Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Sunday, May 02, 2010

David Bentley Hart and A.C. Grayling

I saw that Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has a post at First Things critiquing the new atheism (shades of his own latest book). Hart uses his post to lament the intellectual banality of the new atheists' arguments (he especially targets Dawkins and Hitchens) and to extol the virtues of past atheists like Nietzsche. He ends the post with a mention of one atheist he doesn't despise as much as the others, A.C. Grayling, and Hart then gives his own defense of belief, a kind of aesthetic of the cross (which doesn't actually work for me).

As interesting as Hart's post is, I don't really understand the Christian need to debunk atheism - are atheists not due the same respect we believers hope for? Anyway, all the furor over arguments for and against God's existence seems misplaced - maybe most people who believe God exists, or who can't believe he exists, don't base their opinion on the excellence of logical philosophical arguments but instead on the felt knowledge of lived experience?

Having said that, though, I do like the way David Bentley Hart writes, so here's just the last bit of his post, which got 300+ comments .....


Believe It or Not
David B. Hart

[...] If I were to choose from among the New Atheists a single figure who to my mind epitomizes the spiritual chasm that separates Nietzsche’s unbelief from theirs, I think it would be the philosopher and essayist A.C. Grayling. For a short time I entertained the misguided hope that he might produce an atheist manifesto somewhat richer than the others currently on offer. Unfortunately, all his efforts in that direction suffer from the same defects as those of his fellows: the historical errors, the sententious moralism, the glib sophistry. Their great virtue, however, is that they are mercifully short. One essay of his in particular, called “Religion and Reason,” can be read in a matter of minutes and provides an almost perfect distillation of the whole New Atheist project.

The essay is even, at least momentarily, interesting. Couched at one juncture among its various arguments (all of which are pretty poor), there is something resembling a cogent point. Among the defenses of Christianity an apologist might adduce, says Grayling, would be a purely aesthetic cultural argument: But for Christianity, there would be no Renaissance art—no Annunciations or Madonnas—and would we not all be much the poorer if that were so? But, in fact, no, counters Grayling; we might rather profit from a far greater number of canvasses devoted to the lovely mythical themes of classical antiquity, and only a macabre sensibility could fail to see that “an Aphrodite emerging from the Paphian foam is an infinitely more life-enhancing image than a Deposition from the Cross.” Here Grayling almost achieves a Nietzschean moment of moral clarity.

Ignoring that leaden and almost perfectly ductile phrase “life-enhancing,” I, too—red of blood and rude of health—would have to say I generally prefer the sight of nubile beauty to that of a murdered man’s shattered corpse. The question of whether Grayling might be accused of a certain deficiency of tragic sense can be deferred here. But perhaps he would have done well, in choosing this comparison, to have reflected on the sheer strangeness, and the significance, of the historical and cultural changes that made it possible in the first place for the death of a common man at the hands of a duly appointed legal authority to become the captivating center of an entire civilization’s moral and aesthetic contemplations—and for the deaths of all common men and women perhaps to be invested thereby with a gravity that the ancient order would never have accorded them.

Here, displayed with an altogether elegant incomprehensibility in Grayling’s casual juxtaposition of the sea-born goddess and the crucified God (who is a crucified man), one catches a glimpse of the enigma of the Christian event, which Nietzsche understood and Grayling does not: the lightning bolt that broke from the cloudless sky of pagan antiquity, the long revolution that overturned the hierarchies of heaven and earth alike. One does not have to believe any of it, of course—the Christian story, its moral claims, its metaphysical systems, and so forth. But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross, for what it is, in the full mystery of its historical contingency, spiritual pathos, and moral novelty: that tender agony of the soul that finds the glory of God in the most abject and defeated of human forms. Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away.



Blogger Deacon Denny said...

I agree with you, Crystal -- I never found any thrill in debunking (or trashing) atheists. But then, I've seldom found much inspiration there, either. I believe in God largely because of my experiences of God, not because of any logical arguments.

In my experience, all people, even atheists, do trust in many things they cannot see; and most trust trust in some things that are basically unknowable. For instance, there's a sense that most people have that "this life means something," or at least that "SOMEthing means something."

For those who don't... well, I may be interested in what they have to say, but I don't feel at all compelled to argue with them. However, if they want to know what I believe or why I believe it, I think I'm always very cheerful about sharing that!

But since my beliefs are rooted in and illustrated by my experiences, it would be unlikely that they would accept my starting points, even if they have had similar experiences.

11:33 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Denny,

I used to be pretty much an athesist and sometimes revisit there when times are bad. Some Christians and some athesists seem to treat the belief/non-belief thing like a contest that can be won but I don't think that's how most people live their lives.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

I was a big-time atheist most of my life, and now I'm not. In spite of many Christians through the years trying to convince me otherwise, it was my own encounter with God that change things for me, not a cogent thought or well worded argument.

Most atheist rants (like those of Dawkins) or Christian apologetics make my brain hurt and my heart ache.

Still, it is true that in the earlier days of my conversion, debating with atheists did help me to more firmly understand what it was I believed and why. So maybe there is some redemption in the dialogue.

1:54 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Cura,

You were an atheist? I forgot that you weren't always Catholic.

I do think the arguments are interesting in an academic sort of way. Maybe they get more interesting once you've already decided one way or the other, and then want to make sense of what you believe in a way that can be communicated to others.

When I was in college I wrote my thesis on one of the classic arguments - Abselm's ontological argument. I didn't believe but I thought it was interesting anyway :)

5:26 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...


Persons must always be respected but erroneous ideas must be corrected so I agree with you Crystal when you say that atheists are due respect. I also agree that the path of faith begins with an encounter and very often, as in my case, the encounter generates an intellectual conversion. Of course a loving knowledge is a deeper knowledge but I don’t think that people get to that level without an intellectual conversion. What do I mean by that? Well looking at my experience I would use the following analogy: When the Europeans bumped into America everything, including the maps changed, and that’s what happens when one bumps into Christ. In my case, since it was a love story it had/has all the characteristics of a love story and compels one to learn all they can about their beloved. And so, if my loved likes strawberry ice cream and I hate it, I will try it because she loves it; if my beloved believes that all people must be treated with respect and I don’t, then I will try to treat all people with respect, etc. – I think you get my point.

In my opinion, I think it’s vital that Christians point out the misrepresentations propagated by the New Atheists in whatever way they can. Not to "prove" that God exists but to remove impediments to the possibility of an encounter. And it is for this reason that I have read the God Delusion, etc., and the books that point out the fallacies of those books, including Hart's.

Lastly, as you point out in your other post, some people use the process of intellection on their road to conversion and that's another reason to read and refute the New Atheists.



11:33 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:17 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Henry,

I was just thinking - we Catholics might disagree with other world religions on a lot of topics, but you don't usually see books and articles written about how very wrong other peoples' religios beliefs are .... that would be considered disprespectful. Atheists are fair game, though. Maybe that's because some of them lately seem to be attacking religion so vigorously.

the path of faith begins with an encounter and very often, as in my case, the encounter generates an intellectual conversion. Of course a loving knowledge is a deeper knowledge but I don’t think that people get to that level without an intellectual conversion.

I guess I feel conversion happens usually the other way around - that people don't decide to believe in God because of arguments about, for instance, the logical inconsistency of an all powerful, all good God who allows evil, but that those kind of arguments become important to people once they've already had an emotional conversion, once they already believe (or don't believe). But I could be wrong.

I think it’s vital that Christians point out the misrepresentations propagated by the New Atheists in whatever way they can. Not to "prove" that God exists but to remove impediments to the possibility of an encounter.

Yes, maybe there are people who can't believe in God because of some questionable beliefs that are put forth by the new atheists. In that case, it's good to put other points of view out there so people can make informed choices.

2:24 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...


I agree that the books and articles on both sides can be unnecessarily combative and that’s not good. And I beleive that you are right that this may be because they are reacting to the combative tone of their opponents.

I actually respect atheists because they have at least used their freedom to make a choice whereas agnostics, (which is what I would have called myself before my conversion) seem to me avoid having to choose by not choosing (a Zen Koan in the making!)

I also agree with you that conversion is such a mysterious and personal (not individualistic) process and so I do not believe you are wrong. I am convinced that if I needed it, Christ would have grabbed me in a different way but since I lived in the world of ideas, Christ used the world of ideas to woo me. Although, I must confess, I do somewhat envy (without the negative connotation usually associated with that word) those that were grabbed through an emotional conversion. In my case, I was grabbed through Beauty and I wanted to understand that Beauty that I bumped into. Because, like the example with the map, my inner landscape was forever changed because of that encounter with Beauty.

Pax my friend, I am going home,


2:56 PM  
Blogger Wayne said...

I archived that article when it got up to 1136 comments. People were commenting days apart by that time, so I got the vast majority. A minefield of excellent information.

11:13 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yeah, sometimes the comments to an article can be the most interesting part :)

1:26 PM  

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