Who Speaks For Christianity? A Review of John F. Haught's Book, Part 4

I’ve been reviewing John F. Haught’s book, God and the New Atheism, which can read here. This will be my fourth post about it. I’ll write more about his book later.

To recap, I said the claim of the new atheists is that the evidence does not support the faith of a believer in God, and they are right. Haught disagrees, but how does he propose to show them they are wrong apart from the evidence? What method does he propose to investigate our experience in this world other than science and the evidence? Mysticism? Intuition? I argued it’s reasonable to think that since methodological naturalism has worked so well that philosophical (or ontological) naturalism is a reasonable conclusion to come to, even if we cannot prove such a conclusion by a scientific experiment itself!

I also questioned Haught’s choice of atheists to compare the new atheists to. I said let us atheists decide who speaks for us. Don’t go telling us that Nietzsche speaks for us. And I turned the tables on him by asking him if he would object if I claimed that certain Christians speak for him.

Now I want to ask him, “Who speaks for Christianity?”

Haught faults the new atheists for not understanding theology, and he equates them with creationists who reject evolution “without ever taking a course in biology,” (p. 29) because they place “the same literalist demands on the Bible as do Christians and other fundamentalists.” (p. 33). And just like their chosen opponents, Haught tells us the new atheists “are in complete and inalterable possession of the truth.” (p. 39). When they treat God as a hypothesis by ignoring Martin Buber’s distinction between viewing God as an “It” versus a “Thou,” and by ignoring the work of theologians like Karl Barth (who I did my master’s thesis on), and Paul Tillich, the new atheists “have chosen to topple a deity whose existence most theologians and a very large number of other Christians, Muslims, and Jews would have no interest in defending anyway.” (p. 44).

Granted, the new atheists seem to be surer of what they claim than they can truly be. I describe myself best as an agnostic atheist. I cannot be sure that I’m right that no God exists at all. I know I’m right when it comes to evangelical Christianity, for instance, but some sort of deist, or impersonal, or uncaring, or impotent, and/or hidden God might exist who merely created what Stephen Hawking described as a “quantum wave fluctuation.” If such a God existed he would be a distant God. But since a distant God is no different than none at all, I choose to affirm atheism.

That being said, I find it odd that Haught faults us skeptics for treating God as a hypothesis, as an “It,” not a “Thou.” He lauds William James’s essay, “The Will to Believe,” and states matter-of-factly that the new atheists “show no sign" of ever having read it (p. 6). But I have. And James treats God as a hypothesis! James disputes “agnostic rules for truth-seeking” because such rules will prevent us from knowing the truth about God, if he exists. Why? In his own words: “If God exists, then we might have to meet that hypothesis halfway to see whether it is true.” So Haught cannot have it both ways here if he thinks James is on to something—something I take issue with in my book. We are outsiders. We do not know God as a person, a “Thou.” I once claimed to have done so, so I know the perspective from which he writes. But I now claim to have been deluded into thinking I had a relationship with a God. I didn’t, because he doesn’t exist. Now for me all that’s left is the hypothesis whether or not some object (albeit "spiritual object") such as God exists. As outsiders that’s what we do. That’s what ANY outsider can do. That’s what Haught does with the Hindu god, or the Mormon god.

Haught is a theologically liberal Catholic scholar and he seems to be able to tell us what most Christians believe, or most Christian scholars anyway. But I never saw a poll in his book where this was shown. He may be right about most present-day Christian or theistic scholars, but he is surely wrong about most pastors and Christians in the pews. And he is certainly wrong about the Christian theologians and scholars of the past.

The trouble we skeptics have when attempting to debunk Christianity is that we have a moving and nebulous target. So how can any of us be faulted for not knowing which Christianity to take aim at, including the new atheists? In the introduction to my book Edward T. Babinski describes what a many splintered thing Christianity is. He wrote:
Two thousand years and forty-five thousand separate Christian denominations and missionary organizations later, we have modern-day “Christianity,” including everything from Trappist monks and Quakers who worship in silence, and meditating Christians dialoging with Eastern faiths, to hell-raisers and snake-handling Christians. We have damnationists and universalist Christians, and many more groups besides. Even after the Roman Empire adopted and enforced Christian faith, Arian and Athanasian Christians rioted, killed, and persecuted each other, as did Donatists and Catholics. And none of the older ideas ever fully die out, because some of the Bible verses and arguments used by Arians were much later revived and used by deists and Unitarians, while the Donatists never gave up their fight to appoint their own priests rather than Rome, kind of like today’s ultraconservative Catholics who think the papacy is wrong but the rest of Catholicism is good. And there are many differences of opinion on everything in Christianity today from social issues to religious issues like tongue-speaking; baptism; miracles; when and how to best honor the Sabbath; what Old Testament laws ought to be enforced today for the good of society; what signs to look for in the “saved,” including “short hair in men”; or using the King James Bible above all other translations. Meanwhile some things that the early church emphasized are little emphasized today, except among the Catholics, by which I mean clergy celibacy, as seen in the words of Jesus and Paul and the author of Revelation. Christianity continues to evolve and branch into further new rival denominations and suborganizations as time goes on. How Darwinian of the churches!
This blog and my book, for instance, take aim at a specific target for this very reason--evangelical Christianity. I do this precisely because to be effective one must specify with pinpoint accuracy that which he wants to debunk. Too large of a target and I’ll not be effective. But when I do this I am criticized for not dealing with Haught’s type of liberal Catholic Christianity. So be it. As one Blogger said not long ago when justifying our chosen evangelical target:
Not only is fundamentalist Christianity the greatest threat in the United States to science, tolerance, and social progress, but it is also the most prevalent form of Protestant Christianity to be found in our nation, whether you like it or not. It is the fundamentalist religious right that holds the reigns of the Republican party (which currently controls the nation, in case you didn't realize), and it is this same fundamentalist religious right that lobbies for the teaching of lies in public school and fights against funding for embryonic research that could potentially save the lives of millions.

Whether you like it or not, it is this flavor of Christianity that makes the loudest, most obnoxious, most dangerous impact on the world today, giving us plenty of good reason to direct the brunt of our attacks in its vicinity.
Sam Harris does indeed take on the moderates and liberals by questioning their uncritical tolerance of religious faith, which grants legitimacy without penalty for extremists to kill in the name of their God. But Haught still faults Harris for not seeing the irony of his own “intolerance of religious tolerance.” Haught writes: “Even the vaguest knowledge of humanity’s sorrowful struggle toward tolerance and religious freedom would make most people hesitate before promoting the intolerance of tolerance.” (p. 38). But the irony is Haught’s, I think. The irony is that he is defending the Catholic Church which had people burned at the stake for expressing themselves and thinking freely. The Catholic church slowed the progress of science by condemning Galileo in the Inquisition (Rene Descartes had written a book titled The World, for instance, which agreed with Galileo, but when he saw what had happened to Galileo he didn’t publish it). I find it extremely ill-advised for Haught, as a Catholic, if he wants to take any credit for our present day love for tolerance, for chiding the new atheists as they freely express their rage against the intolerance of the church even in today's world. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said: "Tolerate the tolerable." That's all anyone can do.

I maintain that the Catholic Church has been seriously wrong in the past with the witch-hunts, Inquisition, Crusades, the protection of molestor-priests, and slavery (The Catholic Church didn’t condemn slavery until the year 1888, after the Civil War and after every other Christian nation had abolished it). If three hundred years of witch hunting and two hundred years of heresy hunting doesn't qualify as something the Church did seriously wrong, then I don't know what to tell you. As a former Catholic and a former doctoral student in a program of theology and ethics at Marquette University (a Jesuit college), I claim that if the Catholic church was seriously wrong once, then I have no reason to trust her at all. A more reasonable supposition is that the Catholic Church is led by mere men (especially men!), as the history of that church can and does show. Whole communties of faith must be wrong given their proliferation, and I think this goes for the Catholic community of faith.

So just as I faulted Haught for telling the new atheists which atheists speak for us, I now fault him for claiming the new atheists don’t target the right theology. Here’s what he needs to do (with no intention of ridicule). Get all of the Christian theologians together. Lock the most important ones in a very large room (that’ll be the first decision) and then have them stay there until they come to a consensus on what theology represents true Christianity. If they can come to a consensus let them emerge and I’ll write a book debunking that. But it’ll never happen, will it? Because not even Christians all agree who speaks for them, unless it’s them!

7 comments:

stevec said...

"Haught writes: “Even the vaguest knowledge of humanity’s sorrowful struggle toward tolerance and religious freedom would make most people hesitate before promoting the intolerance of tolerance.” (p. 38). "

I think the stronger argument against this assertion, which you don't make explicit is that Harris's brand of "intolerance" as Haught calls it, amounts only to expressing a dissenting opinion. Unless I'm badly mistaken, Harris does not advocate for any laws, sanctions or anything but advocating against -- that is arguing publically against -- the opinions of people who he disagrees with. That is, the "intolerance" which Haught is referring to is the rather mild "intolerance" of holding and not being shy about expressing a (very) dissenting opinion.

Again Haught is either dishonest, or an idiot, he may take his pick.

oli said...

Another great article on this John, i agree with your point. Everytime any of us points to a facet of christianity and debunks, mocks or weakens it, a bunch of christians leap out of the woodwork saying "Ys but WE don't believe that bit".
You could disprove the virgin birth and bodily resurrection and i still think you'd get some liberal denomination saying "Yes but we don't take that bit literally, you're preaching to the choir".
One needs to pick targets when and where they are. At least with some many denominations, whenever we do point out fallacies, discrepancies or falsehoods, somewhere there is a christian who might read that and think "Hang on, that throws my faith out of joint, if thats false then what i am doing".
I think Catholics have one of the weakest arguements for the defense of their faith due to the extremely long and bloody history of the Catholic church. Now to be fair, the church existed for a long time through exceptionally savage eras, but the fact that they were unable to rise above the spirit of the times suggests strongly that it is a purely human agency devoid of divine guidance, protection and favour.

What gets me most about the catholic church is how out of touch they are, how utterly unable to adapt to a rapidly moving society. Catholics themselves seem to have no problem adapting and many of them do this by breaking with their church on several major issues (abortion, contraception, equal rights for gays and women, etc). Look at Europe, Spain is increasingly liberal and progressive but still very catholic.
Meanwhile a bunch of strange old men in robes continue their lives in the vatican isolated from the world that their followers live in.
Only a massive level of disconnect could result in the hilarious unintended irony of this
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7654878.stm
I love this picture of the Pope, in gold thread, covered in jewels with a great golden staff basically saying "Hey pursuit of great wealth is wicked!"
The level of doublethink this must require is mindboggling.

Logossfera said...

The best argument for these kind of idiots I think is the argument from medicine (if I may say so). If they are so willing to believe in supernatural intervention and miracles then modern medicine is completely useless for them. I want to see these morons not taking any peals, flue shots or even getting their bad teeth fixed. They should live with only what god gave them: bananas and prayers. Theology? Sure, we'll discus as much theology as they want after they spend 2 month at Cernobal without radioactive protection. Then will talk as much theology as they can.

Jacob said...

I'm not sure if my post is actually supporting Haught, in a round-about way, but...

The other factor with debunking Evangelical Christianity is that Evangelicals (and Reformed) Christians seem to have the most invested in remaining inflexible in their views.

They, like all good fundamentalists, do not recognise any middle ground. So the Bible must be either inerrant, or it's as valueless as used toilet paper (I have had this point explained to me on an Evangelical News blog). And since they don't want to be seen being rapturous over used toilet paper, they'll vigourously hold to the inerrancy point, regardless of any contrary evidence that is presented.
Liberal Christians would be more capable of conceding to the errancy (and metaphorical/allegorical elements) of the Bible, while maintaining that it still has value.
I honestly think Evangelicals do damage to Christianity by maintaining the position that the Bible is worthless if it doesn't conform to their parameters (i.e. inerrancy).

Which leads me to ask; are Evangelicals/Reformed's also (in addition to being the ones who are actively implementing harmful ideas) a better target for criticism because they are the ones who have the most to lose/(gain) from the disruption of the least of their beliefs? i.e. since they adhere to a network of inflexible beliefs, challenging just one of those beliefs is more likely to disrupt the entire framework.

Logossfera said...

Jacob, as much as you try to differenciate between literalists and metaphorists there is one common ground were they are both wrong: epistemology. They both claim that the knowledge contained in the Bible (or whatever holy book you pick) is DIVINELY inspired or dictated. Even though evanghelical christians may seem a easier target or they are labeled as "fundamentalists" I am of the opinion that they are those more closer to the premise of authoritarive, supernatural epistemology. Either god wants to tell us something and spell it for us retards (literalists) or he speaks double-talk to mess with us (metaphorists). Both type of christians are wrong for the same reason: knowledge comes from other places not holly books. Since the epistemology is authoritarive and supernatural the evanghelicals are more sincere in their beliefs because they stick to this premise while liberals don't and always try to find ways to improve the explanations (something akeen to the scientific approach). How can you improve the Truth is beyound me.

John W. Loftus said...

Jacob, my goal is to knock evangelicals off dead center and force them to think for themselves rather than leaning on a so-called authoritative inspired book. Since they already are atheists with regard to all other religions and sects then if I can debunk what they believe many of them will move in my direction as an atheist. Many will end up like Dr. Haught, as liberals, but I'll take Haught's theology over theirs anyday.

Doing what I do is both easy and hard. Their position is easy to debunk because the arguments don't support what they believe. But it's also the hard dirty work that gets the most barbs thrown my way, simply because they feel personally offended that I argue against their so-called personal Supernatural friend.

Jacob said...

Thanks for the responses.

logossfera,
Yes, I see what you mean about Evangelicals being more sincere in their adherence to authoritative, supernatural epistemology. I've had "discussions" with presuppositionalists, and this seems to be where their arguments always gravitate to.

John,
I totally agree with getting people to think on their own. The difficulty I've had in discussions with Christians is that I constantly feel like I'm having a conversation with a book, and not a person. And they all seem to see me as "Exhibit A" from Romans 1.

And I think the corollary to getting people to think on their own is getting people to take personal responsibility for their own beliefs.

But that's probably wandering off topic.

and PS, I saw your book at the store today (down here in Australia), so I plan to grab a copy come pay day.