Posted by: clavelle | February 21, 2009

Why Waste Our Time?

In no way do I want to discredit what we’re doing in theology class, ’cause I think, after our blog posts and discussions in and out of class, that we are learning and exploring some things together as a group and that’s cool.  But I think this has to be said.  Check out the quote from Haught:

“I cannot speak for other college professors today, but in my own classes the new books by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens would never have made the list of required readings.  These tirades would simply reinforce students’ ignorance not only of religion, but ironically of atheism” (God and the New Atheism, p.16).

Well, here we are taking an entire senior seminar, our last big theology synthesis class, and we are focusing on something that Haught considers an ill-informed, unprofessional, and immature tirade against theology as well as pathetically representing atheism.  We are focusing and debating arguments that many times I feel don’t really deserve my time.  We get caught in their pathetic rhetoric… we are just playing their game.  And it’s a game that isn’t deepening my own appreciation for atheism (nor receiving a challenge like that of Freud and Marx, for example) nor is it really pushing my theology into deeper more coherent and critical realms.  Haught says repeatedly that most theologians and theology students have no real problem responding to the arguments of Dawkins and his crew.  It becomes more of a chore, like dealing with a immature, loud and argumentative teenager at a theology conference.

I think we deserve some credit.  We are theology students and we are smart.  We are ready to enter into some really deep arguments and insights, not float the surface of punch and blow, unscholarly arguments.  Maybe our theology department isn’t giving us enough credit if they think that these arguments are really challenging to us and worth a senior seminar.  I find myself putting up with the required readings, but my real focus is our final paper.  Yeah, I’ll tie in the New Atheists, yeah I’ll keep and open mind, but my time is being spent on real theology, real depth and real arguments.  Being a senior and wanting to use this time to study theology, I have to say about these guys, “Why waste our time?”

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Responses

  1. I must confess that I find Haught’s comment a bit ironic, and a bit rhetorically rich. Why?

    1. John Haught has chosen to write an entire book on the phenomenon known as the New Atheism. Is his book worth being read by college students? For whom was his book written?

    2. Haught’s earlier book, God After Darwin, refers repeatedly to the work of Dawkins and Dennett. Why, if their arguments are so specious, would he include them in a serious attempt to develop a “theology of evolution,” which is his subtitle?

    3. Alister McGrath has written several books on Dawkins, one of which we will be reading (along with Keith Ward and Tina Beattie). Should we consider McGrath’s books unfit for reading in a college course? Are all the (many) books written in response to the New Atheism unworthy of our attention? For whom were they written? In fact, virtually every recent work on religion and science refers to the works of Dawkins and Dennett. (I can think of a dozen off the top of my head.) Are these books to be taken seriously?

    4. The New Atheists have obviously touched a nerve, as is evident in the media and book publishing firestorms it has generated. This is worth understanding, it seems to me. It is worth trying to understand the underlying issues, dignifying them, and attempting to develop a measured response to them.

    5. While some of the arguments provided by the New Atheists do not rise to a sophisticated enough level, they do arouse the most central questions that any thinking person of faith must consider, including: a) What is the relationship between “faith” and “reason”?, b) Do religions cause violence, and, if so, is such violence intrinsic to their nature?, c) Has the widely-acknowledged success of scientific materialism in explaining many of the mechanisms that give rise to life effectively rendered any and theological discourse irrelevant, or worse, corrosive of the attempt to genuinely understand our world?, d) how should people of faith understand their scriptures with the advent of scientific approaches to scripture (historical-criticism)?, e) are there biological roots to morality and religion, as more and more are claiming (not just a handful of New Atheists); and, if so, what does this mean for religious communities who have narratives, rituals and sacred scripture that shape moral imagination and activity? f) How should we understand the God-world relationship? Does God still act “within” or “upon” the world, and, if so, how can we conceptualize this? g) Does the diversity of religious traditions weaken claims that God exists?

    In other words, there are many, many fundamental questions (these are only a few) that lay at the heart of the the New Atheism enterprise that all thinking women and men of faith should think about, even if the way these issues are “packaged” sometimes fail to rise to the level of discourse we might prefer.

    6. Finally, I recall while reading his book, Finding Darwin’s God, Kenneth Miller stating that while folks like Dawkins and Dennett (let’s add Harris and Hitchens here too) are more explicit in their negative views of faith, they do in fact reflect much of the intellectual culture that circulates through scientific / academic communities, and that therefore it was important to engage such thinkers. True, their rhetoric may be insufferable at times (okay, maybe a lot) but the tendency towards reductionism of all kinds (whether scientific or historicist) leads many people to have strong allergies towards “religion” and “faith.” If there is any question about this, just ask for a moment how religion is treated (if, indeed, it’s considered at all) in the disciplines of biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy (and many other “ologies” besides) at most colleges and universities across this country. Dawkins and company may be more rhetorically extreme, but they reflect a very strong current in our contemporary intellectual climate. (This is true, by the way, of many religious studies departments.)

    Though I don’t want to speak for my entire department, I think it possible to say that these are the kinds of issues the department would like for our students to be thinking about, to be thinking actively and creatively about. It is hoped that such multifaceted work, which facilitates many research trajectories, is not a waste of your time.

  2. I really like your comment about “putting up with a whiny teenager,” Ryan, because I think it’s a fitting metaphor for some of the arguments we’ve read thus far, but I have to say that I do see some worth in diving into these New Atheists, learning what they’re working on and seeing how they view the world.

    The simple truth is that no matter how unsophisticated or simple their arguments may seem, there are a lot more people in the world who think the same way they do than we might want to believe. Besides the proclaimed atheists, there are the atheists who profess belief or attend church out of tradition, rather than true faith. These people may read a book like Dawkins’ or Dennett’s (in fact, they must be reading it, or else they wouldn’t be best sellers) and as theologians, we need to understand where they are coming from in order to engage in productive dialogue – because otherwise, we’re just the angry parents yelling at the whiny teenagers and that’s not going to get any of us anywhere.

  3. My personal response to Haught’s comment stems from my experience with people who have read these books in their free time. If I were to read these outside of class, apart from intellectual discourse, and surrounded by a crowd of atheist acquaintances, I would feel bombarded. In fact, I feel lucky to have the opportunity to read books that are truly making a mark in popular culture and dissect them from a theological and intellectual standpoint. Fighting this battle alone would leave me beaten in the middle. I appreciate having the support of classmates, professors, and theologians to stand by my side through this journey.


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