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Thomas Schärtl

New Atheism

Between Argument and Arrogance


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 3/2008, P. 147-161
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    THOMAS SCHÄRTL, Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, describes various forms of contemporary atheism. He particularly has it out with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, whose one-sided conceals people's hope of a last justice.


Not so long ago the return of religion was publicly celebrated. To the surprise of not a few people religion seemed to have outlived being used for bourgeois purposes, political exploitation, totalitarian mutilation, intellectual contempt or ideological rejection. Admittedly, religion has survived its sharpest critics, but in the meantime there are not missing new voices that are directed against the content of religion, specifically against Christianity.

It can hardly be denied that you must for some time, apart from a return of religion also speak of a return of forms of atheism. But sometimes only well-known matters are treated under new headings and names - questions and hostile stances that have partly been known since the Enlightenment. But what is partly new are the proportions in the mixture within atheistic attacks, the discursive contexts and is the media impact. The Internet now provides platforms that decidedly oppose religion in general and specifically Christianity {1}. The aim of such ventures is a protest movement that deliberately stigmatises and denounces religion and wants to establish a kind of "counter-church" to the in Europe and the USA still influential Christian churches and religious movements.

With a certain conceptual simplification one can distinguish three kinds of contemporary atheism: An academic form could be described as argumentative atheism. In its classic form it goes back for example to Bertrand Russell. A more recent variant comes from John L. Mackie. The characteristic of this form is the question of justification directed at the Christian theism. A second form is much harder to grasp, because it is only conditionally comprised in discursive statements but is in reality just as broad a phenomenon as it is complex: the cultural atheism that articulates its criticism of Christianity in many and diverse ways - and be it only in the non-discursive forms of a hedonistic and consumerist contemporary culture making it difficult for Christianity to be heard. The third form subtly lives on the two variants mentioned but adopts an aggressive tone. This denunciatory atheism is originally racist, because it essentially says that all religious people are basically stupid, immoral or wretched personalities.



The sensational books by Richard Dawkins {2} or Christopher Hitchens {3} fall into this category. There it is about declarations of war and massive attacks that want nothing less than to refuse religion social (and cultural) recognition. The fundamentalist or radical-orthodox varieties of religion in Christianity, Islam and Judaism provide there the ammunition for the atheistic cultural revolution. But apologetics' and theology's response to this attack is not easy, for the simple reason that these denunciations usually are very rude and completely insensitive for the fine wedges of theological distinctions.


Argumentative Atheism

The argumentative atheism has become a marginal phenomenon. One would almost like to count it among the didactic plays of the history of philosophy, to which theology owes a kind of sharpening its senses. Perhaps the most important book in this direction, namely John Leslie Mackie's "The Miracle of Theism", which in David Hume's spirit holds the thesis that there is no good reason for being theist, after all comes from the 80s of last century {4}. And also more recent statements in that direction - such as the books of the Canadian philosopher of religion Kai Nielsen {5} - basically only repeat what belonged to the debate in the 50s and 60s: the question about the meaning of religious statements, about the credibility of theistic metaphysics, and whether theistic sentences are able to reach truth.

Against this background the book "Arguing for Atheism" {6}, penned by Robin LePoidevin represents a real rarity, for here it is about a relatively young and partly also revitalized form of argumentative atheism (an, as it were, variant of atheism threatened with extinction). The Briton LePoidevin is originally an "analytical metaphysician". He pursues metaphysics as a discipline dealing with border questions of natural science - e.g. the nature of space and time {7}. Hence it is no accident that his book Arguing for Atheism is coined by the spirit of analytical philosophy: it is oriented towards argument, strives of clear concepts, and is interested in logical and conceptual consistency.

This book is interesting for this reason alone that here it is about a kind of "inverted" philosophy of religion: LePoidevin uses the model "Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion" in order to critically examine the classic arguments for theism (e.g. the classic proofs of God's existence, especially the so-called cosmological argument, the existence of moral awareness, the undeniabilitiy of the question of the meaning of life, contingency and mortality of human life).



Unlike the standard introductions to philosophy of religion - as you recently find them in great numbers in the context of the Anglo-American universities' research and lectures - LePoidevin reaches a negative result, which has two sides: On the one hand, as LePoidevin underlines, theism's repertoire of concepts was neither clear nor without contradictions; on the other hand, the alleged solutions of theism (e.g. the idea of Creation) should not be given so much credit, that you could not as well manage without those anyway vague, contradictory or empty explanations. LePoidevin for example maintains that terms such as "first cause" or "ultimate goal" were no meaningful terms, if they - as in the proofs of God's existence - were applied to the universe as a whole, because the relations of cause or aim could only be meaningfully predicated of items existing within the universe {8}.

Fundamental Theology, even Christian theology in general will benefit a lot from statements such as those of LePoidevin, because they will be forced to refine their concepts and to make more precise statements. For example, you have to think about what a "good" statement is, and to what extent theistic explanations can or must at all compete with scientific explanations.

Perhaps it does theology good to consider anew the deep dimensions of explanations and with it the existential rootedness of the God concept (in the contemporary theology nobody has been able to do that so well as Karl Rahner SJ {9}), in order to show how and why Faith is more than a mere theoretical structure. Secondly, theology - and that's what it can learn in dealing with analytical philosophy - has to think more about the possibilities and limits of its force of expression, bout the understandability of its vocabulary. On the one hand it should give in to the analytical insistence on precision and commitment. On the other hand it must be allowed - taught among others by Immanuel Kant - to refer to the status of its concepts as border terms.

So concepts such as "first cause", "ultimate aim" - to take up here once more LePoidevin's example - are border concepts that cannot be pressed upon conventional combinations of terms, but that are nonetheless indispensable, because to go to the bounds of thought belongs to the nature of human reason. The question Where from and What for the Whole exists is a good and reasonable question, even if the answer to that question operates with terms that, as it were, must free themselves from the straight grasp.



Cultural Atheism

The situation is different of course when theology meets a variety that can easily be called cultural atheism - and this for two reasons: This type of atheism is a phenomenon of contemporary culture, which wants nothing else than to drive away and replace Christianity as a power that coins culture. On the other hand also notes of accusation mix with those attempts: Christianity had brought upon the Occident a non-culture, an ultimately inhumane denial of man's body, of oblivion of this world, of the permanent awareness of guilt, of a rejection of life oriented towards the Cross. The doctrines on satisfaction, justification theology, original sin, the eschatology threatening with the horrors of hell, the denial of historical truths etc. belonged to Christianity's problematic legacy, of which the West could only slowly free itself, but of which it must free itself in order to lay at last the foundations for a truly humane society {10}.

In Germany Herbert Schnädelbach {11} had with such theses caused a stir and triggered a brief debate, in which among others Richard Schroeder {12}, Robert Spaemann {13}, Slavoj Zizek {14} and Hans Maier {15} spoke out in order to acknowledge the positive cultural achievements of Christianity: a culture of compassion, self-devotion, boundless love, of eschatological justice that is destined in days to come to rewrite the stories of earthly winners and losers.

But the phenomenon of cultural atheism goes deeper. Conclusively led debates are rather the exception than the rule. The non-argumentative expressions of cultural atheism are far more problematical. They are difficult to grasp and elude the theological-conceptual access. Gregor Mary Hoff has found these forms of cultural atheism above all in advertising, but also in parts of the contemporary belles-lettres {16}.

Here you're to remind of Otto Kern's jeans advertising of 1993 causing sensation and protest: a poster shows twelve half-naked young women around a half-naked interpreter of Jesus in the subject of The Last Supper. A more recent example comes from the French fashion group Marithé and François Girbaud. Here it is also about a "travesty" of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci: Twelve (extremely fashionable dressed and partly very provocatively posing models) surround a central female figure that has taken up Christ's position. Advertising graphics of that kind create - to pick up Nelson Goodman's sign-theoretical apparatus {17} - a world of its own by exploiting already existing symbol worlds, deleting or extending relations, and purposefully replacing certain reference functions with different ones.



What for Christianity is particularly challenging is not just the fact that the Christian symbol cosmos degenerates to a pantry of signs and goes down to the division of mere museum-like relevance. It is rather the fact that the symbolically encrypted relation to transcendence told by the canon of Christian symbols and images is replaced with a different reference: The Christian sacrifice of life becomes the hedonistic abandonment of mere corporeality that completely fits in with the beauty-obsession of contemporary culture.

The relation to transcendence becomes a mere worldly relation redeemable by hedonism. Christ's sacrificed body becomes the seductively exposed sensual body, which does not promise the eternal life of a future world but the eternal youth of a gleaming sensual presence. And at the same time Christ's act of self-sacrifice has become something different: an in sexually-erotic tones depicted act of offering one's body. Even if advertising uses this program of replacing signs to shock and to provoke, there is in secret nevertheless also a world-view transported: consumption instead of communion, sexual self-expression instead of self-sacrifice, erotic union instead of spiritual-mystical union.

Against such a background the writings of the French philosopher Michel Onfray almost appear as portrayal of a cultural mass phenomenon: Onfray advertises a hedonistic world-view, a philosophy of the palate and of tasting {18}. And he denounces - with a certain logical consistency - Christianity as spoil-sport, defeatist and lust killer. Onfray sees the monotheistic religions as permanent hazard potential replacing the enjoyment of human freedom with violence and oppression and incarcerating the human Self in a rigorous moral {19}.

A theological response to the phenomenon of cultural atheism is far more difficult than dealing with the so-called argumentative atheism. For, as I said, only certain forms are within reach of discourse - whereas most of it, hence also the most influential things within its range happen atmospherically: seeping as culture-coining moments into our contemporary culture and slowly ploughing it up. An adequate answer can in parts no longer come from the academic theology alone; it must be formulated starting with the spiritual and kerygmatic resources of Christianity: as disarming counter-culture and as non-violent reconquest of the signs.

That this is not a totally hopeless strategy became quite obvious during 2005, the year of the Pope's election: The Catholic Church had a media presence as rarely before. And it was able to hand out the richness of its signs, to let everybody who got involved in it participate in their power of interpretation: in the subtle interpretations of authority, parting and death, time, eternity and resurrection, continuity in the midst of a new beginning, hope and a power of renewal that all the same refers back to a deeper origin.



Of course, the events getting the 'symbol worlds' and 'interpretation rooms" just mentioned going, were High-Times which cannot be scheduled and in which interpretation was enormously intensified. The average pastoral situation may be far away from them, but it too has the potential liturgically, i.e. by means of signs/symbols adequately to give answers just in the dense phases of existential passages (birth, maturity, decisions for life, illness and healing, death), and thus to open the window to another world: the world of eschatological hope and grace that is not owed.

Behind and beside it, the phenomenon of cultural atheism provokes also a new, pointed clarification of what Christianity is and wants: Christianity is a religion of grace, freedom and eschatological justice. Christianity has from its origin an anti-hedonist spine rating the value of the person higher than the value of lust which exploits man and makes him an object, and rating eschatological justice higher than merely living in the present moment.

This prophetic dimension makes Christianity solidary with the hidden stories of all those who are socially marginalised and systematically faded out by today's hedonisms. It is - to use a dictum of Johann Baptist Metz {20} - just the "dangerous memory" and the apocalyptic dimension of a last justice for the sake of which Christianity must always oppose all neo-hedonist or neo-Nietzschean seductions - no matter whether they have the name Michel Onfray or Peter Sloterdijk {21} or whether these temptations are anonymously expressed in the market laws of unbridled consumerism.


Denunciatory Atheism

What is authentically Christian? And who is the genuine Christian God? These questions undeniably are on the agenda when theology has to deal with the harsh attacks from the camp of denunciatory atheism.

Christopher Hitchens, who with his book "God is not Great" at present ranks among the first on the US bestseller lists, in his numerous publications and lectures never tires of denouncing the core contents of monotheistic religions, particularly of Christianity, as gross nonsense: Can you believe in something like salvation history? Can you really assume that a god - after millions of years in which the cosmos rather chaotically developed and after tens of thousands of years needed by Homo sapiens to ripen from a primate to a civilizable barbarian - decides to intervene in the history of man by letting an ecstatic itinerant preacher cruelly be tortured to death in a Roman province and by accepting this torture as atonement in order to make some kind of armistice with mankind?



Can you really take the idea of bodily resurrection of the dead seriously? Is the conception of the atonement of Christ deputizing for mankind or of eternal repayment for sins committed in the time not in itself immoral, because the former is contradictory to the idea of human autonomy and the latter to the principle of adequacy {22}? Is the God described in the Bible not a cruel, unpredictable despot? Does in the end not everything suggest that God has been created by man (and not vice versa) {23}?

As regards the matter those questions are no new ones: Already Origenes had to put up with such questions put by Kelsos. Kelsos too had only ridicule for the teachings of Christianity: "Who believes in such things knows nothing" {24}, or in other words, "Who believes such things is stupid and uneducated." And theology can actually time and again follow only Origenes' strategy by showing that the religious truths of Christianity really correspond to the structure and dynamics of human reason and the longing of the human heart, revealing a wisdom that is neither irrational nor immoral.

Hitchens, a British political journalist with a right-conservative manner of speaking who emigrated to the USA, has plenty of ridicule for hierarchies of all kinds (the British royal family is no less spared by him than the Catholic Church). In his lectures he never tires of provoking his audience with one question: Is there any good deed that we exclusively ascribe to religious motives, so that it could not just as well be done by non-religious people? Hitchens' accusation is harsh: Even without religion good people would be good and bad people bad. But religion is needed to cause good people to do something intrinsically bad: to act as informer, to tyrannize, to oppress, to torture and to murder lots of people {25}.

Apart from Christopher Hitchens Richard Dawkins takes the same line. In the USA his book "The God Delusion" caused a fierce debate, which partly intensified in a way unknown in Europe: It is the language of the tight fist. While Dawkins preaches a purely scientific and naturalistic world-view and calls upon people to ostracize religious communities, the fundamentalist circles within the Evangelical but also within the Catholic church answer with straight condemnation. Admittedly, rudeness can only be answered with rudeness, but lasting theological gains cannot be made by such strategies. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the replicas of European theologians - i.e. of Keith Ward {26} and Alister McGrath {27}, both teach as colleagues of Dawkins at Oxford - turn out to be more subtle and sophisticated.



Why this Kulturkampf? You are to look for the answer in Dawkins' approach itself: Dawkins connects all major trends of criticism of religion and atheism to a unique denunciatory blend in the context of a cosmo- and socio-Darwinian theory. For Dawkins it is certain from the start that religion has no right to stay in the human culture, for its metaphysical preconditions (the existence of God, the belief in a hereafter) were unfounded and could not be substantiated, besides the occurrence of religion could be explained purely naturalistically. Furthermore, religion was "highly dangerous" because it only promoted and preserved fundamentalist, causing conflicts and repressive attitudes.

As regards questions of evidence Dawkins demands a reversal of the burden of proof. In his view an enlightened and socio-biologically formulated naturalism has a far greater plausibility and practicality. For it could be proved that the classical proofs of God's existence and their modern probability-theory-varieties (this decidedly aims at Richard Swinburne's approach {28}) must be regarded as failures {29}. There was no good reason to believe in the existence of God. Moreover, on the condition that there are sufficient explanations it was not at all necessary to believe in a Creator God - possibly in the Creator God of the Intelligent Design Theory -, for an advanced probability theory that is able to include cumulative changes of preconditions and also to consider the unimaginable "depth of the time" that has passed since the emergence of the universe sufficiently explained the origin of the diversity of species. A multi-universes theory, made seem convincing by the quantum theory, was in a position to let even the contingency of the beginning and its extreme improbability appear as less problematic. Since every possible condition is realized in one of the innumerable universes, also the pretty improbable but not entirely impossible (namely, the emergence of life) is realized somewhere: in our universe that is just one of many {30}.

For Dawkins the belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, Resurrection and Ascension, sacramental absolution, Eucharistic transubstantiation is just as crazy and childish as the assumption that in the garden at night little fairies were busying themselves with filling nectar into the flowers {31}. For Dawkins biblical stories have - where they are not clearly unsavoury or inhumane (the first was the matter of an enlightened and serene taste, the second a matter of education and insight) - at best literary value {32}.

Dawkins does not content himself with only questioning possible reasons for theism. He goes a step further and meets on this level the so-called ideological atheism of past eras, the theism attacks of which resulted in criticism of religion.



He tries to justify the emergence of religion by reasons taken from the evolutionary theory, and at the same time to underline the illusory nature of religious commitments: religion was a by-product of the development of the human brain and its cognitive capacities, an unhealthy combination of skills, the existence of which, each considered for itself, would be an advantage for survival {33}.

The tendency to objectification, to reduced explanation by referring to intentions and generalization had a positive value for the orientation in our environment, but could also - dissociated from immediate tasks - lead to the production of the conception of God.

The conception of God was a "Mem" (the informational equivalent of the gene), which had found acceptance in the history of civilization, because it offered survival advantages that could be seen from certain functions: giving consolation, coping with crises, establishing identity or forming the awareness to be the superior tribe or gang gave certain advantages in certain environments.

The belief in God represented an infantile stage - comparable to the degree of maturity of a child talking with a teddy bear or a fictitious friend. Possibly prayer is the infantile continuation of an early stage of the history of civilization, in which man experienced his reflections as an inner dialogue with another fictitious person. Then God would be only some way of hypostatisation of that fictitious other person. The modern awareness had after all revealed that the talk with a fictitious other person was only a kind of conversation with oneself.

After this reductionist explanation of religion Dawkins continues with a fierce critique of monotheistic religions, which in his book concentrates on Christianity (but applies, mutatis mutandis, also to Islam). The allegations adopt a clearly incriminatory tone. The belief in God was not only no support for an alert moral awareness but its very opposite: the reason for the stylization and preservation of a morally buckled and degenerated character, of mental atrophy and distortion.

Furthermore, the Christians' Scriptures were no book that taught a really moral behaviour; especially the image of God presented here described a behaviour that is no model: the God of the Old Testament, so Dawkins, was a chauvinist, racist, nationalist, filled with hatred for gays, and a violent-tempered choleric type with obsessive-impulsive disturbances of character {34}. The New Testament too offered no real alternative: a constant hostility towards life, rigorism and slogans spreading fear coined the atmosphere there {35}.

After listing the crimes perpetrated in the name of the monotheistic religions {36}, and after an incrimination of questionable rituals Dawkins reaches a conclusion that expresses the downright opposite of what once the First Vatican Council had formulated with regard to the plausibility of theism and the problematic nature of atheism: Not atheists but theists are - if not morally degenerated - in any case mentally retarded, infantile or even stupid.



Hence it verged on "mental child abuse" today to regard religious education as suitable for social consensus or even to promote or support it by the state {37}.


Theology's Responsibility

Of course, first of all the question is to be asked whether Dawkins and Hitchens can denounce real religion at all - or whether their attack does not rather hit deviations of religiosity. Nevertheless theology cannot so easily steal out of its responsibility. It is likely to be no coincidence that Dawkins identified as his opponents especially creationists and intelligent-design theorists and incriminates the conception of God spread there. Theology's responsibility for the conception of God is implicitly sued for here.

And this is exactly what theology can learn from Dawkins and partly also from Hitchens. Formulated as questions: Is this form of atheism not partly also a result of the fact that the "personal God" is in a state of crisis, that far too carelessly personal attributes are ascribed to God, that he was made trustee of questionable sexual taboos or of a very bourgeois narrow-minded and inhibited Victorian sexual moral, that the name of God was misused in order to annex territories, to erode cultures, and to discriminate races? Do we possibly talk far too carelessly of God's "unfathomable will", "salvation history," "God's doings", "vocation" and "election", "God's Creation" and "God's grace" {38}?

Such questions belong to theology's homework that must result from the debate with Dawkins or Hitchens. In view of the grandeur of the cosmos and the complexity of the history of evolution we should be by far more vigilant, whenever we tend to ascribe to God too human attributes or pompously talk of creation, redemption, salvation and history of revelation, so that we in the end are not taken in by our own anthropomorphic terms. In fact, it can be said that the God of the Intelligent Design Theory and of the creationists, fundamentalists and supranaturalists has little in common with the absolute source of all being that mysteriously communicates itself in the history of developing life in a universe of wide variety and diversity, and lets itself slowly find by the materially constituted life, in which consciousness and self-awareness flicker up.

Once again Karl Rahner's theology is to be mentioned here, who had begun to think about this concept of a "greater God", and had tried to consistently translate the thought of the history of revelation and the central themes of Christology into an evolutionary world-view {39} - a visionary potential that until today is far from being exhausted and understood in its fundamental importance for the Christian speech about God.



The God attacked by Dawkins and Hitchens is indeed a joke character. But is that God really the God of Christianity? For the Christian churches the revival of the denunciatory atheism should be a welcome occasion at last to wrest the conception of God from the fundamentalists' narrow-mindedness and faint-heartedness and in liturgy, preaching and catechesis boldly to side with the "ever greater God".

In addition to that theology has at last to redeem the demands of the modern age and renounce a naive supranaturalism that only too willingly gets stuck into senseless conflicts with the natural sciences. The alternative to this kind of supranaturalism is not a simple naturalism but a metaphysics that is able to let these opposites behind. In the philosophy of the German Idealism and in the theological masterpieces of the 20th century taking it up the concepts are long since laid out ready to remind of the "greater God" - for the sake of God. A God that is thought as origin of everything, as "esse subsistens", as absolute spirit and absolute freedom is greater than the personal God sunk into lukewarm anthropomorphisms of some fundamentalist circles in the Christian churches and other monotheistic religions.

On the other hand the denunciatory attacks also call for a to a certain extent apologetic response - a genuine defence of Christianity. Alister McGrath and Keith Ward have disclosed that Dawkins and, mutatis mutandis, Hitchens too argue in a fundamentalist way. They refuse religion precisely what both so vehemently demand for their own position: access to the forum of reason, and thus the possibility of a differentiated analysis. Dawkins and Hitchens act in a fundamentalist way because they constantly refuse to concede that there is also a non-fundamentalist version of religion, particularly of Christianity {40}.

You will only then really do justice to the history of the Christian religion when you concede religion's ability to develop, and when you are ready to acknowledge as legitimate development the development of the historical or hermeneutic awareness and the development of theology as a whole, which has precisely led to a fuller and deeper form of religion (and not to a weakening, as Hitchens and Dawkins maintain in unison and in a strange harmony with fundamentalists of every shade). And only on this level you can show that it is legitimate to demand a hermeneutic distance to the literal sense of the Scriptures and to inquire about the deeper (symbolic, allegorical and spiritual) meaning of those writings; and that it is also right to concede God's revelation a symbolic and historic side that does not simply ignore man's history of civilisation.



Only on this level against any sort of denunciatory atheism can be stated that religion can be abused like other phenomena of human existence too: arts, law and science can be misused in exactly the same way as religion. Just the eras "after" the turn launched by Enlightenment have shown, until one was wearied of it, that science is not free of ideologies: genetics can become eugenics, nuclear physics the engineering in the service of total destruction, and chemistry the executioner in the service of the "Final Solution". This is analogously true for the art that devotes its entire expressiveness in order to pay homage to the "Führer" or the great party leader in magnificent political colour-blindness. And the same goes for jurisprudence and administration of justice, which meticulously establishes and interprets race laws, annuls marriages for race hygienic reasons, invents apartheid regulations, and sends innocent people "in the name of the people" into extermination camps.

As these and other examples show the history of mankind is an ocean of blood and violence. Religion remained not unaffected by the dirt swimming on that ocean. But religion has also brought something else into the world, something to which we can cling as drowning people - hope; the hope that there is still an exit from this history beyond blood and violence, that the powers and rulers of this world will be judged by a court of final appeal. The hope that there is after all an impartial and thus incorruptible justice comes from religion and not from science or Enlightenment. To hold religion alone responsible for mankind's exuberant history of violence is just as one-sided as concealing the violence perpetrated in the name of God.

Only who as atheist argues in a fundamentalist way will refuse to admit that science and reason too can be corrupted. Reason too can be abused; also reason lets itself use as instrument and reduce to a mere technical skill and agility. In this sense religion can contribute to self-enlightenment of reason, if it reminds of the hidden, hushed up, faded out and dismissed affairs. Johann Baptist Metz never tires of keeping alive just this aspect of the biblical tradition: the memory of the distress of suffering, which cannot be converted into pleasing and adaptable terms, but must be endured by the memory and time and again compassionately suffered {41}.

It is just the voice of biblical prophecy and wisdom that can formulate the most important argument against the naturalism à la Dawkins. The pliancy that seems to argue here in the name of Enlightenment and of a serene humanism is pliancy thanks to secrecy: one hides that true justice and true unselfishness become impossible if the world is cheated out of its eschatological hope. The naked law of the jungle ("survival of the fittest") has nothing to do with justice.



Dawkins deliberately keeps secret that it is only a short path that leads from a socio-biological world-view to the aggressive social Darwinism.

Also the history of totalitarianism in the 20th century belongs to the affairs kept secret: The atrocities of the last century were the results of decidedly anti-theist or atheist world-views. Anyway, it is astonishing that Dawkins and Hitchens try to call fascism and Stalinism quasi-religions and to understand the mass killings as result of religion. Certainly: The Hitler and Stalin cult had quasi-liturgical elements, but none of the two was connected with any concept of transcendence. Hence it is about a simple extension of the concept when Dawkins and Hitchens talk here of religion or religious rootedness {42}. In other words: only at the cost of playing with names the greatest atrocities of the past century can be entered on the credit side of religion.


Differentiated Enquiries

Now the attempt to accuse both Dawkins and Hitchens of fundamentalism is perhaps no more than a very poor, very transparent apologetic "Tu-Quoque" strategy. But it is absolutely possible to state more substantial objections against the accusation from the camp of denunciatory atheism, as Alister McGrath has shown on the occasion of a panel discussion on 31 May 2007 at Georgetown University in Washington DC in a debate with Christopher Hitchens. McAlister emphasizes four points:

It simply is one-sided to understand religions only as residua of repressive sexual moral and standards hostile to life. The longing for the sacred, spiritual transformation of life, the "contact" with transcendence are in the heart of every religious practice. Doctrinal topics and moral standards are in contrast to that secondary phenomena, the concrete structure of which is always culturally conditioned. Cultural impregnation is a problem - it cannot be wiped away. But this applies not only to religion; reason and science too are culturally impregnated.

Secondly, it is short-sighted to understand religiously motivated conflicts and wars not also as socio-economic and political conflicts. The angry lashing out all around in the Middle East is for the most part the response to a long and violent history of oppression the West is to blame for. Fundamentalistically interpreted religion is at best the fuel added to an already existing fire.

Thirdly, it seems to be a peculiarity of human nature marked by sin to immunize the basis of world-views against all inquiries - if necessary by force.



So for example, the war-cry of the French Revolution: "Liberty, equality, fraternity" led to a real slaughter, to a regime of inequality and bondage. Religion is charged with a potential for violence where it becomes a world-view. The fundamental problem is to be searched for not in religion per se but in the violence logic of world-views.

Fourthly, there is within religion, particularly within Christianity, also the ability for self-criticism. Just Jesus of Nazareth is the model of a non-violent criticism of all kinds of violence potentials, and the history of Christianity knows enough examples of a non-violent criticism of religion's violence potentials.

This list was to be complemented by an inquiry that for example the American philosopher of religion Alvin Platinga patiently time and again formulates and addresses among others also to Dawkins {43}: Is the naturalism preached by Dawkins a real alternative to theism? Can the questions about goodness, truth and beauty really be answered with terms like reproductive success and cutthroat competition? Is a consistently kept up naturalism still science? Or is the result - as it becomes apparent in Dawkins' hair-raising "explanation" of altruistic behaviour as reproductive success in the sense of the "tipping effect" (females prove to be impressed by altruistic gestures and are then readier for mating {44}) - just bad metaphysics?

What theology can and should learn from the argument with Dawkins (and partly also Hitchens) is the conceptually advanced competition for a better metaphysics, and the question of the sovereignty over forming an appropriate conception of God.



{1} See as examples:;;;;;;;;;;

{2} R. Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston 2006); German: Der Gotteswahn (Berlin 2007).

{3} Ch. Hitchens, God is not Great. How Religion Poisons Everything (New York 2007).

{4} J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford 1982); German: Das Wunder des Theismus (Stuttgart 1985).

{5} K. Nielsen, Naturalism and Religion (Amherst 2001); the same, Philosophy and Atheism (Amherst 1985).

{6} R. LePoidevin, Arguing for Atheism (London 1996).

{7} The same, Travels in Four Dimensions (Oxford 2004).

{8} See the same, (note 6) 33-69.

{9} K. Rahner, Grundkurs des Glaubens (Freiburg 1976) 61-79.

{10} There is an outstanding analysis of the Schnädelbach debate in G. M. Hoff, Religionskritik heute (Kevelaer 2004) 107-118.



{11} H. Schnädelbach, Der Fluch des Christentums, in: Die Zeit 20 (2000). An edition of the debate is also found in: Geburtsfehler? Vom Fluch u. Segen des Christentums, edited by R. Leicht (Berlin 2001).

{12} Schröder, Unkraut unter dem Weizen, in: Die Zeit 22 (2000).

{13} R. Spaemann, Die Taube auf dem Dach, in: Die Zeit 23 (2000).

{14} S. Žižek, Liebe ohne Gnade, in: Die Zeit 25 (2000).

{15} H. Maier, Die Überwindung der Welt, in: Die Zeit 27 (2000).

{16} Hoff (note 10) 35-39, 44-63.

{17} N. Goodman, Weisen der Welterzeugung (Frankfurt ³1995).

{18} M. Onfray, L´art de jouir. Pour un matérialism hédoniste (Paris 1994); the same, La raison gourmande. Philosophie du goût (Paris 1995).

{19} M. Onfray, Traité d´athéologie. Physique de la métaphysique (Paris 2005); German: Wir brauchen keinen Gott. Warum man jetzt Atheist sein muß (München 2006).

{20} Fundamental to it: J. B. Metz, Memoria Passionis (Freiburg 2006) 255-257.

{21} See also M. Striet, Der neue Mensch? Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen zu Sloterdijk u. Nietzsche (Frankfurt 2000).

{22} Hitchens (note 3) 205-215.

{23} At the same place 73-96.

{24} See also A. Fürst, "Wer das glaubt, weiß gar nichts". Eine spätantike Debatte über den Universalanspruch des christlichen Monotheismus, in: Orientierung 68 (2004) 138-141.

{25} See Hitchens (note 3) 173-193.

{26} K. Ward, Is Religion Dangerous? (Oxford 2006).

{27} A. McGrath and J. C. McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? (London 2007).

{28} See R. Swineburne, The Existence of God (Oxford 2004).

{29} Dawkins (note 2) 77-109.

{30} At the same place 113-159.

{31} At the same place 177-179.

{32} At the same place 340-344; Hitchens ist an diesem Punkt schärfer; für ihn haben diese Geschichten gar keinen Wert, sondern sind Märchen und schlechte Literatur. Vgl. Hitchens (note 3) 97-122.

{33} Dawkins (note 2) 161-207.

{34} At the same place 237-250.

{35} At the same place 250-253.

{36} At the same place 279-307; ähnlich auch Hitchens (note 3)15-36; 217-228.

{37} Dawkins (note 2) 311-344; even sharper Hitchens (note 3) 217-228.

{38} See about the respective discussion K. Müller, Streit um Gott. Politik, Poetik u. Philosophie im Ringen um das wahre Gottesbild. (Regensburg 2006).

{39} Rahner (note 9) 143-179; 180-226.

{40} About the picture of a sole fundamentalist religion see Dawkins (note 2) 282-286; Hitchens (note 3) 253-275.

{41} Metz (note 20) 79-86.

{42} Dawkins (note 2) 272-278; Hitchens (note 3) 229-252.

{43} A. Platinga, Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford 1993) 216-237.

{44} Dawkins (note 2) 209-233, 219f.


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