Cage-match or dialogue?

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.

6 Responses to “Cage-match or dialogue?”

  1. Raven says:

    So clearly Jesus was a charlatan, because he went around speaking to the common people on their own level, instead of only staying in the Temple discussing abstruse theology with the priests? That might be the argument of, say, the Pharisees.

  2. Allen says:

    No, not my point. It’s fine to go out and argue against creationism, or various forms of literalism. I do it all the time. But I don’t claim that I’m thereby falsifying Christianity; just that you I’m making arguments against literalism, or creationism, or whatever the actual opponent is.

    Hitchens and Dawkins, though, are claiming to invalidate all of religion, or at the very least all of Christianity. In essence they’re claiming that, because it can be clearly shown that the Bible is not literally true in various scientific and historical claims, therefore Christianity is false. That’s what Sullivan’s objecting to.

    If you want to claim that Christianity per se is invalid, then intellectual rigor demands that you find the strongest counterarguments and take them on. That would mean engaging with modern theologians, not just with the ‘average churchgoer’.

  3. Raven says:

    So the televangelists and mega-churches can talk to the big crowds, the ‘average churchgoer’, but Hitchens and Dawkins aren’t allowed to take a turn talking to the same audience? Only to the “grad-school students” in the back room? That doesn’t exactly seem like a level playing field.

    Now if no-one ever addressed those poor grad-school students (modern theologians) at all, methinks you’d have grounds for complaint. But that’s not the case. Abstruse theological arguments abound, and always have. It’s in the arena of easily understood plain speech that gaps have needed to be filled in for a long time.

  4. Allen says:

    They can talk to whomever they like, but they need to be honest about what their arguments actually achieve. My point is that the arguments they’re using are arguments against fundamentalism, or against some of the more despicable uses that religion has been put to. But their claim is that those arguments falsify Christianity as a whole. They don’t, because the counterarguments have been made repeatedly; Dawkins, etc. just choose to ignore those counterarguments. If you’re saying that their enterprise makes them as intellectually rigorous as the televangelists, that’s setting the bar awfully low.

  5. Raven says:

    Yet you and Sullivan aimed your chief denunciations only at Dawkins and Hitchens, etc., the atheist side of the argument, not at those televangelists? Again, where is the level playing field? Or perhaps I should ask, where is a less partial referee, to call out both sides fairly?

  6. John says:

    I don’t know for sure about Dawkins, but I have NEVER seen Hitchens debate anyone who I would believe to be deeply educated in Theology. I have seen Hitchens spend countless TV time verbally burying Jerry Fallwell, but I can’t count Fallwell as a major theological force. Sure, he had a heavy influence in Christianity, but he focused on being an old school preacher, not a Dr. in theology.

    Because of this, I can’t give Hitchens and his views too much time. You are exactly right… a common person CAN’T debate with a heavily educated man/woman because they haven’t been trained to do so. (That’s not to say a common man is not smarter, but unless your Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, a professional football player is not going to do so well in Major League Baseball.)

    If Hitchens, or even Dawkins, ever really opted to debate a well educated theologian, I would LOVE to see that.

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