Archive for November, 2010

The New Atheists

Friday, November 26th, 2010

Frankly, I’ve paid almost no attention to the “new atheists”, which is doubtless more than they deserve.

The last time I taught my course “Faith, Doubt, and God“, I did assign a couple of short selections by Richard Dawkins, but his “arguments” are so easy to defeat—compared, let’s say, to those of a Hume or even a pre-conversion Antony Flew—that I felt almost embarrassed for him. You’ll perhaps respond by saying that I should have had my students reading Daniel Dennett instead, since he’s at least a philosopher. But I’m afraid his academic credentials and appointments just make his own brand of this currently fashionable silliness all the more absurd.

In any case, No: I’ve not thought much, nor have I written at all, about these or the other newly popular atheists. But if you’re looking for some authors who have, I’d recommend taking a look at three titles.

First is Flew’s post-conversion book: There is No A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (HarperOne, 2007). The arguments are not the most rigorous or nuanced you’ll ever see, but I think it would still be worth your while to spend some time pondering the eleventh hour ruminations of a mind that was consistently skeptical enough to become skeptical of skepticism.

Second is the mathematician David Berlinski’s Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (Basic Books, 2009). As you no doubt know, Berlinski is no theist—he refers to himself as an agnostic and “secular Jew”—but this simply makes the acerbic wit with which he castigates the scientisticists all the more telling. Here’s a sample:

“When [evolutionary psychologist] Steven Pinker writes that ‘nature does not dictate what we should accept or how we should live our lives’, he is expressing a belief entirely at odds with his professional commitments.

If ordinary men and women are, like Pinker himself, perfectly free to tell their genes ‘to go jump in the lake’, why pay the slightest attention to evolutionary psychology? Why pay the slightest attention to Steven Pinker? Either the theory in which he has placed his confidence is wrong, or we are not free to tell our genes to do much of anything.

If the theory is wrong, which theory is right? If no theory is right, how can ‘the idea that human minds are the product of evolution’ be ‘unassailable fact’? If this idea is not unassailable fact, why must we put aside ‘the idea that man was created in the image of God’? These hypotheticals must now be allowed to discharge themselves in a number of categorical statements:

There is no reason to pay attention to Steven Pinker.

We do not have a serious scientific theory explaining the powers and properties of the human mind.

The claim that the human mind is the product of evolution is not unassailable fact. It is barely coherent.

The idea that man was created in the image of God remains what it has always been: the instinctive default position of the human race” (178-79).

Third and finally, and best of all, is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by my fellow Orthodox author David Bentley Hart (Yale, 2009). Hart is a superb stylist as well as a profoundly erudite historian, and he’s smart enough and dialectically skillful enough to run circles around Dawkins, Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and their ilk. I recommend taking a look at his article “Believe It or Not” if you’d like a quick preview of his demolition job.

Concessions and Provisos

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Thank you for your comments concerning my post on “Changing Religions vs. Changing Churches“. I agree with much of what you say, and I’m happy to concede a few points—though, as you’ll see, with some important provisos.

1. I’m happy to admit first of all that the idea of deification or divinization is also present in the Catholic West, as long as you concede (as you have) that it’s largely implicit and seldom, if ever, given the same front-and-center emphasis as it is in the East.

2. I’m happy to admit furthermore that spiritual direction can be found among traditional Catholics, as long as you concede (as you have) that much of it is of a primarily devotional and moralistic bent, and that what one certainly doesn’t find in the West is a “golden chain” (Saint Symeon the New Theologian) of spiritual elders corresponding, for example, to the silsilahs of the Sufis.

3. And I’m happy to admit finally that Hesychastic technique, uninformed by God’s grace, does not and cannot “produce” theosis as the inevitable or necessary effect of a purely human causality—but then neither does yoga alone “produce” samadhi—as long as you concede (as you have) that such a technique is characteristic of the East in a way that it’s not of the West.

Two further points, amounting to cautions:

First, I don’t see how your reference to Catholic stigmatics like Padre Pio is any way relevant; a man or woman can come to bear the marks of Christ’s passion without knowing how or why, nor would the person who did know “how” it happened, if there are any such, set about teaching others how they might share the experience. Whereas in the East the whole point of Hesychast teaching is to lead the disciple to the master’s own “acquisition of the Holy Spirit” and experience of uncreated Light.

Second, while admitting that theosis is never automatic, I’m reluctant to say it depends solely (as you would have it) on “God’s decision”. I understand, of course, that we mustn’t forget that God is sovereign, but at the same time we should never suppose His actions are in any way arbitrary. To say (as I do) that God cannot but fill the man who has made himself truly empty imposes no more of a limit on God than saying He cannot but love or that He cannot but tell the truth. God cannot not be God.