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Do Atheists Have God All Wrong?

A new book, "The Case for God," argues that prominent non-believers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are wrong. Is it based on wishful thinking?

This article first appeared on TruthDig.

"We are talking far too much about God these days," writes  Karen Armstrong, author of "The Battle for God," "Visions of God," "The Changing Face of God" and "A History of God," at the outset of her new book, "The Case for God." Funny, I was just thinking the same thing.

Still, I think I understand: If the rest of us are suffering from a touch of God Fatigue, surely Armstrong, whose readable, literate books on particular religions and religion in general have earned her a respectable reputation, might well be sick to death of the topic.

But there is no avoiding the topic of God: It’s all the rage these days. God is under attack, and God’s attackers under counterattack, everywhere you look. Anyway, Armstrong’s real complaint is not that we are talking too much about God, but that there is too much talk of the wrong sort. We have misunderstood the very concept of God, and as a result "what we say [about God] is often facile." She isn’t referring only to the so-called new atheists here -- well, primarily she  is referring to the new atheists, because they are the ones that really get her goat, but she is careful to assure us that the central modern misunderstanding of religion, which is to see it primarily as a matter of  belief, is one shared by most religious adherents, and isn’t just a creation of their critics.

The complaint that the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc.) are theologically incompetent, and that a subtler appreciation for the finer points of theology would expose the shallowness of their attacks, is by now a common one. But few defenders of religion attempt actually to spell out the theological details; and the results of those attempts that have been made are, in my experience, deeply unsatisfying.

Can Armstrong’s ambitious survey of the history of Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious thought do better? She is entirely correct that atheistic critiques aimed at naive strict literalist readings of holy texts can take us only so far. Mocking the angry, cruel, unjust deity of the Old Testament, or reminding literalists that the world is considerably more than 4,000 years old, has little force against the moderate, nonfundamentalist faithful. More powerful skeptical critiques, though, do not presuppose Scriptural literalism. They rely on the Darwinian view of how complex life evolved on this planet, or the existence of serious evil and injustice -- things that are well-established and pretty much impossible reasonably to deny and, at the same time, extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with  any view of God-as-designer/caretaker, or with any other traditional form of theistic belief.

Pointing out that sacred texts are not meant to be read literally, then, is not enough. Armstrong’s more radical strategy is to de-emphasize the role of belief in religious life altogether: Practice, she writes, is more important than belief, and we misunderstand references to "belief" in the Bible, the Quran and elsewhere if we interpret them in accordance with our modern understanding of belief. (The correct sense, she writes, has more to do with " ‘trust,’ ‘loyalty,’ ‘engagement,’ and ‘commitment.’ ") Critics who focus on the absurdity or implausibility of so many religious  beliefs, then, or on the fact that religion encourages people to accept these beliefs uncritically and to hold them in the face of any countervailing evidence, are missing the point: It isn’t believing certain things but rather living a certain sort of life that makes a person religious.

One might well worry, though, that it is not as easy as Armstrong assumes to separate belief from action or practice. Indeed all intentional voluntary action presupposes some set of beliefs. Armstrong may perhaps make a plausible claim in asserting that faith, as understood by mainstream religious traditions before the advent of modernity, involved  more than  "mere" belief in the modern sense; but if the problem with religious life is that it encourages false, absurd, unjustified beliefs, showing that it does other things as well is not sufficient. What must be shown is that religion does not involve belief, and not merely that it involves other things in addition to belief. So long as religious worldviews differ in certain important ways from that held by the nonreligious, one can still complain that that worldview is poorly founded and, to a large degree, implausible. (Of course, it is open to the faithful to attempt to formulate a worldview that is both plausible and recognizably  religious in a meaningful sense. Again, though, reassurances that such a picture can be articulated are far more often encountered than are actual and convincing attempts at doing so.)