Christian Rope-a-Dope

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Via Arts and Letters Daily is a very interesting article by David Hart, author of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, in which we see the un-seriousness of the so-called New Atheists play into the hands of a Christian apologist.

With them having apparently spent their meager force, Hart can thereby profit from a tack similar to one I once discussed Dinesh D'Souza taking, and of which I asked:

If D'Souza is so confident in the reasonableness of his views, why not aim higher than a lightweight such as Dawkins? Perhaps it is because, as I have discussed here recently, D'Souza's own position can, by its nature, look rational only with a clown like Dawkins as an opponent.
Like D'Souza, Hart sees the New Atheists for the cream puffs that they are, but his attack is more interesting because of the way the intellectual weaknesses of the New Atheists play into his rhetorical approach, which depends heavily on two things: (1) the philosophical, cultural, and historical importance of religion as a precursor to philosophy; and (2) complexity worship.

Taking his recent reading of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists as his point of departure, Hart makes the following complaint, whose truth would come as no great surprise to me:
The only points at which the New Atheists seem to invite any serious intellectual engagement are those at which they try to demonstrate that all the traditional metaphysical arguments for the reality of God fail. At least, this should be their most powerful line of critique, and no doubt would be if any of them could demonstrate a respectable understanding of those traditional metaphysical arguments, as well as an ability to refute them. Curiously enough, however, not even the trained philosophers among them seem able to do this. And this is, as far as I can tell, as much a result of indolence as of philosophical ineptitude. The insouciance with which, for instance, Daniel Dennett tends to approach such matters is so torpid as to verge on the reptilian. He scarcely bothers even to get the traditional "theistic" arguments right, and the few ripostes he ventures are often the ones most easily discredited.
This criticism, if true, is scathing, and such a deficiency would be inexcusable in such a book. However, this is not what really interests me about the positive argument of Hart's article, which, in part, is something like, "The New Atheists don't really engage Christianity in a serious manner."

This point Hart drives home through a lengthy comparison of the work of Christopher Hitchens and Friedrich Nietzsche. This he does -- despite, revealingly, regarding Hitchens as "the most egregiously slapdash of the New Atheists" -- because he finds doing so necessary in order "to take proper measure of ... [the] intellectual depth" of New Atheism. Hart then -- if we take his reading and evaluation of Hitchens's God Is Not Good at face value -- torches Hitchens on the levels of his philosophic case against there being a God, the accuracy of his historical claims as well as their applicability as indictments of the cultural influence of religion, and the lack of moral force of his arguments.

It is particularly the last point above that Hart hammers home with his consideration of Nietsche:
Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated. He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?
This is, as I once called it, is an example of the "Gordian Knot" of religion. For most people, religion serves in the stead of a proper philosophy to sustain a desire to understand and achieve the good and to venerate the holy, but these are fatally mis-integrated onto an arbitrary foundation. At the end of that post, I noted that:
In the current cultural debate over religion, the new atheists err in throwing out the baby with the bathwater when they dismiss or show contempt for certain legitimate emotions and concepts that are traditionally associated with religion. But too often, when [they] realize this mistake ..., they ... assume that there is no secular basis for the good things religion is an attempt to do. In doing so, such intellectuals permit our highest aspirations to remain hostage to those who would have us destroy our minds and our lives with blind faith.
Or, to put it another way (and, in the process to mimic one of Hart's criticisms of Hitchens), Hart's underlying enthymeme is as follows:
Major Premise: [omitted]

Minor Premise: Even Nietzsche, who outguns all the New Atheists, felt he needed to replace religion with "a new and truly worldly mythos powerful enough to replace the old and discredited mythos of the Christian revolution."

Conclusion: You can't have morality or grandeur without faith.
It is this mistake, the idea that there is no morality or reverence without religion, that Hart seems to understand as the spiritual flip-side to the intellectual weakness exhibited by the New Atheists. And yet, it is in this sense that it is vitally important to have more than a nodding acquaintance with religion.

However, in another sense, religion is hardly important at all, and that is, ironically, in the sense that the question of whether there is a God is neither especially difficult to answer nor philosophically of great importance. One needn't be both a theologian and a historian to consider the question of God's existence on a philosophical level. Thus, I reject Hart's implicit demand that we read the Gospels to understand just what we're talking about when asking the question, not to mention the moving target that is his concept of a God, and which is designed to exempt it from rational discussion:
As a rule, the New Atheists’ concept of God is simply that of some very immense and powerful being among other beings, who serves as the first cause of all other things only in the sense that he is prior to and larger than all other causes. That is, the New Atheists are concerned with the sort of God believed in by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Deists. Dawkins, for instance, even cites with approval the old village atheist's cavil that omniscience and omnipotence are incompatible because a God who infallibly foresaw the future would be impotent to change it--as though Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and so forth understood God simply as some temporal being of interminable duration who knows things as we do, as external objects of cognition, mediated to him under the conditions of space and time.
Like religion itself, Hart's defense thereof combines food with poison, and, fascinatingly, focuses on a passel of patsies, while ignoring that greatest modern critic of religion, Ayn Rand. One wonders whether (and, if so, how) his latest book treats her.

-- CAV


madmax said...

I have seen theists repeatedly argue that their god is not accessible directly through "materialist reason" and that to demand such is a "materialist prejudice." For theists there is some non-rational means to knowledge of the super-natural realm. No matter how hard you push them to describe exactly what this non-rational means is, you will never get a direct answer. The closest you will come is that god is experienced directly through some type of intuition which, of course, is indistinguishable from imagination.

Theists also argue that proof of good lies in logical inferences that any rational person must make. If you don't make them, then you are clearly irrational. The Design argument, First Cause, Necessity, etc, are all based on assumptions built right into the premises of these arguments.

I point this out because it is a mistake that many atheists make in thinking that theists dismiss logic and reason out of hand and blindly and explicitly rely on faith. They don't do this. They redefine reason so that reason "points to the non-material" or to "something beyond itself." I have become convinced that the essence of theistic apologism is to destroy the meaning of words by using them out of the context they are designed for.

For example, Hart uses the terms "time" "space" "consciousness" and all in relation to his god. But what do any of these terms mean in the context of an "infinite", "boundary-less", "super-natural", "timeless", "limitless" yet nonetheless "conscious" being? How could "consciousness" have any meaning in such a context? Also, how could a being be "limitless" and "infinite"? Theism destroys language but Hart would have us believe otherwise.

Gus Van Horn said...


You are exactly right on all counts.

At every step of the way, such people will try to slip in arbitrary premises and otherwise thwart reason. The more erudite among them -- as this example shows -- will use a solid (or solid-looking) argument as a prop to make themselves look like they're being rigorous/provide cover to slip in the unwarranted.