Peter Hitchens Speaks

Christopher Hitchens wrote a book titled God is Not Great, which, in the way these things go, led to a series of debates with Doug Wilson, which led to a book, a debate tour, and eventually to the excellent documentary Collision, which you should see.

In part as a response to his brother’s book, but also as a response to the new atheists generally, Peter Hitchens has written The Rage Against God. Gorilla Poet Productions has produced a short trailer and an 8-minute author interview. Watch them, especially the latter. Note particularly the way in which Peter Hitchens came to Christ.

That’s how we’re going to have to fight this battle. Gear up.

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30 Responses to Peter Hitchens Speaks

  1. Missy says:

    Interesting observation: I believe the picture behind Hitchens through most of the interview is a print of an old painting of the Tower of Babel.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Why good afternoon, Missy! Good to hear from you; I hope you and yours are well, and that the librarian training is proceeding apace.

    I didn’t catch it, but I think you’re right. Upon closer look, it seems to be Pieter Bruegel’s version.

  3. Missy says:

    Hi, Tim. I get you on my reader, so I’m still following, but busy with school which is going well, thank you. Right now I’m doing a research paper on a Dawkins theory (memes), so my mind was occupied with the realm of aethists when I read this post. My Dad’s an aethist of this sort, so the post was also a great encouragement to me. The irony of the picture was not lost on me. 🙂 I believe you are right, it does seem to be the Elder’s painting.

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Very glad it was an encouragement, and glad also to hear that school is going well. As I think of him, your father will be in my prayers.

    Yeah, Babel was a nice touch. Back when I was teaching seminary, I kept a print of Escher’s Waterfall on the wall as a subtle reminder that if you’re clever enough, it’s possible to make something plausible on paper even though it just doesn’t work in real life. A lot of theology falls in that category…

    Any chance I could get a copy of that meme paper when it’s done? I’d love to read it.

  5. Missy says:

    Thanks for the prayers, Tim.

    Hopefully I can post my paper at my blog when it’s done – as long as it doesn’t resemble Esher’s Waterfall too much. 😉

  6. Bobby Grow says:

    It’s interesting, atheists don’t argue against the Christian God, who is trinity; they fight against Aristotle’s unmoved mover, who is a monad. To me to respond to folks like Hitchens on “his terms,” is to fall prey to the Fundamentalist method of fighting rationalism with rationalism (as a method/system). I think the questions need to be reframed, much like Karl Barth and TF Torrance have reframed them! Maybe Wilson does this, although I doubt it; I’ll have to listen to their debate at some point.

  7. Tim Nichols says:

    Greetings Bobby,

    Do listen to Wilson. I don’t know Torrance and Barth well enough to know if Wilson reframes the debate the same way they do, but he reframes it, all right. If you want a sample, Wilson’s debate with Dan Barker is available for free download, along with a discussion of his rationale for debating atheists. I like the exchange with Hitchens much, much better than the exchange with Barker — but a higher caliber of competition often brings out a better performance, and Wilson has also improved in the intervening years, no doubt. In all fairness, though, the Barker debate does give a reasonable idea of Wilson’s slant on things.

    I’m not so sure Hitchens isn’t arguing against the Christian God — have you heard him? Of course there are misconceptions/slanders, and it is maybe in some sense fair to say that he rejects God because he really doesn’t understand the God he’s rejecting. But it’s one thing to say that about someone who just argues against generic deity (like Gordon Stein in the Stein-Bahnsen debate, for example). It’s quite another to say that about someone who gets it in substantial ways.

    Hitchens understands the Christian God as personal, relational, the Father in heaven, and rejects Him for exactly those reasons. He’s not a wistful atheist who patronizingly smiles and says “I wish there were a god and a divine plan, but there’s really just no such thing.” Oh, no. Hitchens follows up “There’s no god…” with “…and it’s a good thing; it would be horrible if there were.” He specifically and pointedly argues the horror of God as Father– “It would be like having a father who never dies, from whom you can never escape, never become truly independent” — (not an exact quote, but not far from it). A Christian says “Yes, exactly — isn’t it glorious to have a Father who never dies and never leaves you?” Hitchens’ answer is a resounding “No!” It’s not oedipal in the strict sense, but there’s a definite tinge of autonomy lust and father hatred there.

  8. Bobby Grow says:

    I’ll have to check out Wilson’s response, thanks Tim!

    I’m not denying that Hitchens can grasp the idea of Father, Son, and Spirit; but instead the metaphysical framework from whence those conceptions flow. In other words, Christian theology has taken the Thomist understanding of God and fitted the trinity to it. This is a misunderstanding of how to conceive of God’s being in se, and thus it is not to actually interact with the Christian God who’s very being *is* Trinity. So Hitchens can use the “language,” but still misunderstand the notion of who the Christian God is; and thus not really be engaging with the God revealed in Christ. The fact that he thinks independence from God is laudable only illustrates his misunderstanding of the Christian God, even as Father (since God’s “Fatherhood” is shaped by His relationship to the Son by the Spirit).

  9. Tim Nichols says:

    Bobby,

    Okay, I’ll bite. I follow what you’re saying about being able to use the language without really grasping the underlying meaning. But when you say that Christian theology has fitted the trinity into the Thomistic understanding of God…I’m having trouble buying that.

    How so? What’s the thomistic understanding, as you see it, and how has Christianity as a whole bought it?

    (Feel free to refer me to a blog post of yours or something here, if you’d rather not write it all over again.)

  10. Bobby Grow says:

    Tim,

    The thomistic understanding is to view God through Aristotelin terms; so that impassibility/immutability mean something specific. That God is thought of in terms of a substance or in His monadic unmoved mover kind of life. This is common understanding relative to the Western and scholastic articulation of God theologically. It can be followed through folks like Beza, Turretin, Hodge (of Princeton), and then picked up on by Evangelicals like Grudem, Ryrie, Erickson, et al.

    The result is to think of God the Father as the substance “God” from whence Jesus and the Holy Spirit subsist. It is too much to try and develop this thesis here, but it seems clear to me and plenty of others that this is the case. This doctrine of God is ardently defended by classically Calvinist types (like Muller, Trueman, Clark and others); and it is the Evangelicals who have unconciously, in many situations, adopted this same doctrine (if Evangelicals actually have doctrine ;-).

    I have some posts on this, maybe I’ll dig them up and refer.

  11. Tim Nichols says:

    Bobby,

    I understand that these are complicated issues that can’t be adequately summarized in an epigram; happy to see you do it in a bigger forum. I’d love it if you could refer me to a post or four. I’d like to understand more about what you’re seeing here, and what you’re espousing as an alternative. (Would your 21Jan post of this year be a good starting point? Or is there something else I should read before that, after it, instead of it?)

    Part of this, for me, is that you recently “detected” a Thomistic strain in someone I know quite closely, and who is certainly no Thomist. So under the “love hopes all things” rubric, I’m trying to get a sense of where you’re coming from.

  12. Bobby Grow says:

    Thomism, is pervasive, Tim! It’s certainly possible to be under the influence of something w/o consciously espousing it; wouldn’t you say (like the person you note here, who was that btw?)?

    I’ll try to dig some posts up.

  13. Tim Nichols says:

    Bobby,

    Sure; one could. But when, as was the case, the person in question is a committed Eastern Orthodox, the charge of adhering to a Thomist theology encounters immediate credibility problems. Especially when I know the person. And when there are other (to my eye, non-Thomistic) ways of accounting for the language that he used. (It was Dodi, a few weeks back.) At the very least, one suspects an infelicitous, and fairly anachronistic, choice of terminology on your part.

    Hence my desire to understand what you mean by “Thomist,” because on the face of it, you clearly intend something beyond the obvious meaning one would attach to the word. I look forward to reading your posts.

  14. Bobby Grow says:

    Tim,

    I would have to reread Dodi, but being EO doesn’t guard one, necessarily, from Thomist tendencies; after all we do live in the West in the 21st century. My language may or may not have been anachronistic, as you say; but I must of picked up on some sort of conceptualism that led me to my “labeling.”

    What post was that, with Dodi; I’d like to reread what he said . . . oh yeah, it was on communion, I’ll go check it out. As I recall Dodi’s view of grace did sound very Thomist or “substance” metaphsyics like.

    Btw, I think Free Grace theology is entrenched in Thomist dogma relative, at least to a “Doctrine of God.”

  15. Tim Nichols says:

    Bobby,

    “being EO doesn’t guard one, necessarily, from Thomist tendencies; after all we do live in the West in the 21st century.”

    Sure — although being in a communion that is specifically and consciously non-Western and regards Thomas’ church as schismatic and heretical might possibly help. I don’t say you couldn’t have been wrong, just that (a) you were, (b) all indications seem to agree on that point, and (c) you haven’t said the slightest thing thus far that would help me to change my mind.

    Look, no disrespect, but from where I’m standing at the moment, you look like a guy who’s discovered that he can squash a lot of errors with the “Thomism Is Bad” Hammer, and is proceeding to try to squash every perceived error with that same Hammer. To a man with a Hammer, everybody looks like a Thomist…or something.

    Undoubtedly you’re smarter than that, but we all have our favorite whipping boys, and everybody gets suckered into these mistakes sometimes. What I am asking for is a better explanation of where you’re coming from, in hopes of being able to re-interpret your actions in a more favorable light and/or have a substantive conversation about it, instead of just shaking my head and filing your comments on Thomism under “Excitable Guy With Favorite Hammer.” No offense.

    C’mon man, I’m trying to do my part. Gimme something to work with here.

  16. Bobby Grow says:

    Tim,

    I don’t know Dodi well enough, so I’ll have to take your word for it.

    If you don’t like the language of Thomism, then lets just call it scholasticism. You’ve been around enough, you’ve been a prof, even; how the impact of scholaticism or Thomism has had upon Western (and Evangelical) theology has escaped you — relative to a doctrine of God, esp. — is beyond me. And yet, this is exactly what seems to be the case with you. I already gave you a little historical stream on how this developed (like from Beza onward); are you aware of this? To me, a Doctrine of God is THE defining feature of any theological framework; go one way, you get one thing, go another, then you go another. Western Theology (Roman Catholic and Reformed/Evangelical is Thomist . . . that’s no secret).

    So if I think a Thomist doctrine of God is incompatible with scripture’s revelation of God; then why would you be surprised that I would be suspect of any theological framework that is unconsciously/consciously shaped by this “Doctrine?”

    Thomism does not support a Trinitarian view of God, by definition. It sees God statically (contra relationally), and monadically shaped. It’s view of God as actual infinite and the unmoved mover who cannot be “moved” by His creation is totally at odds with the God of the Bible (who is “moved” by His love for His creation). Therefore, any subsequent doctrine developed from this foundation is going to be at odds with scripture.

    If Western theology is Thomist, then why would you think I am just “excited?” That seems rather strange, can you tell me how this is as reductionist as you seem to think? Are there other doctrines of God that have had the dominance in the West that you could point me to?

    Btw, Thomism is bad.

  17. Tim Nichols says:

    Bobby,

    Thomism is bad. Nice to agree on something, hey? 😉

    So if I’m hearing you correctly, at bottom what you mean by ‘Thomism’ is the conception of God as static perfection, in the Greek (Platonic) sense of ‘perfection’ — the ultimate Form, maybe. And that such a god is fundamentally and of necessity a monad — Allah rather than Yahweh, as it were. That god can’t be relational in any really meaningful way, because if you buy the static-perfection paradigm, then relationship means something supplied by the other party that is not already supplied internally in his being, which implies lack or need of some sort — a violation of aseity (again, if you buy the paradigm). A static god can’t ever be glorified by anything, because that would imply that his glory was less before the event, which is impossible, etc. Like that. Am I getting you? Assuming so…

    The impact of (what I have been calling) static theism hasn’t escaped me. Augustine has it — and openly attributes much of his theology proper to Plato (or rather, to be more fair, he says that he sees it in the Scripture, but that Plato got it right — to the point that he even wonders if perhaps Plato read the Hebrew Scriptures, if I recall correctly.) Aquinas picked up aspects of it, which were ratified into official Roman theology at Trent. On the Protestant side of the house, Calvin was thoroughly Augustinian, etc. If that’s all you mean by ‘Thomism,’ well, golly, that makes a lot more sense. (Still think you’re wrong about Dodi, but that’s because “means of grace” is susceptible of a relational understanding, from within certain frameworks, including his quasi-neo-Palamite EO framework.)

    I don’t think the Western church is thoroughly static-theist. Among the systematic theologians, of course, it is. Arguably, Cornelius Van Til was one bright spot; he pressed very hard the equal ultimacy of three and one in the Trinity, which is an important shift — it was affirmed in name by most, but he started to cash it out in some useful ways, and encountered a lot of flack for so doing. I’d not hold him up as my poster boy for anti-static-theism, but he was making a start. There are maybe a few others. Not many.

    Happily, the rest of the church has never paid much heed to the shennanigans going on in systematic theology departments. You think the static theology proper matters because it matters in systematic theology. You’re right, as far as you’re going.

    But Christian worship — always, everywhere, and by all (or near enough) — assumes a relational God. The prayer assumes a relational God, and, well, lex orandi, lex credendi. Calvin was gloriously inconsistent on this, and so is everyone else, thank God. A Roman mumbling through 100 Hail Marys is consistent with static theism, but when that same woman hits her knees beside a hospital bed and tearfully begs God for the life of her dying child — that’s relational. Where it matters, Christians worship a relational God, and that leaks out into our lives.

    This is why people who worship Yahweh well are good people, and people who read lots of systematic theologies are not. I am generalizing, of course, but I’ve been around, and the generalization holds pretty well. Building doctrinal houses of cards in one’s head doesn’t make one a kinder, more loving and Christlike person; more often than not, it actually has the opposite effect. Good worship does — we become like what we worship (which is to say that Yahweh meets us in the worship and conforms us to His image).

    So at this point I’d say I read you as a little excitable because you have correctly assessed the danger static theism has done to Western sys theo, but you think sys theo matters a lot more than I do. Give me control of the liturgy and the prayer book and I don’t much care who writes the theology…. I’m half kidding, of course. But only half.

  18. Bobby Grow says:

    Tim,

    Yes, “static-perfection,” in the Aristotelian sense, though (there is a bit of a difference between that and Platonic, eh).

    I agree with you, people, Christians, in spite of their theology — and because of their “piety” — can end up with a relational God. BUT, if you think that a doctrine of God has little effect, or that theology has minimal impact on these same folks I really beg to differ!!! What do you think drives the debates between MacArthurites and Free Gracers? What is it that actually denominates different fellowships of believers? I realize that you’re looking at this pastorally, but so am I; I think how we worship is determined by who we worship, and thus having a solid foundation in this area is fundamental (i.e. orthodoxy leads orthopraxy).

    I think someone can certainly be a Pharisee (and I agree this is typical amongst “theologians”, but not “theologians of the cross”) and read systematic theology; but I also think someone can be a Pharisee and simply read their Bibles (or not) and show up to church on Sunday mornings. There are certainly “good” loving people who are sensitive to the Lord in the church who do not read systematic theology; but that does not mean that someone in the church shouldn’t be 😉 .

    In the end, a “static” God leads to “static” doctrine which leads to “static” people. I think this issue is important, and it drives me a bit; but I suppose we all have our different parts in the body!

    Thanks for the discussion, Tim!

  19. Tim Nichols says:

    Bobby,

    I agree that the doctrinal differences matter, and in theology proper more than in most areas. (I was only half kidding, remember?)

    More and more, though, I find myself of the persuasion that mutual friends of Yahweh will find a way to work things out — and that when things don’t get worked out, someone (on one or both sides) isn’t being a good friend to Yahweh. The Holy Spirit who indwells both doesn’t lead them to anathematize each other. The MacArthur/Free Grace debate is a good example. I have friends and fellow workers on both sides, people in whom I recognize the presence of Christ, and they recognize Him in me. We don’t get together and team-teach soteriology, but we pray together, worship together, fellowship together, pray for each other’s repentance… 😉 We get along for the sake of our mutual Friend, who loves us both, and whom we both love. And in truth, our Friend has made sure that we have a lot in common, so if the desire is there, it isn’t actually all that hard to do. The people who can’t bring themselves to do this are living as ideologues, not Christians, and they are worshipping a doctrinal statement, not the Triune God. I understand the ramifications of that statement, but there it is. Scripture has some very harsh things to say about people who divide the Body, chief among them “those who are such do not serve Christ.”

    In keeping with that, I find mostly that walking with God drives orthopraxy and orthodoxy, sometimes independently, and that the two ortho-s influence each other. Again, lex orandi, lex credendi, which is exactly the opposite — right worship drives right belief. Consider Deut. 14:22-26, and note the end of v.23 — orthopraxy driving orthodoxy. If it were as simple as “orthodoxy leads orthopraxy,” there’d be no need for Ephesians 4-6, Romans 12-16, the Ten Commandments, etc. All that great whacking pile of ethical instruction is a set of direct lessons from God on orthopraxy, not mediated through one’s theology proper. “Thou shalt not steal” means what it says, and whether you think it’s coming from a loving Father or a meany who won’t let you have any fun, you know perfectly well that if you’re stealing, you’re doing it wrong.

    The difference in theology proper there is a large one, and makes a difference in the way the person lives, to be sure. On the other hand, a correct understanding of the commands will drive the erring stingy-theist to reconsider his position. “If God is stingy, how come obedience comes out to my good?” (Which is part of what that Deut. 14 feast is supposed to do.)

    Re. your drive to hunt down static theism where’er it may be found: May Christ’s love animate you in the conversation, and grant you clear and winsome words.

    Thanks for hanging in the discussion with me.

  20. Bobby Grow says:

    Tim,

    I worship with all kinds of Christians, I don’t disagree with you there; but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be pressing eachother toward the “unity of the faith.”

    I am probably more latitudinarian than many Christians, I see Christ in both Catholics and EO; although, again, I believe their, at least, soteriology to be messed up (which will have impact on their spirituality, and I have some personal experience with that relative to an EO person).

    Your examples from Deut Eph Rom don’t really follow. The ethical concerns in those passages (or orthopraxic) are first presupposed by a Doctrine of God; by a theological framework wherein those moral requirements makes sense. There certainly is a dialectic between ‘doxy and ‘praxy; but in my mind ‘doxy takes precendence relative to an *order*.

    I believe, though, that any theology worth its salt shoud be driven by doxology (cf. Rom 11). Which takes into the account the dialectic nature of orthodoxy and praxy; and how all of life should be taken up in this stance of gratitude and adoration of our LORD.

    My “drive” is not exclusively shaped by this concern; but I do see it as important along the spectrum of Christian living. I realize that most Christians will never crack a theology book, and that’s probably fine; what concerns me is that their pastors don’t (which is an abject failure in taking their role seriously, i.e. rightly dividing the word). I believe the Lord has worked in His church since He ascended; and that there is thus a responsibility for HIs teachers to find out how he has spoken to His people through the centuries. Pastors who fail to take this seriously, in my judgement, are in a scary spot (of course this isn’t their only responsibility).

  21. Tim Nichols says:

    Bobby,

    I agree we should be pressing each other toward the unity of the faith — and that means being honest about the full range of our agreements, as well as the full range of our disagreements. In practice, I find that worshipping together creates the forum within which the other discussions can happen profitably.

    And yes, pastors who don’t pay attention to church history are in deep, deep trouble. Most ST books can be safely ignored; they’re just sanitized extracts of church history anyhow. Better to get the real thing. Some ST books, though, are setting out to be serious correctives of some aspect of the church’s history, and the ones that live up to their aim should be taken seriously.

    Regarding the example set — I’m not concerned about the order so much (for reasons I’ll get to below); I’m basing my argument on the fact that they’re present at all. If ‘praxy all falls neatly out of the ‘doxy by an easy process of reasoning, then why the mass of ethical instruction? We’ve got the orthodoxy; we’ll work it out, won’t we? Turns out, no, we won’t.

    Of course the ethical instruction and the ‘doxy cohere with one another. My point is that the ethics offer a direct threat to misunderstandings of theology. No matter how you work out the Corban laws, and no matter how sound each individual step of reasoning may seem to be, if the result is “…and therefore, I don’t have to provide for Mom and Dad in their old age,” you did the math wrong somewhere.

    “Honor your father and mother” makes sense in a trinitarian framework, and seems odd and arbitrary in a solitary monotheistic framework, sure. It all coheres. But the ethical instruction is harder to misinterpret than the doctrinal passages, and that’s the point. The doctrinal errors may be subtle, but the practical results are not, and the ethical commands represent (practically speaking) another line of witness against which to check one’s understanding of theology. This is a large part of what Jesus does with the Pharisees.

    The Deut. example is the easiest one to see here — keep the feast before the Lord “in order that you may learn to fear Me.” Obedience cultivates the fear of God, which is to say that ‘praxy cultivates ‘doxy here. The Ten Commandments fit well too — the lead-off isn’t a doctrinal statement, but a statement of shared history: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods before Me…” You see a doctrinal framework presupposed, because you think a framework of thought precedes ethics. Rationalistically, yes. But that’s not how people work.

    Experientially, it’s exactly the other way around. Johnny learns to be grateful by getting spanked when he refuses to say thank you. The command seems senseless and arbitrary; he learns first to obey “because Daddy said so” and afterwards, based on the obedience, the framework of thought comes. The original basis is relational. Israel’s conquest generation doesn’t learn to obey because their academic grasp of theological orthodoxy improves; they learn to obey because God provides for them and kills their disobedient fathers in the desert. The same obtains in Romans and Ephesians. The argument is largely narratival, based on shared experience and continuity with it: “God has done this and this for you, and in you; you should follow that same trajectory by living thus, and not return to your former trajectory, because you know where that goes.”

    In relationship to God, that means worship precedes theology. I don’t mean that the theology should be doxological in some nebulous way. I mean that theology is real knowledge of the living God or it is nothing, and the crudest farmhand who worships God has more knowledge of God than the most cunning seminary prof who doesn’t. “My theology is built on a doxological foundation” is supposed to mean the same thing as “I live a life of vibrant worship to the living God, I gather every Sunday with His people to offer that worship together, and my theological writing is the overflow of my life of worship.” It usually doesn’t mean anything of the kind.

  22. Bobby Grow says:

    Tim,

    You said: “In relationship to God, that means worship precedes theology.” And I say that this is the framework or theological grid you’re working out of. That was my point on presupposed, earlier. A framework is an a priori reality, you don’t have ethics w/o God revealing Himself. You don’t have ethics w/o an “ethical” or “relational” God revealing Himself.

    I think you’ve presumed that I’m for rationalism or ST, in general. Not at all, I think we might be on the same side; remember my point on dialectic. You’re arguing against certain perceptions and sterotypes of theologians; I would join you in that.

  23. Tim Nichols says:

    Caught with my hand in the cookie jar…

  24. Daniel says:

    An interesting insight from a “non-believer” in this discussion going on in Australia. Insightful for strategic reasons. Published in the Age available online at http://www.theage.com.au

    Atheists win a battle but may lose the war

    MADELEINE BUNTING
    April 6, 2010
    Comments 143

    Religion has been invigorated by those who came to bury God.

    One shelf of my bookcase is now groaning under the weight of its contents. It’s the God slot, and in the years since the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in 2006 and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great in 2007, there has been an addition every few weeks from enraged philosophers, theologians, historians and journalists, all trying to convince readers of the shoddiness of the New Atheists. Peter Hitchens’ Rage Against God was the latest arrival last week.

    So, with Easter done and the Catholic Church embroiled in one of the most shaming and tumultuous periods of its history, it seems an appropriate moment to reckon on the progress of New Atheism, and take stock of this curious and – in the early 2000s entirely unpredictable – publishing phenomenon. What have all these books, these tons of paper and felled forests achieved?

    Well, the most obvious achievement has been a lot of sore heads. Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens convey the fury of Old Testament prophets, while their opponents struggle in various well-mannered ways to contain theirs. From my rough survey, I would suggest those with philosophical training are the most irritated by New Atheism, while the journalists seem to enjoy the opportunities the row provides.

    What staggers the ”philosophers” (I use the term loosely to indicate writers who use philosophical arguments) is the sheer philosophical illiteracy of Dawkins. As Terry Eagleton puts it in Reason, Faith and Revolution, ”Dawkins’ rationalist complacency is of just the sort Jonathan Swift so magnificently savaged.” Several centuries on, it appears some have not quite grasped Swift’s point.

    Perhaps New Atheism’s publishing success is a case of winning a battle and losing the war – the main religions are currently experiencing massive expansion across most of the world. One of the biggest drivers of growth is China; by 2050 it could be the biggest Muslim nation, and the biggest Christian one. What numerous countries are now demonstrating, from the US to Asia, from Africa to the Middle East and Latin America, is that modernisation, far from entailing secularisation, is actually leading to increased and intensified forms of religiosity. According to John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in God is Back, the future across most of the globe is going to be very religious.

    To the sceptical Westerner, this is a lonely and unintelligible prospect. So, which of the defences of God on my bookshelf are going to help explain this enduring appeal? Start with Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth: ”we are meaning-seeking creatures” who ”invent stories to place our lives in a larger setting . . . and give us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life has meaning and value”. That helps explain why the bestselling religious book in the US is The Purpose Driven Life. The faithful are not mugging up on critiques of reason for an argument with New Atheism, but turning to religion to offer meaning and purpose.

    The great mistake the atheists made is to claim that religion started out as a clumsy stab at science – trying to explain how the world worked – and is now clearly redundant. That misses the point entirely: religion is not about explaining how an earthquake or flood happens; rather it offers meanings for such events. When someone is killed in a car accident, Western rationality is good at analysing how the brakes failed and the road curved, but has nothing to say about why, on that particular day, the brakes failed when it was you in the car: the sequence of random events that kill. This search for meaning is part of what drives the religious spirit.

    The second mistake made by the atheists is the assumption that faith and belief are mental processes akin to opinion. Armstrong runs through the etymology to uncover original meanings: belief is a commitment not a proposition; faith, as in ”I have faith in you”, is an expression of confidence, not an assertion of the existence of something. Dogma is ”a truth which cannot easily be put into words and which can only be fully understood through long experience” – rather like the love of a parent for their child growing into adulthood.

    The loss of the original meanings of all these words show how religious faith in the West came to be interpreted as a matter of the head and the intellect, and was bound up with the authority of an institution that expected submission: God was regarded as something to think about rather than do in large chunks of Western religious practice that, preoccupied with institutional power, ended up in this current cul de sac.

    Armstrong offers an important insight into the sheer aggressive intolerance of New Atheism when she argues that ”the history of religion shows that, once a myth ceases to give people intimations of transcendence, it becomes abhorrent”. The shift to monotheism provoked huge struggle among the Israelites, for example, and a deep contempt for anything that might be idolatry.

    The paradox of New Atheism is that in its bid to make religion unacceptable, it has contributed to making it a subject that is worth talking about again.

    In the US there are now hundreds of think tanks, institutes and courses dedicated to the subject; religion attracts a huge number of posts on opinion websites; literary festivals routinely offer several sessions on religion. Books are churned out. Admittedly, the exchanges can be horribly bad tempered, but God hasn’t attracted this intensity of debate for decades.

    Madeleine Bunting is a Guardian columnist.

  25. Tim Nichols says:

    Daniel,

    Thanks for dropping by; that is an interesting set of observations.

    From where I’m sitting, I don’t think they’re particularly winning the battle, either. The one thing the New Atheists really have going for them is sheer force of moral outrage. In some quarters, it’s a real advantage, much more effective than the bemused rationalist who just shakes his head and says “But there’s no evidence for God.” On the other hand, the outrage seems to put as many people off as it wins over; when you know a Christian or three, and it turns out they really don’t eat their young, the whole thing wears a little thin.

  26. Missy says:

    After all those words (head spinnin’!), it seems to me that atheists simply choose not to believe in the God they believe in. That’s what makes it so hard to talk to them about it. Sometimes it is God they’ve refused, sometimes it’s not.

  27. Tim Nichols says:

    Good morning Missy!

    I agree. It’s a classic straw-man argument. Per Rom.1, the atheist knows God. Not a generic deity, but Yahweh — and he doesn’t like Him. So instead of honestly facing what he doesn’t like about Yahweh, the atheist slanders Yahweh, paints a false picture of Him, and then rejects the false picture — classic straw-man. Unfortunately, when the atheist sets out to caricature God, he often has the help of sincere but badly misguided Christian folk.

    The best response to this kind of thing I think I’ve ever heard came from N. T. Wright. He tells about being chaplain at Oxford (I think) and having an appointment with each and every incoming student — they’re in his parish, whether they want to be or not. As I remember the story, it goes something like this:

    The student would often be openly hostile, and begin the conversation with “I don’t even know why we’re meeting. I don’t believe in God.”
    “Oh?” Wright would say. “What god don’t you believe in?”
    “Huh?”
    “What is he like, this god that you don’t believe in?”
    After some probing, the answer would be something along the lines of a dude with a long white beard on a throne in the sky, who mostly ignores us, but every once in a while says something vaguely disapproving about us doing anything fun.
    “Excellent!” Wright would say. “I don’t believe in that god either! Would you mind if I share a little about the God I do believe in?”

  28. Bobby Grow says:

    Your last paragraph is all I ever meant from the get-go 😉 .

  29. John says:

    Why do you presume that Peter Hitchens has anything more useful to say about God and the Great Matters of existence-being (especially death), than the down and out person living hand-to-mouth on the street?

    Plus look at the company Peter keeps–you wont find anything remotely like a Spiritually informed religious consciousness in the propaganda outfits that he writes for.

    After all Jesus road into town on a donkey–unannounced and unrecognized.

  30. Tim Nichols says:

    Greetings John,

    Thanks for stopping by. Have you anything useful to say about what Peter Hitchens has actually written, or are you just going to try to sling a little mud and run?

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