It is commonplace in the rubble of the mainline denominations these days to drone on and on about the sorry state of the church in the West. We go to workshops, blog, read books, and wallow in anxious conversation all with the same subtitle: “How do we not die?” Not exactly a vivifying conversation. We think the non-religious forces are winning; that secularism is successful and popular “New” Atheism is ascendant. But is atheism doing so well?
If you actually listen to the things that atheists are saying, there is little here that is a challenge to faith of any brand, much less that of Christians. Indeed, atheist literature and public discourse tends to be just as vain as popular Christian discourse. So laments Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart:
…it seems obvious to me that the peculiar vapidity of New Atheist literature is simply a reflection of the more general vapidity of all public religious discourse these days, believing and unbelieving alike. In part, of course, this is because the modern media encourage only fragmentary, sloganeering, and emotive debates, but it is also because centuries of the incremental secularization of society have left us with a shared grammar that is perhaps no longer adequate to the kinds of claims that either reflective faith or reflective faithlessness makes.
Yes, reading Hart for long periods of time will hurt your brain. He is as acerbic as he is brilliant, which is a feat. Nonetheless, I think his premise is hard to argue against. Case in point: an interview I read over on MMA Weekly with Seth Petruzelli, an MMA fighter (most famous for knocking Kimbo Slice off of any serious fan’s radar) who happens to be an outspoken atheist. He explains how his first conflict with religious members of the MMA community came on the set of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter:
The first time it actually came up was in season 2 of The Ultimate Fighter in the house. Marcus Davis, he’s a pretty hardcore Christian and a lot of the guys in the house were the same way, especially with Matt Hughes being one of the coaches. There’s a scene actually in The Ultimate Fighter house where me and Matt kind of get into an argument for about 15 minutes or so about the bible, and obviously I think the bible [sic] is a bunch of BS, and that obviously struck a nerve with him.
To be an atheist is to – “obviously” – believe that the Bible is “BS”? That is a stronger claim than many Christians would make about the holy books of other communities. I have certainly never taught my people that the Koran or the Vedas are “BS,” even though I would not say that these words are inspired of the Triune God. And yes, if you dismiss the word of God as BS, them’s probably going to be fighting words (unless you’ve been reading a lot of John Howard Yoder). Petruzelli further describes the conflict with an outspoken Christian fighter:
We kind of had an argument back and forth, with me coming out on top obviously cause you can’t argue with science. Science trumps faith in all aspects of everything. But they had group bible sessions in the house and I just kind of had a little dialogue obviously with Marcus Davis too about it, all kinds of stuff in the bible [sic].
Is this the kind of reflection that the supposedly super-rational New Atheism is producing? At what point will the hackneyed ‘science vs. faith’ thesis be done with? Granted, there are Christians that still have not gotten the memo that science is not something to fear. But we’re working on it. There are plenty of Christians working in scientific fields who are faithful people. Christians need not shun the search for truth in whatever form. Thoughtful atheists should see the dialogue not as science vs. faith but atheism vs. various kinds of theism, Christianity among them. The scientific method, which, if my high school biology class was right, deals with observable, verifiable, and repeatable phenomena, can neither confirm nor deny the presence of a deity. Even psuedo-scientific work that purports to “prove” a divine intelligence can only get us to a vaguely theistic being, not the Triune God revealed in the Bible. Neither faith nor non-faith should claim to be provable by science. Doing so, whether one is a Christian or an atheist, belies a fundamental perversion of what faith actually is. To whit:
Faith to me is intellectual bankruptcy…I have faith in my fighting ability because there’s facts to back it up and that I can fight. Blind faith? Like I said, it’s intellectual bankruptcy, it’s a cop out. Tim Minchin has a great quote about this. ‘Science adjusts its views on what is observed, and faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.’
Intellectual bankruptcy? Ouch. That aside, Petruzelli confuses confidence with faith. “I have faith in my fighting ability because [there are] facts to back it up.” If there are facts to back “it” up, then what you have is not faith. As Hebrews 11:1 makes clear, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” There may be evidence of faith, indeed, fruits of the Spirit, or the inner witness so important to Wesley and other spiritual writers, but this is not the kind of evidence that will be observable under a microscope. It’s also just barely worth pointing out that there is no monolithic “science,” and that the work of Thomas Kuhn and others shows how often scientists disagree on, willfully distort, and ignore supposed facts. Scientific revolutions often only occur after a long, hard fight about what indeed the science is saying.
It seems somewhat unfair to criticize Petruzelli, who, as far as I know, has no theological training. I don’t mean to be unnecessarily harsh, and I like to think that I’m equally critical of poor arguments made by Christians. He is, however, making some striking claims in a very public space, and I think that makes confrontation both fair and necessary. The Church must have answers to such arguments, for in the years to come they will only get louder.
If only a serious dialogue with atheists was possible. When I read folks like Nietzche, I am challenged to think about my faith, to really question its basics. This is a service to the faithful, for our critics really are our friends. To return to a fighting metaphor: if Nietzche’s arguments are useful sparring partners, then, by comparison, the shallow vitriol of the New Atheists can only be described as the vain thrashing of an infant fighting off a clean diaper.
We’ll let a more skilled combatant fight the closing round. Hart expresses disdain for such a-thinking (see what i did there?) with adroitness, arguing that today’s atheists
…lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap)…A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.
May God grant us the blessing of able conversation partners, and save us from shallow faith, whether it is our own, or that of others.
P.S. For the record, I think Damon Martin’s piece drastically overstates the place of religion in the fight game. Atheists may be offended that there are so many nods to Jesus in the cage, but beyond post-fight shout-outs and mildly offensive clothing, I don’t think there is much substantive Christianity there. More likely is that, in an increasingly secularized world, many folks in the media are frankly caught off guard when someone like Benson Henderson (or Tim Tebow) makes public statements of faith. Rather like the pagans of bygone (?) eras, cultural observers and elites are surprised to find a small cadre of men and women who will not sacrifice to the official cultus and, rather offensively, talk about God beyond the privacy of their own closet.