The world’s largest religious tradition has had more than its share of critics over the centuries. A not inconsiderable number of these have been men and women (but mostly men) of genius. And the brightest and most constructive of critics have tended to be Christ’s own disciples.
That popular funny man and political leftist Bill Maher, along with his millions of fans, think that this low brow comedian deserves to be included among the ranks of Christianity’s ablest objectors is a tragic commentary on the condition of our culture’s collective intellect.
The saddest thing about all of this—and I see it regularly among my college students—is that most people who either explicitly reject Christianity or refuse to treat it with the utmost seriousness that it warrants do not have a clue as to what it is.
Christianity looks ridiculous only after it has been made to look ridiculous. In other words, High priests of the popular culture, pseudo-intellectuals like Maher, cheat: they attack, not Christianity itself, but a one-dimensional, cartoonish caricature of it. Socrates would have likened Maher and his ilk to shadow boxers who prefer to swing at the air rather than contend with a real opponent.
Considering that at no time or place has there ever existed an intellectual tradition as rich and complex as that of Christianity, we should expect nothing less—and nothing more—from lightweights like Maher. If they didn’t have straw men they would have nothing.
But it isn’t just uneducated troglodytes like Maher who style themselves worthy adversaries of the Christian faith. Such public intellectuals as the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins have also jockeyed for this distinction—but to no avail.
Despite the popular acclaim with which the intelligentsia greeted them, the critiques of Harris and Dawkins are indebted to a worldview that is as antiquated as Christianity appears to be to them. Though both men are scientists, the problem lies not in their science, but in their scientism. The latter is the doctrine that all claims to knowledge can and should be brought before the tribunal of “the scientific method.” Those claims and only those claims that satisfy this absolute criterion constitute genuine knowledge.
Scientism collapses the variety of human voices into one voice, the voice of science or pseudo-science.
But scientism, in turn, is a species of Rationalism, an intellectual orientation that reached its zenith during the Enlightenment.
In other words, the ideas of Harris and Dawkins, far from reflecting some ideal of objective (and timeless) truth, are in reality a function of the prejudices—indeed, the myths—of an age.
Hitchens is no better.
Though neither a scientist nor a proponent of scientism, this arrogant Englishman was as ignorant as Harris and Dawkins of the fact that the assumptions on which his atheistic critique of Christianity rests bear the unmistakable impress of his generation. Moreover, the content of his critique consists of the recycling of arguments that had been thrown up against Christianity for centuries—but by men whose minds were far more discriminate than that of his own.
There exist intelligent objections against Christianity. But they come largely (if not exclusively) from its adherents. This is a paradox but it is true. As Saint Augustine famously said: “Believe in order to understand.” Only those who are thoroughly immersed in a practice or tradition know all of its nuances. It is only they who know it inside and out.
Hence, it is only Christians, when they are intellectually curious and honest, who can at once identify the challenges that their religion faces and meet those challenges.
The “new” atheists mentioned here are as competent to adequately critique, much less undermine, Christianity—or any religion, for that matter—as is a person who has never been married eligible to do the same with respect to marriage.
The Moral Liberal Contributing Editor, Jack Kerwick, holds a BA in religious studies and philosophy from Wingate University, a MA in philosophy from Baylor University, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Temple University, and is currently adjunct professor of philosophy at Rowan University; Penn State University; and Burlington County College. Mr. Kerwick writes from the classical liberal perspective inspired by Edmund Burke. He blogs at www.jackkerwick.com. You can contact him at [email protected]