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Klaus Müller {*}

New Atheism

Old Stereotypes, Aggressive Words, Salutary Provocations


From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 11/2007, P. 552-557
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Recently from the Anglo-Saxon area the first waves of a "New Atheism" splash into Germany that in its country of origin is perceived as a rapidly growing movement and that also presents itself just so. The now coming up systematic argument with the new atheism must be led philosophically and theologically.


I have always been surprised how little the theologians' guild was alarmed when Franz Buggle published his polemical treatise "For they do not know what they believe. Or why one can no longer honestly be a Christian" (Reinbek 1992). Stumbling block and cause for a rejection of traditional Christianity was for him the literally demonstrable violence in texts of the Old and New Testament, and the way in which this was played down and ignored by academic disciplines and the public, particularly also by those responsible for education and training. Only a fundamental revision of basic principles could still legitimate religion in a democratic - enlightened society (see 425-433).

On the part of theology it also remained calm for a long time, when five (English) or six (German) years later Jan Assmann with his book Moses the Egyptian (Munich 1998) and its leading thesis of the constitutive potential of violence of the "Mosaic distinction" between true and wrong by which monotheisms are led triggered a religion-critical debate. Only the explosive charge of the issue by "Nine eleven" forced theologicians to become active. But even that stayed in quite narrow limits: At the earliest the exegesis of the Old Testament answered with clarifications on the interpretation of biblical violence semantics, and from the philosophy of religion came arguments making clear that the introduction of the distinction between true and wrong does not charge religion with a potential of violence but instead of that religion becomes by virtue of its universality embedded into the greater context of reason and faith and so tempers aggressive forces that indeed can associate with religion.


The Polemic of the "New Atheism" Increases

But recently there is a development going on to which theology does not think it advisable to react as casually as with Buggle and Assmann. From the Anglo-Saxon area already the first waves of a 'New Atheism' splash into Germany that in its country of origin is perceived as a rapidly growing movement and also presents itself just so. The relevant great calibre publications are "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, "Breaking the Spell" by Daniel C. Dennett and "God is not Great" by Christopher Hitchens. The first and the third of the books have just appeared in German: Dawkins under the title "Der Gotteswahn" and Hitchens with "Der Herr ist kein Hirte".

The aplomb of which they were deemed worthy already in advance announcements of the media (see for example, "Der Spiegel" No. 43/2006; 188-190; No. 22/2007, 56-69; No. 37/2007) lets quickly overlook that they have long since predecessors in the non-Anglo-Saxon area of Europe: Burkhard Müller's "Closing Line" of 1995, which in 2004 made it to a second edition. Then Norbert Hoerster's "The Question of God" (2005), in France, "We do not need a God" (2005/2006) by Michael Onfray, in Italy Pier Giorgio Odifreddi's "Il matematico impertinente" of 2005 and "Perchè non possiamo essere christiani (e meno che mai cottolici)" [Why we cannot be Christians (and above all not Catholics)] of 2007. The number of relevant voices will still increase. Some people expect the culmination of the polemic for 2009, the year of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday.

The problem of a discussion of most of those publications is their quality: Just the prominent among the authors mentioned use without any embarrassment ancient clichés of a vulgar enlightenment that a discussion with them is not worthwhile, yes, it is actually impossible for lack of intellectual assets; a diagnosis that by the way is shared by observers who are free from any suspicion - since they are not on close terms with theology. The reason why quite a few of the writings become best-sellers almost exclusively in the United States is probably that they are felt as liberating mouthpiece of the group of "disbelievers" to a large extent banished into silence within the American political mainstream.



A philosophical debate is explicitly sought by the little volume of Norbert Hoerster. Apart from a few ironic side-swipes and some illustrating passages from the trite (since Karl-Heinz Deschner so-called) criminal history of Christianity he consistently attends to the philosophical question of God's existence.

The so-called proofs of the existence of God and the question of theodicy are then put in the centre. Questions can be asked especially about Hoerster's evaluation of some of the examined arguments. The 'ontological argument', which goes back to Anselm of Canterbury and on which time and again has been reflected in the philosophy of the modern age (especially Descartes, Hegel) and of the present time, can certainly not be reduced to the denominator, "one could just by a linguistic arrangement or definition in some way grasp or even influence reality" (16), to so qualify the argument as absurd. For it important features in Spinoza's but also Kant's thinking as well as contemporary conceptions of the subject theory are structurally much too close to the thinking pattern of that argument.

Its use in the context of the question of God has its Achilles' heel much more in the difficulty of a sufficient definition of the concept 'ens necessarium' (necessary being). At any rate, one cannot reproach the argument with a logical mistake at least in its Anselmian form, but also not in its re-formulation by Kurt Gödel, so that it can for good reasons further be included in the intellectual ascertainment about the rationality of the idea of God and the existence of the reality thought by that idea.

Hoerster's dealing with Kant's (certainly unfortunately named by himself) "moral proof of God's existence" deserves likewise opposition. It too - centred around the God postulate as guarantee for the final consonance of the (by moral life) acquired worthiness and bliss - is for him "at its decisive point quite absurd" (82), because it was sufficient to be able just to promote more or less the highest good (of that consonance) but not necessary - as Kant demanded - also to achieve this good without restrictions (see 82-83). But that fails to recognize that reason's right to trust its own rationality depends precisely on that in principle complete obtainability. If that was not given, the subject was not allowed to hope not only for itself but not even for the victims of history.

That with Kant's transformation of metaphysics into philosophical moral theology problems have remained open, and that he was not able to express the strata of reflection traversed with it is a different matter (see Dieter Henrich, Grundlegung aus dem Ich, Volume 2, Frankfurt 2004, 1467-1548)); and refers in his transgression of the by Kant first chosen traditional predicates of God to the fact that the theistic God concept used in school and catechism had in philosophy and theology never the last word as which Hoerster and with him all other authors here to be dealt with pass it off. In just that perspective moves also the only answer that in my opinion can be given to Hoerster's dealing with the theodicy question. All the bridging theses, formulated by the classical theodicies and current attempts in order to be able to reconcile the existence of an all-merciful and omnipotent God with the occurrence of the moral and above all of the natural evil in the world, are de facto as unsuitable as Hoerster claims (see 87-113). And where they tend to understand suffering more or less as collateral damage (see 105) of a creation in which something like freedom is to be possible, they soon cross the boundary to cynicism.

Kant's reference to the biblical Ijob-Book as expression of an "authentic theodicy" (Immanuel Kant, Über das Mißlingen aller philosophischen Versuche in der Theodicee, Akademie-Textausgabe VIII, 264), and thus - this is explicitly said against Hoerster (see 113 ) - as philosophical role-book for finite reason's borderline management ["Grenzregie"] (Henrich), puts theological presumptuousness of that kind categorically in its place. If at that borderline still a speculative reflection was to be held on what from the "other side" borders on that borderline, then it is most likely to have to follow the course of Schelling's treatise on freedom and that of today's process philosophy and -theology.

In an addendum may still be noted that Hoerster in his examination of the arguments for the existence of God deals neither with the for decades discussed probabilistic variants of the classic arguments as especially Richard Swinburne has presented them



(see last: Gibt es einen Gott? [Is there a God?] Frankfurt 2006 and Stephen D. Unwin, Die Wahrscheinlichkeit der Existenz Gottes [The Probability of God's Existence], Hamburg 2005), nor with the since 1999 repeatedly published argument from the "Futurum exactum", which Robert Spaemann presents as one of the "Proofs of God's existence according to Nietzsche" (37) (Das unsterbliche Gerücht [The Immortal Rumor], Stuttgart 2007; Der letzte Gottesbeweis [The Last Proof of God's Existence], München 2007). According to the latter the existence of God must - because of the temporal self-constitution of persons - with necessity be thought as quintessence of the preservation of all events of the world. About what is real now, it must be possible to say that it from now and forever had once been. If that [God's existence] could not happen, it [what now is real] would also now not be really "real", hence there must be something like a "place" of a definitive collection of all that-will-have-been (see Gerücht 11-53, here especially 35-36. 52).

Besides, Spaemann's argument could also be read as answer to the challenge of today's nihilism that Burkhard Müller in a recent article recognized as the only real place where it makes sense to talk about God's existence, if he did not suppose without question (and thus unfounded) that "God" only represented the illusion of wishful thinking released by time's vanity (see Das Konzept Gott - warum wir es nicht brauchen, [The concept of God - why we do not need it], Merkur No. 694 [February 2007], 99-102). Of course, it is obvious that also Spaemann's offer of understanding implies a transcending of the common-sense-atheism.

But with the look on Hoerster (and Burkhard Müller) the approaches of a possible philosophical discussion with the new atheistic positions are essentially exhausted. If one accepted that one of the authors has at least a whiff of philosophical ambition, then it is most likely Sam Harris, for he in his book "The End of Faith" at least knows about a connection between subjectivity and religion (see 213-231), but he connects it at once with an anti-dualistic, that is anti-theistic vote for Eastern wisdom, according to which [vote] mysticism - in contrast to religion - is a rational venture (see 231).


Identity of Islam and Islamism

Apart from that, this opus and all the more Harris' manifesto "Letter to a Christian Nation" restrict themselves to the reproduction of innumerable anti-religious and anti-theological clichés, in a tone that sometimes loses every restraint by its apocalyptic undertone. In those writings theses are stated with utter conviction, in which even the trace of any knowledge about the fact that religious traditions are aware of hermeneutic problems is missing, and which therefore behave on their part in an accordingly fundamentalist way.

For Harris e.g. it is unquestionably certain: "The doors that lead away from a literal interpretation cannot be opened from the inside" (15). But already Origines, the first master of hermeneutics and systematization of Christian tradition



proves by his theory and practice of a multiple meaning of the Scriptures just the opposite. Or: "Intolerance (...) is part of any faith" (9). Even if after Theo Kobusch (Christian Philosophy. The Discovery of Subjectivity, Darmstadt 2006, 49-50) and Arnold Angenendt (Tolerance and Violence. Christianity between Bible and Sword, Münster 2007) others would give a few hundred more references for the falsity of that thesis, nothing would change in its popularity with Harris and Co. Islam and Islamism are still more or less identical for them (see 109-156), religion is per se irrational (see 9), is fundamentally an obstacle of research (see 43), and reactionary (see 170).

Who cares that the European idea of the university has its roots in the Christian cathedral schools, that the medieval logic found - especially in the medium of the speculative theology on the Eucharist - to its top-class performance, and that it is historically proved with sound reasons that just the western Christian tradition managed to enforce the principle of intellectualism (see Michael Borgolte, Jews, Christians, Muselmanen, Munich 2006, 573-584)? And what not falls into line with the criminal history of Christianity is devalued by Harris by demagogic means (see 107).

Who thinks that Harris' level is simply rock-bottom needs only read Piergiorgio Odifreddi's pamphlets. It is astonishing with what chutzpah there a respected intellectual and scientist contents himself with making a joke out of religion in general and especially Christianity, in resumption of a late classical motif (from Kelsos) to amalgamate idiocy and being a Christian under the etymological label "cretin" (see Matematico, 81), and - in associative connection to Freud - to class every religious reality as belonging to the field of mental dysfunction.

Religion, literature and philosophy from childhood contaminated common sense and prevented it with their tales from developing a clear, because scientific thinking (see Matematico, 79-81). Not everybody was doomed to be intelligent and able to summon the strength to free himself from the fictions drummed into him, what in view of the madness of witch-belief, Grail, miracles and paedophile priests should not be that difficult. Besides, there was an alternative: democratic and humanistic Buddhism, based on an absolutely scientific phenomenology - wonderfully embodied in the Dalai Lama (see Matematico, 113-115, 121-124).

It is remarkable how the hardcore scientist Odifreddi here all at once is satisfied with calendar wisdoms, which the Dalai Lama - his human integrity and spiritual authority is not in question! - usually gives in answer to philosophical and existential questions. And the mystifications surrounding the figure and vocation of that religious head do no longer disturb him. "Who thinks does not believe, and who believes does not think" (Matematico, 120). So can only talk who knows the beginnings of occidental philosophizing not even to some extent, let alone the concepts of contemporary philosophy of religion that give good reasons to understand the development of religion as a fundamental performance of reason in interpreting conscious life (see Klaus Mueller, Streit um Gott [Argument about God], Regensburg 2006, chapter 5 with reference to Henrich).


Rejection of Scientific Enlightenment is no Sign of Monotheisms

Michael Onfray's polemical treatise "We do not need God" is nearly on the same level. The well-known stereotypes are enriched with a few pieces from the specific French anticlericalism, as e.g. the priest fraud hypothesis (see 19). The "mental infantilism" and "obscurantism" of religions, but above all the monotheisms' compulsive desire for death (see 101-104) urgently required a "philosophical dismantling" (27) with the instruments of a left-wing, i.e. radically materialistic enlightenment (see 23-24) in the spirit of a "post-Christian, hence militantly atheistic secularism" (298-299). The rejection of any kind of scientific enlightenment was a characteristic of the monotheisms (see 125), particularly of Catholicism (see 123).

From the enlightening impetus of monotheism, which begins to show already in the inner-biblical relecture (Jdt 5, 6-9a) of the beginning of the Abraham Tale (Gen 11, 10-32) and is also beyond doubt for Assman's critical view of the Mosaic distinction ( see "Kult der goldenen Kälber" [Cult of the Golden Calves], Der Tagesspiegel, 11.4.2004) Onfray has never heard anything - how then should that be possible when the considering of contexts is simply to be regarded as "sophistry" (237)! For only then the way is free to construct the necessary respective concepts of the enemy, a task in which Onfray reaches top form - for instance when he ennobles Hitler to a "disciple of the Evangelist John" (229); since in "Mein Kampf" the only in the Gospel of Saint John (Jn 2, 15; according to Onfray II, 14) (see 230) found word "scourge" occurs.

But even Onfray can be surpassed. Christopher Hitchens' "God is not great" is something like the Hollywood wide-screen-version of the French atheism-preacher. When religion poisons the world, as the subtitle maintains, even religious exceptional figures can only be opaque humanists (as e.g. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, see 7), or charismatic strategists (as Martin Luther King, see 173-180), who use their religious potential in truth for quite different goals (in that case the political fight against racial separation) and accordingly cultivate a (of course in sexto) heterodox way of life. The verdict on every religious matter, which - in the form of religious education - is intrinsically to be equalled to the offence



of child abuse (see 263-276), finds of course its most excellent, because empirical counterpart in the paedophile scandals of American Catholicism. In Hitchens' aggravation now also the "Eastern Solution", i.e. the alternative of Buddhism including the Dalai Lama, which was spared by Harris and Odifreddi, is forfeited to the verdict (see 237-247). Mediations between reason and faith are impossible on principle and - if nevertheless tried - simply ridiculous (see 305-330).

Hitchens' aggravating strategy has one advantage: in its final volte it puts in a nutshell about what the now pending dispute with the new atheism will to be lead philosophically and theologically: Hitchens concludes from his philippic as "result" the need for a new Enlightenment" ( see 331-338).

When in Christendom religion has really become enlightenment, as the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote shortly after the last turn of the millennium with convincing arguments from the early days of Christian theological self-understanding (see Benedict XVI., "Gott und die Vernunft. Aufruf zum Dialog der Kulturen" [God and Reason. Appeal to a Dialogue of Cultures], Augsburg 2007, 29), then it is obvious that any future dispute about God is to be led as a dispute about the form of true enlightenment.


Is a new Enlightenment necessary?

That they certainly do not come up to that criterion - to be a voice in a dispute over enlightenment - is the first and safest thing that can be said about Richard Dawkins' "God Delusion" and Daniel C. Dennett's "Breaking the Spell". Both writings live on their authors' prominence earned by scientific achievements that are decades behind, Dawkins in biology with the theory of the selfish gene and the memes, Dennett in the field of the philosophical theory of consciousness.

Both books have only outwardly to do with this embodiment of their authors. Instead they are manifestos of evangelists of atheism, they are not concerned about a criticism of theism and the belief in God but about exposing the social respect for religious convictions to ostracism (see Gary Wolf, The Church of the Non-Believers, Wired, No. 11/2006).

They want to make proselytes; and that's why they form out of atheism a moral imperative that demands to prevent by all means the propagation of a wrong faith; and so they are - in the best manner of fundamentalist preachers free of self-doubt - worried only about the right faith (namely theirs). Dawkins supplies the hardcore version. Thanks to it (and in spite of to a large extent missing arguments) the "Stern" (27.9.2007) knows "Why there is no God" (Headline) and that Dawkins had produced the "evidence" (31) for the madness of every religion (see 30-40).

Over long distances Dennett takes away from his campaign the sharpness (though poisoned compliments are not missing, see 55; 300) otherwise usual with him by embedding it in meandering story-telling, humorous sketches, and thought experiments that are to bind the brain-police atheism-command to his great naturalization programme of everything mental and to disenchant religion as biological "by-product". The difference of genesis and validity (related to religion) is totally alien to him; a relationship of any kind between reason and religion is categorically banned by the alleged self-immunization procedure "Belief in Belief" (200-246).

The claim to enligthening ambitions with which the books end is in both cases neither credible nor gets it the intellectual debate even a single step forward. The same applies to the recent German Naturalism Manifesto, Bernulf Kanitscheider's "The Matter and its Shadows."

This on the whole more than poor result (except Hoerster) gives of course theologians no cause to lean back relaxed. On the contrary: That the writings discussed find such resonance - according to the number of copies printed and to the public reaction (especially in blogs) - both with the intellectuals among the critics of religion and with those of its supporters who feel uncertain about it (the authors particularly aim at them) is in my opinion due to two causes for which theology must take responsibility.

Up to this day theologians and preachers have not yet really made in an overall way their hermeneutical homework to be dealt with since the modern age. The practice of the historical-critical method is only one fundamental step for it but is not sufficient in the slightest (a return to a typological interpretation of course just as little). This criticism is only avoided by hermeneutics that is able to give account how in the interplay of history and fictionality speech acts capable of communicating truth develop. In view of this challenge an exegesis that (as it is not unusual today) instead confined itself to Social History would be the loser already by its approach; and it would play straight into the fundamentalist atheism's hands.

It is not less serious that the critical questions to the classical theism, which since Kant and the idealism have become obvious, are until today to a large extent ignored by systematic theology; and that is why New Atheism can easily tie it down in the case of God's image to the level of a primary school catechism. Could that be the sign of a deep-reaching deficit in the usual theological education?



What - quite independently of positions of principle in the systematic-theological reflection of the God question - seems to be too little taken into account is on the one hand that we - leaning on Richard Schaeffler - can philosophically hear the possible claim of the absolute only as echo in the medium of our finite reason. On the other hand it remains to be theologically noted that all talking about God, dogmatically seen, happens under the conditions of Gen 3, hence of the Fall of Man - and that is the cause why even the speech of a God of love is not immune against semantics of partiality. The speech about God too needs constant conversion. A Johann Gottfried Herder for instance has already known that and drew from it the obvious consequences, i.e. he critically examined his anthropomorphic speech about God (cf. Nachlass II, 263ff.). That level today's theology is still to reach again. But then it really needs no longer be worried by Dawkins, Dennett and the rest.


Literature on the New Atheism

  • Dawkins, Richard: The God Delusion, London 2006. Deutsch: Der Gotteswahn, Berlin 2007.
  • Dennett, Daniel C: Breaking the Spell. Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, New York 2006.
  • Harris, Sam: The End of Faith. Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. London 2005. Deutsch: Das Ende des Glaubens. Religion, Terror und das Licht der Vernunft, Winterthur 2007.
  • Hitchens, Christopher: God is not Great. How Religion Poisons Everything, New York 2007. Deutsch: Der Herr ist kein Hirte. Wie Religion die Welt vergiftet, München 2007.
  • Hoerster, Norbert: Die Frage nach Gott, München 2005.
  • Kantischeider, Bernulf: Die Materie und ihre Schatten. Naturalistische Wissenschaftsphilosophie, Aschaffenburg 2007.
  • Müller, Burkhard: Schlussstrich. Kritik des Christentums. 2. Aufl., Springe [1995] 2004.
  • Onfray, Michel: Traité d´athéologique. Physique de la métaphysique. Paris 2005. Deutsch: Wir brauchen keinen Gott. Warum man jetzt Atheist sein muss, München 2006.


    {*} Klaus Müller (born in 1955) is professor of fundamental philosophical questions of theology at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Münster.


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