The Wall Street Journal may be an unusual venue for theological debate, but this past weekend's edition featured just that -- a theological debate of sorts. The "of sorts" is a necessary qualifier in this instance, because The Wall Street Journal's debate was not, as advertised, a debate between an atheist and a believer. Instead, it was a debate between two different species of atheists.
The paper's "Weekend Journal" section front page for the September 12-13, 2009 edition featured articles by Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong set in opposing columns. The paper headlined the feature as "Man vs. God: Two Prominent Thinkers Debate Evolution, Science, and the Role of Religion." Well, the feature at least looked interesting.
Dawkins, after all, is probably the world's most famous atheist. At the same time (and not coincidentally, he would insist) he is also the world's foremost defender of Darwin and evolutionary theory. Karen Armstrong is a popularizer of works on world religion. She takes a basically benign view of religion, arguing that the different religions of the world are avenues toward the same quest for meaning. A former nun, she has written several books on themes and figures related to Islam, and she is a critic of what she terms "fundamentalist" religion. She is a critic of "fundamentalism" on whom the media can depend for comment.
The paper presented the articles by Dawkins and Armstrong in an interesting format. The article by Dawkins is headlined, "Evolution Leaves God with Nothing to Do." Armstrong's essay is headlined, "We Need to Grasp the Wonder of Our Existence."
Predictably, Dawkins begins his article with Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. Evolution, Dawkins claims, has simply displaced God. "Evolution is the universe's greatest work. Evolution is the creator of life, and life is arguably the most surprising and most beautiful production that the laws of physics have ever generated," he asserts. Quoting a T-shirt, Dawkins insists that evolution "is the greatest show on earth, the only game in town."
As for God, evolution just renders deity a useless and vacuous concept. "Where does that leave God?," Dawkins asks. "The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear."
Evolution, he continues (presumably less kindly), "is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip." God, who never existed in the first place, has now been fired.
Demonstrating the point that this exchange is really not a meaningful debate, Karen Armstrong begins her essay with this amazing statement: "Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course -- at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive."
Furthermore, she asserts that human beings "were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making."
And yet, Armstrong insists that Darwin really did God a favor by forcing us to give up our "primitive" belief in his actual existence -- thus freeing us to affirm merely a "God beyond God" who exists only as a concept.
Along the way, Armstrong offers a superficial and theologically reckless argument that comes down to this: Until the modern age, believers in God were not really believers in a God who was believed to exist. Then along came Sir Isaac Newton and the "modern" belief that God must exist in order to be God. When Darwin came along to show "that there could be no proof for God's existence," he was doing God a favor -- allowing his survival as a mere symbol.
She makes statements that amount to elegant nonsense. Consider this: "In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had -- somehow -- brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis." So she would have us to believe that, in centuries past, cosmology was merely therapy. She simply makes the assertion and moves on. Will anyone believe this nonsense?
Armstrong calls for the emergence of "a more authentic notion of God." Her preferred concept of God would be about aesthetics, not theology. "Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form," she intones.
Interestingly, it is Dawkins, presented as the unbeliever in this exchange, who understands God better than Armstrong. In fact, Richard Dawkins the atheist rightly insists that Karen Armstrong is actually an atheist as well. "Darwin's Rottweiler" sees through Armstrong's embrace of a "God beyond God."
He writes: "Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."
Clearly, this "certain class of sophisticated modern theologian" refers to those theologians who embrace theological non-realism. Dawkins clearly lumps Karen Armstrong in the same category of deluded theologians.
"Well, if that's what floats your canoe, you'll be paddling it up a very lonely creek," Dawkins warns. "The mainstream belief of the world's peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again."
We should at least give Dawkins credit here for knowing what he rejects. Here we meet an atheist who understands the difference between belief and unbelief. As for those, like Armstrong, who try to tell believers that it does not matter if God exists -- Dawkins informs them that believers in God will brand them as atheists. "They'll be right," Dawkins concludes.
So the exchange in The Wall Street Journal turns out to be a meeting of two atheist minds. The difference, of course, is that one knows he is an atheist when the other presumably claims she is not. Dawkins knows a fellow atheist when he sees one. Careful readers of The Wall Street Journal will come to the same conclusion.