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Feb 22 2011

Why atheism is winning-5: The battle for hearts and minds

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Although the Archbishop of Canterbury says he opposes new atheists for our ‘less tolerant attitude towards religion’, what I think is driving his concern is the fear that the new atheist message is reaching the ordinary flock. After all, atheists are currently in the minority. We have no power over anyone except the power of persuasion. If we are as intolerant or arrogant or rude as our critics claim, we are only hurting ourselves by such alienating behaviors and religious institutions should be pleased. Their concern about the new atheist message only makes sense if they are worried that our message is getting through to large numbers of people. The news report about the Archbishop’s call says that “The Church is keen to address the rise of new atheism, which has grown over recent years with the publication of bestselling books arguing against religion.” (My italics)

It is the fear that knowledge about religion’s shaky foundations are percolating amongst ordinary people that I think lies behind the other diversionary tactic, the repeated condescending criticism that new atheists argue at a low-level of sophistication by attacking the historical and scientific claims of religions. We are told that we should be engaging in high-level arguments of theology and philosophy.

This is a seductive appeal that has persuaded even some atheists who have theological and philosophical backgrounds, which is not surprising since it involves their disciplines and elevates the importance of their expertise. For example, John Shook of the Center for Inquiry, an atheist, critiques those whom he claims attack religion without knowing much of modern theology, saying “Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance… Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology.”

I for one proudly plead guilty to the charge. I have said that theology is a useless discipline and believe that new atheists are perfectly right is pushing it to the sidelines as peripheral. If there is no evidence that god exists, discussing the nature of god is as pointless as discussing what color a unicorn is or whether it is mean or mild-tempered.

These appeals are meant to draw new atheists back into the academic and intellectual world of theological ideas that are far removed from the actual world of religion as practiced by most people. Following their advice would continue to leave religion largely untouched because most religious believers do not care for such discussions and will simply ignore them, however absorbing or compelling those arguments might seem to the participants in them. However, tell the ordinary believer that Moses or Jesus or Mohammed never lived, and they sit up and take notice.

New atheists should not take the bait and get distracted by appeals to return to the rarefied world of theology. Debating theologians may be an enjoyable intellectual exercise to engage in from time to time (because theologians are often clever people and matching wits with them can be fun in small doses) but we should understand that theological discussions are irrelevant to the major goal of combating religion. What sophisticated theologians engage in are exercises in which they can find some vague sense of spirituality to believe in because they know that the evidence and science are against there being a tangible god. So they concoct abstract theories of god such as ‘apophatic theology’ and metaphors for god such as ‘ground of all being’ and (my personal favorite) a ‘plenitude of actuality’.

You will never convince a theologian that there is no god because they have essentially given up on god already by defining it out of any real existence. The entire work of modern theologians consists of finding ways to believe in a non-god. Their god, such as it is, is a slacker, dead, inert, passive, absent. There is simply no there there. It is a waste of time to look for any signs for him. To paraphrase Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch, it has ceased to be. It is demised. It is a stiff. It is an ex-god.

Even the pope probably realizes that his god is dead and in trying to explain his unresponsiveness is reduced to saying that god ‘surprises’ us. By that he means that when people pray to god, their answer may not be what they expect, which is a way of saying that whatever happens is god’s answer to the prayer. How one distinguishes that from god not being there at all, he does not say. This is the excuse religion has always used to gull believers who are disappointed by their prayers not being answered by a god who supposedly loves them dearly and cares for them.

Theologians provide nothing of value to ordinary religious believers except the cold comfort that some smart people also believe in some form of god. But the god the theologians believe in is not one that the average person in the church or mosque or synagogue would recognize, and if they were more aware of what theologians actually believe, ordinary religious people and even people like Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary would consider them as much atheists as us. Rather than fighting with these theologians, new atheists should encourage these theologians to spread their concept of god more widely to religious believers because such a non-god would alienate most religious believers and undermine their beliefs.

Most ordinary believers want an activist god whom they can pray to in the hope that he will intervene and supersede the laws of science in their favor, just like he supposedly did in the good old days of the Bible. To say that god did not really do the things in the Bible, that those stories are fictional and that god is a ‘plenitude of actuality’ would be a real turn-off.

Next: The death of religious philosophy

3 comments

  1. 1
    Mitchell Haynes

    Dear Dr. Singham,

    While I understand that from an atheist’s perspective,there is little value to theology, I think it would be valuable to paint a more nuanced picture of the situation. Theologians are often removed from the public view. The same could be said of philosophers, however, and it is undeniable that post-modernism has had a social impact far beyond academia. Theologians train clergy, and local clergy influence practices and beliefs in ways that may not be visible through news media. Theology helps clarify and define the ethics of religious communities. Even for non-believers, that has important consequences.

    I also believe that the dichotomy you describe between theologians and the laity does not exist in reality. The kinds of beliefs you ascribe to most theologians would still be considered heretical by almost all Christian, Jewish, and Muslim sects and denominations. The “Demythologization” of the bible undertaken by Rudolph Bultmann has since been denounced by theologians from all denominations of Christianity. Likewise, pluralism, pantheism, and various New-Age beliefs exist at all levels of modern religious communities. Many, many believers succeed in “defining God out of existence,” or in abstracting god as a projection of their own worldview. This kind of non-belief is by no means limited to University Theologians. While I agree with several of your observations, some of your generalizations seem too reaching.

  2. 2
    parrot care guide

    Atheism is winning simply because a lot of people have given up their faith! They did because they have concluded that most of the unfortunate things that they experience, they believe God can’t help them. If only they know how to see the positive side or blessings in disguise.

  3. 3
    gift

    Atheism is winning the battle because the only defenders of religion are Christians. The
    Christians usurped the bible from the Jews. They butchered the meaning of the bible through grossly inaccurate translation and the rejection of the oral transmission. The learned Jewish scholars that I have listened too are capable of putting forward a powerful and compelling case for the bible and religion. Interestingly, the jewish understanding of the bible is very much consistent with modern science. The problem is that the Jews don’t believe in proselytising, so all these pearls of wisdom remain with them and are unknown by mainstream society.

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