evidence and reasons, they simply strike out at atheists like a bunch of petulant children.
UPDATE: I have an angry comment from Robbins that arrived just minutes after I posted this: he must troll the Internet for mentions of his name. Here is what he said:
That’s a Converge t-shirt depicting the porn star Traci Lords I’m wearing there, genius. Converge is a hardcore/metal band I wrote about in the May issue of Harper’s. They’re very atheistic. And the shirt is a parody of a Sonic Youth cover. Yep, I believe in God, but you’re not gonna prove it by noting that my author photo shows me wearing a fucking atheist metal band’s t-shirt. L. O. L.
I’m a Christian leftist who writes about metal. Totally comfortable with atheism. You really, truly need to distinguish between “allegory” & “metaphor.”
He doesn’t seem to realize that I was joking about the teeshirt, since it shows someone with a halo, although he did implicitly admit he was a believer. Robbins clearly isn’t totally comfortable with atheism, or he wouldn’t spend so much time dissing it. Further, he really has no sense of humor, despite his attempt at parody. I’ve banned him for Roolz violations: name-calling. Let him take out after me in his next misguided Slate column. And I’d simply love to hear his evidence for God, and why he thinks Christianity is a better religion than, say, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism.
Oh, and here’s how I know I’m on the side of the angels (if you’ll excuse the metaphor):