A Jewish website has an interesting critique of the new popularity of
the current spate of books on atheism (I refuse to call it the New
Atheism; there’s nothing new, different or unusual about it except
that a lot of people are reading it). The argument is this: the
“militancy” of the new books is a ready-made scapegoat for a
“crumbling moral landscape.” The germ of a good idea is never
followed up, however. Instead of discussing the crumbling moral
landscape itself (an idea we shouldn’t take for granted but examine
critically), Rabbi Steven Pearce instead turns his venom on the
scapegoats. Irony lives.
But what distinguishes today’s best-selling amateur
theologians from those of the past is their combative brand of
atheism. They are humorless, aggressive, mean-spirited and cruel, and
their line of reasoning is stale, unoriginal and coarse.
For them, religion is irrational, a “virus of the mind,” a pious
fraud, unalloyed nonsense, overwhelmingly pernicious, a vestigal
artifact. Nevertheless, their excessively bold assertions and
rhetorical flourishes are attractive to their readers. [Etc., etc.]
Dawkins, PZ, etc., are not “amateur theologians” any more than
theologians are amateur scientists because they talk about science.
If Dawkins were trying to be a theologian he would be open to the
charge he was a bad one. Someone who criticizes quackery could well
be a bad quack himself. Not relevant. Pearce then adopts the usual
defense of the liberal believer: what Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc.
say about religion is a caricature of real religious belief
(meaning what he and his friends believe):
Unlike these authors, Judaism has long read the Bible
metaphorically, taking it seriously but not literally. In his essay
“Law and Love,” Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik suggested that both
literalists and skeptics are wrong because they only read the text
literally and not as a metaphor with a deeper and richer meaning.
Meaning what? The Bible should be read as fiction? Fine with me,
since it is fiction. That doesn’t mean it can’t be
interpreted in ways to draw moral, political or social statements,
the way a novel or poem can. What sets the Bible apart from other
works of fiction is it comes with an authority that gives terrible
potency to the many hateful ways its text are interpreted. There may
be warfare over interpretations of Moby Dick but fortunately it is
bloodless and confined to academic literature departments.
Pearce’s further argument is just as incoherent, at least in terms of
his project to attack Dawkins and company and defend his little
community of liberal believers:
Furthermore, strident atheists do not address today’s
rising tide of spirituality among most religious groups, proof that
people continue to seek deeper religious meaning especially because
atheism does not replace lack of belief with a viable rational
alternative, leading to what Michael Novak calls “a leap in the
Insofar as this rising tide exists at all (separate from a resurgence
in fundamentalism, which is also a form of “spirituality”), today’s
atheism writings certainly address this. But if they didn’t, so what?
The weirdest point Pearce makes is about Mother Teresa:
The newly released book “Come Be My Light: The Private
Writings of the Saint of Calcutta” provides stunning revelations that
Mother Teresa doubted God’s existence for her entire career. In spite
of her decades long darkness, melancholy, lack of faith and
theological misgivings, she continued to minister to the poor and
lost. She believed that her sullen, brooding soul and her sense of
personal abandonment by God allowed her to enter the dark lives of
the truly abandoned, identifying with and scrupulously serving them.
For Mother Teresa, the real issue was not one of God?s existence or
lack thereof, but rather whether it is possible to utilize disbelief
for the greater good of humanity, a notion that finds resonance in
Let’s see if we can parse this. The thing that validates Mother
Teresa’s belief is her lack of belief. The wonderful thing about
Mother Teresa’s good works are that they were based on a hypocrisy.
Her disappointment in not finding God allowed her into the lives of
other, more profoundly disappointed people. You call this an argument
for faith? Or is it an argument that even people with no faith do
good works? Or something else?
Aren’t atheists the ones who say to do good we don’t need to a reward
in heaven or the approbation of a non-existent Father Figure? If some
Jews and Mother Teresa say so, that’s fine. It just means they agree
with atheists on that count.
Pearce concludes by quoting something from the Gates of Prayer: “Pray
as if everything depends on God; act as if everything depends on
you.” Why pray at all, is the question to ask in that case.
The upside down nature of Pearce’s straw man attack on Dawkins and
company is revealed in his conclusion:
From the Jewish perspective, doing is as important as
believing. What Rabbi Lieb and Mother Teresa teach that the today’s
atheists miss is that it is possible to doubt and still serve.
Two responses: (1) Doesn’t his argument imply that doing is more
important than believing? Indeed, what argument has he made for
believing at all? (2) Isn’t the lesson the says “today’s
atheists miss” their very argument? And isn’t it the believers who
most often miss it?
Pearce’s screed smacks of a gratuitous, contradictory and self
implicating attack that says nothing about atheists, today’s or
yesterday’s, and quite a bit about today’s liberal believers.