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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Fall 2008
Vol. 35 No. 3

John Haught and the New Atheists

Lynn A. Brant

Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have written best-selling books that are critical of religion and a supernatural god.  The Roman Catholic theologian, John Haught, has responded to these authors with his God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, in which he also criticizes Dennett.  Haught refers to the other four authors as “the new atheists”, a term perhaps meant as a disparaging label as much as a convenience.  Harris describes theology as “ignorance with wings”, and Haught attempts to discredit the “new atheists” by claiming they have a mind-set of “scientific naturalism.”  Haught fires wildly in the general direction of his enemy but he misses the target.  Indeed, to some of his critical readers, Haught exemplifies Harris’s assessment of theology.  As Nel Noddings points out, these authors raise major questions, and though they are not new questions they are ones not addressed in our public schools and even rarely in polite company.  In the near absence of education about religion, other than that provided in church-supported schools (which is more promotion than critical analysis) and in the uninformed state of awareness of the meanings of atheism, deism, and other important concepts, reading any or all of the new atheists’ books, serves the function of pressing the question, “Why do you believe these things?”1

What is Religion?

First, any discussion of the works of Haught and the others must be based upon some common understanding of what religion is and is not.  I use the word religion in a general sense and not as a particular Religion, such as Christianity or Islam.  Everyone, I claim, is influenced in unconscious ways by the religious, holds ideas regarding the religious, and is indeed personally religious.  My view of religion is much broader than Haught’s or the atheists to whom he is responding.

From a sociological point of view, religion is an integral part of the culture in which it exists.  It is a story, according to Ursula Goodenough2, that binds together that culture and makes sense of the larger universe.  It is a story that tells how things are (such as the origin of the world and how humans have come to be) and which things matter (giving rise to morality and how to live).  There have been many cultures throughout history and there have been many religions.  The stories are modified and embellished over time and many have become institutionalized with holy writings, holy places, schools, etc.  But as Loyal Rue3 points out in the title of his book, “religion is not about god.”  God does not even have to be part of religion, which is counter to the usual view in our society that religion is all about a supernatural being.  As cultures mix and evolve over time, the religious stories evolve.  The stories are updated and holy texts are reinterpreted, while at the same time, some traditional parts are kept.  Other parts of the stories are simply ignored as they become irrelevant in the context of the changing culture.  The evolution of the stories becomes a source of tension between liberal thinkers (those adopting newer versions of the story) and the more conservative ones (those hanging onto older versions) within the culture.  And, of course, the mixing of cultures bring different stories into conflict, often with deadly consequences. 

Another view of religion is more from the individual’s perspective as expressed by a colleague and religion professor, Jerome Soneson:  “Religion has to do with that dimension of human life which has faith in a comprehensive symbolic picture of the whole of reality, a picture which gives the sense of ultimate meaning and which provides orientation or ways of living in the face of the ultimate mystery of life.” There is nothing here about God, heaven and hell, the virgin birth, original sin, or so many virgins awaiting the arrival of suicide bombers. 

By this definition, all thinking humans hold some religion; even those who reject any supernatural gods.  Individually, we form and modify these comprehensive symbolic pictures out of our life experiences - personal events, social interactions, books we read, stories we hear, schools we attend, and so on.  Since our individual lives are unique, our symbolic pictures of the whole of reality are also unique.  There are as many personal religions as there are people.
The past few centuries, and especially the 20th and 21st centuries, have witnessed unprecedented mixing of cultures and changes in our view of “how things are.”  Science and technology, international travel, interdependence of the global economy, and, most recently, global threats to the environment have altered both the cultural “stories” and the individuals’ “symbolic pictures” in ways that create enormous tensions - tensions that have, in the presence of weapons of mass destruction, the potential to destroy civilization.  Much of the conflict in the world today is connected to, if not directly caused by, religious strife.  People die and kill others for rather small differences in the religious stories each side believes (eg. Sunni vs Shia in Iraq and Protestant vs Catholic in Ireland), as well as the killing that takes place between major religious traditions (eg. Muslim vs Jew and Christian vs Hindu).

The objections Haught has against those he calls the new atheists is a reflection of the tension between old and new versions of “the story.”  Harris and Dawkins want to displace old parts of the story they believe are out of date with respect to the knowledge about the world that has come about in the past few centuries and is now well established in secular culture, mostly as a result of science.  Hitchens stands aghast at the evil done by religions and would like to rid the entire world of all of them.

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