Posted by: trev0rclark | February 12, 2009

Resistance as Futile?

I think I could understand Jennie’s sentiment about this semester being a futile project, but I would like to look at what we are doing a little differently. Its clear that Dawkins is firm enough in his beliefs in Atheism and that it is not likely that anyone of us would be able to provide a convincing argument to change his mind. This is perhaps because his opinion is deeply rooted under layers of ego. I’m beginning to find that Dawkins was never really on a quest for truth, but just out there to write some tongue-in-cheek remarks about religions he understands quite poorly. If this were not the case, he would not have such contempt for his own sources—taking them out of context, manipulating them for his purposes, etc. And although it may be unfair to say that it is impossible to take a subject seriously on such a popular level (because in a way, this kind of reminds me of when everyone wrote against The Da Vinci Code), I believe that Dawkins knows that The God Delusion would probably not have been taken seriously in many academic forums because of all its rhetoric.  Thus, his desire for best-sellerdom (in lieu of academic respect) in addition to his abuse of sources makes me believe that he is simply looking for affirmation of feebly-supported ideas. In this way, you are absolutely right to question the efforts of this project: How does one argue with someone so indoctrinated?


For me, this isn’t the question I’ve really come to pose in class every Monday. I’m not sure I take Dawkins or Hitchens seriously in their pursuit of a “new atheism”. As would follow, it’s hard to debate someone who is not even taking his or her own subject seriously. That being said, Dawkins has thrown the line and gotten a lot of bites. His books are popular and widely read because they resonate with American readers. It is up to us to ask why this is, and what an appropriate response might be. Many Theologians won’t bother responding to these concerns because they understand the rhetorical devices at work in the texts, and thus pursue issues that are more beneficial to the discipline. However, because our generation is over-stimulated in the realm of sensory input from things like Youtube, The Oprah Book Club, and Fox News, it might be time for a new kind of Theologian with a different kind of response.

I find I get wrapped up in the projects of the New Atheism like one could get wrapped up in Twilight or an episode of House, MD. It’s fun, it’s intriguing—I want more. This is why these books hit such a great success in the American market: because they meet our failing attention spans with witty jokes and absurd scenarios. Because of this, it is becoming increasingly important to respond to these types of projects. It would be irresponsible of our department to let us walk away from SLU with a degree in Theology that does not address the kinds of claims raised in the New Atheism. If we leave SLU simply citing Church doctrine and abstract theories of the Trinity, we will have failed to appropriately digest Theological ideas and are guilty or regurgitating unanalyzed pieces of Catholic or Christian literature. Our responsibility is to not merely know the elements of our faith, but to understand them. This understanding requires that we read the opposing viewpoints (and I can think of none better than the increasingly popular New Atheist movement), and that we provide a critical response.

I know that if we all stood on top of Xavier Hall screaming in unison, Richard Dawkins wouldn’t hear us over in Oxford. However, I don’t think that getting Dawkins’ attention or even necessarily convincing anyone else is altogether important. Our project is to understand what we believe and to properly prepare ourselves for the challenges of a World that is increasingly skeptical toward Christian belief. Keeping this goal in mind, Theology serves the purpose of enriching and informing our own lives while giving us the tools to create a formidable apologia for our faith. For this reason, I cannot personally think of a more appropriate way to end our Theology degree here at SLU than with these widely read and influential projects in Atheism.

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Responses

  1. Not that I disagree with anything you said, Trevor, but let me pose this question to you as to the appropriateness of a class on New Atheism (merely as a thought experiment):
    I take from your post that you would agree that Dawkins et al. are engaged in a pseudo-theological (and pseudo-rational) project. So wouldn’t you think that such pseudo-theology is ideally an inappropriate subject for serious theologians to engage?

    Maybe I should phrase the question like this: I would not expect a physicist or a physics class to spend time learning how to debunk pseudo-scientific theories like the existence of a philosopher’s stone or a 6k year old Earth – it might make for a fun weekend project, but I don’t think these questions merit a whole class. Likewise, I would never expect a history seminar to analyse the theory that there were no middle ages and we are in fact living 1400 years after Caesar Augustus.

    Again, I don’t necessarily disagree with you, especially since I am very much enjoying this class. I just want to ask if theology has a special relation to pseudo-subjects which other disciplines don’t have or if these questions should properly be addressed in weekend-projects.

  2. Hey Gabe, thanks for your question. I agree that we make judgments all the time about what to pursue intellectually. SLU, for example, has never hosted a debate about the pros and cons of a Neo-Nazi regime—and they don’t need to. We take for granted that some opinions are not worth entertaining because they don’t carry enough substance. However, I’d be very careful of lumping the collective opinions of the New Atheism into this category for several reasons. First and foremost is the sheer popularity of the texts that illustrate a grand appeal. The second reason is that first-class intellectuals like John Lennox and John Haught have taken it upon themselves to respond to them, which indicates to me that there might actually be some substance here.

    One of the things that I think Dawkins points out in The God Delusion is the kind of hubris involved with people who make statements such as, “Sure the religious people are a bunch of buffoons—but why would you bother wasting your time responding?” Dawkins wants to say (and I agree) that this is incredibly condescending! If you feel you’ve stumbled upon something truthful, why would one keep that insight inside? especially if this truth could effect the lives of millions of Christian Americans?

    Even if Dawkins has really just provided some superficial food for thought, it has become incredibly influential and I think that it is important to address it. His argument is simple, not unlike the instructions to a handgun. And like a handgun has its use, Dawkins’ arguments are useful in their own way. But guns are tools to be handled with care and safety, so it becomes important to have guidance in their use. The New Atheists use science and historical evidence to critique the failures of modern Christianity. Though this critique serves a practical purpose even for Christians, it is put forward with a great abuse of the evidence and reason that inspire the project. Thus theologians and philosophers play a major role in illustrating the usefulness and danger in the texts of the New Atheism, making it more than just a “weekend project,” but one directly related to the evangelical mission of Christianity.

  3. Thanks, Trevor. When you put it that way, what we’re doing stops seeming like an uphill battle and starts actually makes sense to me. Maybe this was clear to everyone else from the start, but I guess I just couldn’t put it all into perspective.

    I think that what’s different about this class is we’ve left the realm of hypothetical thinking. We’ve learned all of our theological concepts and Church doctrine, etc, and we’ve spent a semester making the transition from thinking about theology to doing theology. But like you said, our projects last fall were based on abstract concepts of the Trinity. This project is something real, something relevant, something that will shape us as theologians. That’s not an easy transition to make, especially with this topic.

    Now that I really think about it, I do see where you’re coming from, and I can’t think of a better way to top off our SLU theology experience, either.

    p.s. I can’t picture you as much of a Twilight fan, Trevor…

  4. I would like to donate my two cents from a little more humble side of things. I have lived my faith and been privy to countless examples of God’s grace bursting forth into my world to the degree where I could only respond in wonder and praise. Yet somehow, in my first reading, Dawkins got to me! I became a doubting Thomas (I thought about him a lot). Dawkins’ had me thinking, “I cannot believe in you Christ till I put my hand in your side and then take a skin sample to the lab to make sure you’re not just my imagination.” I had yet to serriously grapple with the classic atheist gauntlet that claims God is a mere human projection.

    So, after a 12 hr bout of handicapping agnosticism where I was holding onto nothing but a gut reaction that my salvation was just out of sight, I found the confidants and theological responses to reestablish my equilibrium.

    My main point is that, although Dawkins and company might not be the strongest challengers, our theological training should not go all four years without facing an atheistic critique. Echoing a little of what Trevor said, I would like to be able to assist a friend who came to me with the same doubts I had as I read Dawkins. I’m glad people where there for me.


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