Saturday, May 10, 2008

God and the new atheism

John Haught is a much-admired Roman Catholic theologian at Georgetown University and a prolific writer on matters of science and faith. I have read his books with profit. While I do not concur with his earnest efforts to preserve the essential elements of orthodoxy, he always gives science and philosophical naturalism a fair shake. I share with him the conviction that science is an inadequate vessel to contain the hopes, fears and strivings of a human life. He has also been an ally in the battle to keep creationism and intelligent design out of the science curriculum of pubic schools.

So it was with a bit of disappointment that I read his "Last Word" essay in the current issue of Commonweal, titled "Don't Assign These Books." The books he's referring to are those of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, the so-called "new atheists," now available in paperback and ready for assignment in college classes. He writes: "I hope teachers will think carefully before putting them in the hands of their students, at least as introductory texts. These tirades simply add to the sad spectre of global fundamentalism. In their own way they reinforce the growing -- and dangerous -- ignorance about religion in the world today. Ironically, they also fail to offer readers an accurate and substantive understanding of atheism."

Haught's argument that the books are theologically naive can be read as protecting the turf of the professional theologian. It is certainly true that the books in question are polemics rather than nuanced theological tracts, but sometimes it takes a naif to see that the emperor has no clothes. As far as Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are concerned, if God makes himself manifest in the natural world, then those manifestations are open to scientific scrutiny. If God does not reveal himself in the sensate world, then he cannot be known, and "the-ology" is an oxymoron.

As Haught well knows, the "new atheists" are responding to what they perceive to be a dangerously reinvigorated religious fundamentalism, Christian and Islamic. Their response is worthy of attention, and I for one would be happy to see university students reading and debating these books, perhaps in association with Haught's own God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Why bother reading a "response" unless one has read the books being responded to?

Book burning or banning is unworthy of a free people anywhere, and although I am confident that Haught would neither burn nor ban, his plea in Commonweal comes uncomfortably close to the sort of religiously-inspired illiberalism that provoked the "tirades" in the first place.