Religion as drama

(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


  1. Yasmin says

    Remember the Emperor’s New Clothes? If you couldn’t see them that’s not because they were non-existent-it’s because YOU are not wise enough or good enough to see what’s obvious to everyone else.

    Same thing with some religious dogma. You have a problem with the Trinity? Can’t see how three can be one and one can be three? YOU have no sense of the transcendent, the mysterious and sublime, you Philistine, you!

  2. says

    So according to Hart it is absolutely necessary to have a very complex and sophisticated understanding of all of the details of Christianity, how they fit into Christianity’s version of history*, and all possible versions of this narrative are all absolutely necessary to be able to reject those ideas. If this is true, then shouldn’t it symmetrically be true that one has to have this basis to accept the beliefs, too?

    I hope Hart is as strident in his derision towards the lay believers out there as he is towards us lazy and arrogant atheists. I am sure he never gives them a pass for getting the basic ideas and messages and for knowing in their hearts the truth and beauty of the stories.

    Jared A

    *Worth being precise because Hart’s version of the relationship between paganism and Christianity is highly idealized and really doesn’t capture the historical origins of the religion very well.

  3. Jared A says


    I read this comment from the original essay and had to share it. I hope the original author doesn’t mind:

    Steve Zara says (4.22.2010 12:57pm):
    Theism: A young child puts their hand behind their back and asks “what am I holding” and whatever you answer, they say “no, it’s not that!”

    Atheism: Not believing until you see what, if anything, is in the hand.

    Hart’s atheism: Having to spending a lifetime studying the possibilities of what such children might be holding, and then regretfully insisting that the world needs to free of children playing games, and should be scolded when they try.

  4. kuraL says


    Another apologist from another time did not waste time spinning.

    . . . We must beware, as Professor Whitehead says, of paying God ill-judged ‘metaphysical compliments.’ We say that God is ‘infinite.’ In the sense that His knowledge and power extend not to some things but to all, this is true. But if by using the word ‘infinite’ we encourage ourselves to think of Him as a formless ‘everything’ about whom nothing in particular and everything in general is true, then it would be better to drop that word altogether. Let us dare to say that God is a particular Thing. Once He was the only Thing: but He is creative, He made other things to be. He is not those other things. He is not ‘universal being’: if He were there would be no creatures, for a generality can make nothing. He is ‘absolute being’—or rather the Absolute Being—in the sense that He alone exists in His own right.
    C. S. Lewis

    I am waiting for Hart to take on Lewis.

  5. Robert Allen says

    I read the Hart article a couple weeks back because a Christian friend posted it on facebook. Some points are fair. It is inexcusable for people like Dawkins or Hitchens to characterize religious claims as absurdly as they do. For example, Hitchens thinks Christianity is like a celestial North Korea. Come on. It hurts the atheist cause because it’s so easy for a theist to focus on the misinformation and miss their good points. It’s also unnecessary. The theist position is easy to debunk even when it is characterized charitably.

  6. Jared A says


    I did ridicule David Hart on some points above, but I actually agree with you on your point. Hitchens in particular is someone that should be lambasted for his rhetorical tricks. I wouldn’t be sad to see the end of that guy.

    Dawkins, on the other hand, is a little more complex. He does get carried away from time to time in his characterizations. However, he’s the type of person who actually admits that he’s wrong when he’s called out on it, a case I’ve seen several times. It annoys me when people will quote something that Dawkins says and leave it there without mentioning that he recanted the statement 5 minutes later.


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