Posted on February 21st, 2012 | Filed under Academic, Book Review, Challenges, Community, Congregation, Interfaith
Tagged with Analytic Theist, Atheism, Religion, Richard Dawkins, Talal Asad, William Lane Craig
Atheists and theists seem to have a lot to talk about these days.
They regularly engage each other in debate, they are producing some of the most popular literature on the market, and they are becoming household names to be discussed at dinner tables throughout the western world. Love them or hate them, their influence is undeniable. Analytic Theists, such as William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, and John Polkinghorne, have very little trouble selling books or securing tenured professorships at respected universities. The same goes for the so-called “New Atheists,” who include names such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.
These New Atheists and Analytic Theists have found success for the same basic reason: they offer articulate and creative responses to what seems to be the most important question imaginable: “Does God exist?” While there is nothing inherently wrong with asking, or attempting to answer, this question, both the New Atheists and the Analytic Theists commit a series of crucial errors in attempting to do so. Both groups place this question at the center of “religion,” both rely on an essentialist notion of “religion,” which is centered on belief, and both mistakenly understand the question of God to be a scientific hypothesis which can be answered given a correct set of premises and proofs.
Utilizing the work of prominent anthropologist Talal Asad, this paper will trace the western construction of the category of religion to explain the ways in which the New Atheists and Analytic Theists subscribe to (and continue to promote) a problematic conception of religion to ground their respective arguments.
The problem is not that the New Atheists and Analytic Theists misunderstand each other. Rather, the problem is that they both subscribe to a western-constructed, universal definition of religion, which is centered on cognitive belief and is “supposed to affirm something about the fundamental nature of reality.”1 This, I argue, does not pay respect to the variety of possible elements that make up many people’s religious identity.
While a significant portion of this paper will be devoted to the exposition and analysis of two distinct groups, the New Atheists and the Analytic Theists, neither section should be read as a comprehensive overview, or essentialist depiction of each perspective. There are considerable differences, for example, in the way Dawkins and Hitchens leverage their respective criticisms at religion. The Analytic Theists, as well, employ a variety of techniques and tactics to deconstruct the other.
While such perspectival differences deserve more pointed justification or criticism within the conversations they are having, this paper acts as a wider lens, which reveals a methodological error that is shared by all parties in the conversation. Therefore, rather than dredge through extensive examples available on both sides of the argument, this paper utilizes the work of only a few; namely, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great, and William Lane Craig’s book of collected essays God is Good, God is Great.
In what follows I hope to demonstrate the ways in which the New Atheists’ criticisms rely upon a western-construction of religion that is belief-centered, concerned with scientific hypotheses on the question of God’s existence, and conceptualize religion to be a universal, transhistorical, and transcultural phenomenon. Richard Dawkins, for example, begins his book, The God Delusion, with an explanation of the title. He writes that the Penguin English Dictionary defines “delusion” as “a false belief or impression.”2 Elsewhere, he notes that “delusion” is defined as “a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence.”3
Belief in a supernatural God, according to Dawkins, is something that is contradicted by scientific evidence. He agrees with Robert M. Pirsig when he writes in his famous novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.”4 Dawkins’s book is intended to provide deluded religious believers with a more accurate description of the world so that they will have little choice but to renounce religion and become atheists.5
The rest of this article can be found here.
2 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (New York: First Mariner Books, 2006, 2008), 27
3 Ibid, 28
5 Ibid. “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”
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