Book Review: God and the New Atheism by John Haught
God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens John F. Haught
Westminster John Knox Press, 2008
107 pages (124 pages including notes and references)
This book is a scholarly yet readable rebuttal to several recently-published mainstream books by prominent Darwinian scholars, and is written to the intelligent layperson. Dr. Haught is a Senior Fellow in Science and Religion at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, and was Chair and Professor in the Department of Theology at Georgetown from 1970 to 2005. He is an international lecturer and has authored many books, particularly on topics evaluating Science, Evolution, and Religion. The books that Haught addresses: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris; and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens; are relatively recent popular books chosen as a representative description of the “new” atheism, that is, atheism as described for this generation.
Haught describes the parameters of Scientism, namely that only Nature exists, it is self-originating, and it can be understood only through rational inquiry. Furthermore, the “new” atheism also states that belief in God leads to many profound evils in the world, and therefore should be rejected on moral grounds. In his classroom Haught has assigned to his students many rationalist and atheist authors, including Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, Marx, and others. Interestingly, he finds the current crop of atheists to be not as rigorous and compelling as previous proponents.
Among Haught’s criticisms of the “new” atheism include:
*New Scientism must take nothing on faith, yet its precepts require faith. In other words, to state that only rational, objective, extrinsic evidence is valid is in itself a statement of faith. Can you PROVE that these criteria are the only valid ones?
*New Scientism describes only the worst and most superficial aspects of religion. The current authors do not seem to have a good grasp of the subtleties of thought and evidence that theologians present in their own expositions.
*New Scientism doesn’t allow for any ambiguity or layered religious interpretation. Religious texts such as the Bible are understood in only the most literal, one-dimensional sense.
*No good evolutionary explanation of the existence of morality or the penetration of religious belief across cultures is given; instead the arguments are circular and incomplete.
*Interestingly, the new atheists made quite vehement statements against the “evilness” of religion, an inclusion of an emotional component that weakened their arguments.
As I thought through the arguments in Haught’s book, I was struck by the idea that the authors of the critiqued books wanted “God” to behave in a particular manner, and to be able to be proven scientifically. Because God (in their view) doesn’t seem to follow their narrow prescriptions, the new atheists want to jettison the idea. If you can’t read and don’t want to believe me, I can’t “prove” to you that ink blotches on paper carry information; you don’t believe me, but that doesn’t make what I say untrue.
Overall, I found this a challenging book and an interesting and cogent counterargument to widespread ideas of atheism in this culture.