Profound and Sublime: a New Face, a New Atheist

Contra “Believe it or Not” by David B. Hart…part 2 (part 1) (part 3)

A New Face, A New Atheist

In David Hart’s lamentation of the “utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism,” he expresses admiration for high manifestations of skepticism and atheism. Moreover, he argues for their necessity. In doing so he defines the “true skeptic” and “truly profound atheist” as “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.” Let’s leave aside that his assessment of the New Atheists that they lack this quality reveals that Hart either did not understand what the New Atheists have to say or he cannot defend his faith against their indictments. (The New Atheists, every one of them, are expressing outrage and “profound moral alarm” at religious corruption, psychological terror, injustices, suffering, and evil caused by religion, all of which, Hart admits, are the precious qualities of skepticism and religion). Instead, let’s examine what it might mean to be an atheist of profound proportions and offer an alternative definition.

First, it must be said that atheists are not required to have a deep knowledge of the beliefs they reject. One does not, for example, have to have a deep knowledge of Buddhism and its cultural and historical impact (or the consequences of rejecting it) to reject it as a belief system. Nor does one have to have such knowledge of Aesop’s fables (with their own cultural and historical impact) to reject the idea that a tortoise will beat a rabbit in a race. Perhaps Hart is correct in that lacking this knowledge an atheist risks not being “profound.” But I’m not convinced of the utility of an atheist aiming for profundity (at least, not the kind Hart is looking for)…unless, of course, they are seeking to impress Mr. Hart.

What is a “truly profound atheist?” When I look in my infant daughter’s eyes I see atheism (in the sense of “absence of belief”) in its purest, most unadulterated form. This is profound in its own right. A friend, and Presbyterian minister, described it as sublime. Not only does my daughter inherently lack belief in a god, she is naturally equipped with rudimentary forms of scientific reasoning. The discovery of the world through play engaged in by infants is the process of experimentation. It is experimentation to determine the nature of the world – cause and effect. For example, in a fitting display of inflicting operant conditioning upon a parent, my daughter has discovered that by investigating sound (experimentation) through exploring the changes in her vocal cords and the shape of her mouth, she can create adorable baby coos (cause) that make her father do silly things (effect) that make her laugh – she can do this repeatedly (replicable).

We are born into this world as natural scientists and without belief in a god. This is profound and sublime. What happens to change this? How does a child cross the threshold from non-belief to belief in a god? Pastor Douglas Wilson provides a revealing example in the film Collision. (I recommend Pastor Wilson to any believer who seeks an example of an honest confrontation of atheism. He is smart, funny, and refreshingly honest in his apologetics). In this film, the camera follows Pastor Wilson and Christopher Hitchens as they tour the country to promote their book Is Christianity Good for the World? This book is a series of letters that they exchanged with each other while engaging in a theism/atheism debate. In one scene, while sitting in a taxi Pastor Wilson confesses, “The first reason, the most fundamental reason, the most basic reason I’m a Christian is because my parents are Christians and they loved me and taught me and my mom spanked me diligently and brought me up in the nurture and [admonition?] of the Lord.” To put it mildly, a child must be told, often repeatedly, by a trusted authority figure, usually parents, that a god exists. Why is this the case?  Because it is not obvious to the developing mind that such a being exists.  Keep in mind that every time an idea is read, said, or heard another imprint of that idea is formed in our minds…“the most basic reason I’m a Christian is because my parents are Christians and they loved me and taught me and my mom spanked me diligently …”! This is the meaning of “indoctrination” at its very core.

Moreover, I question whether Hart is willing to apply the corollary of this criterion to theists in all of their diversity. Does he expect his fellow theists to have a sophisticated knowledge of the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the cycle of SaṃsāraMaitreya, or Buddhist eschatology (and the consequences of rejecting them) in order to disavow the Buddhist belief system?  I think it’d be great if they did, but I wouldn’t say that it was a necessity for profound theological exploration. Or, more specifically, and perhaps more relevantly, does he expect his fellow profound Christian theists to have a sophisticated knowledge of the concept of tawhid (the fundamental unity of God), its philosophical impact on the concept of the Ummah (the Muslim community of believers) and its direct challenge to the doctrine of the Trinity in order for them to say, at best, that there is not sufficient evidence to believe that the message of Islam is true?  Though I find all of these subjects interesting and worthy of academic study, I cannot be so bold as to think that everyone would or should share this appreciation. Furthermore, I am certain that an understanding of these concepts is not a necessary condition for any Christian to provide a profound answer as to why they are Christian.

However, I would suggest that even this is not what Hart means in his lamentations of the utterly inconsequential. Instead, by saying that he wants atheists to understand the “sophisticated forms” of theology and the consequences of rejecting them, I have a suspicion that he does not mean understanding theology or rejecting religion in general. Rather, what he means is that he wants atheists to understand his “sophisticated” theological endeavors and the consequences of rejecting his religion. (In Hart’s own words, “Gosh, who could’ve seen that coming?”) And why atheists would desire to attain this kind of profundity he does not say.

(part 1) (part 3)

Copyright © 2011 JP Laughlin

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About JP Laughlin

Originally intent on Christian ministry, I attended the College of Charleston where I earned a BA in Religious Studies (and where I also nearly completed a BA in Biology) and where I met my wife in our New Testament class. I attended graduate school at the University of Washington and earned a MA in International Studies – Comparative Religion. My areas of focus were Religion-and-Culture and American Religion. Somewhere along the way, I escaped from the prison of religious belief and found a new joy in living.

One response to “Profound and Sublime: a New Face, a New Atheist”

  1. Anna says :

    I have been reading Bentley Hart, and was hoping to find an atheist’s response to him (other than the silly one line F-you comments one sees in the YouTube column).

    I am going to be doing a Worldview Studies Masters and have studied Buddhism and Christianity a good deal. I read your post (I think it is number 2) with the picture of the pretty baby. Near the end you voiced a suspicion that by “sophisticated forms” of theology, Hart really meant his own understanding. As someone who believes the orthodox doctrines myself, I’d have to say that he probably does mean that first and foremost. I lost faith several years ago due to a measure of suffering I underwent, and I fought to see if Christianity held water. I wasn’t prepared to deny my despair, nor would I accept simplistic theological answers. Simplistic theological answers were easily shot through, and I preferred truth to something pleasant but juvenile. I’ve met many people who are atheists in ways that I am as well. I don’t believe in there being a god who arbitrarily sends people to hell (I don’t believe in the sort of ‘hell’ they disbelieve in as well), or a god who relies on evil to show his goodness, or a god who stands (much like Zeus or god the father in Mormonism) apart from the world as a sort of super-man. The benefit to wrestling with more sophisticated forms of theology is, at least in my own case, considerable. The world opened up a great deal more to me as I grew in my knowledge and understanding of Christianity and Buddhism (though Buddhism isn’t a theistic faith). The thought-worlds of both are far more complex than the atheists I know give credit. My artistic appreciation for the world began to feel quite natural, whereas before I’d explained it away as merely an evolutionary development for the purposes of reproducing. I gained a sense of belonging in the world, heightened responsibility to humankind and nature, and a trust that (had I not reasoned with intelligent practitioners/followers) would not have otherwise developed.
    Even if I hadn’t gained complete spiritual hope in either of the faiths, I can’t imagine going “Well, what a waste of my time.” Sometimes I wish I met more atheists who demonstrably reject the more “sophisticated forms” in writing. The question of God is such a biggie, and even in my particularly doubt-ridden years, I found the answers of new atheists to be insubstantial.

    Thank you for your post. Best wishes to you!

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