The Catholic Herald recently published an essay by a newly minted Catholic, a refugee from the new atheism. It is interesting to reflect that a girl, who was 8 at the time of 9/11 – that’s 9th September 2001, folks – now a young woman of 20 or 21, should be able to say:
I grew up in a culture that has largely turned its back on faith. It’s why I was able to drift through life with my ill-conceived atheism going unchallenged, and at least partly explains the sheer extent of the popular support for the New Atheists …
What is remarkable is that someone so young should already think of herself as “drifting through life,” which is, by her own account, not what she was doing. She was, in fact, by her own testimony, avidly reading (the adverb is hers) “Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, whose ideas were sufficiently similar to mine that I could push any uncertainties I had to the back of my mind.” Scarcely an account of someone simply drifting through life. The unfortunate part is that she read Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens for certainty, for doctrine, and did not find it, though it was “atheist orthodoxy” that drove her to faith. Indeed, she seems, by all accounts, to have been searching for faith all along, for something that she could believe with all her heart. She didn’t seem to notice that the negative argument upon which she set such store, is only the fringe of the garment of a more robust humanism. She may be right. Perhaps the new atheists, in their drive to defeat the powers of religion, made it seem that religion can be demolished with a few cursory arguments, and when you stack those arguments up against an apologetics that began within a few generations of Jesus’ death, it’s hard to think of those arguments as a sufficient basis for a life.
Megan says, at one point, that she read Ratzinger’s Regensburg address, and that she expected to find in it the kind of “bigotry and illogicality that would vindicate my atheism.” This in itself is astonishing, and discouraging. Perhaps it indicates that she perceived a tone in the new atheism that is carping and superficial, and some of the criticisms of religion that I have heard are indeed just that, as though religion, which has been around for thousands of years, can simply be dismissed without intellectual sophistication at all, simly by a few contemptuous waves of a dialectical wand. But religion is much more robust than that, and it is unfortunate that the custom has arisen of treating religious thought as simply pointless hand waving. For when you are inside the religious bubble of certainty, everything makes perfect sense, as Megan Hodder discovered. Not only that, but it can be, in its more comprehensively rational form, distressingly coherent. One of the things that I found out, as a priest, was that, in order to question faith, to address questions to faith in the context of the faith community, you had to know an awful lot, and you had to keep one step ahead of the most intellectually adventurous of your parishioners. This is largely the reason why a lot of young priests who have learned many of the liberal details of biblical history and hermeneutics, along with a smattering of revisionist theology, when they get out into their first parish, and find that if they were to “tell all” their parishioners would think them irreligious, possibly not even Christian, they quickly retreat to their Sunday School faith in an almost instinctive move of self-preservation. And all their dreams of bringing about real change in the church comes to grief on the rocks of a defensive religious certainty.