Archive for April, 2010

Cage-match or dialogue?

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Andrew Sullivan takes on Kevin Drum on the subject of the “new atheism”:

David Bentley Hart wants atheists to engage the “most sophisticated forms” of the “belief he or she rejects.” Drum objects:

Hart would like us to believe that anyone who hasn’t spent years meditating on Aquinas and Nietzsche isn’t worth engaging with, but walk into any Christian church in America — or the world — and you’ll find it full of people who understand God much the same way Hitchens and Dawkins do, not the way Hart does. That’s the reality of the religious experience for the vast majority of believers. To call a foul on those who want to engage with this experience — with the world as it is, rather than with Hart’s abstract graduate seminar version of the world — is to insist that nonbelievers forfeit the game without even taking the field.

Look: human nature being what it is, most religious people will be a dreadful example of the best version of faith you can find. Drum permits what Hitch’s book was: a grand guignol of anti-clerical, fish-barrel-shooting. It’s easy; it’s way fun; mockery of inarticulate believers has made my friend, Bill Maher, lotsa money. But it’s largely missing the real intellectual task by fighting a straw man, rather than a real and living and intelligent faith. Part of that is the fault of believers. We’ve done a lousy job of delineating a living faith for modernity.

But I think that’s changing. As it must, if we are to take this debate forward.

And Sullivan is right on the money here. Many people seem to want to argue for the superiority of grad-school science over grade-school religion, and don’t see why this is an unfair contest. Think of it this way: suppose someone wants to criticize the theory of evolution (hard to imagine, but just hypothetically). That person goes out on the street, grabs the first person to walk by, and asks that person to explain the theory of evolution. The resulting pastiche of vaguely-remembered bits of nature specials will be easy to knock down. Therefore, evolution is crap!

Clearly the “new atheists” wouldn’t accept that tactic, so why should the equivalent treatment of religion be acceptable? This kind of willful identification of religion with its most unsophisticated adherents just perpetuates the silly “science vs. religion” meme that the media are so fond of. Intelligent, thoughtful religion can have a productive dialogue with intelligent, thoughtful science. That dialogue is vastly more valuable than a cage-match between different forms of ignorance.