Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Atheism remix - a review

Recently a friend handed me a copy of Al Mohler's Atheism REMIX: a Christian confronts the New Atheists. I admit I was hesitant to pick it up. Al Mohler is one of the new Calvinists, and I'm Arminian. This is not to say I assumed a priori he'd have nothing to say that I would agree with, but I did know on this sort of topic he'd say something I'd take issue with. Also, it's a Crossway book - needless to say my bookshelves are not replete with their work.

That given, the first three chapters a a fairly decent summary of the New Atheism. There's the usual mention of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and the late Hitchens) as well as the earlier four of Darwin, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. He also summarises nicely some key concepts behind the new atheism, its focus on the elites, its hubris and its slick media savvy. In doing this he identifies the focus on not just the rejection of theism but that of Christianity, not just the Old Testament but Jesus and the New Testament.

As such for a newbie it's quite a good read. He seems to have the basics covered, and done a fair bit of reading on secularising of culture (including Charles Taylor's huge tome).

From Chapter 3 onwards he starts to look at Christian critiques of the movement, beginning with Plantinga and McGrath. He recognises McGrath's credentials to critique Dawkins given their common backgrounds in science, Oxford and atheism. Herein begins Mohler's critique of critiques and my critique of him.

Firstly, Mohler thinks Plantinga and McGrath's critiques are purely negative, and do little to establish theism. In the case of McGrath at least this is unfair and untrue. In the former case, Mohler is asking a toothbrush to also be able to comb hair - the books in question focus on the attacks on theism and McGrath shows them to be shallow. Secondly, McGrath has plenty of books that are positive (for example The Reenchantment of Nature or his most recent book on Natural Theology - printed after Mohler's book). On the later point, some of the very quotes of McGrath Mohler uses point to McGrath's own personal attitude towards theism being more interesting, helpful and making more sense of reality.

Secondly, Mohler thinks that Plantinga and McGrath are wrong to accommodate evolution into their theories. Without quite saying it - those who claim so are not Evangelical (indirectly claimed in chapter 4). This of course angers me - having been accused of not even being Christian for believing so. There is a lot of confusion in this short book on what the word "literal" means in his critiques in chapter four of John Haught and others (some of which is justified). If literal means word for word then I do reject the idea, since not all biblical literature is the same. If by literal you mean the intended meaning of the author, then I accept the idea. John Walton's The lost world of Genesis One shows how naive the reading Mohler insists upon here is. He would do well to better understand Plantinga's separation of evolution from materialism.

Thirdly, and a minor point - in his criticism of Tina Beattie, while he might be right to accuse her of some level of theological revisionism (I wonder from what supposed standard?), he doesn't correctly identify with her in that many of the voices in the New Atheism are male ones, as are many of the responses. In identifying this with masculine, Western rationalism, there is an opportunity to move past this, not beyond good theology, but beyond dated foundationalism that so many in the Reformed camp seem wedded to.

This relates to my fourth criticism, the insistence on bald propositionalism and the false dichotimising of narrative readings with propositions. This is the tendency for conservatives to be wedded to ideas of Enlightenment concepts of truth, and fear that a focus on narrative will be a focus away from history and truth. Now Mohler is correct (given what he quotes) to critique Beattie and Haught where they depart from this, but wrong I think to therefore infer every biblical text is written as history in general (e.g. Genesis 1) and in particular history as the modern historian would understand it. This is not to say that supposed contradictions mean abandoning the idea of biblical history, but understanding an ancient writer's idea of what history looks like. I refer the thoughtful reader to work by Peter Enns and Roger Olsen

Lastly, there is the edge throughout of so and so is not a proper Christian if.... Tacit but there and the usual tactic by some at that edge of the spectrum.

For further reading I'd recommend Robert Banks' And Man Created God: Is God a Human Invention?


Scott Kroeger said...

Thanks for that Mick. If and when I run across the Al's book, I will give it a read.

Mick Pope said...

Scott, you can have mine tonight. There are a bunch at Renegade

Brian Walsh said...

How come he stole the notion of 'remixing'?

Mick Pope said...

Haha Brian - never trust another academic!