Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The rise of the antitheists – a potentially healing experience

This summer I decided to dip deeper into the world of antitheism, especially into the writings of Dawkins and Sam Harris (I am trying to discipline myself to say antitheist with regard to Dawkins now, as I am convinced it is more accurate than simply 'atheist'). As of yet I have only skimmed through Harris's energetic (and dare I say helpful) Letter to a Christian Nation. Fundamentalists will struggle enormously with this little book I suspect. However, Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, really is, pardon my French, a bit shity. OK, it is well argued, eloquent and downright funny in places, but a cardinal rule for authors is to try to grasp the matter you criticise, the theory, the metaphysic, the political stance, the faith or whatever it is, before writing a book about it. But Dawkins feels he knows best how to define such matters as 'faith' and 'God' and he thereby ends up missing his target as he misunderstands even such basic matters as these. Reading his critique of Christianity, while spot on in places, was more like watching a fight from a distance or the demolition of a strange strawman, not the faith Christian theology has traditionally maintained. Not that his fans would notice. It is mildly annoying really, especially as so many people unquestioningly believe Dawkins - something I don't doubt Dawkins would himself find a little ironic.

I bumped into a chap in a Waterstones bookshop during my holiday in England a week or two ago. I was looking (read: drooling) through Dawkins' popular scientific works trying to imagine I had the money to buy one, and a man sidled up and started talking to me about Dawkins. It turned out that he was a convinced atheist and so I excitedly continued the conversation as in many ways I sympathise with atheism, even though I am a committed Christian (more on that below). I also felt that I had something to say in response to this man's claims. However, again and again he refused to listen to anything I said; he literally stopped me talking and barged in with his own rhetoric. I was standing, it slowly became clear to me, in the presence of a Fundamentalist atheist - or better still antitheist. All the marks were there in his speeches to me – a strong identification with an atheist subculture, talk of a strong and definite 'conversion' point, an inability to listen to a questioning of his authority (Dawkins), a total lack of awareness that he was unable to truly dialogue, the immediate and false pigeonholing of his 'opponents' etc.

Nevertheless, I think it is very important for Christian theologians to grapple with the arguments of antitheists. And Dawkins in particular is doing much that is worthwhile. To be honest, I think I kind of like the guy - and I certainly sympathised with much of what he said in his clash with Ted Haggard. In actual fact, though it would need to be judged case by case, a good volume of Dawkins or Harris could be the tonic a Christian Fundamentalist needs to progress in faith. These antitheist arguments must be digested and understood, and I am convinced that an honest grappling with antitheism will help to strip away illusions and bring the Christian back to the heart of faith and to a robust, deeply traditional and healthy faith. OK, some atheists are as bad as some religious folk, as your average fruit-loop pseudo-intellectual religious Fundamentalist, and there is no fun in attempting to dialogue with them. But it is still worth sitting through a monologue or two to really understand what they are saying. Let me explain:

Over the last year or so I have grappled very personally with atheism and I feel I really do understand (and appreciate) many aspects of the various atheist cases. The arguments got inside me and became conversation partners. At the end of the day I do not feel compelled by their arguments, but the issues and arguments that have internally bounced around in my head and in conversations with friends have pointed me deeper, I think, into the truth of God in Christ, the nature of faith and what this should practically mean for me and the world. It has been a healing experience.


At 9/19/2007 3:32 AM, Blogger Cliff Martin said...

Atheism is on the rise on this side of the Atlantic. I fear that North America is rapidly catching up to the Continent. This Summer, atheism, as a topic, was featured on many radio talk shows, news magazines, etc.

With you, I have noted that Dawkins often shoots from the hip without any real understanding of what he is attacking. My reading of Dawkins has mostly been in magazine articles, so perhaps I have not read his fully articulated views. But every time I read him, I come away saying, "you're not talking about me or my faith!"

At 9/19/2007 3:42 AM, Blogger Steve Martin said...

Is an antitheist the antithesis of an atheist or a theist? Say it 5 times real quick.

At 9/19/2007 3:53 AM, Anonymous Theodotus the Tanner said...

I really enjoyed this post - honest and thought provoking - many thanks. You are probably aware of this, but Harris reserves very strong condemnation for religious moderates/liberals because he argues that they continue to provide ground for the fundamentalists to survive. It is challenging argument.

At 9/19/2007 4:38 AM, Blogger joel hunter said...

Your anecdote about the chap in the bookstore reminded me of observations made by one of my blogging buddies, Macht. See here, here and here.

At 9/19/2007 5:40 AM, Blogger Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I couldn't make it through Dawkins book -- half way through I gave up. Harris' book, fortunately, is brief and to the point. But I find his insistence that the only true faith is fundamentalist faith unfortunate. It's not just that moderates/liberals give cover to fundamentalists, but that if we were true believers we would be fundamentalists -- that I think is simply wrong. For Harris there is only black and white and no shades of gray. I disagree.

At 9/19/2007 7:44 AM, Blogger Cliff Martin said...

This post has been removed by the author.

At 9/19/2007 8:14 AM, Blogger Cliff Martin said...

Good question, Steve. I’ll try to clarify this for Chris:

Just as an atheist would tend to athetize the theses of a theist, so an antitheist would be antithetical to a theist in that his views would be antitypical to the theories of a theologian. And Dawkin's brand of antitheism tends toward the theatrical.

At 9/19/2007 7:20 PM, Blogger Looney said...

I appreciate hearing the term "antitheist" as this is what I have many self-proclaimed atheists. If you are offended by God, then clearly you are not an atheist.

Dawkin's books on evolution struck me the same way as what you have described: Eloquent with plenty of humor and examples. On the other hand, his grasp of how design happens is as weak as his appreciation of faith and God.

I will need to go hunt down the Letter to the Christian Nation and see what is so special there.

At 9/19/2007 8:37 PM, Anonymous Simon said...

Hi Looney,

On the other hand, his grasp of how design happens is as weak as his appreciation of faith and God.

Actually I think Dawkins is at his best here.

kind regards, Simon

At 9/19/2007 9:40 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Cliff, I second that!

Thanks for the smile, Steve (and Cliff!)!!

Theodotus, what I did leave out of the post were the sleepless hours in bed which accompanied my "growing pains"! Then it would have been perhaps a bit too honest! Thanks for your comment.

Joel, those links are brilliant, I need to note that blog!

Pastor Bob,
I share your disagreement! I think Harris' argument is quite telling, actually. I think of Fowlers stages of faith development!

Looney, I'm not sure the Harris book is so special, but what I have read of it was a little better than Dawkins. That's all!

And I second Simon!

At 9/20/2007 12:52 AM, Anonymous Theodotus the Tanner said...

This may be well-known on this site but it is Hitchens I believe who has popularised the anti-theist designation. In many interviews he has said he is not an atheist - becuase this can carry with it the possibility that while you don't believe God exists you wish He did. By Contrast Hitchens says he is glad God doesn't exist because he can't think of anything worse than living in a society for eternity where you are under total surveillance and spend much of the day singing praises to your leader. To illustrate his argument he points to the earthly example of present day North Korea and with his usual wit points out that these folk would be much happier if they had something simple to eat and drink and had some relief from the din of compulsory enthusiasm.

But i also agree with most of the other comments that these guys mainly attack fundamentalist expressions of religion and most people who value reason accept the criticisms.

At 9/20/2007 5:41 AM, Blogger Macht said...

Merold Westphal makes a distinction between skepticism and suspicion that I've found helpful. Insofar as he is arguing against religion, Dawkins is primarily skeptical of it, although at times he offers a critique of suspicion. But in The God Delusion he isn't just arguing against religion - he's also arguing that "You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled." I think he does a much better job at arguing for this than he does at arguing against religion.

At 9/20/2007 7:39 PM, Blogger Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

As one of your atheist friends -- I hope I do qualify as a friend -- let me say that, as far as I've seen, Dawkins does a good job at arguing against the sort of religion that 'most people believe in' (at least most American conservative Christians) but he is lacking the theological sophistication to combat the more serious arguments in religion's favor. (As for Harris, his acceptance of various type of 'paranormal phenomena' and 'spirituality' among other reasons makes me put him in the same category I put Noam Chomsky's politics, or for that matter, the idiot deconstructionists -- that they frequently come down on the 'right' side, but almost inevitably for the wrong reasons.)

That's why I value the "Debunking Christianity" website so highly -- and I am no longer a member of the group, just a frequent commenter there. The actual members are usually ministers who spent decades of studying Christianity to teach it better, and then finally were convinced of its inherent flaws and lack of truth.

I have been nudging you towards somehow finding the time to join the discussions -- as I would your readers -- because too often the 'Christian side' is being defended by the most literalist fundamentalists, and I think both sides would benefit from seeing Christianity being defended by intelligent evangelicals.

At 9/21/2007 10:17 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

That is a good point, Macht.

Hi Jim,
Nice to hear from you. Your manner of dialoguing with believers is a model, so yes I consider you a friend. I have thought about your invites to "debunking", but I felt I would need to give it more time than I have. Hence I have avoided it. I already waste too much time on the net! (looks at blog!)

What I didn't like about Dawkins is that he claimed his arguments were not simplyagainst Fundamentalists, but all expressions of faith anywhere.


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