Ian S. Markham argues that the new atheists just don’t get it.
I once asked a group of Tanzania Christian pastors in Dodoma Tanzania, “Do you ever doubt the truth of Christianity?” Their answer indicated that there was general agreement that “doubt” was an issue, but it took a particular form. For these well-educated, technologically savvy (they all had cell-phones), pastors, doubt does not touch the reality of the religious dimension or the spiritual realm. No one was tempted by scientific reductionism. Instead, in the battle between “spiritism” and “christianity”, they did as pastors sometimes do, doubt the Christian claim that Jesus has the victory over the “principalities and powers”. In a world where the “curse” is feared, the strength of Jesus to resist that “curse” is a real issue.
In parts of Europe and some of the urban centers in the United States, “doubt” takes a more regular form. Here the pervasive achievement of science is much more obvious. Here the narrative of the God explanation has over the last four hundred years been steadily undermined by physics, chemistry, and biology (and the concept of providence has been challenged by political science and modern historical methods). For persons in this arena, “doubt” is the sense that the religious realm is a complete illusion.
This difference is well known. It is yet another illustration of the ways in which our setting, immediate history, and conversation partners are such major factors in our worldview. Live in the world of biology, be a member of an Oxford college in an increasingly secular England, it is likely you will look at the world like Richard Dawkins. Live nearer the land, appreciate the vulnerability of being in a Tanzanian village, then it is likely you will look at the world like a syncretistic animist Christian.
Tempting though it is to stop the conversation there, and surrender to relativism, this is not necessary. Instead we are forced to recognize the “rootedness” of knowing. Appreciating different worldviews is hard work; and it requires patient listening and empathy. We are, as Alasdair MacIntyre observed, “tradition-constituted”, and yet also able to engage across traditions to grow into a greater appreciation of the truth about the world.
It is interesting how “atheism” has never really caught on. The few who articulate the worldview have the feel of the blind person who cannot appreciate colours. To those inside the faith fold, there is a strange disconnect with experience and the atheistic arguments. And the atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris is especially odd. It is clearly a “middle-class” atheism; it assumes a western worldview. It treats religion as if it is no more than a belief in some sort of add-on object, when faith claims religion in so much more.
There are three problems with this sort of atheism. The first is that the fellow-atheists don’t find it convincing. Nietzsche understood the significance of religion in the world. For Nietzsche, once God goes, many other things go. Truth, Nietzsche points out, depends on the intelligibility of the universe; yet once God goes, intelligibility goes, and therefore truth is undermined. For Nietzsche, moral language is clearly grounded in the transcendent, so once the transcendent goes, the moral needs to be redefined. Our trinity of atheists doesn’t want to go there: so the implications of atheism are totally ignored.
The second is that the science of our modern day atheists sounds almost metaphysical. This comes out most clearly when Richard Dawkins discusses the debates in astrophysics around the “anthropic principle”. Dawkins concedes the data – it is clear that the emergence of life here in this universe is heavily dependent on a multitude of factors that statistically are so completely improbable. Dawkins opts for the skeptical alternative – the multiverse theory. This states that along with this vast universe (and it really is extremely big), there are billions of other universes. Most of these universes do not generate life, but we just happen to be in the one that does. Once upon a time, it was only religious people who believed in more than one universe – this one, heaven, and hell; now atheists have billions upon billions of universes. Given the choice of theism or the multiverse theory for the remarkable math of this universe, the multiverse theory is a stretch and certainly sounds almost “religious”.
The third is that the nature of faith is not understood. And perhaps this is inevitable because you do have to be inside to know this. Faith is analogous to sight. I completely understand why blind people are skeptical about colours – seeing people disagree about what colour is what, the inability for seeing people to explain what colours are exactly, and therefore there is no decisive argument for colour. However, those of us who experience colours know that they are there (and granted, philosophically that is a contentious statement). By analogy, the gift of faith is learned. In this respect the disciples of Wittgenstein are right. We learn the language of faith. We learn to see the world through the lens of faith. nd in so doing, there are countless mutually confirming experiences of faith.
Atheism is an interesting conversation partner for faith. And atheists do serve an important purpose when they draw attention to the hypocrisy and damage that many religions inflict. However, in the end, atheism is probably a less significant conversation partner than the “spiritism” conversation in Tanzania. The future lies with people who can see. The question is how can we interweave the various descriptions of the spiritual realm together?
The Very Reverend Ian S. Markham is the author of Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris Are Fundamentally Wrong (Wiley-Blackwell) and Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary