After spending a day or two doing some necessary gardening, and forcing unused muscles to do unaccustomed things so that they are now barely able to move without considerable, if not excruciating, pain, while all along reading various takes on Dawkins’ arguments and position in The God Delusion, in particular, John Haught’s God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, I am coming to the conclusion that much of the “criticial” argumentation is pure assertion, gussied up to look like profound theological reflection. Haught, for example, spends page after page taking the new atheists to task, but he scarcely ever quotes from them. He merely makes assertions, and we are to take these, doubtless, as actually representing things that the new atheists have said.
Not only that, of course, but Haught takes for granted about the Bible, opinions as to the Bible’s central message which are not based on the Bible at all, but on quite recent biblical exegesis and study. The liberation theologians, for example, think of the Bible as a manifesto of political liberation, and the prophets are placed in a central role as liberationists. Yet if you read the prophets with some critical attention you will find, as Hector Avalos points out in his remarkable deconstruction of biblical studies, The End of Biblical Studies (Promtheus Books,, 2007), that the prophets can be read most naturally as imperialists, and strongly opposed to ethnic and religious pluralism. Indeed, if, as Tom Thompson suggests, the Hebrew Bible is the ideology of imperial colonialists sent by the Persian Empire to settle and exert control over Transjordan and the Palestinian litoral, the prophetic message can be shown to be consistent with this mission. By giving substance and cultic purity to a collection of Canaanite myths, the Bible could then function as an instrument of cultural control over the indigenous inhabitants who were strictly excluded from the fellowship of the “returnees” who came to claim their patrimony — even if the history was made up of whole cloth and the severe and exclusive religion was but a selection from and an implied criticism of the status and beliefs of the aboriginal inhabitants (see the quote from Isaiah below).
I don’t want to carry this particular programmatic way of reading the Hebrew Bible too far, but, given the lack of historical support for the central myths of the Hebrew Bible, from the creation, through the Patriarchs, the sojourn in Egypt, to the return and conquest of Canaan, there is certainly very little reason to hold that the story that the Bible has to tell is anything more than an ex post facto justification of imperial and political arrangements that were put into practice for imperial reasons by the imperial masters of the “exiles” “returning” to Jerusalem. The point is, in case it needs spelling out, that the sacred scripture of the Jews, which became the first volume of a later two volume work held sacred by Christians, may be no more than imperialist propaganda. It’s vicious and bloody enough for imperial propaganda, and exhibits a process of reification of a local god (Yahweh), who once had far more relationship with the polytheism of Canaan than either Christians or Jews are prepared to acknowledge.
Nevertheless, if any of this “tall tale” turns out to be true, as it very well might, it raises some serious questions about the metaphysical standing of Yahweh, as well as the god of the Christians, for as Christians read the Hebrew scriptures, Christ is the theme of the story right from the beginning, though he is never mentioned until we come to the Christian scriptures, which took semit-final shape sometime in the fourth century CE. Jews and Christians — and Muslims, too, of course, since they are the resdiual legatees of the polyglot confusion that was left after Christians and Jews had carried out their reading and rereading of their scriptures, the Tanach for the Jews, and the Bible for the Christians. The Jews, in the Christian Empire, soon found themselves condemned for failing to acknowledge the Christian saviour as the Jewish Messiah, and the very status of that central Christian myth became a focus for controversy which, while given an uncompomising shape in early Christian orthodoxy as expressed by the early councils and enforced by imperial decree, was still a source of destructive encounters between the various heterodoxies throughout Mesopotamia, Persia, and the newly converted Tribes of the Danube and Rhine basins. Weakened as it already had been by internecene theological squabbles, the former territories of the Eastern Empire were unsurprisingly the first areas where an insurgent Islam, breaking out in fanatical hordes from the Arabian peninsula, enjoyed its first military successes, where vibrant cultures were to undergo an eclipse from which they have never recovered.
The important point to note is that Christianity, like Judaism or Islam, did not develop in a straight line from experience and evidence (such as it was) to authoritative expression. Like all human things, the development of religion is messy, often ungrounded, and frequently contested. Haught accuses the new atheists of failing to take account of sophisticated theologies which he has found helpful in, as he says, “shaping my own understanding of faith and atheism,” (xii) and in this connexion he says:
Specifically, I mean thinkers such as Paul Tillich, Alfred North Whitehead, Paul Ricoeur, Rudolf Bultmann, Edward Schillebeeckx, Bernard Lonergan, Karl Barth, John Bowker, Elizabeth Johnson, Karl Rahner, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Ian Barbour, David Tracy, Dorothee Soelle, Sallie McFague, Henri de Lubac, Hans Jonas, Emil Fackenheim, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, just to mention [he says, modestly,] a handful. [xii]
One wonders what this trip down one of Haught’s bookshelves is intended to achieve? He follows the catalogue up with the claim that
[c]learly the new atheists are not familiar with any of these religious thinkers, and the hostility to what they call “theology” has almost nothing to do with theology as I use the term. [xii]
Well, let me say it then. I am familiar with every one of these religious thinkers, and I have read quite of few of them. Indeed, I still possess books written by many of them. Now, I don’t know how Haught uses the term ‘theology’ — though it would be a very capacious term indeed to include all of these thinkers without qualification, since some of them would not sit well with others. Barth and Scheelebeeckx, for instance, would sit very uncomfortably together. And while we are discussing theologians, it is not irrelevant to point out that Karl Barth had a live-in research assistant/mistress with whom he used to vacation while his wife remained at home. Nor, perhaps, is it irrelevant to report that Paul Tillich, the great theologian of God as Ground of Being, used to make out with his female students at one end of a couch while his wife sat fuming in resentment at the other end. Does that discredit their thought? No, but it indicates, certainly, a kind of louche disregard of ordinary Christian morality, and perhaps emphasises the purely intellectual nature of the theological enterprise, as a kind of clever dialectic, rather than as a moral investment in important truths.
Theologians, for Haught, are “biblically informed, critically reflective, religious thinkers.” (xii) The trouble is that being biblically informed is not the best place to start when asking about god. The atheist, or any critical person assessing the value of the Bible as revelatory of the being about which it speaks so much, must first ask the prior question: Does this being exist? To take the Bible as evidence for the existence of the god spoken of throughout it is, not to put too fine a point on it, begging the question. This is especially the case when the Bible itself holds up to ridicule others who believe in other gods. Far worse, even than that. Take this passage from Isaiah, for example:
The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!” The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!” They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?” [Isaiah 44:13-21]
Of course, it’s okay, they’re only idolaters, after all. Besides, they are only the people of the land, not those empowered by Persian letters of credit. But because some bow down to images and others to concepts of the mind, makes very little difference. It is still necessary to show that there is, or that there is not, something that the idol or the concept represents, and not all the biblical knowledge or theological knowledge in the world will confirm this. Haught does not seem to see that his Bible is like the idolater’s idol. Tillich can say that, if we take something finite, and give it ultimacy in our lives, this is idolatry. But, just by speaking of the ground of being he has not achieved ultimacy. We are still talking about words and concepts, things that men and women use make to make sense of their world.
Let me ride my hobby-horse for a moment. Human life, say the religious, is sacred. It belongs to god alone. We may not, saving some circumstances having to do with punishment or just war, take a human life without offending the one to whom innocent life belongs. This is sufficient warrant for thousands of people to oppose assistance in dying, even for those who are suffering intolerably. They assert that, if we break this divine law, then we will, eventually, lay waste to life itself. It is perhaps the stupidest argument ever dreamed up by the mind of man (and they’re almost all men, though they do dragoon women in to support them, by carrying out one of the most relentless efforts at propaganda ever launched). And it’s all based on a premise that not one of these people can confirm, that there exists a supernatural being who created us and cares for us and has a right to determine what we may or may not do.
There is not a shred of evidence for this claim. Not a shred. Take William Lane Craig’s debating points.
- The Resurrection of Jesus. He thinks, mirabile dictu, that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is sound. This is so preposterous that it scarcely deserves attention, and yet, this underlies the claims that he makes against his opponents. He does not vary or qualify this with any criticism that might be brought to bear. It is sheer assertion.
- The Creation of Life. Craig says he is agnostic about intelligent design or evolution, yet he knows that, if he admits evolution, the game is up for him. Some religious people talk about theistic evolution, but since there is not a shred of evidence, this can only be bare assertion, just to keep the theology intact.
- The Cosmological Argument. This, for Craig, depends upon the contradictions that would infect an actual infinity. So, the universe must be finite in time and space. It must, therefore, have had a beginning. This beginning could not be a physical cause, since the problems of infinity would break out again. So it must be a spiritual cause, though we know of no case where spirits (whatever they are) exercise physical causation.
Having fielded his arguments, he sits back and waits for his opponents to demolish them. Well, they can’t be demolished. He knows this. They’re just sheer assertion, and how do you demolish sheer assertion? This is why he is always so cocky and self-assured. He knows that no one can counter his arguments — not because there is no counter, but because the arguments are basically circular. If you enter into the lists with him over these points, he’s going to win, because he will just take you round and round the mulberry bush until you tire, and then he will simply declare a victory. Go to his website, and listen to him crow. He does it all in the most unlovely way, completely undeterred by what most people call humility and consider a virtue.
What must the religious do to get back into the argument? The answer to that question is simple. Since almost all of them in the end depend upon a supposed sacred text, they must show that these texts are genuinely revealed by a power not of this earth. This is what all the religions of the book claim, and there is not one single piece of evidence to which any of them can point to show that the words of their sacred text are revealed. Proving that they are revealed would not only support the special claims made for these texts; it would also answer the question of the existence of a supernatural being who is in communication with us. Not one of the books claimed by the religions has met this challenge. It’s assertion all the way down.