Friday, October 24, 2008

Theology and its Discontents

I was spending some time in the College Bar last night after dinner, sipping on cheap beer and avoiding the inevitable trip back to my room to begin reading the eight books on or by Alexis de Tocqueville that I just took out from the library. Someone mentioned that Oxford's own Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and atheist polemicist, had been upstairs just recently in our college's Senior Common Room. (Dawkins was educated at Oxford, and he's a professorial fellow at New College, which is another constituent college just down the road from ours.) We began talking about Dawkins' particular style of atheism, one which has been popularly dubbed "neo-atheism" and is seen in the writings of Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (also an Oxford grad - but who's counting?)

If you regularly read this blog, or know me well, you'll probably know that I share almost no philosophical or theological ground with these writers. But a disagreement on the existence of God or the validity of religion isn't what repels me. It's their very style - the tendency to conflate Falwell-esque foolishness with rational faith; their denunciations of belief as inherently stupid; their almost - dare I say it - fundamentalist  approach to any opposing ideas - that really turns me off. I had the opportunity to see Alistair McGrath, himself a scientist of some distinction (holding a D.Phil from Oxford in molecular biophysics) who also holds a Doctorate of Divinity from this institution for his work in systematic theology. He was at Oxford for many years, and only recently left to take a chair in Theology, Education, and Ministry at University College London. Needless to say, he's distinguished himself brilliantly in two fields that are often viewed as naturally opposing one another, and there are few - if any - scholars alive today who have done more important work on systematic theology and science and religion.

Hitchens himself is a noted public intellectual, and I enjoy his writing immensely. I was expecting a much better debate than the one I saw. 

What I saw was Dr. McGrath offering nuanced, thoughtful statements that wrestled deeply with the various problems of faith and rationality - and aside from a brilliant opening statement, I saw Hitchens offer almost nothing in response but glib remarks that bordered on rudeness. It was a far cry from the famed BBC debates between Bertrand Russell and Fr. Copleston. 

This, it seems to me, is the primary problem of neo-atheism: it simply doesn't take opposing ideas seriously. It looks at thousands of years of accumulated thought from some of the most brilliant minds that ever put pen to paper -- and it dismisses them with a sneering laugh, wondering how anyone functioning at a basic level of intelligence could ever believe such drivel. The utter contempt with which neo-atheists enter the marketplace of ideas is certainly marketable - their books have been met with big sales numbers, and their debates bring huge lines of people to watch - but it is beneath the formidable intellects of the thinkers involved. What I saw from Christopher Hitchens was a debate performance that could have been given by someone of a much lesser intellect, and this case was by no means an isolated one. 

As I expressed these thoughts at the table, I was met with some friendly criticism from others who - perhaps sharing some of the ideological leanings of Dr. Dawkins - remarked that while their style was perhaps impolitic, the ideas the neo-atheists were promoting were essentially valid, or at least important. I must reject this argument, because it seems to me that style is paramount in this case: after all, in what other circumstances would Dawkins reach such a wide audience and prove so popular? Certainly a nuanced, academic attack on faith would never become a best-seller, and a healthy respect for the other side is never a good marketing ploy. 

No, the neo-atheists are popular almost exclusively because of their style - their arguments are important, sure, but they've been made before - and more convincingly, I might add. Since style is at the core of their appeal, their vitriol cannot simply be regarded as a political problem, or a question of their "image." It is their defining attribute, and it serves the debate very poorly.

That, of course, is to ignore the other relevant criticism of Dawkins: he doesn't have the slightest clue what he is talking about. The most brilliant illustration of this point is Terry Eagleton's much-cited takedown of The God Delusion in The London Review of Books - the full article is here, and I'd encourage you to read it. On theology, Eagleton notes:
Now it may well be that all this is no more plausible than the tooth fairy. Most reasoning people these days will see excellent grounds to reject it. But critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook. The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism.  
Put simply: for better or worse, the burden of proof is on the critics. 

The most interesting critique of Eagleton's piece that came up in our discussion was a rejection of Eagleton's premise: Dawkins doesn't have to be well-versed in theology because he is not rejecting aspects of it, but theology as such. Saying, as Eagleton does, that you can imagine what it's like to read Dawkins on theology if you read someone "holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds," is therefore an invalid analogy.

This is an interesting argument, but it ultimately rings hollow. Even when avoiding the important moral and intellectual question of the "obligations" of someone entering a debate, I find that the flaws with the argument are obvious. One cannot dismiss theology as such - not just its claims, but the ontological nature of the discipline - while simultaneously being fundamentally ignorant of what its essential claims are. A life of faith may be possible for everyone, but that doesn't mean that theology is essentially an amateur's pasttime. Rejecting the entirety of metaphysical speculation simply because it is metaphysical speculation requires a spectacular lack of imagination and a spectacular abundance of arrogance. "This is why," Eagleton writes, "they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince."

So, in the end, we are back to style. The style of the neo-atheists can be summed up thusly:
1.) Attack the caricature (which the neo-atheist has himself constructed) of religious faith
2.) Respond to criticism by saying that attacking anything besides the caricature would grant legitimacy to an area of metaphysical speculation that is inherently invalid.
Hasn't style revealed substance? Isn't there something quite striking about the reluctance to engage faith in the real, rational, loving, intelligent forms we so often find it? In the end, saying that theology in and of itself is a pointless, misguided exercise is unprovable. As Kant would point out, it is something that we posit even though its answer is outside the realm of our experience. To believe such a statement requires, in a word, faith. 


Hoya in Doha said...

Brilliant post. Preach it brother.

By the way, I haven't gotten past the "sipping on cheap beer" part.

Lukas said...

Interestingly enough, today a lecture on Descartes in AP Euro led to an hour-long discussion on...politics, religion, the whole shebang. I suggest that you watch Bill Maher's Religulous. It's a much more convincing argument against religion, simply because of who Maher is. He's a comedian, and unlike Dawkins, doesn't promote a dogmatic thesis. When questioned, he simply laughs and says, "I have no idea! That's all that I know." When we last talked, I was all into Eastern Philosophy and such. While I still believe in its value (introspection is awesome), I've found myself back where I was freshman year...I should probably just email you.