Theology, New Atheism, and Modern Scholarship – April 2014

Question: How would you respond to the new atheists as exemplified in the following quote by Laurence Krauss: “To be fair, I regret sometimes lumping all philosophers in with theologians because theology, aside from those parts that involve true historical or linguistic scholarship, is not [a] credible field of modern scholarship.”

Publication Month: April 2014

Krauss may be quite correct. It all depends on just how “modern scholarship” is defined. Krauss assumes that modern scholarship is the investigation that is approved in the academic disciplines into which modern value-free universities are divided. Theology is not an academic discipline and, accordingly, not a “credible field of modern scholarship.”

My response as a theologian is that this is a vivid indication of the limitations of modern scholarship. Krauss recognizes that most philosophy also loses status. However, philosophers have worked hard to fit into the expectations of the modern university. When theologians try to fit in, they cease being theologians.

Consider the sort of questions that traditional philosophers and theologians dealt with. What is the world ultimately composed of? What is life? What distinguishes human life? How should we live? Is there a purpose that should guide us? Are some actions really wrong? What kind of a society should we try to build? Is the past any kind of guide to the present? Has there been progress? Does science contribute to human progress?

The approved forms of scholarship do not deal with questions of this sort. The question now is whether that means that it is foolish to try to answer these questions thoughtfully. One might answer that they are obviously important but that the university is not equipped to deal with them. In that case we should recognize the special importance of home and church for dealing with important questions or invent new institutions. But my guess is that Krauss wants to turn people away from questions of value and meaning to questions that fit into the approved forms of scholarship. For him, I conjecture, mature people do not concern themselves with such things.

If I am correct, then I strongly disagree with him. These questions are more important than those approved for university research. That research should be guided by answers to questions of value and purpose. When it refuses to reflect on these matters, it is guided largely by money. This prevents the university from contributing positively to human survival in the face of terrible catastrophes.

Probably Krauss actually has some strong judgments about what is worthwhile and what is valueless. He apparently judges the quest for knowledge to which university scholars are devoted a good one. I think it is good to evaluate how much time and energy should be devoted to value-free inquiry and how much should be devoted to reflection about what is most important. Krauss would exclude the latter from the university and probably not encourage it elsewhere. But he has a problem. His own statements about theology and philosophy are not proper topics for study anywhere in the university. They would seem to have the same status as the theology and philosophy he rejects. Is he denying value to his own judgments?

I appreciate Krauss’s clarity about the basis for his rejection of theology. We agree that the modern university has so defined its role that neither theology nor traditional philosophy has a place. Krauss approves the standpoint of the university. I think the failure of the university to allow discussion of the most important questions is a huge loss to our culture as a whole and to us all as individuals.

I suspect that Krauss represents the major reason for the atheism of the new atheists. In so far as it is new, this idealization of the current universities’ judgments may be what makes it “new,” although long ago logical positivists ruled out ethical and theological discussion on somewhat similar grounds. The positivists weakened themselves by establishing criteria of meaning that made their own statements meaningless. The new atheists seem to following a similar path. I cannot take this kind of atheism seriously. It simply expresses socialization into the university culture, which is itself an accident of history, and, I believe, an unfortunate one. I would, of course, be glad to discuss my critique of the value-free research university with any of its defenders who are willing to debate it. At that level there could be serious discussion. But the university culture so admired by Krauss does not encourage self-criticism or debate about its assumptions.

Of course, my wholesale dismissal, based on a one sentence quote, does not mean that I deny that Krauss and other “new atheists” have valid criticisms of theology independent of the appeal to what is approved by the culture of universities. No theologian would defend what all theologians have said and done. Under the rubric of “theology” much that is false and damaging has been done. Our task as theologians is to challenge and correct these mistakes as far as we can. External critics often help us in this process. On many points, new atheists will be our allies.

In any case, these criticisms of the “new” atheism do not apply to atheism in general. There are those who engage in thoughtful response to all the questions of meaning and value and judge that they are better answered when the reality of God is denied. Often when these atheists make clear what they mean by God, I share in their denial. I do not find them contradicting my theistic beliefs. But there are others who do understand my theistic beliefs and deny them as well. They do not find my reasons, or any other reasons, for holding those beliefs convincing. Therefore, they do not believe in what I mean by God.

This atheism is a profound challenge. It leads to important discussions within the Whiteheadian community. Whitehead himself found what he called the Primordial Nature of God an essential part of his conceptual system. I find his reasons persuasive. Although alternatives have been projected by those who are not persuaded, and programmatic hints have been offered. But I have not seen anything yet that offers a full alternative. The project is still “in process.” This suggests that it is difficult. The Primordial Nature of God is woven into the fabric of Whitehead’s cosmology.

The situation is different with respect to the Consequent Nature of God. In Whitehead’s own presentation it is explanatory only of particular experiences. With regard to particular experiences, alternative explanations are always possible. To attribute to God what characterizes all other actual entities, that is, a physical pole seems reasonable and attractive from a purely intellectual perspective. That it so enriches the understanding of Christian faith is a bonus of great importance to me as a Christian. But one can ignore and even deny this aspect of Whitehead’s doctrine of God without having much problem with his basic cosmology. Whitehead wanted to vindicate and purify theistic experience.

As one whose own experience fits Whitehead’s account, and who holds these richer and more personal views of God to be a great boon, his speculative discussion of God is one of his most important contributions. But it raises questions as well as answering them. Those who want to deny the validity of theism can reject what Whitehead says about the Consequent Nature of God without giving up his basic vision.