Why Religion is Giving God a Bad Name

I read this review of Christopher Hitchen’s latest book in the Times Book Review this week and it got me thinking about how enlightenment style atheism is making a comeback in the popular press. Another book that has been on the best seller list in this vein is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. To be fair to both of these authors, I haven’t read their books, only the reviews. As such, I am not qualified to and this post is not intended as a critique of their work.

However, one paragraph from the review of Hitchens’ book struck me as interesting:

“Hitchens is an old-fashioned village atheist, standing in the square trying to pick arguments with the good citizens on their way to church. The book is full of logical flourishes and conundrums, many of them entertaining to the nonbeliever. How could Christ have died for our sins, when supposedly he also did not die at all? Did the Jews not know that murder and adultery were wrong before they received the Ten Commandments, and if they did know, why was this such a wonderful gift? On a more somber note, how can the “argument from design” (that only some kind of “intelligence” could have designed anything as perfect as a human being) be reconciled with the religious practice of female genital mutilation, which posits that women, at least, as nature creates them, are not so perfect after all? Whether sallies like these give pause to the believer is a question I can’t answer.”

In the spirit of generosity, I’ll assume that Hitchens’ arguments for atheism are more sophisticated than this. In answer to the reviewer’s question though, as a believer, these types of questions do not give me pause. Their very banality and the fact that this reviewer felt they could be faith shaking type questions however, is instructive. Anyone with even the most rudimentary theological education in any of the world’s major religions could easily put paid to any and all of these inquiries. However, I might imagine that for a certain type of believer, for example one who thinks it is pedagogically appropriate to “teach the controversy” between Darwinism and Creationism, these questions might prove conceptually difficult. The fact that the NY Times Review of Books, if not Mr. Hitchens himself, feels that this is the battleground where the religious controversies of our time will be fought, says a lot about them, but it also says an awful lot, in my view, about how the religions are doing in conveying the answers to the existential questions posed by humanity. What it says, I think, is not much at all.

The main task of religion, or at least Christianity, is to proclaim a basic truth about God’s activity in the world. In the words of one of this blogs favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, that proclaimation is that; “The World is charged with the granduer of God, it will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” The task of theology is to tease out, from the advances made in science, philosophy and history, an intellectually palatable explanation of that basic poetic truth. Since all descriptions of that poetic reality are, by definition, metaphorical, the reality can only be described by analogy. That analogical reasoning results in ritual, hymn, prayer, poetry and even systematic theology. The more one dives into these experiences the deeper one’s understanding of the reality they are trying to express becomes, without ever grasping the reality in its entirety. All forms of literalism/fundamentalism cede the ground to those, like Hitchens and Dawkins, who see this type of analogical reasoning as inferior to a “pure” understanding of the evidence.

The great problem is that literalism assumes that the truth of the presence of God is plain. However, we know from revelation that God’s presence is not like that…”The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” The work of God is efficacious, not obvious. Understanding it demands sublety and, most importantly, trust. Where are the great apologists that can explain that to a mass audience?

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6 Responses to “Why Religion is Giving God a Bad Name”

  1. Doug Karr Says:

    I’ve always told my children that having faith is a fantastic thing and I’ve encouraged them to build a relationship with God; however, I’ve also warned them that religion is a fantastic thing… until people get involved.

  2. David Olazabal Says:

    I have not read Hitchens book (probably won’t either) but have seen and heard Hitchens often enough to know where he is going. Hitchens provided his usual unique perspective today on Slate.com re the insignifcance of the passing of Jerry Falwell. In short Hitchens surmises that Falwell should end up in hell, but will not since hell does not exist. It is possible that the hypocrisy of self-annointed religious leaders (of all persuasions, not just Christianity) has profoundly influenced his view of religion and faith. Either way, Hitchens makes each of us think critically of various topics (religion, war) even if we completely disagree with his conclusions.

  3. Mark Grannis Says:

    Not much hermeneutical generosity by Hitchens or Kinsley there, I’m afraid. It might be interesting to have a look at the NYT’s mailbag tomorrow.

    On the importance of intellectual rigor, Fitz, I couldn’t agree more. One of the most influential teachers I ever had in any discipline was Otto Hentz, S.J., the Jesuit who taught my introductory “Problem of God” course at Georgetown. I reckoned myself a believer at the time, but I would never have taken that course of my own free will. I’m very lucky it was required. In fifteen weeks, he conveyed extremely effectively that believing in God was quite a bit harder than I had thought — not the message I had expected to hear, but the one I absolutely needed in order to clear some ground upon which to build. “Other ways of knowing” — that stuck with me a long time.

    If anyone is curious about the Dawkins book, it received what appeared to be a fair-minded but very unflattering review in the New York Review of Books a few months ago. You can find that here.

    Doug, I’m not sure how to take your comment. I agree that errors are bound to occur whenever “people get involved.” But of course we can’t eliminate that particular source of error. There cannot be faith without people any more than there can be religion without people. That leads me to a dichotomy between doctrine and conscience, rather than between religion and faith. Perhaps we are describing the same thing in different ways, but it seems to me helpful, and no more than fair, to credit organized religion with communicating the basic truths about the universe that inform both doctrine and conscience.

  4. Greg Jones Says:

    I see Christianity as a historical faith. That historicism means nothing if it doesn’t have a degree of literalism attached to it. If I am correct, then the question becomes, “To what degree?”

    Why do I see Christianity as a historical faith? Because it makes historical claims as its intellectual defense. It not only claims Christ to be the Messiah, it also reveals to us the testimonies of writers (the Gospel writers) as evidence.

    Luke states that he wrote about things that he saw. For all the differences in minor details between his account and parallel accounts in the other Gospels, the similarities give evidence that the main things claimed (Jesus died and rose again) are true.

    The differences give us evidence that the Gospels weren’t conjured up by one group (usually alleged to be the church which didn’t come into power until Constantine in the 300s).

    The fact that the Gospel writers (and the other New Testament writers) gained nothing from their claims but actually were willing to die for positing such beliefs gives credence to their sincerity.

    The fact that these martyrs saw these things with their own eyes, separates their martyrdom from the martyrdoms of suicide bombers today who die for beliefs that they can not possibly verify and have only come to believe through third-hand accounts.

    The point is that Christianity requires faith, but faith is only one leg of the stool.

    A popular Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias (www.rzim.org) states that truth requires at least three elements:

    1. Empirical Adaquacy
    2. Experiential Relevance
    3. Logical Consistency

    I see all of these elements in Christianity.

  5. Greg Jones Says:

    I forgot to mention Hitchens book. I haven’t read it either but the questions David lists are red herrings:

    “How could Christ have died for our sins, when supposedly he also did not die at all?” – Christianity doesn’t claim Christ never died at all. I’m not sure where he gets that assumption from.

    “Did the Jews not know that murder and adultery were wrong before they received the Ten Commandments, and if they did know, why was this such a wonderful gift?” – This was the first time that God had explicitly codified these commandments. These commandments were the result of a theocracy in birth. Look at the context. They were given to the Children of Israel in exodus to the “Promised Land” (Israel). Of course, the Jews had the story of Cain and Abel as a moral prohibition against murder, so they certainly knew murder was wrong. I could probably draw the other 9 commandments from the stories in Genesis as well.

    “How can the “argument from design” (that only some kind of “intelligence” could have designed anything as perfect as a human being) be reconciled with the religious practice of female genital mutilation, which posits that women, at least, as nature creates them, are not so perfect after all?” – Judeo-Christianity holds to no such practice. Red Herring.

  6. Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight « Reasonable Minds Says:

    […] in History, Religion. trackback I debated whether to make this post a response to some of the comments raised by Greg Jones to my recent blog “Why Religion is Giving God a Bad Name“. As I thought about it […]


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