Death to Apologetics

by

An Open Letter to the Theo-blogosphere

It seems that every day a new post on the theo-blogosphere is written ridiculing the banality of the new atheists represented by Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. Please stop writing these posts. Nothing important is going on with these guys. The real atheistic critiques are worthy of respect, and the refutation of these recycled critiques of religion are pointless. It only leads to this reactionary, defensive apologetics that are simply useless. I suspect that this obsession with the new atheists is merely a symptom of a greater problem, namely theology’s marginalization and irrelevance in much of public discourse. Theologians are able to focus on this persecutory Other represented by Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. as opposed to address real social ills. The other day I listened to a lecture by Rowan Williams and Terry Eagleton ridiculing the new atheists. One respondent pointedly asked Williams why he had not addressed actual pressing social questions, e.g. the status of homosexuals in the Anglican Church.

One can observe a similar observation if one reads the religion section of the Huffington Post. Every day a new article emerges talking about the spirituality of science or why religion and science need each other. Dear God! Science does not need religion. Also, nothing of use comes from collapsing the difference between Christian fundamentalists and the new atheists who are likewise branded with the charge of dogmatism. Christian orthodoxy is not a third option between these two poles (agnosticism seems like a more likely candidate). Christian orthodoxy is still Christian. Although I do not address current events on this blog mostly because my knowledge of politics is limited (although I hope my political beliefs are revealed by the books I choose to review, especially my focus this year on queer and feminist liberation theology), I would encourage fellow theo-bloggers to follow the lead of the women at WIT or the guys at AUFS who actually use theology and philosophy to analyze socio-cultural issues along with discussing new scholarship.

A couple of months ago Ben over at F&T posted some review of a book on atheism and patience. According to the author atheists aren’t bad people they just lack patience. I want to repost my comment here:

“In this analysis, believers are patient, complex, and mature people who can hold out hope in the face of suffering. Whereas atheists are simple-minded, impatient, immature people who lack the strength to stay patient with God. Atheists are black and white thinkers who can’t live with doubt. What if atheists have in fact been patient with God and come out of the experience not believing? If the difference between believers and atheists is merely patience, isn’t it being assumed that if one endures through the doubt then faith surely results? What about the person who holds out hope in midst of doubt and never comes to have faith? That would seem to suggest that one no longer can have this idea of “patience” to help distinguish between believers and atheists. I just think this is another attempt for believers to congratulate themselves for being more patient and able to tolerate ambiguity as opposed to the simplistic, impatient atheist.”

Of course nobody at F&T actually addressed my comment. It appears that F&T has officially passed away into irrelevance. Now it’s merely a diary of Ben’s private writings (which are fun and entertaining), but it’s no longer a forum for discussing theology. This is has been frustrating me for a while. Why have a blog if one no longer engages in actual dialogue? Conversation is totally foreclosed or ignored.

In the end, as much as many theo-bloggers deride conservative Christians and the new atheists, I wonder how real the actual distance is that supposedly separates them from their conservative brethren. We are still treated to more sophisticated apologetics that end up in this defensive posture that seldom generates an interesting discussion because of the hallowed truths of Orthodoxy and the (tacit) belief in the superiority of Christianity.

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21 Responses to “Death to Apologetics”

  1. A.J. Smith Says:

    This is the best thing I’ve read on a theo-blog for a long time

    Why responding to the new-atheist has become a cottage industry I’ve never know. Books like the “God Delusion” are neither interesting nor sophisticated or even worth of rebuke. (I can’t believe David Bentley Hart actually wrote “Atheist Delusions” – though it is quite good, I must admit).

    I remember it was Karl Barth who said it was a mistake to take atheism too seriously. So why is everyone talking about atheism like it was some new horrible thing? I also like Hauerwas’s notion that Christian’s can’t even produce good atheists anymore. This just shows how much Christianity sucks these days.

    But why do theologians take such umbrage at these critiques? Are they not mostly justified?

    At this point, I don’t care about how Richard Dawkins gets Aquinas wrong or how atheists are less patient (does this idea take Christian existentialism into account at all?)

  2. Jeremy Says:

    The true impotence of Christian theology is on display. I believe Hauerwas is largely right in his assessment. Hart was simply capitalizing on the market’s demands. It’s dollars and cents.

    Yes, but Barth also paid atheism it’s proper respect in CD I/II. I think it’s probably because he respects atheism because it has the same idol-smashing impulse of much Reformed thought.

    Your question about the worthiness of these critiques is important. Christians often act if these attacks are completely unfounded, but here’s the key: the people who are being critiqued actually identify as Christians. Just like the white slave owners who were God-fearing Presbyterians, and the Europeans Christian settlers in America who completely annihilated Native Americans. We can use all sorts of rhetoric to denounce these individuals as heretical or misguided, but the fact of the matter is that they believe(d) they are somehow carrying on the legacy of Christianity. It’s not possible to simply ignore the history of Christianity as some sort of random aberration. Conservative Christians likewise fall in the trap when discussing gender roles. They act like the rampant rates of domestic violence in Christians homes are an absolute distortion of Biblical gender roles. Sure, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the churches who encourage women to stay in abusive relationships are citing the very verses evangelicals use to argue for the subordinate role of women.

    It’s very easy to talk about some revolutionary Christianity that existed way back when or in some other part of the world (e.g. Latin America). But that doesn’t really changed the lived reality in North America. For instance, George W Bush can cite Jesus as a his favorite political philosopher while simultaneously committing all sorts of atrocities at home and abroad.

  3. Clayton Crockett Says:

    Hear, hear! Wow, this is amazing Jeremy, although as extraordinary as your reading schedule. Although I confess I did enjoy reading Eagleton’s book on this.

    Two points: I struggle with how complicit Christianity is with both capitalism and imperialism, no matter how much we try to extricate it. And I’m also continually amazed at how ignorant many non-theologians are about how sophisticated and serious various expressions of theology in the twentieth century are, as if philosophy and science progress but theology is still mired in the Middle Ages. But the defensiveness of Christian apologetics reinforces this impression for many non-theologians.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    I also found Eagleton’s book entertaining, but I am surprised that he’s still discussing this issue (especially with Rowan Williams).

    Yes, I too struggle with how easy Christianity can be translated into any system. While it’s interesting to locate some sort of Constantinian shift in Christianity, it doesn’t change the past (and unfortunately the future looks a bit bleak). Like APS had said a couple of months ago, liberation theology did not lose steam, but was actually murdered by the powers that be.

    The antiquated view of theology is certainly not helped by the likes of conservative religious thinkers intent on protecting the Bible from science or historical research or intent on still trying to argue for God’s existence by using the five ways of Aquinas. Whenever I tell someone I study theology for fun, they are always really confused. All sorts of awful associations are brought to mind, which is of course only are reinforced by the likes of Milbank and those combating these new atheists like Hart.

  5. david cl driedger Says:

    I recently posted on my venture into some local atheist/skeptical blogs. I got into a comment thread with one person which was engaging for a few rounds until the conversation became based on whether I was being logically consistent in my thinking (I of course was not).
    I also mentioned that what I appreciated was the idol-smashing impulse but what drove me crazy about this particular blogger was his insistent claim that atheism and skepticism was non-political. That was the final clincher, plus in the end I realized I just didn’t care.

  6. Jeremy Says:

    Whenever someone claims that a position is non-political, chances are its conservative.

    I want to revisit this discussion in another post about the importance of logical consistency. There’s an entire therapeutic approach that’s sole emphasis is on making people’s thinking more logical which is supposed to inevitably lead to happiness.

  7. A.J. Smith Says:

    I think the apologetics are so deeply inimical to Christianity today that we need reject and repudiate it. It’s not apologetics like, say, a Justin Martyr was engaged in, trying to make Christianity intelligible for a different cultural milieu or something like that, Its “lets show that not that many people were burned by the inquisition.” As much as I enjoyed David B. Hart’s “Atheist Delusions” (I don’t know if a laughed out loud more during any other book), is there not something perverse about him (or any other apologist) dismissing things like the Inquisition or the Crusades in this manner? Imagine if the estimates of the Holocaust were off by 50%. Would a Nazi apologist say that makes it okay now?
    Eagleton is still writing apologetics of a kind, his latest is “On Evil” and interacts with the Christian/Platonic tradition.

    Yesterday, I read Harnack very apropos of this:
    “Apologists imagine they are doing a great job by crying up religion as though it were a job-lot at a sale, or a universal remedy for all social ills. They are perpetually snatching, too, for all sorts of baubles, so as to deck out religion in fine clothes. In their endeavour to present it as a glorious necessity, they deprive it of its earnest character, and at the best only prove that it is something which may be safely accepted because it can do no harm.”

    I was wondering, should the remarkable multivalence of Christianity and its ability to be co-opted by the most militant strands of imperialism and capitalism be seen as an inadequacy in Christianity itself?

    Finally, You should also post a link to this post in F&T comment section I think.

    • Mark Perkins Says:

      Excellent post. I do have to take issue with something in the comments though.

      I don’t know a thing about the Crusades, really, but I think it should be clear that the downplaying of the Inquisition’s violence is not primarily a matter of Christian apologetics but of academic scholarship. The decades following Henry Kamen’s landmark revisition on the Spanish Inquisition in 1965 saw a remarkable reconsideration of the Inquisition in Hispanist historiography. You need only dip your toe in academic history to see that Christian apologists are following the well-worn footsteps of historical scholarship.

      And while we may still find such sanitizing a little horrifying–since, no matter how comparably rare it was, hundreds of people were still garroted or burned alive, tens of thousands of people lost everything or were displaced, and even more found their religious beliefs repressed–we should be aware that comparisons, for instance, between the Holocaust and the Inquisition are absurd.

      Kamen, for instance, points out that the Inquisitorial courts were essentially the most lenient courts in Europe at the time–we remember them not for their particular brutality, but for their ideological foundation.

      • Jeremy Says:

        OK. But I’m pretty sure Christianity has blood on its hands for the Holocaust.

  8. Jeremy Says:

    Yeah, I mean I find it absolutely crazy that Christians try and sanitize the history of the church. Cavanaugh’s latest work The Myth of Religious Violence is instructive here. Regardless of how accurate his actual analysis, what I distrust is this impulse to go on the defensive for Christianity or religion. Did Hart really trying to downplay the violence of the Inquisition? That’s pathetic.

    That was a great Harnack quote. I’m looking forward to our discussion next week. I’m ambivalent to his work.

    Regarding your fist comment, I can’t help but hearing Kierkegaard laughing at all of these people out there trying to prove God’s existence (e.g. Plantinga et al.) They really haven’t gotten the joke of Christianity. In my philosophy of religion class my professor told me he had read a book where someone had tried to argue that it might not be logically impossible for God to assume human form. Now that’s perverse! How the fuck are you going to assign probabilities to the incarnation

    Also I’ll link it over at F&T. Although Lord knows it too will fall on deaf ears.

    • A.J. Smith Says:

      I think this needs a re-post:

      “How extraordinarily stupid it is to defend Christianity, how little knowledge of humanity it betrays, how it connives if only unconsciously with offence by making Christianity out to be some miserable object that in the end must be rescued by a defence. It is therefore certain and true that the person who first thought of defending Christianity is de facto a Judas No. 2; he too betrays with a kiss, except his treason is that of stupidity. To defend something is always to discredit it.”

      – Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death (Penguin Classics, 1849), 118.

  9. John Says:

    I have read bits and pieces of Atheist Delusions. It is mostly awful, and yet some people promote it as one of the best theology books of the past decade.

    Regarding David Bentley Hart altogether.

    The way to assess him (and everyone else too) is by looking at the company he keeps, and by extension and association, his politics.

    He is an oft featured writer over at First Things – Christian fascism central.

  10. John Says:

    PS: First Things of course tacitly, or perhaps in your face, promotes Fox “news” and its stable of psychotic ranters, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and the GOP in its current psychotic form (as represented by the Republicans who were elected in the recent mid-term elections)

  11. Jeremy Says:

    Agreed, First Things is shit.

    I haven’t read Atheist Delusions and don’t plan on it. I tried to read his The Beauty of the Infinite but his rhetoric was beyond obnoxious. Also, he reminded me too much of Milbank. I couldn’t handle all the absurd polemics against continental philosophy.

  12. Clayton Crockett Says:

    I had a run-in with David Bentley Hart while a lowly MA student at the University of Virginia in the early 1990s. He was an advanced grad student, policing young puppies like me, and he got angry and accosted me because I told him I was studying French philosophy rather than serious theology. After that I just avoided him. It’s really weird how theologically conservative UVA was, especially considering it’s Jefferson’s University and a state school. And then after I left they hired Milbank himself…

  13. Sunday Link Post: Jeremy Ridenour « An und für sich Says:

    […] Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. I also really liked his recent post proclaiming Death to Apologetics which highlights the death of the orthodoxy theological blogosophere. Posted in link posts. Leave […]

  14. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I once got into it with DBH’s brother, who was boasting about his exorcism skills. Obviously a weird group of people (there are three brothers, as I understand it, and one is a “Continuing Anglican”, i.e. offshoot from the Episcopalian Church because of women and gays being ordained, the other is a Roman Catholic, and DBH is Eastern Orthodox). I’ve also never understood the fawning over Hart’s writing that you find amongst people. He uses a thesaurus a lot. Big fucking deal. It’s like when people talk about Cunningham’s or Milbank’s erudition because he quotes from a lot of different sources. What people don’t realize is that the deluge of quotations just throw you off, they just seem impressive to young Christian kids who don’t the original source material at all. I still have to deal with PhD students here giving me the line on Spinoza that he’s uber-dualist by way of his monism or that he can’t tell the difference between an ice cream and a holocaust.

  15. Jeremy Says:

    How can one boast about one’s exorcism skills? It’s not magic, right? Wouldn’t one need to credit the Holy Ghost?

    What I find funniest about the whole RO phenomenon, is that some of those in the movement seem to think they have actually disproved the systems of different philosophers (e.g. Derrida, Deleuze, Badiou, etc). Nobody who has actually read any of these guys can swallow the shallow analysis of these great thinkers by our RO friends. I think we have to defer to Deleuze that the purpose of philosophy is creation of concepts. Needless to say, whenever one can anticipate the structure and conclusion of every RO argument, chances are nothing worthwhile or creative is being produced.

  16. Dave Mesing Says:

    I’ve found that the easiest way out of the various RO derision(s) of philosophy is to actually read the philosophers and engage with other people who are reading them and seriously working on them.

    You may not want to listen to closely to me, though, because I’m on the quick route to becoming a Spinozist.

  17. Dave Seaford Says:

    a diatribe on diatribes.

  18. Jeremy Says:

    I take it you disagree.

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