Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Answering the Neo-Atheists

Just because the smart atheists get more press than the brilliant Christians doesn't mean they aren't out there fighting the good fight. In fact, I'd argue the media is hungry for smart Christians who are willing to argue over subjects besides theology.

Case in point: Novelist Marilynne Robinson. The Sunday Times of Britian calls her the finest novelist of prose today (they ought to know), but she's quite adept at arguing science as well. Her latest book, Absence of Mind, is a collection of lectures on the problems with neo-atheism that is getting respectful-to-rave reviews as she dismantles their arguments while also proclaiming the reality of a living God.

The National (from the UAE) states:
"Likewise, Robinson argues that the materialist case for “reductionist” views of human consciousness and life hinges largely on a gross caricature of religious ideas and “the exclusion of the testimonies of culture and history”. It’s striking, Robinson observes, that the case against religious belief has remained so essentially stagnant since the rationalists of the 18th century began to depict faith as a primitive superstition, a fearful retreat from the cold, hard facts of life. This portrait, she writes, “resembles nothing I have come across in my nonspecialist perusals of the last five hundred years”. To the contrary, she says, religious thinkers going all the way back to the 4th-century Christian theologian Gregory of Nyssa have contemplated “the ontological unlikeness of God to the categories to which the human mind has recourse is at the center of theological reflection” –they have, in other words, tarried with the unknowable rather than retreated.

Canada's Globe and Mail tells us:
The power of imagination that makes a novelist seldom goes together with the analytical abilities needed to be a philosopher. George Santayana wrote The Last Puritan (1935), a bestseller and also a fine novel, but in this as in many other respects the Spanish-American philosopher was highly unusual. There have been very few novelist-philosophers, and in recent times most of that small number – the business-class Nietzschean Ayn Rand, for example – have been noteworthy for the childishly primitive quality of their thinking.

One of the great writers of fiction, Pulitzer Prize-winner Marilynne Robinson (for Gilead, in 2005) may be the only living novelist who has made a genuine contribution to philosophical reflection. Comprising four closely reasoned and richly imaginative chapters based on a distinguished lecture series at Yale, Absence of Mind is one of the most thought-stirring inquiries into fundamental questions that has appeared in many years.

The Globe & Mail also offers a fascinating interview. Be sure to read the comments, as the critics accuse her of delusion without much engaging this point, for instance:

G&M: You seem to fault the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett for a failure of imagination, for failing to grasp complex individual behaviours of the sort that had us thinking about gods, or first causes, to begin with. Though they do construct stories, they're stories that seem to discount subjective experience in favour of an overarching master narrative. Is this a novelist's criticism of the scientific mind?

MR: I am a great admirer of the scientific mind. I may have a special definition, one that ranks physicists and cosmologists very far above entomologists, animal anthropologists, linguists. I believe Dennett is a philosopher, which puts him off the scale altogether. I love grand hypotheses. I love the excitement that runs through any real (by my definition) scientific community when something is observed that overturns established assumption. New thinking is precisely what is never found among these new atheists. All their books repeat one argument, which could have been written in 1890. Their emendations, for example that famous “selfish gene,” are conservative strategies for shoring up old ideas. There is rarely a hint that they proceed from data or observation, and never a sign that anything can surprise them. Dogmatists are not given to flights of imagination or to the creation of new syntheses. Scientists are. The human mind, wonderful and terrible, is the great fact. To minimize its power, its complexity, its loneliness and radical individuation, is to evade every essential question.

If you want accessible Robinson, try out her Orange Prize-winning Home. If you want lyrical Robinson, try her Pultizer Prize-winning Gilead. If you want a dense but absorbing read, read Absence of Mind - it'll make you proud of another smart, articulate Christian.


Joel Riley said...

loved the summary. I think Dawkins admits to the fact that neo-atheism is using the same old arguments wrapped a new when he said something to the effect atheism only makes sense in light of darwin.

Robinson rightly points out that neo-atheism is far too reductionist, but I have also encountered in my run-ins with their writings that their summary of religion is overly simplistic.

I don't know when I am going to find the time for this book, but when I do, I will be greatly excited.

Ron Giesecke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ron Giesecke said...

Your statement,

"The power of imagination that makes a novelist seldom goes together with the analytical abilities needed to be a philosopher,"

reminds me of something said by the greak GK Chesterton:

"Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion... To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain... The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits..."