William Sloane Coffin on Atheism’s God

wsc coverImagine a movement to abolish film based only on the work of Adam Sandler, or to abolish the radio because of Justin Bieber.  What if I began a series of blogs arguing for the closing of all art museums because of the laughable efforts of my 5th grade neighbor that aren’t even worthy of a refrigerator magnet?

Most atheists, in rejecting God, are not rejecting a God I recognize.  Having read much of the atheist literature, including some of the prominent voices of the virulent strain of anti-theistic writing called the ‘New Atheism,’ I am often left underwhelmed with the depth of analysis.  William Sloane Coffin, near the end of his life, wrote a great little book called Letters to a Young Doubter.  In it, he imagines a dialogue with a freshman college student and friend named Tom, who is navigating faith and family and studies and doubt as he begins his undergraduate career.  He warn Tom,

“It may, however, be worthwhile to tell you about what I have found to be a common phenomenon in American universities today. Professors judge poetry, novels, art, and music by their very best works. Why then do so many judge religion by the worst examples of it? I used to ask professors, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’ I know that 99 chances out of 100 I wouldn’t believe in their kind of God either.”

As Coffin hints at, the New Atheists and their fandom constantly argue against religion by highlighting its worst possible exemplars.  Critical readers will recognize this tactic as arguing against a straw man – a fallacy that is unfortunately as common as it is effective.

Give me Nietzsche any day: an atheist with the intellectual virtue to actually know that which he rejected.  He despised Christianity on its own terms: the life and witness of Jesus was to him disgusting, as it led to the “slave morality” he despised.

At least Nietzsche cared enough to read the source material at its best.  If only today’s atheists would do the same.  Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart puts it thus, with his characteristically sharp quill:

“The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels 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).”

In proving the undesirability of “gods” that no one, perchance for a few extremists,  actually worships, contemporary atheists are not so much making arguments as they are reinforcing the boogeymen of their own imaginations.  And, of course, book sales.  Hysteria always sells, after all.

Sadly, in rejecting out-of-hand what they do not understand and have not critically engaged, the New Atheists and their ilk are mirroring the behavior of those they most despise: religious fundamentalists.  Thus, they become two sides of the same coin.  As we’ve said before, beware what you loathe, because you will become it.

(For more of David Bentley Hart tearing down New Atheist straw men, see video below.)

Source: William Slone Coffin, Letters to a Young Doubter Louisville: WKJ 2005), 17-18.

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