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Theological Notebook: Novak on "Lonely Atheists of the Global Village"

My students read the following article – a set of book reviews, actually – by my namesake Michael Novak for this past Friday, in conjunction with a lesson on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. In general, I wanted to parallel the task of ancient and today's Christians in preparing positive articulations of the faith in response to some form of critique in their culture. So, Nicaea could be talked about in terms of a response to an Arian theology of God, and Novak's article as a response to a number of fairly well-selling books on the market currently, written from an evangelizing-atheist perspective.

I noted some response to these books before, in Peter Steinfel's New York Times column on two of them (and this other NYT Op-Ed), and the dismay by more learned atheists that atheism was perhaps being seen as best represented by these rhetorical attacks that actually lacked much intellectual punch. Because I wasn't having my students actually read the atheist texts themselves, I didn't have my students focusing so much on what Novak reported as their content (whether or not he was accurate) but instead to pay attention to Novak's attempts at coaching a stronger atheist critique of Judaism and Christianity, and what a substantial critique and dialogue would look like. In particular, I had them discuss what he laid out as Christianity's primary challenges to atheist critique: that is, what – like the Creeds – represented Christianity's actual constructive response to today's intellectual challenge. Instead of the vision of Christianity presented in its Worst Possible Terms or Representatives, Novak offered a "strong" Jewish/Christian position of the sort that an atheist today could really profitably engage, rather than playing games with "straw men" that were created just to easily knock down....

Lonely Atheists of the Global Village (3/7/2007)


"The whole inner world of aware and self-questioning religious persons seems to be territory unexplored by our authors. All around them are millions who spend many moments each day (and hours each week) in communion with God. Yet of the silent and inward parts of these lives--and why these inner silences ring to those who share them so true, and seem more grounded in reality than anything else in life--our writers seem unaware. Surely, if our atheist friends were to reconsider their methods, and deepen their understanding of such terms as “experience” and “the empirical,” they might come closer to walking for a tentative while in the moccasins of so many of their more religious companions in life, who find theism more intellectually satisfying--less self-contradictory, less alienating from their own nature--than atheism."


Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris (Knopf, 112 pp., $16.95)

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett (Penguin, 464 pp., $16)

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin, 416 pp., $27)

Time magazine, ever the vigilant trend spotter, has celebrated a recent wave of books by atheists--among them, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett, and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. These books have three purposes: to speed up the disappearance of Biblical faith, especially in America; to proselytize for rational atheism; and to boost morale among atheists, in part by calling attention to support groups for them. Their overriding purpose is the first one: in the words of Harris, “to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity.”

But all three books evince considerable disdain for Judaism, too. Dawkins calls it “a tribal cult of a single fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods, and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe.” And the God of the Old Testament, Dawkins calls a “psychotic delinquent.”

And it is not as if they admire Islam; rather, they use Islam as a weapon for bashing Christianity and Judaism. Harris says to Christians, “Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well--by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God.” In truth, though, the main intention of all three authors is to praise the superiority of atheism, at least the rational atheism of professors such as themselves.

In fact, there is much in atheism to praise. With the evidence of the admirable moral code laid out in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in his hands, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that in order to be good, in at least one important sense, it is not necessary to share in Biblical faith. Aristotle showed a path toward human flourishing, both for an entire polity and for noble individuals. (To be “good” in another important sense, “being born again” or “saved,” requires a bit more than Aristotle could provide, or even imagine.) Besides, atheists--or, at least, non-Biblical pagans--were able to build such magnificent buildings as the Parthenon, the pyramids of Egypt, the palaces of Babylon; and to produce great literature, and the beginnings of several key sciences in varied fields such as astronomy, arithmetic, medicine, and agriculture. Finally, atheists--or, at least, non-believers--have always been a spur to Biblical self-understanding, by raising questions, doubting, throwing down insulting or even respectful intellectual challenges. It was from the pagan intellectual class that many of the early Fathers of the Church (Origen, Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine himself) came to Biblical faith, and they usually remained in close dialogue with their unbelieving peers, much to the benefit of their own understanding of their faith.

Shall I add that my own early work was centered upon the dialogue between believers and unbelievers, the intellectual horizon of the Absurd (as Camus, Sartre, and so many others called it) and that of Biblical faith--in such books as Belief and Unbelief and The Experience of Nothingness, for instance. For that reason, I really wanted to like these new books of atheism. I have learned a lot about atheists and believers from Jürgen Habermas, possibly the best-known atheist in Europe. Habermas writes of believers with respect and as equal partners in an important dialogue. A respectful regard for mutual dignity is, Habermas holds, essential to the practice of rationality among human beings. Recently, I had the honor of a long series of exchanges with a very smart American atheist, Heather Mac Donald, and these were a pleasure to conduct, with mutual regard, patience, and candor on both sides.

Alas, it is extremely difficult to engage on the same level with Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins. All of them think that religion is so great a menace that they do not have much disposition for dialogue. The battle flags they put into the wind are Voltaire’s Ecrasez l’infâme! Meanwhile, all three pretend that atheists “question everything” and “submit to relentless, almost tedious, self-criticism.” Yet in these books there is not a shred of evidence that their authors have ever had any doubts whatever about the rightness of their own atheism. Self-questioning about their own scholarly indifference to their subject; about the horrific brutalities committed in the name of “scientific atheism” during the 20th century; about the restless and mercurial dissatisfactions in atheist and secular movements during the past hundred years; and about the demographic weaknesses thereof--all such questions are notable by their absence. Moreover, although an atheist Zeitgeist dominates university campuses in America, it has not proved persuasive to huge numbers of students, who hold their noses and put up with it. Why does atheism persuade so few? Our authors never ask.

I particularly wanted to like the book by Richard Dawkins. I had heard that his is a well-furnished and well-rounded mind, and that he writes with the music and wit of an elegant literary stylist. His fans present him as the very model of a reasonable man. Dawkins, too, expressly presents himself and other atheists as “Brights,” distinguished by their “healthy” and “vigorous” minds. Poor believers--he openly complains--are by contrast with him trapped in delusion, unquestioning, mentally dead. He makes not a gesture of seeking to learn from them.

Actually, Dawkins’s public record is worse than that. He led a two-part show on religion for the BBC, called The Root of All Evil? While writing now that he disagrees with the title the producers gave it, he freely appeared under it. This is what he asks of religious people: “Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion.” Wouldn’t most of the violence and distortion introduced into human life disappear? Now it would be rather original of Dawkins to make such a point, except that in Britain this view is quite conventional. Propagated by pop star and scientist alike, it is according to a recent poll shared by 70 percent of the British population.

Throughout the West, it appears that neither scientist nor pop star take time to consider contemporary religious experience in the light of some of its most sophisticated and heroic practitioners. For instance, never before our own time have so many millions of persons of Biblical faith been thrown into concentration camps, tortured, and murdered, as they have been under recent self-described atheist regimes. It would have been wonderful if any of our three authors had measured their vision of religion against the hard-won Biblical faith of the originally atheist scientist Anatoly Sharansky, who served nine years in the Soviet Gulag simply for vindicating the rights of Soviet citizens who were Jews. Sharansky has written the record of his suffering in a brilliant autobiography, Fear No Evil. I think I have never read of a braver moral man, determined to live as a free man, courageously showing nothing but moral contempt for the morals of KGB officials, under whose total power he had to live. Sharansky went on courageously day by dreary day, deprived of sufficient food, deprived of sight of the sky and sun. He was punished in innumerable ways under a kind of scientific Skinnerian conditioning, designed to “correct” his behavior, and this regimen went on year after year, attempting to wear down his resistance, to hold out for him trivial blandishments, tormenting his soul by isolating him and depriving him of human support.

Ironically, however, his prison experiences led Sharansky to dimensions of reason that far exceeded anything he had encountered in his earlier scientific practice. To survive, he needed to open himself to learning far more than science had taught him. He was asked to sign his name to certain untruths: “Who will ever know? What difference will it make? It is such a small thing, and it will make things go much better for you and for us, it will be for the common good.” One of Sharansky's colleagues, a noble soul, nonetheless deceived himself into thinking that it would be better to lie about a few small things, if in turn he were earlier freed to carry the message of human rights outside the camps. Sharansky watched other men try to keep their spirits up by hope--hoping for better treatment, hoping for earlier liberation--and then suddenly so weakened by false hopes that they could no longer resist complicity. Sharansky found that he needed a source of discernment deeper than any he had previously known.

In those days, the love of his beloved and brave wife, and friends and other dissidents, came to his cell in rarely received letters or messages. But such messages could also have weakened and betrayed him. In his torments of soul, he found enormous companionship with King David of many centuries earlier, when a Hebrew edition of the Psalms was allowed to fall into his hands. The realism of David went right to his heart, and heavily bolstered his defenses. He learned the strength to be found in community--his community--in partaking of traditional rituals, drawing sustenance from the earlier sufferings, strivings, and hard-earned wisdom of his ancestors. Unwittingly, one cellmate (who might have been working with the KGB) gave Sharansky another lesson in “the interconnection of souls.” One of Sharansky's greatest scientific heroes had long been Galileo. In telling Sharansky of how other prisoners had made “life easier for everybody” simply by signing “harmless” papers that no one outside would ever see, his cellmate mentioned how even Galileo had been persuaded to sign certain statements about his own errors, just to put the whole mess behind him. Like a thunderbolt, these words of his cellmate flooded Sharansky's mind with the interconnectedness of all souls in history--those who remain faithful to the truth, and those who betray it. Galileo’s betrayal four hundred years earlier was now being used to seduce Sharansky, just as every spiritual surrender of another individual in the Gulag was used to pound home to him that long-term resistance was useless. In that lightning flash, Sharansky saw the power of inner truthfulness down the ages, that sort of electronic belt of fidelity that ties all regions and all times together, in however many hearts that remain faithful to the truth. Sharansky wanted to be reborn as a member of that community, and he changed his name to Natan, signifying the Biblical community with which he wanted to be identified through all time.

Sharansky became, even in the Gulag, more and more an observant Jew, in one comic scene forcing even his camp supervisor to participate--just the two of them--in a lighting of the Menorah. Sharansky writes very little directly about God, but it is certain beyond a doubt that he came to see something profoundly deficient in his earlier scientific habits of mind. These were noble as far as they go, and he has never renounced them, but in his extreme circumstances they proved too limited. He came also to be ashamed of his earlier agnosticism and cavalier attitude toward “organized religion.” The community that had preserved the Psalms of King David down so many centuries offered him companionship of soul, and recharged his will to resist, at a crucial point in his long imprisonment.

It was, then, a huge disappointment to me, to find that Dennett, Harris, and especially Dawkins paid no attention to the actual conversion experiences and narratives of fidelity, which are so common in the prison literature of our time. Moreover, none of them ever put their weak, confused, and unplumbed ideas about God under scrutiny. Their natural habit of mind is anthropomorphic. They tend to think of God as if He were a human being, bound to human limitations. They are almost as literal in their readings of the Bible as the least educated, most literal-minded fundamentalist in Flannery O’Connor’s rural Georgia. They regale themselves with finding contradictions and impossibilities in these literal readings of theirs, but the full force of their ridicule depends on misreading the literary form of the Biblical passages at stake, whether they be allegorical, metaphorical, poetic, or resonant with many meanings, for the nourishment of a soul under stress. The Bible almost never pretends to be science, or strictly literal history.

Our three authors pride themselves on how science advances in understanding over time, and also on how moral thinking becomes in some ways deeper and more demanding. They do not give any attention to the ways in which religious understanding also grows, develops, and evolves. They seem utterly ignorant of John Henry Newman’s brilliant little Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. It hardly dawns upon them that the Biblical faiths have been, from the very beginning, in constant--and mutually enriching—dialogue with skeptical and secular intelligence. One can see progress in religious understanding from one part of the Biblical era to another, and the authors of Scripture themselves call attention to it.

Our three authors, it does seem, are a bit blinded by their own repugnance toward religion. Even his good friends, Dawkins writes, ask him why he is driven to be so “hostile” to religious people. Why not, they say, as intelligent as you are, quietly lay out your devastating arguments against believers, in a calm and unruffled manner? Dawkins’s answer to his friends is forthright: “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise . . . Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.” Dawkins refuses to be part of the public “conspiracy” to pay religion respect, when it deserves contempt.

Yet his complaint about “unquestioning” faith seems a bit odd. Some of us have thought that the origin of religion lies in the unlimited drive in human beings to ask questions--which is our primary experience of the infinite. Anything finite that we encounter can be questioned, and seems ultimately unsatisfying. That is the experience that keeps driving the mind and soul on and on, and is its first foretaste of that which is beyond time and space. “Our hearts are restless, Lord,” St. Augustine recorded, with much resonance in millions upon millions of inquiring minds down through human history ever since. “Unquestioning faith?” The writings of the medieval thinkers record question after question, disputation after disputation, and real results in history hinged upon the resolution of each. Many of the questions arose from skeptical, unbelieving lawyers, philosophers, and others in the medieval universities; others from the Arab scholars whose works had recently burst upon the Western universities; still others from Maimonides and other Jewish scholars; and a great many from the greatest pagan thinkers of every preceding century. Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.

To be sure, Dawkins at least does think there are some religious people who can be converted to atheism by his arguments. He describes them as the “open-minded people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take,’ or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it.” Dawkins presents such believers with an ultimatum: either join him in “breaking free from the vice of religion altogether” or remain amongst the close-minded types who are unable to overcome “the god delusion.”

On the fifth page of his book, Dawkins describes his hopes: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” It surprised me that Dawkins would turn out to be such a proselytizer. Most of all what surprised me is that, while all three authors write as if science is the be-all and end-all of rational discourse, these three books of theirs are by no means scientific. On the contrary, they are examples of dialectic--arguments from within one point of view, or horizon, addressed to human beings who share a different point of view. Surely, one of the noblest works of reason is to enter into respectful argument with others, whose vision of reality is dramatically different from one’s own, in order that both parties may learn from this exchange, and come to an ever deeper mutual respect. Our authors engage in dialectic, not science, but they can scarcely be said to do so with respect for those they address. Thus, Dawkins: “Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination…. Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan.” Here, of course, Dawkins flatters himself. Screwtape would have been far more insidious.

What most surprised me in the Dawkins book, however, is its defensiveness. He describes atheists, particularly in America, as suffering from loneliness, public disrespect, spiritual isolation, and low self-esteem. In one passage he recounts a letter from a young American medical student recently turning from Christianity to atheism. A medical student? Surely many of the doctors and scientists nearby are atheists. Nonetheless, the student writes: “I don’t particularly want to share my belief with other people who are close to me because I fear the . . . reaction of distaste. . . . I only write to you because I hoped you’d sympathize and share in my frustration.” In an Appendix, which Dawkins kindly adds for such unsupported souls, he offers lists of organizations in which lonely atheists may find community and solace. He devotes not a few pages to boosting his community’s morale--how large their numbers are, how smart they are, how comparatively disgusting their antagonists are.


I have no doubt that Christians have committed many evils, and written some disgraceful pages in human history. Yet on a fair ledger of what Judaism and Christianity added to pagan Greece, Rome, the Arab nations (before Mohammed), the German, Frankish, and Celtic tribes, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, one is puzzled not to find Dawkins giving thanks for many innovations: hospitals, orphanages, cathedral schools in early centuries, universities not much later, some of the most beautiful works of art--in music, architecture, painting, and poetry--in the human patrimony. And why does he overlook the hard work on concepts such as “person,” “community,” “civitas,” “consent,” “tyranny,” and “limited government” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. . . .”) that made possible such great documents as the Magna Carta? His few pages on the founding and nourishing of his own beloved Oxford by its early Catholic patrons are mockingly ungrateful. And if Oxford disappoints him, has he no gratitude for the building of virtually every other old and famous university of Europe (and the Americas)?

Dawkins writes nothing about the great religious communities founded for the express purpose of building schools for the free education of the poor. Nothing about the thousands of monastic lives dedicated to the delicate and exhausting labor of copying by hand the great manuscripts of the past--often with the lavish love manifested in illuminations--during long centuries in which there were no printing presses. Nothing about the founding of the Vatican Library and its importance for the genesis of nearly a dozen modern sciences. Nothing about the learned priests and faithful who have made so many crucial discoveries in science, medicine, and technology. Yet on these matters a word or two of praise from Dawkins might have made his tiresome lists of accusations seem less unfair.

I don’t wish to overdo it. There have been and are toxic elements in religion that always need restraint by the Logos to which Christianity from the very first married the Biblical tradition: “In the beginning was the Logos. . . .” (John 1:1). Still, any fair measuring of the impact of Judaism and Christianity on world history has an awful lot of positives to add to the ledger. Among my favorite texts for many years, in fact, are certain passages of Alfred North Whitehead--in Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas, for instance. In these passages, Whitehead points out that the practices of modern science are inconceivable apart from thousands of years of tutelage under the Jewish and Christian conviction that the Creator of all things understood all things, in their general laws and in their particular, contingent dispositions. This conviction, Whitehead writes, made long, disciplined efforts to apply reason to the sustained Herculean task of understanding all things seem reasonable. If all things are intelligible to their Creator, they ought to be intelligible to those made in His image, who in imitation of Him press onward in the human vocation to try to understand all that He has made.

In addition, Judaism and Christianity have inculcated in entire cultures specific intellectual and moral habits, synthesizing them with the teachings of ancient classical traditions, without which the development of modern sciences would lack the requisite moral disciplines--honesty, hard work, perseverance in the face of difficulties, a respect for serendipity and sudden insight, a determination to test any hypotheses asserted. What would modern science be without belief in the intelligibility of all things, even contingent, unique, and unrepeatable events, and without culture-wide habits of honesty, intellectual rigor, and persevering inquiry? Whitehead pointed to this marvelous indebtedness many times, much more generously than Dawkins. In Science and the Modern World (1925), he wrote: “My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivation from medieval theology.”

The path of modern science was made straight, and smoothed, by deep convictions that every stray element in the world of human experience--from the number of hairs on one’s head to the lonely lily in the meadow--is thoroughly known to its Creator and, therefore, lies within a field of intelligibility, mutual connection, and multiple logics. All these odd and angular levels of reality, given arduous, disciplined, and cooperative effort, are in principle penetrable by the human mind. If human beings are made in the image of the Creator, as the first chapters of the Book of Genesis insist that they are, surely it is in their capacities to question, gain insight, and advance in understanding of the works of God. In the great image portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling--the touch from finger to finger between the Creator and Adam--the mauve cloud behind the Creator’s head is painted in the shape of the human brain. Imago Dei, yes indeed.

Had Professor Dawkins made even a semi-serious pretense of fairness, I would have thought much more carefully about his criticisms of Christian peoples. Yet some of his criticisms of particular Christian deeds and ways of thinking have real bite. Christianity did not come to remove from human beings all capacity to sin, and simply being Christian gives no exemption from awful human sinfulness, of which in history there are sickening examples. Sin, unreason, betrayal--to Jews and Christians nothing human is alien.

I wish I could write that Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris were more open and respectful than Dawkins; but their books, too, were disappointments. The letter that Harris claims is intended for a Christian nation is in fact wholly uninterested in Christianity on any level, is hugely ignorant, and essentially represents his own love letter to himself, on account of his being superior to the stupid citizens among whom he lives. Dennett’s concept of reason and science is so narrow that he seems trapped in something like early-period A. J. Ayer. Let us hope that some brave and caring soul can one day lead him by the hand, out of his sheltered cave. His main thesis, that religion is a “natural phenomenon,” was already hoary by the time St. Augustine was discerning what novelties Christianity introduced to classical Roman religion. But, of course, Dennett’s idea of “natural” is not large enough to comprehend even the heroic fidelity of Natan Sharansky, nor the timeless, liberating power of King David’s poignant Psalms.

All this taken into account, it strikes me that the only way to proceed is to lay out, on one side, the way in which young questioning minds in American universities are repelled by the atheism that is the lingua franca of nearly all classrooms and academic discussions, and, on the other side, a very brief confession of what exactly that Christianity is that Dennett, Harris, and Dawkins find distasteful, evil, dangerous, and disgusting. Despite their disrespect, Christianity manages somehow to be highly attractive to approximately one third of the population of the world (just over two billion persons), and is still today the fastest growing of all religions. It is important to explain that attraction before addressing their specific objections.


A few years back, our daughter revealed to us that she was “an agno-theist.” (Every well-ordered Catholic family should have one.) When she went off to Duke, she thought she was an atheist. She certainly found plenty of atheism in the air there. Not that everybody was atheist; far from it. Only that the working assumption in practically all public discourse was that every serious person is an atheist. Thoughtful religious people kept quiet about their own beliefs.

Yet it didn’t take my daughter long to see through the pretenses of atheism. In the first place, the fundamental doctrine seemed to be that everything that is, came to be through chance and natural selection. In other words, at bottom, everything is irrational, chancy, without purpose or ultimate intelligibility. What got to her most was the affectation of professors pretending that everything is ultimately absurd, while in more proximate matters putting all their trust in science, rationality, and mathematical calculation. She decided that atheists could not accept the implications of their own metaphysical commitments. While denying the principle of rationality “all the way down,” they wished to cling to all the rationalities on the surface of things. My daughter found this unconvincing.

She decided that atheism cannot be true, because it is self-contradictory. Moreover, this self-contradiction is willful, and its latent purpose is pathetically transparent. Atheists want all the comforts of the rationality that emanates from rational theism, but without personal indebtedness to any Creator, Governor, Judge. That is why they allow themselves to be rationalists only part of the way down. The alternative makes them very nervous.

My daughter concluded that it was more reasonable to believe that there is a God, who made all things. But she couldn’t figure out how this made any difference to her personally. Why did such a god care about her, or anything else? What practical difference did such a god make in the world? Besides, she wasn’t at all sure how even to think of such a god, whether as image or as concept. About all these things she found herself agnostic. That’s why she called herself an “agno-theist.”

It seemed odd to my daughter that there can be so much reason in the world, while there is no reason for the world, even with its manifest irrationalities. (She herself painfully experienced many irrational tragedies among her so-promising, intelligent, gifted friends, prematurely struck down in their youth.) Our daughter is no Pollyanna. She has always been perceptive of the dark, irrational side of life. What surprises her is the degree of rationality in all things, not the presence of absurdities. What surprised her in her professors was the self-contradiction at the root of their lives.


In an inn in the little village of Bressanone (Brixen) in northern Italy, there is a fresco painted many centuries ago, whose main subject is an elephant, by a painter who had obviously never seen an elephant. Clearly, he was trying to represent on the wall what someone had tried to tell him about elephants. He painted a large, heavy horse, with unusually floppy ears, and a nose considerably longer than that of an average horse--but still a horse’s long nose.

We used to smile at that fresco, and similarly the Christian reader will smile at the primitive fresco of Christianity painted by Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. They miss the real thing by a country mile.

One does not experience the real thing simply by being born into a Christian home, either. It is far from sufficient performing certain boring rituals, and attending “Sunday school” with an inattentive and unquestioning mind. As Cardinal Newman laid out in some detail in his Grammar of Assent, a broad and shimmering gulf separates “notional” from “real” assent. For the latter, one has to think about one’s faith, question it from all sides, study its dimensions, implications, and relations with other modes of knowing. One has to “make it one’s own.” One cannot just be “thrown” into it by birth and early instruction. Faith that is not nurtured under trial and severe questioning is a little like grass in thin soil, which is fresh in the morning, wilts in the afternoon, and dies before twilight. Our authors, it seems, want to rake up the most shallowly rooted grass.

Thus it seems useful--and necessary--to sketch out some of the facets of Christian faith to which our atheist threesome seem inattentive. Each Christian (each Catholic) sees this differently, of course, but right off the bat I notice four questions on which Christian faith offers arresting reflections.

One: A Theology of the Absurd. Begin with the bloody cross of Calvary. On this gibbet dies the Son of God? The cross is the very symbol of contradiction, and the absurd. When Christians speak of the act of Creation, we do not think of a perfectionist artificer making Lladró dolls, but rather of God creating flesh and blood in all its angularity, deformations, imperfections, and concrete limitations. The world of His creation is riven through with absurdities and contradictions, species that die out, and the teeming, blooming, buzzing confusion of contingencies and chance. When He singles out a chosen people, He picks a small and difficult tribe in a poor, backward, and underdeveloped part of the world (immensely talented to be sure, but not prestigious, famous, powerful, or on the surface of things influential). His chosen ones are overrun by enemies again and again, and carted off into slavery and exile for long, long years. Then, when the Creator sends his Son to become flesh, the Son also roots his new community mainly among the poor, the uneducated, the humble, the forgotten.

But then, blasphemy is added to blasphemy, and this Son of God is condemned to death as a common criminal, and forced into the most disgraceful sort of death known to men of that time: public mockery, a scourging virtually unto death, and then put out to hang on a cross where the public can shout insults, and until the vultures come to pick at his eyes.

This is not a Pollyanna, this Creator. But what He does do is assure those who suffer and who groan under the weight of the Absurd that, though at times they feel icy fear, they do not in the end need to be afraid. God is a good God, and has His own purposes, and it is no mistake to trust His kindness, ever. The Creator did not make us to face a reasonable world in a rational, calm, and dispassionate way--like a New York banker after a splendid lunch at his Club, sunk into his favorite soft chair in the Library, where a fragrant cigar is still permitted, as he comfortably reads his morning papers. Instead, there is war, exile, torture, injustice. Life is to be understood as a trial, and a time of suffering. A vale of tears. A valley of death. Even in the bosom of wealth, and luxury, and plenty, cancer and failure and radical loneliness strike; but even more often, simple boredom.

Not at all a land of happy talk, not at all the perfect world of Candide. Atheism is in the main for comfortable men, in a reasonable world. For those in agony and distress, Christianity has seemed to serve much better and for a longer time, not because it offers “consolation” but precisely because it does not. For Christians, the cross is inescapable, and one ought always be prepared to take it up. I myself have watched three deeply religious people die without consolation, bereft, empty of feeling for God. To be empty of consolation, however, is not to be empty of faith. Faith is essentially a quiet act of love, even in misery: “Be it done to me according to thy will.”

Like Stephen Jay Gould, our three authors think they are destroying the argument from design by showing how poorly designed are so many parts of human anatomy, how many species have perished since the beginning of time (something like 99 percent), how chancily and seemingly without reason so many steps in natural selection are taken. They want to show that if there is a Designer, he is an incompetent one; or, more exactly, there is too much evidence of lack of design. What kind of Lladró doll do they think God is? Our God is the God of the Absurd, of night, of suffering, and silent peace.

Two: The Burden of Sin. It took me some years, but I have come to understand that, just as some people have no ear for music, so others (as Friedrich Hayek put it) “have no ear for God.” Still others say they have no “need” of God. They sense in themselves no round hole into which God fits. It seems to be, further, one of the blessings of atheism that it takes away any sense of Judgment, any sense that by one’s actions one may be offending a Friend, any awareness of sin. “Sin” seems, indeed, to be a leftover from a bygone age. Beati voi! I want to cry out to atheists. Lucky you.

“At the heart of Christianity is the sinner,” a very great Christian once said. Some are aware of doing things that we know we ought not to have done, and of not doing things that we know we ought to have done. We are aware of sinning against our own conscience--deliberately doing what we know to be wrong, whether from weakness or from a powerful desire that is still out of control. Afterwards, sometimes, we feel a remorse so keen that it hurts--and yet what has been done is done, and nothing we now do can take that fault away. And at times the fault is shamefully grave, at that.

It is to this common, virtually universal experience that Jesus, like John the Baptist before him, first addressed his auditors. “Be sorry! Do penance. Resolve not to sin again.” (Even though the probabilities of sinning again are high, just as a man with a gimpy knee, though his knee has healed, knows that it will too easily go out on him.)

Christianity is not about moral arrogance. It is about moral realism, and moral humility. Wherever you see self-righteous persons condemning others and unaware of their own sins, you are not in the presence of an alert Christian but of a priggish pretender. It was in fact a great revolution in human history when the Jewish and Christian God revealed Himself as one who sees directly into consciences, and is not misled merely by external acts. (Pagan philosophers in Greece or Rome might or might not take the gods seriously, but often had no qualms about showing pietas at religious rites by their physical presence, unconcerned about conscience.) The Biblical respect for conscience greatly dignified and honored inner acts of reflection, commitment, and choice. It turned a powerful beam of attention away from the external act to the inner act of conscience. It greatly honored truthfulness and simple humility. Eventually, the inner duty of conscience toward the Creator became the ground of religious liberty--no other power dare intervene in this primal duty to God, which is antecedent to civil society, state, family, and any other institution. (See Jefferson’s “Statute of Religious Liberty,” 1785.)

Three: The Bright Golden Thread of Human History. In the liberation of the Jews from the Seleucid Empire (celebrated at Hanukkah), from Egypt (celebrated at the Passover), and from Babylon (celebrated in the poetry of Israel’s prophets), liberty is the main theme of the Jewish Testament. Every story in that Testament has at its axis the arena of the human will, and the decisions made there (whether hidden or external). Thus, for Biblical religion, liberty is the golden thread of human history. This conception of liberty is realized internally in the recesses of the soul and also institutionally in whole societies or polities.

No other world religions except Christianity and Judaism have put liberty of conscience so close to the center of religious life. For instance, Islam tends to think of God in terms of divine will, quite apart from nature or logic. Independently of reason, whatever Allah wills, occurs. Judaism and Christianity tend to think of God as Logos, light, source of all law and the intelligibility of all things. This difference in the fundamental conception of God alters, as well, the fundamental conception of the human being proper to each religion: understanding, or submission.

Four: The Point of the Cosmos Is Friendship. If it has ever occurred to you to ask, even if you are an atheist, why did God create this vast, silent, virtually infinite cosmos, you might find your best answer in the single word “friendship.” According to the Scriptures, intelligently read, the Creator made man a little less than the angels, a little more complex than the other animals. He made human beings conscious enough, and reflective enough, that they might marvel at what He had wrought, and give Him thanks. Even more than that, He made human beings in order to offer to them, in their freedom, His friendship and companionship. If there is no liberty, there can be no friendship.

Friendship is not only the Biblical way of thinking about the relationship between God and man; it is also a good way to imagine the future for our nation and for the world that we should work towards. From this vision, Judaism and Christianity imparted to the world a way of measuring progress and decline. William Penn called his capital city “Philadelphia,” and made freedom of religion its first principle. Even the atheists of the French Revolution named their fundamental principles “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality”--each of them a term that derives not from the Greeks or the Romans, but from Biblical religion. A worldwide civilization of mutual friendship is a powerful magnet, and a realistic measure. Friendship does not require uniformity. On the contrary, its fundamental demand is mutual respect, willing the good of the other as other. It births a desire to converse in a reasonable way about fundamental differences in viewpoint, hope, and a sense of practical responsibility.


I recognize that the Christian horizon sketched above in broad strokes may seem preposterous to such atheists as Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. They may look in vain for empirical evidence, of the sort they are able to recognize as evidence, that this sketch of God and man can even in a minimal way be in touch with reality as they know it. On the other hand, it is not so difficult for a serious Christian to stand in the moccasins of an atheist, and to see the world as atheists see it. The four principles of the paradigm sketched above--friendship, liberty, the forgiveness of sin, the acceptance of absurdity--do not exclude the viewpoint of the atheist. In fact, one learns a great deal about each principle from the writings of atheists, including Sartre, Camus, Silone, Moravia, Dewey, Seneca, Aristotle and thousands of others in between. It seems that Christianity is better able to account for, and to sympathize with, the contemporary atheist than the latter is able to sympathize with the Christian. If nothing else, the three books under review show how hard it is for the contemporary atheist (of the scientific school) to show much sympathy for a Christian way of seeing reality. Since just over two billion persons on our planet today are Christians--about one in every three persons on earth--the inability of the contemporary atheist to summon up fellow feeling for so many companions on the brief voyage of a single human life seems to be a severe human handicap.

Again, it is not difficult for the serious Christian to put on the viewpoint, methods, and disciplines of evolutionary biology. Thousands of religious graduate students do so each year. One simply has to limit one’s attention and understanding to what that discipline counts as evidence and methodological rigor. One has to master its concepts and important axioms. One has to limit one’s point of view, and the sorts of questions one asks (no use asking questions that go beyond the strict limits imposed by the discipline itself). If you can live within these limits, all the easier.

The art of doing so is not altogether different from learning to think as an ancient Greek, or for Catholics to learn how to look at things as a Baptist, a Lutheran, and a Presbyterian, or for the last named to stand provisionally in the moccasins of a Catholic. The odd way in which Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris understand human life is something the sensitive believer must necessarily learn along the way. I cannot imagine getting through graduate studies at Harvard, teaching at Stanford and other universities, without learning how to think, and speak, and work within the horizon, viewpoints, methods, and disciplines of the atheist.

Nor is this art solely the product of our modern pluralistic age. The young Thomas Aquinas, in his late twenties, was one of the first men in the West to have in his hands an authentic translation of several key books of Aristotle, whose original Greek versions had been lost for over a thousand years (except in early, pre-Muslim Arab translations). As his extended line-by-line commentaries on several of the most important of these show, Aquinas mastered a viewpoint quite foreign to his own. Not many years after, he had to do the same in reading al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, and other major Arab philosophers.

And so, when a Christian reader comes across Professor Dawkins’s argument that God cannot exist, because all complex and more intelligent things come only at the end of the evolutionary process, not at the beginning, the Christian’s first reflex may be to burst out laughing--but as an attentive student, he is also obliged to observe that, yes, from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, that must in fact be so. The argument may not be intellectually or philosophically satisfying; when its practical implications are compared with those of the Christian viewpoint, evolutionary biology may not be attractive as a way of life. If one wants to be an evolutionary biologist, however, one must learn to confine oneself within the disciplines that that field imposes.

From a Roman Catholic point of view, at least, there is no difficulty in accepting all the findings of evolutionary biology, while not accepting evolutionary biology as more than an empirical science--that is to say, not as a philosophy of existence, a metaphysics, a full vision of human life. It is easier for Christianity to absorb many, many findings of the contemporary world--from science to technology, politics, economics, and art--than for those whose viewpoint is confined to the contemporary era to absorb Christianity. That is just one reason why we may expect the latter to outlive the former.

It is obvious that Dawkins, at least, is quite aware of the conventional limitations of the scientific atheist’s point of view. He writes that “a quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief.” A few pages of his book, in almost every section, are given over to showing how an atheistic point of view can satisfy what have hitherto been taken to be religious longings. Atheism, too, he shows, has its consolations, its sources of inspiration, its awareness of beauty, its sense of wonder. For such satisfactions, there is no need to turn to religion. Dawkins does good work in restoring human subjectivity, emotion, longing, and an awed response to beauty to the life of scientific atheism. For Dawkins, scientific atheism is humanistic, a significant step forward from the sterile logical positivism of two or three generations ago.


But atheism has a more severe limitation, one that shows itself in the actions of its proponents. One of my favorite parts of the Sam Harris book is his attempt to explain away the horrors of the self-declared atheist regimes in modern history: Fascist in Italy, Nazi in Germany, and Communist in the Soviet Union. Never in history have so many Christians been killed, tortured, driven to their deaths in forced marches, and imprisoned in concentration camps. An even higher proportion of Jews suffered more greatly under the same regimes, particularly the Nazi regime, than at any other time in Jewish history. The excuse Harris offers is quite lame. First he directs attention away from the declared character of the regime, toward the personalities of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin: “While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional. . . . The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths.”

In other words, delusional atheists are not really atheists. Would Harris accept a claim by Christians that Christian evildoers are not really Christian? The real problem is not that tyrants reject the “dogma” of religion, but that they splash around in the bloodshed permitted by the ultimate relativism of all things. And they are comforted by the “natural law” that they imbibe from old-fashioned Darwinism: that the strongest must survive, and the weak must perish.

Our authors may dismiss the argument that atheism is associated with relativism. Nonetheless, the most common argument against placing trust in atheists is Dostoevsky’s: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” There will be no Judge of deeds and consciences; in the end, it is each man for himself. To be sure, some individual atheists “of a peculiar character” and academic distinction, brought up in habits inculcated by the religious cultures of the past, can go on for two or three generations living in ways hard to distinguish from those of unassuming Christians and Jews. These individuals continue to be honest, compassionate, committed to the equality of all, and firm believers in “progress” and “brotherhood,” long after they repudiate the original religious justification for this particular list of virtues. But sooner or later a generation may come along that takes the metaphysics of atheism with deadly seriousness. This was the fate of a highly cultivated nation in the Europe of our time.

Let us recall George Washington’s Farewell Address: Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. If morality were left to reason alone, common agreement would never be reached, since philosophers vehemently--and endlessly--disagree, and large majorities would waver without clear moral signals. Moreover, in times of stress distinguished intellectuals such as Heidegger and various precursors of postmodernism (including deconstructionist Paul de Man) displayed a shameless adaptation to Nazi or Communist imperatives.

Dawkins attempts to get around this flaw in the neo-Darwinian view of chance and blind natural selection by counting out four reasons for altruism rooted in evolutionary biology. First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback. . . . Third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying authentic advertising. To these reasons based upon nature’s egotism, Jews and Christians would add three or four others. First, not to love one another is to disappoint the Creator who wishes us to be his friends. Second, it is a failure to imitate the Lord Jesus, who asked us to follow him. Third, experience confirms that loving others is in tune with a communal dimension of our nature, beginning in the family, but radiating outward through the polity and the economy. (Adam Smith referred to this highest law as “sympathy.”) Fourth, there is no doubt that every Christian command has a foundation in nature, but tends to stretch nature’s outer limits. Christian faith does not reject, but builds upon nature, adds to it, brings it to a richer perfection.

Finally, our three authors fail to think carefully about what Jews and Christians actually have to say about God. Their own atheistic concept of God is a caricature, an ugly godhead which anybody might feel duty-bound to reject. Dawkins makes fun of an omniscient God who would also be free. If an omniscient God knows now what future actions He will take, how will that leave room for Him to change his mind--and how does that leave Him omnipotent? Isn’t He caught in a kind of vise? But, of course, this is to imagine God being in time as Dawkins is in time. It is to fail to grasp the difference between a viewpoint from eternity, outside time, and a viewpoint from within time. It is also to fail to grasp the freedom that the primary cause, outside of time (simultaneous to every moment of it), may allow within time to secondary causes, to contingencies, and to particulars. God’s will is not before human decisions are made. Rather, it is simultaneous with them, and thus empowers their being made. When Catholics celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass, for example, we imagine that our moment of participation in that Mass--as it is on every other day of our lives--is in God’s eyes simultaneous with the bloody death of His Son on Calvary. In our eyes, it looks like a “re-enactment,” but in God’s eyes both moments are as one. No doubt, for some minds this is all too mystical, and its underlying philosophy a bit too sophisticated, especially to those of literal and purely empirical tastes. Our three authors, in any case, present a quite primitive idea of God. If the rest of us had such a view, we, too, would almost certainly be atheists.

The whole inner world of aware and self-questioning religious persons seems to be territory unexplored by our authors. All around them are millions who spend many moments each day (and hours each week) in communion with God. Yet of the silent and inward parts of these lives--and why these inner silences ring to those who share them so true, and seem more grounded in reality than anything else in life--our writers seem unaware. Surely, if our atheist friends were to reconsider their methods, and deepen their understanding of such terms as “experience” and “the empirical,” they might come closer to walking for a tentative while in the moccasins of so many of their more religious companions in life, who find theism more intellectually satisfying--less self-contradictory, less alienating from their own nature--than atheism.

The only way human beings can come to understand each other is by learning, out of mutual respect, how to stand in each other’s shoes. If that maxim of Habermas is true, we might wish our three authors had done more, from their side, to close the great divide between belief and unbelief in the human spirit of our time. Still, we can be grateful that our authors have opened a window into the souls of atheists, so that the rest of us might better understand what the world looks like from their point of view--and even to see ourselves for a while as they see us.

Tags: atheism, books, class-intro to theology, course articles, cultural, faith and reason, secularism/modernity, theological notebook

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