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Dawkins' Atheism Is OK, But So Is Theism

By       Message Thomas Farrell     Permalink
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But because atheists disagree with Christians about the existence of God, why should Christians feel militant toward atheists? We should explore this.

In the Christian tradition of thought, thought itself was understood to be the key to salvation. You had to believe in Jesus the Christ and say so in words to be saved in the afterlife. Your words explicitly expressing your belief in Jesus supposedly brought you into the fold of the Word, the Second Person of the divine trinity.

Granted, there was also an option known as a baptism of desire. Moreover, one twentieth-century Catholic theologian, the estimable Karl Rahner, S.J., even went so far as to refer to "anonymous Christians." As we will see momentarily, this is undoubtedly a theoretical advance over medieval Christian theory. In this view, atheists might qualify for being "anonymous Christians." But what if atheists don't want to be "anonymous Christians"? Christians have long had a hard time allowing other people not to be Christians. (However, this tendency is not unique only to Christians. But we are discussing Christians here.)

For this reason, Dante famously represents the souls of virtuous pagans (i.e., non-Christians) as being in the "Inferno" -- including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (dubbed by Dante the master of those who know). By virtue of being virtuous, those pagans are to be admired and praised. But by virtue of not being Christians, Dante relegated them to the Inferno, because in life on earth they had not been brought into the Christian fold. Thus in medieval Christian theory, Christians are privileged in theory to possibly have access to a fate better than being relegated to the Inferno in the afterlife, but non-Christians are supposedly out of consideration for anything better than a place in the Inferno in the afterlife.

According to this medieval way of thinking, the same would be true for atheists today. So shouldn't Christians today offer atheists today the opportunity to save themselves from such a fate in the afterlife? As Sarah Palin might say, you betcha Christians should in charity offer atheists the opportunity to save themselves from such a fate.

But what if atheists such as Dawkins decline, as they are free to do?

Christian militancy is probably aimed at trying to discourage more people from becoming atheists. It may help bolster the fervor of the already converted to denounce atheists and thereby presumably strengthen their own convictions. After all, when Muslims stone the devil, their stoning somehow never succeeds in eliminating the evil in the world that they attribute to the devil. But the stoning ritual may help strengthen their commitment to resist the evil that they attribute to the devil as best as they can.

In a similar way, militant atheism of the sort espoused by Dawkins is probably not just to counter the bad press of atheism, but also to help bolster the convictions of other atheists as they struggle to live with uncharitable Christians who consider them to be tantamount to being Mr. Hitler or Miss Beelzebub, as Dawkins puts it.

Thus far, I have been discussing relatively general considerations. But Dawkins centers his discussion on Darwin's evolutionary theory. In recent years Protestant fundamentalists in the United States have heatedly contested the teaching of evolutionary theory in public education, most notably in high school science courses. Dawkins characterizes American biologists as being in a "state of war" in defending evolutionary theory. He attributes this supposed war mostly to biblical literalism. The Protestant fundamentalists who have waged a war against the teaching of evolutionary theory in recent years do espouse what they consider to be biblical literalism.

But Pope Benedict XVI does not espouse biblical fundamentalism, and he says that the supposed conflict between creation and evolution is "an absurdity." As is well known, the pope is widely considered to be a conservative on a wide variety of other issues, including stem cell research.

Dawkins mentions stem cell research as an example of how religion supposedly undermines science. So the pope's objections to stem cell research seem to fit into Dawkins' indictment of how religion supposedly undermines science today. But the pope's characterization of the supposed conflict between creation and evolution as "an absurdity" does not fit into Dawkins' indictment of religion.

Thus the narrow target for Dawkins' defense of the war against evolution should be biblical literalism, not the broader target of religion as such. But because Dawkins has not been trained as a critical biblical scholar, biblical literalism would be tough for him to critique except by ridiculing one literal interpretation after another. But that kind of ridicule has been undertaken before and has not daunted biblical literalism. Nor have the more intelligent critiques advanced by critical biblical scholars. Thus biblical literalism may be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

In the book "Render Unto Darwin" (2007), my retired former colleague James H. Fetzer has set forth an intelligent discussion of their supposed objections to evolution. I do not understand what Protestant fundamentalists hope to prove through their war on evolutionary theory, because evolutionary theory is here to stay. So I would urge Protestant fundamentalists to stop their war on evolution.

But every American football fan has heard that the best defense is a good offense. Even though Dawkins is not an American, and may not be a fan of American football, he appears to be mounting his supposed defense of evolution by advancing a broad critique of religion, with Christianity as the unnamed but obvious target. So let's next consider how he structures his arguments.

Basically, Dawkins structures his arguments around either/or thinking -- either science or religion, but you cannot have them both. He says, "I believe a true understanding of Darwinism is deeply corrosive to religious faith."

It may surprise Dawkins to learn that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., Walter J. Ong, S.J., Pope John-Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, for example, did not find their understanding of evolutionary theory to be deeply corrosive to their religious faith.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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