Posted by: JLLH | April 9, 2009

Like diving into the shallow end of a kiddie pool.


One of the most significant lessons I will take from this class is the importance of understanding the philosophy that guides any argument. Call me a reductionist (pun intended), but philosophy seems to be foundation upon which all other knowledge emerges. We must always understand our first principles when engaging in any cerebral activity. The intellectually shallow arguments purported by the New Atheists should be evidence enough of the dangers of overlooking the very tenets that ground one’s argument. I started out this semester with the desire to understand how theologians could so easily debunk New Atheism despite many of the undeniably veritable condemnations of religion that the New Atheists offered. Theologian John Haught’s critique of New Atheism metaphysics intrigued me because he asked deeply significant questions that Dawkins and Harris didn’t even flirt with in The God Delusion and Letter to a Christian Nation. What I’ve discovered in my research, paradoxically, is that it’s not even the epistemology that Haught critiques in as much as it’s the foundational premise upon which the New Atheism epistemology is predicated. I surmise that Haught takes this approach because both he and the New Atheists maintain the same fundamental view of knowledge – realism (specifically, critical realism).

Before I continue, let’s briefly explore the tenets of critical realism. Metaphysical realism maintains that there exists a reality independent of the mind. For scientific realism, the material word is this reality; for theistic realism, reality is comprised of both the material world and God (but primarily God). Epistemic realism asserts that it is possible to maintain some propositions that are roughly true and that we can feasibly justify belief in the approximate truth of these propositions. For the scientific and theological flavors of critical realism these postulates include theories about unobservable entities or theories about God respectively.

In the likely case that the above sounded like gibberish to you (as it admittedly does to me) let me summarize: critical realism maintains that knowledge of what is real is acquired through intentional reflective experience rather than through mere sensory experience. For scientific realists, reality is the material world. For theological realists, reality is both the material world and God.

As we see, there are explicit differences between the New Atheist and theist appropriations of critical realism. Surprisingly, one of the most significant sources of contention appears to lie not within the nuanced interpretations of critical realism but rather in the in the question as to why we can employ such agencies of the mind. New Atheists suggest that we can exercise critical realism because it’s adaptive (i.e. emerged from eons of evolutionary natural selection). Nietzsche would say we create it through our will to power. Stephan Jay Gould would say it’s a spandrel. John Haught says it’s an outgrowth of our anticipation of the divine. My problem is that the New Atheists traverse from science to theology without addressing the philosophy that underlies both disciplines. Theologians are appropriate in their criticisms of New Atheism because it is academically rudimentary, hollow and specious. In the material that I’ve encountered over the course of this semester, not once has Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris mentioned a thing about metaphysics. They say nothing about the foundational premises upon which their arguments are grounded. This critical lack of philosophical grounding is why Haught is able to render the New Atheism argument paralyzed in its own triviality. Haught presents to the New Atheists their metaphysics on a silver platter, then proceeds to show them how what they see as a gourmet meal is actually an evolutionarily adapted pile of fecal matter. And the New Atheists cannot properly respond to Haught until they integrate a discussion of metaphysics into their critiques of religion.

The paradox is that New Atheists participate in the very activity that they criticize, that is, in making crude and unfounded claims that cross the science/religion chasm. Dawkins chastises creationists for trying to distill scientific truths from biblical literalism. And yet his life is dedicated to the endeavor of attacking the foundational premises of religion with shallow, peripheral critiques.  It’s like trying to cut a log in half with a spoon; you’re using the wrong tool, my friend. By failing to address the strengths, weaknesses and limits of the philosophy that guides his New Atheist pursuits, Dawkins’ conclusions are just as inane as those he reviles.

Let me end with a proposition that I merely entertain rather than hold as truth. It would be intellectually disingenuous to answer an ultimate question with proximate subject matter (New Atheists) just as much as it would be to answer a proximate question with derivations of the ultimate (Christian fundamentalists). If this is true, then doesn’t it seem impossible for science to say meaningful things about theology and vice versa? Yet theologians Ian Barbour, John Haught, Paul Tillich have dedicated their academic lives to extrapolating theological meaning from scientific insights. I feel like I’m beginning to sound a lot like Gould when he proposed NOMA (which asserts that science and religion address different questions – those of an empirical versus ultimate/moral nature – and therefore cannot make claims about the other). Barbour, Haught, Tillich and countless more (including all the New Atheists) would disagree with the above proposal. What do you think?



  1. An interesting question you have posed my dear, and the first time I read it, I thought to myself, do fields of study really have to be exclusive of one another? Is it not feasible to incorporate different frames of thinking to address these big questions?

    I have found that when I am grappling with big questions, the times I have felt the most confident in my conclusions (whether it’s an answer or a nod in the right direction) have been after combining multiple ways of looking at it. I don’t think that science and religion have to be mutually exclusive because they are different forms of study and therefore cannot make claims about each other, but rather, by recognizing they are different they can help us look at the same questions from different angles. Peanut butter and jelly will never be the same thing but they can look at each other, even knowing they can never be the same thing, and realize that together they can make a delicious sandwich. What can I say, I guess I’m just a sucker for trying to work together. Yay teamwork!

    That being said, for this to happen both parties need to come to the table with an open mind about other possibilities, or ways of thinking. But let’s be honest, the New Atheists aren’t selling books because they like to work with other frames of thought…

  2. I agree, initially the idea of science and theology working together seems absurd and contradictory, because they seem to be studying two different things in different ways. However, by combining these two focuses and manners of study we get a larger and grander product. With in this product our concept of God is revitalized, God is restored to the life giving center of creation.

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