One of the unintended consequences of promoting the idea that “All religions are essentially the same” in the name of religious tolerance or indifference is the phenomenon known as the new atheism. Atheists we will always have among us, in one form or another. Practical atheists have always been on the scene, paying little heed to those who believe or perhaps even joining in on worship services, professing creeds and saying prayers, and carrying on with the rest of their lives as if God didn’t exist. Those atheists who appeal to “Science” (always with the capital letter implied) and evidence in opposition to religious belief gained prominence in early modernity and show few signs of giving up the fight, even if historians and philosophers of science, not to mention intelligent people of all stripes, find such oppositions increasingly silly, if not banal. Meanwhile, the so-called suspicious atheists—from Feuerbach through Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and their kin—are firmly entrenched in academic and public life, claiming to have found the real explanation for why religious believers are deluding themselves. The so-called new atheists are perhaps a bit different than the rest, even if they do hang their hats on the supposed assurances of the natural sciences that God simply can not exist. Reading “Ditchkins,” as the critic Terry Eagleton once called the gaggle of writers headed by Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, reminds one of the value of even a preliminary education in the history of ideas, at least to highlight how absurd the “science v. religion” fabrications really are.
Yet there is more going on here than a restatement of the warfare motif. My first encounter with what would soon earn the title “new atheism” came just days after 9.11, when I read a number of statements by folks like Dawkins agreeing that religion, that is, any and all religion, was to blame for the events of that morning. The Islamic terrorists who carried out the attacks, I was told, were only the logical conclusion to the imperialism of religious belief per se. The Christian is, despite appearances and affirmations to the contrary, little different than the Islamist; both agree that only their way of seeing things is correct, and both have absolutely no reliable support for their beliefs. Such people who live by blind faith are all dangerous, and at some point they will all fly planes into buildings. In the work of the American writer Sam Harris one finds an attempt to organize these thoughts, as “Religion” is portrayed as a monolithic entity that, despite variations in cult and creed, is responsible for most of the bad things that have happened to humanity.
There is little attempt to make important distinctions between different religions in their work, and not just in terms of sacred violence. Richard Dawkins has for years exploited the idea that religions are little different from one another, and has offered such howlers as the claim that religion has provided nothing useful to human life and culture and that religious parents are guilty of a form of child abuse. The late Christopher Hitchens, usually a more entertaining read than Dawkins, joined the fight in his screed God is Not Great. Others have gone into detail about these writers and their unsuccessful attempts to make sense of complex ideas, and the number of other writers who have joined them from the natural sciences and, occasionally, philosophy is on the rise. It’s not a pretty picture, at least to those, theists or atheists, who are concerned with genuine argumentation. Or even common sense; child abuse? Really?
What interests me here is how Ditchkins et. al accept the reality of the thing called Religion, and believe that all the varieties of religious belief and cult are essentially reducible to one thing, whether it is an absurd belief in some supreme being, the fear of death, a desire to organize society, or the desire to dominate and destroy others. While they use this supposed oneness of all religions for different ends, the new atheists accept what many religious believers themselves have been saying for some time. But there is simply no such thing as “Religion”; the concept is the product of 19th-century scholarship, building off earlier studies, trying to erase the hegemony of Protestant Christian theology, with its denominational commitments, and treat religious beliefs with a supposed scientific detachment and precision in the hope of developing a convincing scholarly taxonomy. Religion becomes an abstraction, at times a useful one if handled with care, created by western academics for the purpose of social scientific analysis in academic settings.
There are religious believers, of course. But they are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, etc., adherents of a particular system of beliefs and ritual practices, some well-defined, some a blending of different traditions, some with similarities to other traditions, but each of them unique. I am not, for example, a follower or proponent of religion or spirituality, but a disciple of Christ, son of God and son of Mary. There is a significant difference between the two, one which seems to get forgotten when one begins to engage in “Religious Studies.” This is a long story, long recognized by those who see the sleight of hand attempted by scholars of religion, many of whom assume that the institutionalized atheism of departments of REL ST is simply the way things are, and that behind all religious beliefs and practices are phenomena that only an anthropologist, sociologist, linguist, or psychologist can understand. “What’s really going on here with your beliefs/rituals/prayers is ______” is the thesis of many attempts at scholarly analysis of religious phenomena. “You Christians are just like ______ in that you ______.” That such accounts often presume that we religious folks are simpletons unaware of what we are saying or doing is clear; that many earnest Christians seem to buy into the underlying assumption, that taxonomies of religious phenomena are not simply attempts at categorization and comparative study but evidence of a thing called Religion, is also clear.
“We all worship the same God, but we call him/her/it by different names”; “All religions are really about being a good person; ethics is the heart of religion”; “All roads lead to the same place, though they wind differently through the world”; and so on. This sentiment, so often expressed even by Christians, finds echoes in the claims of Ditchkins that “Religion is an imperialistic phenomenon rooted in intellectual dishonesty, and as such easily becomes a force for evil and intolerance.” That is, all religions are easily reducible to one thing. I’ll admit that ecumenical efforts can be helpful, but only if they maintain the integrity of Christian revelation, which tells us that God has acted decisively through Christ to enable us to become partakers of the divine nature. This is the heart of our faith, and it gives shape and substance to everything else. Not ethics, not the Sermon on the Mount, not the brotherhood of all men, and not the attempt to assuage our fear of mortality. Many things follow from the Christian proclamation that Christ has died and Christ is risen; the life of repentance has a pattern, and the Sermon on the Mount etc. helps us to understand it. But the Christian confession that we are enabled by Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection to enter into the fullness of the very life of the Trinitarian God has no analogues in any other faith. This is not akin to Nirvana or any of the visions of the afterlife in the varieties of religions ancient or recent. Quite simply, no other religious tradition claims that such a goal is even desirable, much less that it makes any sense. When Christians, in the hopes of not offending other believers, insist that their faith is pretty much equivalent to that of others, but with an American or European coloring, they not only compromise their own faith, but also show disrespect to the very religious believers they are trying not to offend. By claiming, for example, that Jews, Christians, and Muslims really believe in the same God, though we call him by different names, one not only denies the specifics of a Trinitarian theology which has always defined orthodox Christianity and is, according to Catechism of the Catholic Church, the fundamental dogma of the faith, but also refuses to take seriously the specifics of Jewish and Muslim belief. I can not affirm, as a Christian, that the name “God” refers to some numinous being whom I honor in my culture-specific way, as Abraham and Mohammed did in their day; nor should I assume that the Jew or Muslim really believes what I believe, though just a bit differently, and without being aware of it. Such imprecision fails to honor either Christianity or Judaism and Islam. By trying to turn our specific religions into Religion, these Christians embrace a 19th-century Western cultural construct and become, ironically, guilty of the same type of intellectual imperialism they claim to want to avoid.
They also help pave the way for the broad cultural consensus that writers like Dawkins can exploit in their attempts to discredit Christianity by claiming that Religion, which is the same wherever we find it, must always lead to intolerance and violence. This is, it seems, their main goal. While the new atheists like to say the occasional nasty thing about Islamists, they are very much like those lefty Catholics and secularists who like to say nasty things about Pope Pius XII, whom they claim bears some responsibility for the Holocaust. Whenever I read another attempt to discredit Pius, I simply replace his name with either John Paul II or Benedict XVI, for it is the papacy under these two popes, known for their defense of orthodoxy, that is often the target of the latest indictment. Likewise, when Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, etc., primp and preen over their wobbly assertions regarding Religion, they are targeting the only one that historically has shown the ability to resist such attacks as theirs, a faith that despite several hundreds of years of confident attacks by cultured despisers, simply won’t go away or cry uncle. The frustration and anger at the resistance of Christianity to enlightened attacks is palpable in the works of the new atheists. “How can anyone still believe this crap?!” should perhaps be the required subtitle for any new book by the new atheists and their friends. The Islamist attacks of 9.11 may have provided the immediate occasion for their work, but their prior hatred for Christianity is hard to miss. And not just because of creationism, Intelligent Design (for them, creationism in crafty disguise), Christian resistance to embryonic stem cell research or some other desired research program, or any other specific issue dear to the writers.
Philip Pullman’s attacks on C.S. Lewis and Narnia are instructive here, as Pullman, like the new atheists, detests the conviction that there is Something Else in this world beyond physical matter, something, or Someone, to whom we are responsible. It is not an easy thing to be constantly reminded that you are a contingent being. One of great dignity, one destined for the vision of God, but nevertheless contingent. Lewis, as a popular spokesman for Christianity who continues to sell scores of books, thus represents the worst of enemies to Pullman, insofar as he draws attention to things like God, heaven, and human contingency, and has a large readership among children, who are thus corrupted from an early age. Lewis also knew that Christianity is much more than a religion. It is the proclamation of God’s saving work through Jesus Christ, and offers an account of reality that claims that the fashionable materialistic philosophy so in vogue in his day and ours is a betrayal of both reason and imagination. It also demands repentance, admitting we are not sufficient and have repeatedly fallen short of God’s glory, which is hard for anyone to take, as Christians should be well aware. Not because we are followers of Religion, but of Christ, the Living One.
This was something the great defenders of the faith in late antiquity understood well. Origen in his Against Celsus, and Augustine in his City of God, both highlighted the specifics of salvation history in these great apologetic works, recognizing the distinctive historical and theological claims made by Christianity. Our faith, they claimed, is not merely a human attempt to give voice to mysteries beyond us, but God’s account of reality revealed to us over time, formulated in human language and concepts. While it will of course share some common elements with other accounts, what matters most is its source and its distinctive claims. While drawing attention to the former can be a useful scholarly exercise, it should never be done at the expense of the latter. To do so, even in the hopes of appearing tolerant, is to play into the hands of those who see Christianity as The One Great Threat to their fantasy of a blissfully secular world of peace and harmony, in which nobody believes anything apart from rigorous scientific investigation, or the John Lennon-esque hippie fantasies still popular. May the Lord spare us from such nonsense.Share on Facebook