More readers of Andrew Sullivan go after Michael Robbins’s Sophisticated Theology

August 17, 2014 • 12:23 pm

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.

Reader 1:

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 threepart 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.

64 thoughts on “More readers of Andrew Sullivan go after Michael Robbins’s Sophisticated Theology

  1. Old atheist, new atheist. When I was ten years old I realized there was no god. In popular religious nomenclature, that labels me an atheist. It does not give me great pride nor shame, it is as much a part of who I am as any part of my personality.

    1. “… it is as much a part of who I am as any part of my personality.”

      I’m not sure I’d personally go that far. If a good argument or convincing case could be made for at least one god – or at least for something like a god – I’d drop the atheism position and adopt at least one form of theism. It’s no more a part of who I am or a part of my personality than Boyle’s Law or deontological approaches to morality are. The way I see it, it’s entirely a question of rational inquiry.

        1. What? It’s hardly good rational form to say nothing’ll convince you that at least one god exists, is it? Something like a thousand-year-old superhuman called Odin would count.

          If you’re wondering about arguments from the armchair, just add “a good argument involving evidence” to my statement.

            1. Because they might point out something about what we know (e.g. better explain the evidence), like a rival scientific theory/hypothesis would, I guess?

              I agree a lot of “arguments for god” are a combination of circular, arbitrary, unsupported, and just plain unsound, but I’d hesitate to say I’d dismiss them out of hand. That seems too uncritical.

              1. In the sense that you could address “religious” phenomena like saviours walking on water, visions being real, people being born via parthenogenesis, individuals having superhuman powers, etc., with a scientific approach, yes.

                Metaphysics, I’m less sure of. I guess it could be done, but I haven’t been fully persuaded.

                In the sense that a faith-based method could be considered scientific, no.

              2. I didn’t know there were such a thing as religious phenomena.

                It must be an exciting field. 🙂

              3. I’m not saying such things actually exist. I’m saying that, if they did, then that would be within the purview of science and reason.

                More broadly, I’m saying critical thinking, reason, and science are brought to bear whenever someone makes a religious claim. My point is that I’m absolutely not saying a theist’s arguments should be presumed to be incorrect and dismissed out of hand simply because they’re theists or religious (unless they’re already refuted arguments, of course), as that’s not appropriate scepticism and intellectual argument. That’s dogmatic and unsporting, and science, reason, etc. are better intellectual tools than this. Do you understand where I’m coming from?

              4. I must admit I don’t see where your coming from.

                Logic is by and large a lingual exercise, in my book.

                Good math on the other hand… 🙂

              5. That’s fair enough. I concede quiscalus below puts it better than I do. I never wanted to mean that sophistry like the ontological argument would convince me, and I apologise for not making that clear.

              6. No apologies necessary. 🙂

                I guess I’m nearing an 8 on the Dawkins scale.

                It’s been 3.6 billion years and not a shred of evidence.

                To be honest I’ve grown tired of waiting.

                It continues to amaze me that all other non-believers doesn’t feel the same….but that’s just like my opinion, man.

      1. As I understood your post, you would probably put yourself at 6 on the Dawkins Belief Scale, and that if evidence, proof, whatever you want to call it, were to be uncovered (not just “revealed”) then you would take stock of that evidence and argument for the existence of a god and make an informed decision. or am I misreading it?

        The same (or at least similar) requirements would be needed to convince me of the existence of a living Ivory-billed Woodpecker, C. megalodon, big foot or what have you, excepting that I would be thrilled to have proof of the existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker! A god would be a most disappointing outcome of scientific and rational exploration.

        1. Yes, you are correct. Though it depends on the god. I’d put myself on a 7 for any god whose definition logically contradicted itself.

          1. In my case it was because my mom wanted a good name to yell when I was being naughty. If she calls me Tom, I’m being good, if she uses my full name, I’m being bad.

  2. For the benefit of busy readers who don’t wish to suffer the numbing fate of me and others who actually read his articles and the ensuing discussion, I’ve made a summary of Michael Robbins’ ideas about atheism:

    “I spent several years reading lots of books about philosophy and I’m not gonna let you atheists steal my thunder with your blunt observations about the sheer absurdity and falsity of theism. There are thousands of interesting, complicated sentences we can be writing and reading instead of making straightforward observations about the nonsensical, ignorant beliefs of 99.9999% of theists. That’s way too relevant, way too easy, the kind of thing you don’t even need a college degree to do. Let’s talk about that other 0.0001% and the obscurantist theological sleights that they don’t even understand or believe in themselves. If you don’t wanna man up and show some humanities™ street cred, then you’re not cool like me and your poetry probably sucks too.”

    1. Thank you for saving me from what would have been a Herculean trial!

      Sorry if this breaks the Roolz, but it seems clear to me that the bloke is a pretentious f**kwit. No matter how sophisticated his arguments, they’re not going to change that he’s arguing from a false premise.

      If you take the Ground of Being argument to it’s ultimate conclusion it seems to me you’re actually left with there being no god anyway.

      1. I’ve never understood the “Ground of Being” argument. It’s always explained in such a way that makes me think that the theist is just making things up. If you’re just going to make up a god why not make it a better god than what’s in the bible?

        So says an ordained minister of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I have the certificate on my desk at work, if you have a spare $20 ($30 international) I recommend getting one. It will let you marry people in ~45 states.

          1. Yes.

            Although there are 5 states in America that require extra paperwork in order to conduct weddings.

            I’ve decided to be a reform pastafarian as opposed to an orthodox one because I don’t want to buy a nice pirate costume. I’m fine with just a colander on my head. FYI, a 5 quart colander was a bit big for my head. You really should go try on colanders instead of just ordering one from Amazon.

        1. Because the reason they’re making up the new non-god is that they recognize the characteristics of the traditional gods open those gods up to falsifiability.

          They’re trying to make god as inconspicuous as possible. A crazy new superhero god would very conspicuous, and very easy to disprove.

  3. Oh well, I suppose the coining of a widely used neologism, even uncredited, is a mitzvah.

    If it cannot be characterised as a bar or a bat, could it be a cat mitzvah (lit. cat commandment)?

  4. I’m still not sure I would call the god of some sophisticated theologians God. The god produced is so ephemeral and has so little connection with what the definition of God is for about 99.9 percent of people that I have a hard time considering it God. Taking something and then sticking a well known label on it doesn’t make it that thing. Calling something like the Ground of Being God doesn’t make it so any more that calling creationism a science makes creationism a science. That is why I don’t care to refute them.

    I still don’t understand how such alleged gods are even worthy of worship.

    1. What makes even less sense is that even those sophisticated theologians normally adhere to one specific religion- mostly christianity. So the supreme creator is an unfathomable, surreal entity which nonetheless became human, turned water into wine, got tortured to death but stood up again, and all this because the supreme GoB can’t forgive its creation for being what it is.

    2. It’s like me saying “I don’t like this game called tennis” and then some sophisticated tennologian comes up and says “Stop attacking this easy-meat fundamentalist tennis where everything is about hitting a ball with a racket over a net in attempt to get it past another person and reach a score of 40 before they do! You need to understand tennis properly before you can criticise it; here, engage with my highly rarefied intellectual game of “Ground of Tennis” in which one simply places any spherical object on a table and appreciates its perfect ball-ness and attempts to ascertain the interrelated ball-ness of all spheroids.”

      Obviously, if we’re just discussing balls, we’re not talking about effing tennis anymore – and you, my dear sohpistry-coated spherologian, are just talking bollocks.

  5. Robbins:
    They therefore have a responsibility to address the best cases for God, not the dullest.

    The evidence that is not there for simplistic conceptions of God is also not there for the sophisticated conceptions of God. Don’t be such a lard arse. Read actively for heavens sake and use opposing views as an honest challenge and a chance to try sincerely to get closer to the truth.

  6. One might say Jerry Coyned the phrase “Sophisticated Theologians.” Eh? Eh?

    Thank you folk’s, I’ll be here randomly throughout the next several days.

  7. It been my contention for a long time that the craft of the theologian is spinning horseshit into gold. The intellectual hoops they jump through to justify their positions are nothing short of amazing

  8. It’s always “the best argument” or the “best case for god.” Never the best evidence for god. The STs try to create a logical argument for god, but, without evidence to support it (and especially in the face of evidence against it), even the most logical argument doesn’t prove anything.

    1. DrBrydon: Exactly so. I consider myself an atheist, but I’m a scientist, so if someone could show me some evidence (data) that supports the view that there are gods, I’d certainly consider it. If all they can do is say it’s a clever philosophical view that ground beings run the universe, I pretty much ignore them.

  9. I think the most admirable part of Sullivan’s commitment to posting reader dissent on his website, is that he not only picks truly good ones to post, but also that he frequently posts them without “trying to get the last word in”.

    It’d be easy for him to pick easier counter-arguments to refute, and then beat them up for a while using his platform – but he doesn’t.

    Ceiling Cat knows I disagree with a lot of Sully’s views (especially on religious matters, where his sharp intellect tends to turn mushy), but he knows that too, and doesn’t hide from it. I respect him for that.

    1. Yes, Sullivan is very good and fair about presenting opinions that are contrary to those of his own or some other person’s that he has presented, and I admire him for it. I think in his case he is absolutely right not to let all the comments through, since his blog or website would be inundated with hate mail, directed at him personally. I was very angry with his support for the Iraq war and his attacks on opponents of it, and am not fond of his catholicism or some of his political beliefs, but his blog, or website, is in the main an interesting one.

    1. According to that font of wisdom, wikipedia, it was Camus’ publisher, Michel Gallimard who was the driver. I’ve always been fond of Camus’ brand of philosophical absurdism and I find it a bit odd that so few other atheists appreciate it (Dawkins heartily disagrees with it, for instance). But regardless of your opinion on him, I highly recommend Sean B. Carroll’s book and about Camus and Monod, “Brave Genius:A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventure from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize”, it is a fantastic read.

  10. To put it simply, it never made sense to me why anybody thought you couldn’t lack faith without being a pessimist about it. (So much negative in that sentence!)

    As if it weren’t strange enough to chide atheists for not being as morose as Nietzsche at the “death of God,” I’m given to understand that Nietzsche believed Christians made God up anyway. So it is not exactly a tactic that casts Christians, or God, in a persuasive light. Why aren’t we distraught at the loss of what is essentially an imaginary friend? It’s because people learn to become self-sufficient after they lose their imaginary friends. I expect Nietzsche would have enjoyed that result.

    Nietzsche was – quite condescendingly – concerned that the masses would be chaotic and miserable without the moral authority of an omnipotent God to guide (or terrorize) them. We’ve had more than a hundred years now to test that fear across the globe, and it turns out that where secularism has steadily risen, so has quality of life. It seems his fear, like those of modern day Evangelicals warning that less God will doom us all, was mistaken.

    1. It’s interesting that many evangelicals go out of their way to justify Nietzche’s condescension, going as far as to say in as many words that without their faith in Jesus they personally would be out rapin’ n’ killin’ n’ takin’ all the drugs and stealin’ from their neighbours. Messrs Comfort and Hovind the Younger are both on record expressing exactly those sentiments; I recognise that they may well be bollocking on for the rubes, but even if they are they’re doing so in the knowledge that they’re reflecting beliefs known to be held by their target audience.

  11. I sent the Dish an email dissenting to Robbins’ rebuttal post, and copied it to a comment on the previous post on this subject at this website. The point I made in that email was not included in the Dish’s “dissents” post, so I sent them another email:
    Dear Dish,

    I’ve sent several dissents and rarely get one acknowledged, which doesn’t surprise me because I’m not a very good writer, but I was surprised not to see part of my dissent against Robbins’s rebuttal used – not necessarily in my words since I can’t have been the only one who noticed it:

    “… By the way, the phrase attributed to Dennett above* is from “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life” and is Dennett quoting Hume in response to an old theistic argument that only intelligence can create intelligence. I found that out in a few minutes by Googling Daniel Dennett plus the phrase. Mr. Robbins really should read and understand arguments before he responds to them – don’t you think?”

    * Which was, “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.”

    In other words, after making a big deal in his rebuttal about others not reading and/or not understanding what he said, he misquotes Dennett on something he (or the Dish for that matter) could have easily checked.

    When something that is incorrect and slanderous is published, isn’t it the proper journalistic response to issue a correction? Did I miss one?
    —end of email—-

    Now they have published a follow-up and again ignored this point. Discouraging, as I thought it reveals something about Robbins’ scholarship as well as corrects a misrepresentation of Dennett. Perhaps I was too snarky and offended them.

  12. Of course! God is unfathomable when you need him to be, and personal when you need that. It turns out God is infinitely malleable.

    1. It may be difficult for an ineffable ground of being; Being the ground of reality means you cannot be reality yourself, so you can only communicate in metaphors.

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