Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A tempest in Russell's teapot

I see from the London Sunday Times book reviews that Karen Armstrong has entered the lists against the New Atheists -- Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc. -- with a new book, The Case for God: What Religion Really Means. I suspect I will like what the always interesting Armstrong has to say. For the moment, however, let me address one argument that shows up in the review.

The New Atheists, Armstrong says, "are not theologically literate," and "their polemic...lacks intellectual depth." It is a theme we have heard from others who have taken Dawkins et al. to task: the New Atheists are theologically naive, they set up a straw God -- an old man with a beard on a golden throne -- then knock him down. But no contemporary theologian of any stature believes in such a God, say the rebutters. God is something more than that.

Well, let's consider the argument.

First, the fact that Dawkins, et al. are not trained theologians is hardly relevant. After all, it only took a child to notice that the emperor had no clothes. The polemics of the New Atheists are not directed against a handful of sophisticated theologians who have a refined notion of divinity, but against the vast majority of believers, whose notions of God are not all that far away from the old man on the throne.

God is "love," say the rebutters, or God is "the graciousness of the universe." But love and graciousness are as much human attributes as gray beards and thrones. Tell the tse-tse fly and the tidal wave that the universe is graciousness and love.

Then how about "ultimate mystery," or "the ground of all being"? If that is all people meant by God then the Dawkinsists would never have taken up pen. According to the Sunday Times review, Armstrong speaks of God as, by definition, infinitely beyond human language, not as "an object of thought or speculation, but as an existential demand." But then why accuse the New Atheists of theological naivete? If God is unknowable, then there is no such thing as "theo-logy," God-knowledge.

If you believe in a God who is a person, who has a chosen people, who was born of a virgin and rose from the dead, who selected Mohammed as his prophet, who hears and answers prayers, or otherwise meddles in his creation and communicates his will to humans, then Dawkins et al. want your attention. If, with Armstrong, you believe you can ultimately say nothing about God, since God is no thing -- not a being, but Being -- then really there's no need to write a book refuting the New Atheists because there is nothing to refute.