Monday, December 17, 2007

Dr. David O'Hara: "Job and the 'New Atheists'"

We are blessed to have added Professor David O'Hara and his family to the family of God at Good Shepherd, Sioux Falls. He's graciously allowed this blog to share a sermon he preached earlier this year. Dr. O'Hara is the co-author of From Homer to Harry Potter (Brazos Press, 2006).

Speaking of God : Job and the “New Atheists”

Colossians 2.6-10
Job 42.7
Psalm 53.1a

One reason I chose the first text is that I am a philosopher, and here
you have one of the earliest Christian writers, St. Paul, telling you
that you should take whatever people like me say with a grain of salt.

This is an important caveat. (Of course, if you take me seriously
when I tell you to take seriously a text that tells you not to take me
seriously then you have a problem worthy of a philosophy class.) More
seriously, there are a lot of people who talk about God, but just
because they use the word “God” doesn’t mean that they mean by that
word the same thing you mean. The difference may be important, and so
we should not assume that anyone who calls himself an atheist is
someone with whom we have nothing in common or from whom we cannot

As for the text from Job, let me remind you of the context. Job is an
upright man who suffers unjustly. His friends come to comfort him,
and sit with him in silence. Eventually Job cries out to God and
complains, and the friends begin to worry about Job’s theology. They
give him lessons in theology and show him how his suffering must be
the result of sin, as he argues with them and continues to cry out to
God. Eventually God appears in a whirlwind and tells the friends they
have not spoken well of God as Job has. It’s quite confusing, since
it’s not plain what Job has said correctly, while the friends’
theology is very tidy. We’ll return to that in a moment.

The “New Atheists” and fools
First I want to consider the third text, which I think has
considerable relevance for a public conversation we’ve been having in
this country lately.

The text from Psalm 53, which also shows up identically in Psalm 14,
is a favorite one for evangelists: the fool says in his heart, “there
is no God.” Seems to me I’ve occasionally read of clever-sounding
evangelists who answer their atheist interlocutors, by saying “even
the fool is smart enough to only deny God’s existence in his heart;
but you’ve said it aloud. You’re more of a fool than the fool!”
Recently, a number of very well-educated “fools” have written books
claiming that there is no God. Collectively, the press has labeled
them “The New Atheists.”

Christopher Hitchens has written a sneering and, I think, inadequately
researched God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything;
Daniel Dennett has written a nice book called, Breaking the Spell,
Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
; Sam Harris exposes mellifluous ignorance (i.e. his own) in his Letter to a Christian Nation, and The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the
Future of Reason
; Victor Stenger has the inappropriately and misleadingly subtitled God:
The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist
Richard Dawkins spins out a steady stream of books, including The God

I have just called them “fools,” but the fact is they’re all very
bright men. Four of them hold doctorates; all of them have published
multiple books and are both good writers and good thinkers in their
respective fields.

I think it’s interesting that the press calls them the new ‘Atheists.’
Most, if not all of them do in fact label themselves atheists, and
each one has at some point or another (I think) said he does not
believe in any God.

On Atheisms: Can we prove there is no God?
The ones who are more careful with their logic, like Daniel Dennett,
have recognized that proving that there is no God is remarkably
difficult. To prove something does exist, you only need to give an
example of it. We can prove there are pheasants on the prairie by
walking around and finding just one, for instance.

But to prove that something does not exist requires one of two things.

Either one must show that it is somehow impossible for a thing to
exist or that there exhaustively and conclusively is none anywhere.

The first case is easier. There are no a square circles, since the
phrase “square circle” is absurd and meaningless. And there are no
existing nonexistent stones, since that phrase “existing nonexistent
stone” involves a contradiction. But God is neither necessarily
absurd nor contradictory, so we cannot disprove God that way.

So what about the second case? Can you prove there are no invisible
beings in this room? How much more difficult it is to prove there is
no invisible God anywhere in the universe.

You can see why it is so difficult to disprove the existence of God,
and why the psalmist might say “the fool says in his heart that there
is no God.”

More Than One Kind of Atheist
So now you may be asking, “how can there be any atheists at all?” If
they cannot prove there is no God, how are they justified in not
believing in God?

The answer, I suppose, is that there is more than one kind of atheist.
The “New Atheists” are not in fact concerned with the existence of
God. What they are concerned with are the consequences of belief in

So their only interest in God is not in the question of whether or not
God is, but of what happens when people believe in God. Dennett
claims that religion is a natural phenomenon, something that we came
up with to survive the early stages of the evolution of our species,
and which we’ve now outgrown. Dawkins and Harris also take it to be a
vestige of evolution and evidence of poor thinking. Most of them
argue that when people believe in God even a little, we provide the
cover of respectability for religious extremists and terrorists.
Dennett refers to religion as an “attractive nuisance” like an
unfenced pool, and claims that moderate religious people should be
held responsible for the acts of religious terrorists.

You can see that one thing they all have in common is an unwillingness
to discern differences between religious beliefs; all religion is bad
religion, they argue, and that is all you need to know about religion.

All other theological or practical distinctions are mere
ornamentation on backward and dangerous beliefs.

Common Ground
Now my aim here is not to try to whip the religious troops into a
fervor about these New Atheists. Rather, it is to point out that we
have some grounds for agreement and for conversation with them, and to
offer you a way to begin to respond to them productively.

One piece of common ground is that we all think people should be
reasonable and should live well.

Another plot of common ground is that, like Christians, the New
Atheists are proselytizers. They have a missionary zeal to convert
theists into atheists, and like us at our worst, they’re often willing
to play the bully.

Another piece of common ground is that we all share the belief that
religion affects the way you live your life.

Now here is an important point. The New Atheists are not, as I said,
strictly opposed to God’s existence. Rather, they are unimpressed
with the evidence. They look at religious people and they do not see
anything they want to imitate.

It is tempting for us, when we read Job, to think of ourselves as
being like Job. The New Atheists tend to see us as being more like
Job’s friends, however: we offer a lot of talk about God, and tidy
theology, but very little actual comfort. Job’s friends are even
willing to sacrifice their friend to their theology: they know he’s an
upright man, but their theology says that suffering is payment for
sin, so if Job suffers, it’s because he’s a sinner. They throw away
what they know of the man, their friend, to defend their theology.

We must take care, in responding to atheists, whether New Atheists or
old ones, not to do the same. Job’s friends were right when they sat
in silence with Job for a week. They erred only when their theology
became more important to them than the man who suffered before them.

Responding to the New Atheists
So how shall we respond to the New Atheists?

The first thing is to sit in silence and hear their complaints. Just
because they call themselves “Atheists” doesn’t mean they’re subhuman
or our enemies. What concerns them all is that there are religious
fanatics out there who use the name of God to hurt other people.
Their point is not a metaphysical or religious point; it is an ethical
point, or a political one.

When I sit and read them honestly, some of these books strike me as
worth reading. I forewarn you that they’re all glib rhetoricians, and
all of them wind up making bigger claims than they can support. The
best defense against the snake-oil salesman is a large group of
thoughtful people. I recommend reading these books in the company of
the saints, both those who’ve gone before us and those who are with us

Here is some of what you may expect to gain from reading these books:

In certain instances, honesty, and especially an honest critique of
apologetic theology.

Usually, help in winnowing out my beliefs. Just as they help me to
see what is wrong with my apologetics, they are also helpful in
reminding me of the ways in which I have been tempted to make God into
a prop for what I want to believe rather than the source of that in
which I ought to believe.

Almost always, help in seeing Christianity from the eyes of those who
do not believe in Christ. This is important for those who would take
seriously the task of telling others the good news. Good news is
always given in a context in which the news is news and in which it
may be seen as good.

They remind us that even though we Christians have talked about God a
lot over the centuries, there are some smart people have yet to be

Two Critiques
That being said, let me offer two critiques of their works:

1) They selectively ignore history. Dennett takes 240 pages to get to
the point where he says he thinks historical arguments aren’t worth
looking at.

“History is bunk?” If God made an historical appearance, i.e. an
appearance in the real world, wouldn’t that be evidence worth
considering? I am surprised as well at the dismissal of
Christianity’s historical contributions to the arts, sciences, and
social justice. Increasingly, I find young people are also
historically ignorant of these things. Just in the last month I have
been asked several times, in utter seriousness, as though it were a
conversation-stopper, “What has Christianity ever done for the world?”

Of course, it is not enough to rest on our laurels; such questions
call for a twofold response: first, to give an honest historical
answer; and second, to continue to do good things, in Christ’s name,
for a world that may well ignore them.

2) Dawkins tells us that it is ignorant to say that there is meaning
in the universe.

His point is that science is about what is, not about what the world
means; therefore, he says, we cannot answer questions about meaning.

But there is a hidden premise there: “Whatever science cannot explain
cannot be explained at all and should not be looked into.” This seems
a bit extreme, especially when we put it in simpler terms. What
Dawkins is saying is that “the word ’meaning’ has no meaning.” This
is the rough equivalent of that scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when
Dorothy is told “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

Dawkins has fallen for the honest temptation of assuming that, since
he has a very big hammer, all that matters in the world are the nails.
Does this also call for a response from us? Yes, it does.

Unfortunately, many Christians have given an “Oh, yeah?” response by
trying to challenge the foundations of natural science, which is both
ignorant and foolish, and, by the way, tends not to be very convincing
to anyone who knows anything about science.

Learning From Job
We are told that he “speaks well of [God].”

How shall we do the same? Are we to parrot Job’s theology? Hopefully
not, since his theology is awfully difficult to put in creedal form.
He’s all over the map:
“I curse the day that I was born!” If only I had never lived!
“Though God slay me, yet shall I worship him.”
“I know that my Redeemer lives!”
(Borrowing similar language from Jeremiah in the Vulgate) : “Utinam
disrumperes caelos et descenderes!” Which, roughly translated, means,
in Job’s terms, “You want a piece of me? Come and get it!”

No: the imitation of Job is not about learning his lines and repeating
them in a play. All I can offer you are two observations about Job:

1) The friends only speak to Job; but Job speaks to both humans and to
God. That is, Job prays. We should never become so distressed that
we cease to pray. Sometimes speaking well about God means having the
willingness to speak to God. Prayer, it turns out, is an argument
(though not a proof) that God really is.

2) Job speaks from his heart, and he is honest. He does not pretend
to know what he does not know. The atheists cannot prove God does not
exist; but if we are honest, we must admit that we cannot easily prove
that God does exist. All we can do is point to history, point to what
Viktor Frankl called our Hunger for Meaning, and point to our own
experience of redemption and, yes, of frustration. I suspect that an
honest witness will, in the end, be of greater service to Christ than
if we pretend to know what we do not know. The kingdom of God shall
not be advanced on lies.

St Francis reportedly told his brothers, “Preach the Gospel
continually; and when necessary, use words.”

May God grant us the grace to speak well of God as Job did, with our
words as well as with our lives. In the name of the Father, and of
the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Alice C. Linsley said...

Wonderful! I enjoyed every word.

They say meaning is beyond the scope of science and in doing so become nihilists. Because they regard history as unimportant (only the here and now matters), they are given to foolishness.

David Handy+ said...

Ditto, Alice. A very insightful and stimulating sermon. I wish I could take classes from this guy!

Fr. Tim, please try to convince this amazingly lucid philosopher to contribute other things to your blog.

All I'll add is that it is good that there is no lack of sound, orthodox Christian scientists, who can compete with the Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagans as equally distinguised scientists. Well, I shouldn't put it quite that way; there's always a shortage of them, but they do exist. And I'm thinking first and foremost here of Francis Collins, the head of the famous Genome project that succeeded in unraveling the mystery of the human genetic code. His recent bestseller, "The Language of God," may help many lay people (and even clergy, truth be told) to see that the "New Atheists" don't have a monopoly on scientific prowess or intelligence.

Thanks for posting this marvelous sermon. I'll probably plagiarize it shamelessly someday (OK, I'll try to give the good professor some credit at the start).

Matt Arnold said...

This essay offers many worthy and valuable things for religious people and nonreligious people to hear. I would recommend it. And that's saying a lot coming from me. I'm an atheist.

TLF+ said...

Thanks, Matt,for your gracious comment. Dr. O'Hara is a great gift to all his students of various and no religion. He has a great respect for the variety of ways that human beings have probed life's great questions.

He also has the wonderful capacity to be sincere and devoted in his faith, while gracious toward those who don't share it.

As an athiest who reads religious blogs, it looks like you have that same capacity.