A Theologian’s Confused Response to New Atheism

February 23, 2009

I just finished John F. Haught’s new book,     God and the New Atheism   (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008). Haught is a prominent Catholic theologian at Georgetown University, and he has published several books about religion, science, and evolution.

Haught’s responses to the criticisms of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens don’t deserve much commentary. When biblical morality comes up, Haught’s reply amounts to “My Christianity, the real Christianity, is much more noble and ethical than any religion those atheists are complaining about” (no, this is not a quotation, but it nicely summarizes his reply). When evidence for God comes up, Haught’s reply basically is that evidence is irrelevant, since God’s existence is so mysteriously transcendent that nothing could count as evidence for or against God. Quite convenient, yes?

Actually, what sustained my attention to the end of the book is Haught’s general theological stance. What sort of Christianity is Haught selling? As far as I can tell, Haught’s theological views are a confusing mixture of metaphysics, postmodernism, and just enough fundamentalism to keep it spicy. This is what happens to theology when scriptural mythology can’t be taken literally anymore, natural theology is dead because the arguments don’t work, and faith ends up fleeing from rationality. Haught’s new work amply illustrates how a popular book written to reassure the Christian faithful to ignore atheism ends up in nothing but confusion. It’s a new best-selling genre for Christians, if the many bookstore shelves full of this stuff are any indication.

Why take naturalism seriously, Haught asks? Science can’t yet explain everything (yes, scientists are aware of this) and if naturalism were true, no one would have thinking minds or kind hearts (and naturalism can’t ever deal with consciousness or ethics, Haught assumes). Against the application of naturalism for questioning religion, Haught responds that theology “rightly objects to the atheists’ device of collapsing the mystery of God into a set of propositions” (p. 52). Haught constantly talks about the mysterious infinities and unknowable perfections of God when beating back atheist objections. However, Haught soon tells us several propositions that Christians know about God, such as: “Ultimate reality ... cannot be less than personal” (p. 91); “God as ‘the ultimate ground of all being’” (p. 91); “Christianity’s vulnerable God is not detached from the chaos of natural and historical processes” (p. 96); and “God is absolute self-giving love” (p. 97). Does Haught notice the hypocrisy in allowing Christians to describe God using propositions, but atheists are forbidden to consider the God hypothesis in that way too?

Haught announces God’s metaphysical mysteriousness to put off the atheists, but he still has plenty to say about God to Christians. He is a theologian, after all. Haught is quite aware that diverse interpretations of scripture compete for theological dominance. Therefore, he says that we can talk about God “only in the imprecise yet luxuriant language of culturally conditioned symbols, analogies, and metaphors” (p. 98). This is very convenient, as well. Haught can describe God propositionally, yet he never has to worry about any of these propositions turning out to be true or false. They are so vague, so metaphorical, so poetic! This postmodernist wiggle room also helps Haught when he thinks that some interpretations of scripture are better than others: “early biblical symbolism of God is not to our tastes” (p. 98). Haught is no literalist: “The Bible includes frankly barbaric texts that no finds edifying.” Alas, some Christian sects (including many Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church) regard every single line of the Bible as divinely error-free.

Haught must know that all his metaphysical talk about God’s mysterious existence and his postmodernist view of creeds as just religious symbolism is asking for trouble. He will be viewed with suspicion by laypeople in the pews and get labeled as a heretic by conservative theologians. But Haught stays flexible! He is quick to point to his own fundamental orthodoxy, flatly stating his dogmatic creed that “God is fully present in Jesus the Christ” (p. 97). Is God extremely mysterious, or just imperfectly understandable, or quite clearly recognizable? It all depends on who Haught is talking to, it appears.