Are the ‘New Atheists’ avoiding the ‘real arguments’?
Recently, the popular and successful books of atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens having been receiving some public criticism from religious quarters, with the most recent coming from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. According to Williams, in their discussions of Christianity, the religion critiqued by Dawkins, Hitchens and others is not a religion he recognises as his own, and these authors are arrogantly and erroneously trying to tell Christian believers ‘I know what you mean’ when in fact they don’t, which is apparently ‘annoying’ him. The basic claim from Williams and others is that these atheist writers simply haven’t taken the time to properly study what it is they are writing against, and they should study some theology and address the ‘real arguments’. Given the fact that I have studied theology and attained a BA in Theology & Religious Studies with First Class Honours, I presume Williams would not claim that I have no idea what I’m talking about, yet I still concur with the conclusions of Dawkins and Hitchens.
In the following article, I shall briefly outline the basics of Christian belief, and using his own words demonstrate what Williams holds to be true. My conclusion is that Dawkins and co have not failed miserably in their representation of the Christian faith, and that their lack of in-depth theological study in fact does nothing to harm the veracity of their arguments.
First, let’s take a quick look at the basic biblical narrative:
There is an indescribably powerful and intelligent being called God who is in existence prior to the dawn of time. For whatever reason, he decides to create the universe and pays particular attention to planet Earth. Having created the universe, Earth and all the species on it (through ‘creating’ the Big Bang and ‘guiding’ evolution in the Williams style of interpretation), he decides to focus all his attention on a collection of tribal groupings in the Middle East, in particular the Israelites who are his ‘chosen people’ and who he obsesses over, while apparently ignoring the rest of the world’s population. He lays down numerous often primitive and arbitrary moral and ceremonial laws, then gets involved in inner tribal politics and land disputes, inciting acts of brutality, war crimes, genocide, and rape along the way. Fast forward to the Middle East under Roman occupation and God decides it’s time to put in an appearance. By mystical means he comes to earth in human form, being born of a virgin. He becomes incarnate as a Jewish male and wanders around what is today Israel-Palestine, imparting pithy social commentary (but never giving any systematic explanation of how such ideas might be made politically useful), engaging in faith healing (removing ‘demons’ from people), magic tricks (such as walking on water and raising a dead man), and ranting on and on about sin, eternal punishment for the majority of the world’s population, and the impending end of the world. He gets himself crucified, in order that he can sacrifice himself to himself for our good. A few days later he walks out of his tomb and wanders round with some of his followers (noticeably not bothering to make himself known to anyone but those who already believed in him), before ‘ascending’ into ‘Heaven’, to wait for the time when he will return to raise every human who has ever lived in bodily form for judgement, then cast most of us into a pit of fire and take a select few into his ‘kingdom’ for eternity where they will live happily ever after.
These are the basic building blocks upon which all Christian theology is constructed. Williams and others can protest that of course they don’t really see things in such a simplistic and manifestly implausible way, but this narrative underpins the Bible, the Church creeds, liturgies, and centuries of theological speculation.
Williams claims that ‘[w]hen believers pick up Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, we may feel as we turn the pages: “This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, it’s not actually what I believe in”‘. Perhaps we atheists have misread people like Williams, and maybe some deep profundity has been missed. So, let’s look at what Williams claims to believe and see if that is the case.
Williams states that ‘it would be utterly destructive and utterly wrong to declare from the pulpit what I did not in fact believe’ and that ‘offering for ordination entails taking the responsibility for the faith of the church, not just little bits of it’. What is ‘the faith of the church’? Does it bear any relation to the crude narrative outlined above? The Nicene Creed is for many of the largest Christian denominations a unifying statement of faith, and emerged from early church debates about the nature of Christian faith. It is read by priests and congregations alike at every Sunday Eucharist. If Williams feels he can give assent to this document, which he clearly does as he is happy to join in its recitation and, as we have seen, he believes it would be ‘utterly wrong’ to proclaim something he does not believe to be true, then we can take it to be an accurate reflection of his view of reality.
Here is the Nicene Creed in full:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen
Here we have the basics that one must believe in order to be a Christian. This is the ‘faith of the church’, which Williams believes he is ‘responsible’ for proclaiming and defending. We see the story of a creator God who ‘speaks’ through the Israelite ‘prophets’, who places important and accurate information about the future in the ‘Scriptures’ (i.e. the Old Testament), a God who ‘comes down’ from and ‘ascends’ to what can only be an actual place called ‘Heaven’, who is born of a virgin mother, who was crucified ‘for our sake’, who rose from the dead, who is to return one day from ‘Heaven’ in order that he can ‘raise’ dead bodies back to life for ‘judgement’, and who will take believers into an eternal ‘kingdom’. It is manifestly clear that I have not chosen to misread or misrepresent the alleged facts of Christianity, and that Dawkins or anyone else can quite reasonably read this statement of faith and decide whether or not he finds it to be plausible or fanciful, plainly fictitious nonsense.
A key allegation is that because the ‘new atheists’ haven’t studied theology in any depth they cannot really know what they are talking about. Perhaps something important has been missed. Perhaps the Creed needs some theological reflection in order that its ‘true meaning’ can be discerned. Take Jesus’ supposed resurrection, for example. Surely if Dawkins read theology he would understand that this should not be seen as a literal historical event entailing a dead body getting up and walking out of its tomb? Yet this is clearly not the case if one reads Williams’ own words. Reacting to the suggestion of ultra-liberal American bishop John Shelby Spong that Williams surely doesn’t really believe in walking corpses, Williams states that such a suggestion makes him ‘quite cross’, because:
I am genuinely a lot more conservative than he would like me to be. Take the Resurrection. I think he has said that of course I know what all the reputable scholars think on the subject and therefore when I talk about the risen body I must mean something other than the empty tomb. But I don’t. I don’t know how to persuade him but I really don’t.
So, Williams does believe in walking corpses. But what about all this stuff about Jesus being God incarnate? Maybe if Dawkins and co read theology they would find that a more creative, poetic, and less literal interpretation is proposed by the likes of Williams. Again, it would seem not:
Some of the fundamental patterns of Christian teaching – the creation of the world from nothing, the utter involvement of God and Jesus Christ and the Spirit – they are to me the grammar of anything we might say. I’m not impressed when anyone says we ought to be creative about those; they are what create us, they are the realities that make it possible for us to be the human beings God wants us to be. I can’t imagine wanting to be creative in respect to them any more than I could with the air I breathe.
One is led to ask again how exactly Dawkins and others have supposedly set up a straw man caricature of Christian faith, how Williams can feel that ‘[w]hatever the religion being attacked here, it’s not actually what I believe in’, given his clear assent to the notions outlined in the Creed.
At this point I should briefly concede that in order for certain aspects of the Creed to be fully understood, at least a cursory reading of Patristic theology is a necessary undertaking. Some of the phrases do have a very technical meaning, and were arrived at through an often heated process of debate. Three examples that particularly stand out are the following concepts: ‘eternally begotten of the Father’, ‘of one Being with the Father’, and ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’. However, the core message of Christianity is not dependant on such theological obscurantism and pedantry. These phrases are derived from later reflection on what I have termed the building blocks of Christian faith. It is not necessary to understand the theological musings of early church thinkers in order to discount the underlying message of a virgin birth, demons and angels, miracles, a divine blood sacrifice, walking corpses, and heaven and hell as nonsense. Here we see a clear example of the very nature of theology, and why its study is genuinely unnecessary for Christian faith to be rejected. In principle, one should be able to judge the alleged truths of Christianity based on the biblical narratives alone, for all later theological reflection is grounded in the assumption that these narratives are an accurate reflection of world history and ultimate reality. Take out these narratives and the whole theological edifice comes tumbling down. In theology, one will find centuries of attempts by intelligent men and women to make their manifestly irrational beliefs appear logical and coherent, but it’s all based on the same few key beliefs.
The essence of theology is neatly summed up in a well known definition given by St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). In fact, as a theological student, this was the first definition of theology that I was taught. The notion of ‘faith seeking understanding’ demonstrates clearly how intellectually vacuous theology is, and how low its credibility should be as an academic pursuit (in the sense of actively engaging in its production, as opposed to its purely academic study as part of the history of ideas). Theology turns the scientific method which we have followed since the Enlightenment upon its head. Where scientific research may start with a reasonable proposition based on prior evidence (a hypothesis) and then examine further data to see if this proposition is factually accurate, or may simply lead to the discovery of data which no-one had previously predicted, theology starts with the acceptance of ideas that have no factual basis or for which the evidence is appallingly weak and proudly proclaims acceptance of these ideas on the basis of ‘faith’ as a virtue, and then goes on to attempt to make these a priori beliefs appear intelligible and rational. In other words, the ‘results’ of theology have been arrived at before study to confirm them has taken place. The theologian does not approach the basic tenets of Christian faith as possible truths to be tested for logical consistency; he or she instead begins with the conclusion that a series of internally incoherent, pre-scientific, and fantastic ‘beliefs’ derived from ‘faith’ are true, and then attempts to dress these beliefs up in the clothes of intellectual credibility. Theology is not in this sense a proper academic pursuit, but is instead the attempt to mask superstition in a fog of pseudo-intellectual verbiage. Williams is good at this. We already know what he believes about God, Jesus, and so on from his own words and from his assent to church doctrine, but then when speaking publicly he attempts to muddy the waters with vapid rhetoric such as the following from his recent lecture:
The religious believer says that moral integrity, self-introspection, honesty and trust are styles of living that connect with the character of an eternal and free agency, the agency most religions call God. Agree or disagree, but I would say to critics, at least grasp what is being talked about. Often the atheist seems to be talking about something else.
No, Dr Williams, the atheist is not ‘talking about something else’, but the very beliefs you proclaim to be true. Dressing up Christian ideas about God in language such as ‘an eternal and free agency’ is nothing but the creation of a smokescreen of meaningless jargon in an attempt to make superstition appear sophisticated.
It seems highly likely from the words of Williams that he himself has not bothered to read the writings he claims to be criticising. It seems amazing that he can blandly relate Christian belief to ‘moral integrity, self-introspection, honesty and trust’, without engaging with Dawkins’ sharp critiques of the notion of religiously and biblically derived morality in The God Delusion. What we seem to be seeing is the replaying of a centuries old argument so weak that even a school child should be able to unpick it – the notion that belief in God is integrally linked to ethical standards, with its implication that atheists are somehow unable to be moral because they don’t believe in a divine watchman who will one day bring judgement upon us.
Have Dawkins, Hitchens, and numerous other atheist thinkers grossly misrepresented Christianity? Can Christian believers justifiably claim that the religion they find written of by such thinkers is something other than the one they at least pay lip service to? No, and no, again. Must Dawkins and others undertake an arduous trawling through centuries of theological waffle in order to reject religious belief? Absolutely not.
The claims of Williams and others like him are nothing more than knee-jerk reactions against rationalism. They complain that their faith is being misunderstood when it seems that they themselves are the ones who are misrepresenting what they actually believe. How the Archbishop of Canterbury, a man who by his own admission believes in all the core teachings of the Christian faith, can claim that atheist critiques avoid the so-called ‘real arguments’ is beyond me. The fact is, there are no ‘real arguments’. Theology is at bottom a matter of faith, not genuine intellectual argument. Theologians can continue to write endless books and articles using dense and ‘learned’ tones, but there really is no need for atheists to read them as they all boil down to the same ultimate beliefs, beliefs that atheists, quite rightly in my view, reject on the basis that they do not have intellectual or moral credibility.
Edmund Standing holds a BA in Theology & Religious Studies and an MA in Critical & Cultural Theory