John F. Haught

God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens

Review by Aidan Kelley, 2009

God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. By John F. Haught. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. 124 pages. $16.95

In his book, God and the New Atheism, John Haught takes the seemingly mighty new atheist triumvirate of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens through a contentious eight round philosophical bout. Haught posits his biblical, personal god theism against the scientific naturalism of the new atheists. After declaring his intention of exposing the fallacies of the new atheism in his tight introduction, Haught carries the reader through his clear and well-organized critique of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. In his eight chapters posed as responses to questions raised by new atheism, Haught reveals that the new atheist worldview is actually much simpler than their fundamentalist and creationist opponents’ worldviews.

In “How New is the New Atheism?,” Haught cleverly re-interprets Sam Harris’ framework for new atheism as a general restatement of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. In this model, faith stands in for desire and the scientific method is dressed up as the Eightfold Path. The new atheists consider faith to be the cause of suffering because there is no evidence for it. Haught turns the tables on Harris and points to the faith statement made by new atheism. It cannot be empirically proven that science holds the answer to all of life’s questions. Thus, even new atheism is founded on a declaration of faith. While Haught believes that most of the new atheists critiques of religion are redundant, the idea that even the tolerance of faith is morally evil is novel. Again, Haught points out the failure of the new atheists to recognize their own position as part of a larger picture. Haught claims that scientific naturalism would not have a voice if it were not for the tolerance of the theist majority.

In his second chapter, Haught takes a few jabs at the “big three” as he states that none of their works would have made the books list for his introductory theology course at Georgetown. The atheism of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens is “soft-core” compared to the more complex and nuanced critiques of “hard-core” atheists such as Nietzsche and Sartre. Where classic atheists deconstructed religion on theological and philosophical grounds, new atheism hardly offers anything substantial. New atheists do not fully explain the implications of a God-less world and therefore fail to “go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end” (22). At least theists can take solace in the fact that Nietzsche wouldn’t like Sam Harris either.

In “Does Theology Matter?” Haught defends theology against the claim that theology fails because it only allows extremism to exist by explaining away what is really the essence of all faith. Haught’s critique is that the new atheist’s understanding of theology is antiquated and representative of religious fundamentalists. New atheists handicap themselves by thinking of all theology as the literalist, fundamentalist theology promoted by conservative evangelicals and religious extremists. As a result “scientism is to science what literalism is to faith” (38). Refusing to allow for a degree of nuance makes the theology of the new atheists less developed than undergraduate students after Biblical Studies 101.

In “Is God a Hypothesis?” Haught describes the role that theology should play in relation to the scientific naturalism of new atheism. Haught believes that all inquiry is grounded in a foundational human belief that the truth is worth striving for. Thus, the scientific explanations of God promoted by Dawkins only go so far because Dawkins does not recognize his own trust in the truth of inquiry. Evolutionary theory does not provide enough justification for having trust in the mind. If the brain evolved from a “mindless state of nature,” how can it be trusted to say anything about reality (49)?

Haught claims that Dawkins’ God is one that most modern theologians would not waste their time defending. New atheists “shrink the idea of divinity to that of a lawgiver, cosmic engineer, or intelligent designer” (43). This reduces the “infinite divine mystery” to something that is finite, which is idolatrous (43). The purely scientific approach applied by Dawkins does not have the capability to prove God’s existence because God can only truly be known through interpersonal experience. Thus, Haught wonders how the new atheists could denounce God if they have never made themselves vulnerable to the personal experience of the divine.

In the chapter “Why do people believe?” Haught claims that people have faith because “they have allowed themselves to be grasped by God” (54). If the new atheists are correct, there must be a natural reason why people continue to believe. Dawkins’ evolutionary framework fails because he never actually provides a Darwinian explanation for faith. Instead, Dawkins tellingly dips into the well of philosophy. Haught believes that science should be employed to advance the understanding as far as it can, but that it cannot touch on the depth of life experience. Believers continue to have faith because they have been “grasped by a deeper dimension of reality than ordinary experience or science can access by itself” (60).

Haught briefly deals with the question of moral potential without God. While new atheists expound on moral ideals and the presence of evil in the world, they do not explain how truth and morality are to be sustained in a world without God. Evolutionary theory “can hardly explain why justice, love, and the pursuit of truth are now unconditionally binding virtues” (71). Faith, however, provides an edifying source of morality. According to Haught, God bestows an innate goodness, which serves as magnetic north on our moral compass.

In “Is God Personal?” Haught explains that a personal God is essential to theism. For Haught, ultimate reality “cannot be less than personal if it is to command our reverence and worship” (87). Without a personal God, belief would be unsatisfying and somewhat empty. Having established God as personal, Haught critiques the new atheist’s use of Occam’s Razor in which they choose the simpler (scientific) of two hypotheses to explain the universe. He claims that the two options do not compete with one another and, therefore, it is not necessary to choose one or the other. Rather, the harmonious melding of science and theology can provide an enriched plurality that explains the universe. By adhering to what Haught calls “explanatory monism,” new atheists allow the “world of subjects and persons” to become disentangled with reality (83).

In his final chapter, Haught brings his Christian theological perspective to the fore to provide an apologetic response to new atheism. Haught does not feel compelled to defend the monster God of Dawkins because it is not the God that he believes in. Haught’s God is one who is infinitely intimate with the world. The intent of this intimacy is to lift up or deify the world so that freedom, love, and justice reign. Haught claims that the new atheist’s idealized “neo-puritanical” world is a misstep, which elevates “cognitional and ethical purity at the expense of nuance and complexity” (96). Such a world would have been perfect in the beginning and would hold no progressive potential to strive for. There would be no liberation, freedom or justice because these things would be self-evident. Christians, Haught claims, tolerate ambiguity because the alternative of a disinterested God is much worse than a personal God who may have other, more complex plans for the future. Thus, the universe becomes redemptive and affirming when evolution is understood “as the story of the world’s gradual emergence from the initial chaos and monotony, and of its adventurous search for more intensely elaborate modes of being” (107).

Attempting to deconstruct and expose the daunting and influential Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens is a courageous undertaking. For the most part, Haught is incredibly sharp is his critiques of new atheism and cleverly exposes the inherent faith claim made by its main proponents. Despite his successes, Haught continually weakens his position by not extending the same nuance he requires of new atheists. Throughout his book, Haught falls into the trap of narrowing concepts or requirements of faith to constricting terms. He essentially denies that sincere atheism is possible because it involves the “confusion of infinite fullness with endless emptiness” (98). Haught’s critiques that new atheism is not new or “atheist” enough seem arbitrary in the scope of his critique. Haught additionally alienates an entire theistic tradition of a mythical understanding of God, which he claims is not worthy of devotion. Rather than affirming the diversity of the divine mystery, Haught establishes a line of demarcation, which only personal theists may cross. Here, Haught engages in a denial of the divine along with the new atheists. Haught also seems to shift his understanding of God to fit his argument. Despite establishing personal theism as a requirement for faith, he continually describes God as an “infinite mystery of being, meaning, truth, goodness, and beauty” (61). Haught’s God appears more transcendent and mystical than he might allow.

John Haught’s, God and the New Atheism, provides an excellent foundation for a critical, theistic response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. The right questions are asked and overall, satisfactory answers are provided. Haught’s failure to allow for a nuanced atheist perspective and his lack of structured empathy, however, will leave readers hungry for a more fruitful position.