The left-wing thinker Freddie deBoer wrote a provocative little Substack essay about the New Atheism phenomenon, of nearly two decades ago. What interests deBoer is that so often liberal and progressive Christians engaged in debates with New Atheists by specifically avoiding any theological content at all. Sometimes literally refusing to argue that God exists. DeBoer comments:
If a being exists, of whatever nature, who created reality, exists within all of reality, set reality’s physical and moral rules, watches over all of reality, judges all of us on how devout and moral we are, and determines reward and punishment based on that judgement, that clearly is the truth that trumps all other truths. Strange to let it slip out of the debate quietly in the night.
Indeed! DeBoer observes that instead a certain kind of “believer” seemed only to believe that religion was worth practicing because it was socially expedient. In this they seemed to agree with non-believers who have come to a strangely utilitarian appreciation of religion. He writes:
People have commented for centuries on the phenomenon of religious observance carried out by people whose authentic religious belief is dead or dying. But I think the next evolution in religion is to move from the religious believer who sadly watches their faith slowly ebbing away to the religious consumer who sees sincere faith as traditionally conceived as an anachronism. This is the inevitable outcome of perspectives like those of Jonathan Haidt , who advocates for atheists to accept religion as a positive force even as we quietly snicker to each other that it’s all fake. Haidt’s belief that we should champion religion’s forms while quietly marinating in our superior understanding that religion’s truth claims are bunk can only contribute to the gradual erasure of the metaphysical underpinnings of traditional religion.
DeBoer in some ways welcomes the hypocrisy and evasiveness of progressive believers and comes around to speculating that religion can be defeated by atheism not by confrontation “but through abstraction, the abstraction of religious teachings into meaninglessness.“
I found the non-engagement of liberal believers with New Atheism as frustrating as deBoer did. It was something Christopher Hitchens remarked on frequently himself. Most of the ministers he debated wanted to argue that religion was socially expedient — that it had some good effect — not that it was true. One notable exception was the Calvinist pastor Douglas Wilson. I think there were some other good debates too. William Craig Lane took it up with Sam Harris. And Peter Hitchens debated his brother Christopher and later wrote a book that took on the contention that “religion poisons everything” and then proceeded to make a case that atheism was a handmaiden of totalitarianism.
At one point, deBoer writes that this metaphysical evacuation of religion betrays “what religious identity has been for most practitioners for thousands of a year,” and later this process of abstraction allows “Christianity’s teachings to become a pure canvas onto which one can paint whatever one feels like in the moment. “
I don’t know if this is a uniquely modern phenomenon. It seems to me that for Christianity, at least, many practitioners accepted the metaphysical propositions as their reality, in the same unthinking way most of us accept astrodynamics. One can operate within this reality but still not consciously acknowledge it or take it to heart very often.
And that is why, successive generations of Christians and reformers have noticed that the Church is often captured by putatively Christian societies — and that Christian faith is often confused with “the reigning ideals of our culture.” G.K. Chesterton also identified “five deaths of the faith” in history — times when Christian belief seemed to be fading out of existence, when the world seemed to be moving onto ideas that made the Church irrelevant.
I think we should expect that there will always be people who are lukewarm about the faith, unwilling to defend its propositions, and all-too-willing to pretend that their private projects or cultural taboos constitute the Gospel truth itself.
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