November 17, 2010

Review: John F. Haught, "God and the New Atheism"

Title: God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens
Author: John F. Haught
Publisher: Westminster John Knox
Genre: Religion
Year: 2008
Pages: 124
ISBN13: 9780664233044
Binding: Paperback
Price: 16.95

Responses to the claims of the so-called "new atheism" vary according to the interests of each particular respondent. John F. Haught, Senior Fellow in Science and Religion at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University is touted as "one of the world's leading thinkers in the field of theology and science", and his book reflects that focus. Specifically, he calls his book a "theological response" to the underlying assumptions of the "science-inspired atheism" promulgated by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others (xi). To Haught, the intellectual undergirding of atheism has seen better days, he confesses his "disappointment in witnessing the recent surge of interest in atheism" because he finds it "so theologically unchallenging" (xi). Nevertheless, he took up the pen to help not only "specialists, teachers, and students, but also...the general reading public" become better acquainted with the way faith informs reason and vice versa (xi).

Haught tackles the "new atheist" criticisms from the approach of theological studies. He feels writers like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have slighted a great deal of theology by focusing their attack solely on fundamentalist or strawman descriptions of religion. He does a fine job outlining new atheist assumptions and discussing why theology should be brought to bear on them. The book is brief (barely over a hundred pages) and doesn't delve into many specifics from the books it critiques. Instead, Haught explores the presuppositions of theology versus new atheism broadly speaking. This view comes through the lens of a theologian, which must be taken into account when considering the power and relevance of its arguments. People looking for a point-for-point analysis of new atheists should look elsewhere. (Haught repeatedly concedes, for example, that religious people have committed atrocious acts throughout history, but does not get into the specific charges leveled by new atheists. Not all such charges are fair or accurate, so conceding ground seems to be more of a tactical acknowledgement that problems have occurred while avoiding the grimy details along with the inaccurate accusations.)

Nevertheless, it is an engaging account which refers interested readers to more academic treatments if desired, specifically several books Haught wrote before this one. Thus this book seems to be more of a way to tie his previous work to the claims of new atheists. The lighter tone and minimal footnotes should be less intimidating to the average reader.

The book is divided into eight chapters. Chapters 1-7 could well resonate with many different theists, Jewish, Muslim or Christian. Chapter 8 is a "specifically Christian" response to new atheists (xv). In the remainder of this review I will give an overview of the first chapter, then point to some of the other questions Haught addresses in the rest of the book.

In chapter one, "How new is the new atheism?", Haught describes Sam Harris's post-9/11 response to worldwide terrorism as a sort of neo-Buddhism. Rather than Four Noble Truths, Harris posits Four Evident Truths geared to rid the world of faith and superstition, thus nipping terrorism in the bud. The first evident truth is that "many people in the word are living needlessly miserable lives" (2). The second evident truth is that faith, or "belief without evidence," is the cause of untold "unnecessary distress" (3). Buddha pins the problem on greed and desire, but Harris shifts this over to a human craving for "insane ideas to satisfy the seemingly bottomless appetite so many humans have for delusion" (3). For Harris, belief must be grounded on empirical evidence, although Haught points out this commitment itself is rooted in faith, that is, a "declaration of trust, in a 'will to believe'" (6). The third evident truth is that most unnecessary human suffering will be avoided if we "abolish faith from the face of the earth" (6). It is at this point that Haught sees new atheists departing from older critiques of religion. "It is not just faith, [the new atheists] say, but our polite and civil tolerance of faith that must be uprooted if progress toward true happiness is to be made" (8). As Harris notes, "As long as we respect the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers" (9). Thus, "Intolerance of tolerance seems to be a truly novel feature of the new atheists' solution to the problem of human misery" (10). They challenge faith on both cognitional and moral grounds. The fourth evident truth is that we can rid the world of suffering by following "the hallowed path of the scientific method" (11). For Haught, the diagnosis and prescription are too simplistic; the new atheists invite humans to "squeeze their lives, minds, and hearts into the comparatively minuscule world of scientific objectification" (13).

Throughout the rest of the book Haught explores theological questions he believes new atheists have botched. Does theology matter? Is God a scientific hypothesis? Is God a personal being? Why do people believe? Can we be good without God? This last question raises particularly interesting observations. "In spite of the new atheism's scholarly narrowness, its one-sidedness, and its many exaggerations," Haught notes, "it is not altogether without truth and value. Its importance consists primarily in reminding readers of what happens when religions take themselves too seriously, enthroning themselves in the place of the infinite mystery into which they are supposed to initiate us" (76). In other words, new atheism acts as a check against idolatry, of all things. But the antidote to idolatry isn't atheism, Haught argues, but faith.

Perhaps the part of the book I found most interesting in relation to my own Latter-day Saint faith is the section on "the tolerance of ambiguity" (99). Fundamentalists, whether theistic or atheistic, struggle with what Haught sees as one of the main messages of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: the "original and adventurous belief that God is not to be sought apart from the material world, human embodiedness, and the ambiguities of historical existence" (103). Such a belief is messy. "Rather than dwelling in a Platonic sanctuary above the terrors of history, the God of Christianity becomes embodied in events that are historically and culturally contingent" (102). In a striking passage Haught concludes:

Only a still-unfinished universe--such as the one that geology, cosmology, and biology have been revealing to us over the past two centuries--could provide the setting for human freedom and creativity. Of course, to say that the universe is "unfinished" is to imply that it is imperfect, ambiguous, and open to tragic as well as marvelous outcomes. Even the fact that religions themselves are so imperfect, and sometimes horrifically evil, is completely consistent with the fact that they too are part of an unfinished universe. It is important to face up to the evils associated with religious faiths, and on this score the new atheists are right to point them out. At the same time it is hard to imagine how a Creator who truly loves freedom, diversity, and novelty could ever have rounded everything off presto into a closed and static circle of eternal sameness....The Christian hope is for a universe in which evil will be conquered and all tears will be wiped away. Such a hope, by setting forth the possibility of a new future, is a great incentive to moral action" (106-107). 

While Latter-day Saints would likely nuance Haught's calling God the "ultimate ground of all being" (91-92), his description of the implications of Christ's incarnation and God's ongoing work in the world should strike a responsive cord in Latter-day Saints, who believe God's work and glory is "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life" of humanity and the world (Moses 1:39). Latter-day Saints will likewise benefit from Haught's discussion of "social justice" (68, 94-95). I'm still looking for a book that more directly responds to individual claims of various new atheist authors but still found this book well-worth reading. By taking a theological look at the undergirding assumptions of new atheists, Haught makes a compelling case that theology has a legitimate place at the 21st century table of discussion on science, faith, and religion.


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