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Fun with the New Atheists!

October 2, 2008

Bill Maher has joined the choir, adding his voice to the ever growing Church of the New Atheism.  That’s a shame.  I enjoy watching Real Time on HBO.  Most of the time I find Maher to be very intelligent, insightful and even fair-minded.  Other times he runs off the rails, especially when he talks about the medical profession, dietary concerns (milk is poison, pot is good!) and religion.  I’ve heard his diatribes against any and all religion before, so I pretty much know what to expect from his film Religulous.

And he exhibits the same fundamental problems as his colleagues Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

  1. The central thesis of the New Atheist movement – that without the delusion called religion history would be devoid of wars and oppression.  First, there is no empirical evidence to support such a claim.  Second, wars fought “in the name of God” were waged by people who were hungry for political power and used religion as one of many tools to manipulate people.  The counter-argument, that such wars would have been fought anyway and that the leaders would have used economic or other means to manipulate others, is as well-supported as their thesis.
  2. The New Atheists read the Bible using precisely the same hermeneutic as those they rail against – and no other.  In Maher’s words, “you either believe in the talking snake or you don’t.”  I think (or at least I sincerely hope) that most people of faith understand that as a false choice.  In other words, most of us take the Bible seriously without necessarily taking it literally.  Or, as my Old Testament prof would say, “the Bible is primarily a confessional document, and its claims are first and foremost confessional and theological in nature.”  The Bible’s authors were theologians and storytellers; not biologists, historians, genealogists, anthropologists, physicists or journalists.
  3. The New Atheists do a wonderful job of disputing 17th and 18th century theology.  They do themselves and their readers a massive disservice, however, by failing to engage the works of Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Schubert Ogden, John Cobb, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, George Lindbeck, Marcus Borg and others who have wrestled more openly and honestly with exactly the same questions they have.
  4. Another central thesis – that one can be a good, moral and ethical person without religion – would be an easier case to make if those presenting the case weren’t so strident, arrogant and dismissive.  In the cases of Maher, Hitchens and Dawkins, each comes across as kind of a jerk.  They are as petty and closed-minded as those they seek to criticize for being petty and closed-minded.  Pot, kettle.

Now I will be the first to admit that far too many mainstream Christians are theologically immature or naive.  But I don’t think it’s their own fault.  No, I blame us.  We clergy have not properly educated laypersons to think theologically about the problems of life and death, heaven and hell, good and evil with any real depth.  I think so many people have assumed that because some theologians’ propositions about faith have been so challenging to us that laypersons couldn’t handle it without having some sort of faith crisis.  And since we have so utterly failed to engage the laity in deep theological growth, most of us find ourselves unprepared to answer the kinds of questions posed by the New Atheists.

We as clergy should not be afraid of Dawkins, Hitchens or Maher.  Rather, we should relish the opportunity to engage our congregants in deeper theological study.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 2, 2008 1:48 pm

    Of course Maher would argue with you that he is not an atheist, new or otherwise, because Atheists are just as certain about the absence of a god as Christians are of his reality, and according to him, he is anything but certain. I can actually kind of respect that. But, as you mentioned, it would be even easier to respect if he wasn’t such an ass about it.

  2. October 4, 2008 6:04 pm

    I really don’t think that pastors can teach congregants the sort of thing you’re talking about. I don’t think the issue is fear of creating a crisis of faith; I think it’s a lack of time. You just can’t do it in a few hours a week. And you certainly can’t do it in a single hour each week when you’re constrained by lecture format with limited feedback.

    A lot of the work about or by the people you mention, though, is tough to wade through. Often there are prerequisite understandings – and don’t get me started on the jargon, ESPECIALLY when it seems like everyone means something sliiiightly different when they talk about salva-justifi-sanctifica-tion!

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Theology” at the library… 😉

  3. October 15, 2008 9:06 pm

    The central thesis of the New Atheist movement – that without the delusion called religion history would be devoid of wars and oppression. First, there is no empirical evidence to support such a claim. Second, wars fought “in the name of God” were waged by people who were hungry for political power and used religion as one of many tools to manipulate people. The counter-argument, that such wars would have been fought anyway and that the leaders would have used economic or other means to manipulate others, is as well-supported as their thesis.

    Maher needs to brush up on his history. How many wars and other atrocities were committed by atheistic states, such as the Soviet Union and communist China?

  4. Cherie permalink
    November 22, 2008 1:45 pm

    I just read this in The United Methodist Reporter, and I want to thank you so much for writing it. In addition to summerizing my thoughts, it also gives me something to articulate when confronted by suposedly “open-minded” people who say things similar to Mr. Maher.

  5. November 22, 2008 1:50 pm

    Maher’s rants against religion bother me most because in the years that I’ve followed his career he comes across as a very intelligent and thoughtful guy – but he seems to have some very serious religious baggage that he needs to let go of.

    I’m reminded of one of Bishop Willimon’s stories in that regard – when Maher describes the God he doesn’t believe in, I don’t believe in THAT God either!

  6. November 22, 2008 7:01 pm

    Will you make a good point about preachers these days assuming their congregations want lite Christianity rather than thoughtful and informed theology. Let me point this right back at you preachers. As a result of a family tragedy after thousands of prayers against it, I took a scrious and scientific look at Christianity and other faiths as well. I had been through Disciple I as a learner, and then I went through again as a leader. I concluded that Yahweh and God the Father of Jesus were definitely not the same diety. I ask the young preacher who was coordinating the Disciple classes if that was a valid observation. She referred me to the senior pastor, who quickly referred me to a minister who was visiting our church as a result of displacement by hurricane Katrina. He came back with the response that to think such thoughts would be to return to the heresy of Marcion. Of course, I had to go learn about Marcion. I also read a lot about how our current canon was formed and what the earliest Christian leaders (before 150 CE) thought about the Old Testament. I discovered that I was hardly the first to think that Yahweh and the Father were hardly the same.

    You preachers are trapped by your orthodoxy and many of us in your congregations know that. Let me give you an example. We Christians periodically thank God for our blessings, but that smacks of OT chosenness. How can I be thankful to God for my blessings when kids are starving all over the world. God no more chose me for blessings than he chose the children of Zambia for starvation. I am simply lucky. If I look at the Gospels this theme comes through clearly from Christ. Take up your cross and follow me. Jesus never said to hand him your cross; he gave the Holy Spirit that we might carrry the cross of this life.

    Another example in current practice by preachers is to pray for what we want. That is OT bunk, smacking of the prosperity gospel. The Gospels teach us to pray to hear the voice of God and thereby receive the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:9-13). When the Gospels refer to “all things” they mean the Holy Spirit.

    You are apparntly passionate about music, so you know the day the music died. The day Chriatianity died was when the Roman church declared a canon that placed the OT and NT on an equal footing for spiritual growth. Many of faith know this and are not trapped by the orthodoxy that traps you preachers.

    If you really want to deal effectively with the athiests, then declare that the OT is often anthropogenic material and not true revelation from God. Then you don’t have to worry about talking snakes, genocide, and pyromania. God is simply the Spirit of Love embodied in God’s only incarnation, Jesus Christ. Your athiests would have a hard time arguing with that.

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