Michael Robbins, the author of Alien vs. Predator, looks at popular theories of unbelief.
The Yeti theorists, and the so-called New Atheists in general — Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and their ilk — are soft targets. It takes no particular sophistication in theological matters to demolish their arguments. I confess I've read more polemics written against Ditchkins (Eagleton's collective term for them) than I needed to, because I enjoy seeing shoddy thinking skewered. Eagleton's book, David Bentley Hart's "Atheist Delusions," Mark Johnston's "Saving God" and certain of Marilynne Robinson's essays all run through similar themes: that "St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas would roll their eyes in disbelief at the third-rate challenge to their God posed by the likes of Ditchkins" (as Andrew O'Hehir put it in his review of Eagleton); that Ditchkins is prone to rudimentary historical errors; that Ditchkins wrongly believes the findings of the natural sciences to be at odds with the tenets of religious belief; and that Ditchkins is an acolyte of scientism, not science. Often these considerations are accompanied by a lament that atheism has fallen so far since Nietzsche, who understood religion from the inside, and was thus able to mount a devastating, informed critique against it.
In Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead," the minister John Ames, far from discouraging young Jack Boughton's doubt, gives him a copy of the atheist Ludwig Feuerbach's "The Essence of Christianity." I like this gesture very much. I've seen young people reading Dawkins or Dennett on the subway and wished I had a copy of Nietzsche's "On the Genealogy of Morality" to press on them. Still, New Atheism appears unlikely to do much harm: It now seems one of those journalistic fads that the half-educated feed on between Malcolm Gladwell books.
And yet. Paging through "Is God Happy?", a new selection of the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski's essays, I came upon this passage:Then there are the convinced atheists (if indeed any such exist); for them … there is no God question. They have not the slightest doubt that science has definitively driven God from the world; in their view, the idea of God is merely a vestige of old superstitions and past ignorance, or a psychological defence mechanism, or an expression of social conflict....
...It is not belief or unbelief that is a foolish response to our bewildering being-here, but an uncritical relation to either. Kierkegaard, according to whom almost no one in Christendom is actually a Christian, knew that doubt is an integral part of faith. Scientism, unlike science, makes no room for doubt: The "God question" is no question at all. But to deeply ponder that question is not to surrender to superstition or Satanic mischief in the fossil record (Mark Johnston is excellent on the need to rid religion of superstitious belief). It is only to recognize and honor what Kolakowski called "the incurable ambiguity of reality itself."
John Gray makes this point in "Straw Dogs":Driven to the margins of a culture in which science claims authority over all of human knowledge, [religious believers] have had to cultivate a capacity for doubt. In contrast, secular believers — held fast by the conventional wisdom of the time — are in the grip of unexamined dogmas.
H/T Call & Response blog from Duke Divinity School.