Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Biblical Atheism: The Real "New Atheists"?

Much has been made in recent years of the emergence of "New Atheists," outspoken disbelievers of deity and deities who relentlessly excoriate religion. Popular and seemingly everywhere now, these new atheists - led by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett - are outraged over faith-based science and violence. Targeting fundamentalist religion expressed in creationist theology and violent tendencies, they find no evidence of a deity or deities within or alongside biological processes, and argue that religion itself is dangerous to the human race.

While fundamentalist Christians dismiss New Atheism, other critics (such as Karen Armstrong) contend that New Atheists are arguing against modern religious fundamentalism, rather than religion at large. Creationism, for instance, is a product of the 1960s, receiving thinly-veiled upgrades in the 1990s ("scientific creationism") and the first decade of this century ("intelligent design"). Today's popular conservative Christian view of an earth no older than 10,000 years is a phenomenon of the past 100 years. Only since the late 19th century have many Christians adhered firmly to a literalist biblical interpretative methodology constructed upon modern rationalism, embraced the modern theory about the Bible (yet absent from the Bible) dubbed "biblical inerrancy," and placed their faith in John Nelson Darby's 1820s end-times theological scheme commonly referred to as "the Rapture." In short, fundamentalism (built upon these three modern contrivances) is a novelty of modern religion, not the norm of historical Christianity. In this sense, the New Atheists are indeed swinging their rhetorical blades at modern religion.

We are witnessing, in other words, a battle over who controls scientific truth in the twenty-first century: religious fundamentalists who wish to conform science to faith, or God-disbelievers who are determined to disentangle fundamentalist religious faith from science. As for me, I side with the New Atheists in this particular battle, while nonetheless agreeing with Karen Armstrong that they are mistaken in assuming fundamentalism is representative of religion at large.

Yet there is another dimension of this battle waged on a different playing field. While many fundamentalists dismiss the New Atheists (and atheism at large) as believing in nothing, the biblical foundation of fundamentalism - biblical inerrancy - is arguably (and literally?) nothing more than religious atheism. In short, although biblical inerrancy rhetorically advocates a perfect biblical text, biblical inerrantists apply textual perfection to ... nothing.

For the biblical inerrantist, there is not a biblical text in existence that is perfect. No one has ever held a perfect biblical text, no one has ever read from a perfect biblical text, and no one has ever preached from a perfect biblical text. For the biblical inerrantist, only the non-existent original fragments of biblical writing (referred to as "autographs") are inerrant, or perfect.

In reality, the origins of any once-existent, primary-composed ancient bits and pieces of writing that reflected the original spoken (oral) traditions handed down for generations, are clouded in mystery and speculative at best. In addition, textual original autograph inerrantists do not view as authoritative the ancient, multi-generational oral traditions from which the "original" text came, begging the question of how a theoretical text can be theoretically perfect if the words put into writing where themselves imperfect? (Many inerrantists do an end run around this problem by asserting that there was no oral tradition, and that instead God spoke directly and verbally to the biblical "writers" and forced them to record his dictated utterances verbatim, a theory referred to as "verbal-plenary dictation". The Biblical writers speak against such a view, however; see Luke 1:1-4, for example).

Furthermore, the larger dynamic of biblical "inspiration" (that is, the belief that the written text is derived from God in some fashion, whether inerrant or not; historically, Christians have affirmed various formulations of biblical inspiration, but not biblical inerrancy) "strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture" (according to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the creed of inerrantists).

What do biblical inerrantists actually believe about the Bibles in their hands and pulpits? They "affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original" (see link above). Not only are their Bibles not inerrant, but they are the "Word of God" only if they "faithfully reflect" ... that which does not exist.

Biblical inerrancy, in short, is much ado about nothing.

Placing blind faith in a non-existent text could reasonably be referred to as "Biblical Atheism," not unlike traditional atheists whose belief system is predicated upon the non-existence of a god or gods.

On the other hand, the New Atheists do believe in that which science has revealed. That is, they believe in that which is scientifically verifiable.

Likewise, contemporary Christians would do well to seek to understand the message of the imperfect (according to biblical inerrantists) but existent Bibles in our hands and in our homes and in our pulpits, rather than the inerrantist's faith in nothing (and instead of inerrantist's efforts, in the face of nothing, to control the message of the actual Bibles we do have).

Our actual Bibles do not claim textual perfection nor do they posit a corner on all truth, but they do tell the stories of imperfect people (foibles and all) seeking (at times!) to understand God-centric truth in a pre-scientific era. The person of Christ is the focal point of Christian scripture. To our historical shame, those who claim to be followers of Christ have often abandoned his teachings against violence, greed, and religious legalism (fundamentalism, in contemporary terms). The New Atheists are thus right in pushing back against such perversions of Christ in particular, and religion in general. Yet let us not respond as Biblical Atheists who place their faith in that which does not exist. Instead, let us reflect Christ by following his teachings and example revealed in the scripture we do have at hand, and by welcoming truth wherever truth is revealed.


Anonymous said...

An intriguing article "Edward Irving is Unnerving" (which I spied on Joe Ortiz' "Our Daily Bread" - Nov. 12) shows that Darby should relinquish his title of "father of dispensationalism" and give it to one of his contemporaries, Rev. Edward Irving! This has been a century-long cover-up! Neil

SomethingAboutEverything said...

There are no *faith* based sciences. That would be an oxymoron in itself. Science has *nothing* to do with faith. It is based on *facts* and *evidence*. Not faith. Grow up.