Once while I was watching a documentary on World War II (I forget which one) my son (I have six, but I remember which one) who was then about five saw what I was doing and sat next to me on the couch. After a few minutes, he turned to me and asked, “What team do you want to win?”
Paying attention to the ongoing television series Christianity vs. the New Atheists (it’s on all the networks—check local listings) has made me remember that conversation. When it comes to this contest, the cultural question seems, indeed, to be “What team do you want to win?”
This is a stupid question, methinks. But, American culture—prodded by the mass media and an educational system more interested in answers than questions—prefers polarizing sloganeering over intellectual engagement and honest discussion. Another sign of civilization’s collapse.
Let me get to the point: the ongoing agon between Christianity and the New Atheists is absurd. It makes for loud, abrasive entertainment, a kind of high-brow cross between Jerry Springer and The View, but (as recently shown by the televised “debate” between Richard Dawkins and Australian prelate George Cardinal Pell) offers little in the way of enlightenment. As Emerson once wrote, “An argument convinces no one.”
The darlings of New Atheism (which is really the Old Atheism with a press secretary) Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher (“Do you believe in God now?”) Hitchens are (or were) engaging conversationalists and writers. Their philosophical background, though, is in Anglo-American philosophy and the hard sciences, both of which have disregarded metaphysics and questions about God in favor of logic, argument, and data. There is nothing wrong with that, of course; but there is something wrong about their assumption that they are somehow the stewards of “the way.” This used to be called hubris.
Furthermore, the way the New Atheists place science in one corner of the ring and religion in the other is an example of what may be one of the grossest generalizations in modern intellectual history. I can think of a least a dozen PhD-level scientists I know personally who fail to see the incompatibility of religion and science. The New Atheists, for a bunch of fellers grounded in logic and argument, should know better than to rely on false binaries. Indeed, their animus for religion strikes me as a case of Oedipal rage on steroids.
Speaking of teams, Anglo-American philosophy (also known as analytic philosophy) has likewise been known to swing out a bout or two with Continental philosophy. Continental philosophy—identified mostly with Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Alain Badiou, and Emmanuel Levinas, among others—still likes to think about God, metaphysics, and the sources of meaning in human life. Hence Anglo-American philosophy’s dismissal of the Continental version. A good many Continental philosophers are and have been atheists or agnostics, of course, but they, in general, do not exhibit the same arrogant disdain for religion that the New Atheists have.
I wish more people of faith would engage with Continental philosophy and leave the New Atheists to reality television. In truth, Continental philosophers listen carefully to religion. They take it seriously. Heidegger, for one, is often accused of writing theology. Derrida, for another, especially in his later work, was preoccupied with essentially religious questions that even compelled him to consider negative theology and mysticism.
Some Continental philosophers, in fact, have faced religious questions head-on. Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek have all issued important studies of Saint Paul in the last decade. One of Žižek’s most popular books is entitled The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting for? and he calls one of his recent titles (written with theologian John Milbank of the Radical Orthodoxy movement) The Monstrosity of Christ. One of Žižek’s favorite writers is another highly original thinker on religious subjects: G. K. Chesterton.
When asked about his religious beliefs, Jacques Derrida famously replied that “the constancy of God in my life is called by other names, so that I quite rightly pass for an atheist.” Derrida was not ready to join a team. I think it’s time for us to let the New Atheists go. Christianity—or any religion—should not play this game anymore. Because that’s all it is.
Spero columnist Michael Martin teaches English literature at Marygrove College in Detroit.