David Bentley Hart complains about how the nasty “New” Atheists are so boring (and he takes an awfully long essay to say how boring we are, too), so Kevin Drum points out:
But his pretensions are, if anything, even more insipid than anything coming from the New Atheists: they are, like Jesus, at least trying to reach ordinary people in language that’s meaningful to them. Hart wants nothing to do with that.
You can decide for yourself whether this string of words actually makes anything about God more understandable. I doubt it. But it hardly matters, because even if you like Hart’s formulation, this is simply not the lived experience of Christianity for most people. Hart would like us to believe that anyone who hasn’t spent years meditating on Aquinas and Nietzsche isn’t worth engaging with, but walk into any Christian church in America — or the world — and you’ll find it full of people who understand God much the same way Hitchens and Dawkins do, not the way Hart does. That’s the reality of the religious experience for the vast majority of believers.
And Andrew Sullivan tries on those Miss The Point jeans and decides he looks really sexy in them:
Look: human nature being what it is, most religious people will be a dreadful example of the best version of faith you can find. Drum permits what Hitch’s book was: a grand guignol of anti-clerical, fish-barrel-shooting. It’s easy; it’s way fun; mockery of inarticulate believers has made my friend, Bill Maher, lotsa money. But it’s largely missing the real intellectual task by fighting a straw man, rather than a real and living and intelligent faith. Part of that is the fault of believers. We’ve done a lousy job of delineating a living faith for modernity.
Knock that the hell off, Sullivan. You know how cringe-worthy it is to watch a grown man with your brains scamper around the field with the goalposts in hand? You don’t know where you want to put them, so just drop the damn things and then we can play ball.
What Sullivan fails to understand is the very same thing that Hart fails to understand. It is not Sullivan’s place to tell confrontationalist atheists that the “real intellectual task” is to argue over God as the sophisticated theologians see Him. That may be his intellectual task, and I wish him good luck with it, but it is not ours. We are not interested in engaging with “the best version of faith you can find.” This “real and living and intelligent faith” which Sullivan wants to be front and center in the debate over religion is, largely, a phantom. It is a wall of smoke that he expects atheists to treat like a barrier of solid stone. The so-called “New” Atheists are interested in engaging with real and living faith as it is held by the overwhelming majority of religious believers, because it really doesn’t matter whether those believers are inarticulate. The fact that they are “a dreadful example of the best version of faith you can find” is kind of the point. It is because they are such a dreadful example that the “best version of faith” is so far from the outspoken atheist agenda.
It is not the sophisticated theology of David Bentley Hart, or Karen Armstrong, or Terry Eagleton, and so forth, that gets our attention, because it is not their belief systems that shape the world. It is the unsophisticated, inarticulate, fish-in-barrel faith of billions of people that actually has a meaningful effect on how we live. Those people might not have studied Nietzsche and Aquinas, but they do vote and write policy, they educate and raise children, they treat the sick and wounded, they police our streets, and generally make decisions that affect how we treat each other and our planet. This is religion as it influences the real world, and it is the effect on the real world that interests outspoken atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. If everyone believed in God the way Andrew Sullivan does, then the effect of faith on the real world would be very different, in which case Hitchens would focus his anger elsewhere, Dawkins would be known only as a mild-mannered biologist, Daniel Dennett would be an obscure philosopher and Sam Harris would be unknown to everyone except his fellow neuroscientists.
Ultimately, however, outspoken atheists are interested in dealing with the world as it is now, and not the world as it could be if only everyone believed in God as defined by Karen Armstrong rather than by Pat Robertson. This is the world in which we live, this is the way that billions of real, living, decision-making people have faith, and that’s not going away any time soon. It is because of this world, this real experience of faith for the vast majority of believers, and not because mocking inarticulate believers is fun, easy or lucrative, that we are uninterested in Hart’s God. His faith may not be erroneous in the way atheist writers like to lampoon, but he actually comes off worse. Rather than merely mistaken, he is Not Even Wrong.