(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
In the previous post, I criticized an essay by theologian David B. Hart who took the new/unapologetic atheists to task for not being as sophisticated as the grand old philosophers like Nietzsche, saying that we were attacking low-level straw gods and not engaging at the highest level of philosophical sophistication. But when the dust settles, what does Hart actually believe? As is usually the case with sophisticated theologians, this turns out to be extraordinarily hard to pin down, but what we can say is that what they believe in is nothing that the average religious believer would recognize as god.
Hart starts by saying what he does not believe.
We can all happily concede that no complex, ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent superbeing, inhabiting the physical cosmos and subject to the rules of evolution, exists. But who has ever suggested the contrary?
Apart from the caveat ‘subject to the rules of evolution’, almost all religious believers would suggest the contrary. Basically he is saying that the god that most people believe in is not subject to the rules of evolution. Given that in the absence of any evidence you can assign any properties you like to god, we can concede him that point. But does a “complex, ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent superbeing, inhabiting the physical cosmos” that is not subject to the laws of evolution exist? He does not say because these sophisticated theologians rarely flatly state what kind of god they think exists because they know that existence claims require evidence and they cannot provide any. As is usually the case when theologians debate atheists, he is good at specifying what god is not but vague about what god actually is. This is a common ploy by sophisticated apologists since it enables them to avoid being pinned down to anything concrete and gives them an escape route so that when they get cornered, they can say that the god that has been refuted is not the god they personally believe in. (Jesus and Mo comment on the slippery use of the ‘metaphor’ argument, something I’ve also written about before.)
Hart goes on to criticize philosopher A. C. Grayling’s essay published in the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.
Here, displayed with an altogether elegant incomprehensibility in Grayling’s casual juxtaposition of the sea-born goddess and the crucified God (who is a crucified man), one catches a glimpse of the enigma of the Christian event, which Nietzsche understood and Grayling does not: the lightning bolt that broke from the cloudless sky of pagan antiquity, the long revolution that overturned the hierarchies of heaven and earth alike. One does not have to believe any of it, of course—the Christian story, its moral claims, its metaphysical systems, and so forth. (My italics)
His casual statement that ‘of course’ we do not have to believe any of the Christian story and its moral claims and metaphysical systems requires clarification. Is he saying that he himself does not believe it? Or that people can choose to reject it? If the former, then he has made what seems to me to be an extraordinary concession for someone who claims to be a Christian theologian. If the latter, then it is so obvious as to be not worth stating.
So what does he think is the point of believing in Jesus if the whole thing can be dismissed as fiction? He immediately goes on:
But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross, for what it is, in the full mystery of its historical contingency, spiritual pathos, and moral novelty: that tender agony of the soul that finds the glory of God in the most abject and defeated of human forms. Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away.
It is an odd statement. He seems to be saying that only by recognizing the immense and tragic significance of Jesus’s death do we earn the right to be taken seriously as atheists. This is utter nonsense. Just because Christians invest Jesus’s death, if he ever lived at all, with enormous import does not mean the rest of us have to. It is because we don’t that we are atheists.
In Hart’s apologetics we see once again the attempt to avoid making an existence claim for any kind of god. Instead we have an appeal to aesthetics, that Christianity provides a great sense of tragic drama that we atheists are too crass to see and because we cannot see it, our arguments against god are worthless. John Haught also made the claim that what Christianity provides is a great drama. What theologians like Hart and Haught seem to be saying is that whether it is true or not that god exists is irrelevant. What is important is whether the explanation provides a grand narrative that we can glory in. I have called such people ‘religious atheists’, people who seem to deny the existence of any popularly recognizable god but still want to be considered believers.
Sorry, but that won’t work. Most people want more from their god than that the story provide great drama. The people who make the trek to Oberammergau each decade to see a reenactment of the death of Jesus are not going there because of the great acting or a terrific script. They go there to be reminded of the way they think their actual, physical god died to save them from their sins. The whole salvation-by-vicarious-sacrifice may not make much sense but there is no doubt that the believers take this story seriously and as literally true. People are not looking to Christianity (or any other religion) to provide them with great drama in their lives. One can do much better by going to the movie theater or playhouse or reading books, without all the supernatural mumbo-jumbo. Believers want a god who answers their prayers in tangible ways.
The average Christian who occupies the pew of a church every Sunday is likely to be even more dismissive of the Hart-Haught idea of god-as-drama than any atheist. They will see it for what it is: a rejection of the basic tenets of their faith in the existence of a real god who acts in the world.
POST SCRIPT: Jesus doesn’t think much of Mr. Deity’s drama