I’ve been following the debate going on between the New Atheists and the secular liberal pluralists (especially the Reza Aslan type) on the nature of Religion (what made me want to address this issue was this interview with Sam Harris). On the specific theological issues, the New Atheists including Sam Harris are horrifically ignorant and they often simply have no idea what they are talking about. So for example he shows a completely naive and shallow understanding of the atonement, specifically the substitution atonement theory (I’m sure he understands the substitution theory of atonement is just one of many). First of all in his understanding of the substitutionary theory, he completely ignores the most important aspect of it, that in orthodox Christology the son of God, is in fact God himself, God in the flesh, now I’m a Unitarian, so I don’t believe that, but I take it Mr. Harris was talking to regular evangelical, protestant Catholic or Orthodox Christians. The whole point is that God sent his messiah in order to substitute his life for the Sins of man, so as to release mankind for their sins without ignoring the seriousness of sin, and low and behold, God’s messiah is in fact God himself. The infinite creator coming into his own creation to save it. Now this is just one theory of many, and it is not one I hold, but it is the standard conservative protestant one, Sam Harris should know this if he is going to criticize the theory.
One more place where Sam Harris has completely gotten theologically is the common comparison of the gods of paganism with the Abrahamic God. As if the to concepts of gods are in any way the same category. They are not, the concepts are as different as the difference between the finite and the infinite, I’ve written about this before. Pagan gods were never conceived of as creators of the universe, the grounds of morality, gods of history, or anything like that, they were simply super beings among lesser beings, the Christian God is categorically different. If Sam Harris would take a little time skim through Thomas Aquinas’ part one of Summa Theologica, he would know this, or at least read David Bentley Hart’s book “The Experience of God”. Whether or not the Pagan Gods exist is really an empirical question, is there a person, a super being responsible for thunder and lightning storms, are thunder and lightning storms agencies which have a personal history. Zeus, however he was conceived of (which was in different ways by different Pagans) either exists contingently or not. The Abrahamic God is not a being among beings, either he exists necessarily or does not, the creation of the universe, the existence of morality and consciousness has nothing to do with the question of whether or not Zeus exists or not, it is central to the question of the Abrahamic God. But Sam Harris and other new atheists here the word god, and don’t think they need to bother to make any distinction.
That being said here is where I respect Sam Harris more than the so-called defenders of religion. Sam Harris respects religion enough to criticize it. Even if he doesn’t respect it enough to understand its theology. However, someone who simply defends religion by insisting that it has no effect on their worldview, life, political positions, morality or decisions, is worse that someone who disdains religion and says it’s harmful. When a child says something rude, generally the reaction is not to get into argument with the child, not to call him a rude person, the parent will say sorry, make the kid say sorry, and that’s enough, you won’t take it personally. If an adult says something rude it’s more serious, you may take it personally, you may feel the need to respond to the person, you may go away thinking that this individual is a rude person. Why the difference? Because you do not respect the child’s moral agency yet, the child is growing up, he doesn’t know what to make of the world yet, he hasn’t learned to reason out his own opinions correctly, or express his feelings properly. An adult on the other hand, is responsible for what he says, his rudeness will upset you, and you will challenge him on it because it comes from a person who you expect to be rational and emotionally mature. Reza Aslan’s defense is akin to defending a woman who is angry and demanding that some grievance be addressed by saying “oh she’s just on her period.” Sam Harris’ attack is akin to saying “her grievance is wrong and her anger is dangerous.”
Sam Harris in his critique of Religion, and the same goes with some other of the New Atheists, at least take religion seriously enough to attack it. The liberal defenders treat religious people like children. They treat religion as inconsequential and almost as a kind of existential hobby, rather than something which really shapes all of the religious persons life. When Reza Aslan says that religion doesn’t cause a person to have certain values, that person has values and then pushes them on religion. What he’s basically saying is that religious moral doctrine is meaningless, that religion is impotent and thus can simply be ignored. You can respect religious people as people, and accept their religion, but only because you (as the enlightened liberal) know that the poor religious people are simply using metaphors to defend what they already believe. So for example Reza Aslan (in the article linked) says:
No religion exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, every faith is rooted in the soil in which it is planted. It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.
Not only is this view historically ridiculous. It’s absolutely insulting. To say that people’s deeply held beliefs, worldviews, views of the very foundation of reality has almost no effect on their moral life is basically to call those people barely above animals. An animal acts on instinct, he doesn’t deliberate, he doesn’t have an ideology, he simply acts. People like Reza Aslan (who I’ve criticized before) essentially think that people simply have whatever values they have from the ethnic, cultural or national backgrounds, and then justify them only later using religion, they don’t actually form theological convictions, they are not actually moved by thought through principles, they are simply either good or bad and then they put that on religion. Thus you don’t need to criticize their religion (and make no mistake religion is a form of ideology) you only need to do something about their external factors. The same way you’d treat a child, if a child is throwing a tantrum, you’re not going to take whatever grievance he has seriously, the assumption is that he’s sleepy, or hungry, or is having some irrational emotion, if he says he hates his parents, you’re not gonna take that seriously, you’ll simply think oh he’s upset. When you treat adults like this, in regards to the affirmations they hold dearest, you are not defending them, you’re treating them like Children.
Of course there is some truth in the idea that your values are not simply derived from scripture alone, that culture plays a huge party. But what Reza Aslan leaves out is the absolute historical fact that religion and scripture shapes culture extensively. Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor, as well as others like Max Weber and even (to a lesser degree) my favorite David Graeber point out that what we think of today is regular or normal in our culture, or our political/economic or social systems, is hugely determined by religion, theology and sacred writings. As I pointed out in previous posts, science itself only came about in a world where it was theologically possible, and how opposition to the injustices of Capitalism require a Christian view of justice and human nature. This is a criticism I would launch at the New Atheists as well, moral foundations based on the Christian World view, which you use to try to discredit the Christian World view will leave you in a position where those very moral foundations have no basis. Human rights, equality, liberty and so on are not a priori concepts, they are not historically necessary, they are completely contingent on the concept of the imago Dei and Christian Universalism.
I have no love for Sam Harris’ views. I think his view of Christian theology is extremely shallow, and although I don’t know that much about Islamic theology I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s gotten a lot of that wrong as well. But to the Reza Aslans of the world, I would say that religion is important to religious people and it does affect how they think. In the middle ages Slavery was basically wiped out partially thanks to religion, Capitalism began only because a religious (and I think correct) opposition to usury was ignored, science only came about in the west because Christianity laid the foundation for conceiving of the universe as rational. When an Islamic militant says he is inspired by the Koran, I’m not going to treat him like a child and psycho analyze him, and think oh he’s just saying that he’s really bothered because of imperialism. That may be the case, and western imperialism certainly has contributed a lot to the growth of Islamic terrorism, but I’m going to take what he says seriously, and I’m going to criticize his theology, because he takes it seriously, and I take it seriously. A defense of religion must be theological, dismissing it’s theology is irrelevant to any real world outcome is not a defense.
An enemy of religion who treats religious people as adults, takes theological principles seriously, and actually understands that different theological positions have actual real world outcomes, they most certainly do. A friend of religion, who doesn’t think theology makes any difference, and whose defense of religion is just that it is only a fantasy hobby of people whose actual actions are caused only by material conditions, who only are deluded into thinking that their theological positions matter, is not a friend of religion.