The Common Good

John F. Haught on the New 'Soft-Core Atheists' (interview by Becky Garrison)

Following the publication of The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail I received hordes of books critiquing Dawkins & Co. While most of the responses tended to veer off into Kirk Cameron country, I found a few gems such as John F. Haught's God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Following is an interview with Dr. Haught, senior fellow of Science & Religion at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center.



Why do you call Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris softcore atheists?


Because they fail to probe deeply into the logical, ethical, and cultural implications of a consistent atheism. They think of belief in God more as a nuisance to be removed than as a stimulus to radical personal, cultural, and ethical upheaval. I contrast them with "hardcore" atheists-writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. The latter all realized that atheism is not easy to pull off without seismic implications. As Sartre said, the road to atheism is "a cruel and long-range affair." The true atheist must be willing to risk madness (Nietzsche) and embrace the absurd (Camus). In my view, the hardcore atheists were not consistently atheistic either, but at least they attempted to think out what atheism would really mean if it were true.



How do you respond to the new atheists' claims that all faith is irrational?


They define faith very narrowly as "belief without evidence." To be rational, they claim, we must empty our minds of any ideas for which scientifically accessible "evidence" is in principle unavailable. Since religions can claim no such evidence, they must be irrational. However, the claim that science is the most authoritative way to truth is itself a belief without evidence. If all faith is irrational, then so is the new atheism, by definition.



How is intolerance of tolerance a truly novel feature to the new atheists' solution to the problems of human misery?


According to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, as soon as people embrace even the most innocent beliefs they are opening up a space in their minds for the eventual invasion of the most monstrous forms of religious lunacy (such as the ideas behind suicide bombings). So, to eliminate much human misery, let's get rid of faith altogether! Such intolerance of faith is by no means new. What is new is the new atheists' intolerance of the modern liberal principle that the faith of others should be respected. By respecting faith, they claim, we are all accomplices in evil. The irony here is that the new atheists seem to forget that the freedom to advance their own uncritical belief in scientism and scientific naturalism is also due to the modern liberal tolerance of "faith."



Why do you diagnose the new atheists as suffering from a bad case of explanatory monism?


Explanatory monism is the reductionist postulate that there is only one valid explanatory slot available to make sense of things. For example, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins assume that since we can now understand morality and religion in terms of evolutionary biology, theological explanation is superfluous. I argue instead that both theology and evolutionary science can contribute to our understanding.



Elaborate what you mean by this statement: "deepening of theology that has occurred in previous conceptions between serious atheists and Christians has little chance of happening in the works of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris?"


In God and the New Atheism I show that that the new atheists are as literalist in their understanding of scriptures and theology as are the anti-Darwinian religious fundamentalists they oppose. The level of challenge they pose to contemporary theology is glaringly low in comparison with serious atheists such as Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche who at least knew enough about religious thought to engage theologians of the stature of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, or Karl Rahner.



What are some ways we can create spaces for this serious dialogue to begin?


The new atheist phenomenon emerges from and appeals to a culture shaped in great measure by a noxious blend of poor science education with and equally undeveloped religious and theological education. There is greater need than ever today to improve both. Current interest in the science and religion dialogue is a hopeful development, but it needs to take place at every level of education, not least in seminaries and schools of theology.

Publishers Weekly cited Becky Garrison as one of "four evangelicals with fresh views" alongside Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and Ron Sider.

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