The Undead God

An excerpt from John Haught's God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens:

I must confess that it has been disappointing for me to have witnessed the recent surge of interest in atheism. It’s not that my own livelihood, that of a theologian, is at stakealthough the authors in question would fervently wish that it were so. Nor is it that the treatment of religion in these tracts consists mostly of breezy over-generalizations that leave out almost everything that theologians would want to highlight in their own contemporary discussion of God. Rather, the new atheism is simply unchallenging theologically. Its engagement with theology lies at about the same level of reflection on faith that one can find in contemporary creationist and fundamentalist literature.

Clearly the new atheists’ strategy is to suppress in effect any significant theological voices that might wish to join in conversation with them. As a result of this exclusion, the intellectual quality of their atheism is unnecessarily diminished. Their understanding of religious faith remains consistently at the same unscholarly level as the unreflective, superstitious, and literalist religiosity of those they criticize. Even though the new atheists reject the God of creationists, fundamentalists, terrorists, and “intelligent design” (ID) advocates, it is not without interest that they have decided to debate with these extremists rather than with any major theologians.

This choice of antagonists betrays their unconscious privileging of literalist and conservative versions of religious thought over the more traditionally mainstream types. The new atheists are saying in effect that if God exists at all, we should allow this God’s identity to be determined once and for all by the fundamentalists of the Abrahamic religious traditions. I believe they have chosen this strategy not only to make their job of demolition easier, but also because they have a barely disguised admiration for the simplicity of their opponents’ views of reality.

In preparing treatises on a-theism, one would expect that scholars and journalists would have done some research on theism, just to be sure they know exactly what it is they are rejecting. It is hard to be an informed and consistent atheist without knowing something about theology. And yet, aside from several barbed references, there is no sign of any real contact between the new atheists and theology at all, let alone studious investigation. This circumvention is comparable to creationists rejecting evolution without ever having taken a course in biology. They just know there’s something wrong with those crazy Darwinian fantasies. So the new atheists just know there is something sick and delusional about theology. There is no need to look at it up close. Furthermore, conversation with theologians, most of whom are not biblical literalists, would add a dimension of intricacy to the new atheist literature that would detract from the breeziness that sells books. Ignorance of theology simplifies the new atheists’ attacks on their equally uninformed religious adversaries. It allows their critique to match, point for point, the fundamentalism it is trying to eliminate.

(Hat tip: Bookforum)