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John Shook, Ph.D. Headshot

For Atheists and Believers, Ignorance Is No Excuse

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Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance.

This reputation is a little unfair, yet when they profess how they can't comprehend God, atheists really mean it. To listen to the loudest atheists, you can hear the bewilderment. And they just can't believe how a thing like religion could appeal to any intelligent person. The mythological story told by atheists recounts how religion arose through vast ignorance and perversity. A plague upon humanity, really, infecting the dimwitted or foolish with viral memes about spirits and gods. If there's no arguing with irrational people or dumb viruses, what's to be done?

Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology. They either dismiss the subject as irrelevant, or, if they do bother to acknowledge it, slim refutations of outdated arguments for a medieval God seem enough. Atheists cheer on such bold leadership, but what is really being learned? Challenging religion's immunity from criticism is one thing; perpetuating contempt for religion's intellectual side is another. Too many followers only mimic the contempt, forgetting that you won't effectively criticize what you would not understand. The "know-nothing" wing of the so-called New Atheism really lives up to that label. Nonbelievers reveling in their ignorance are an embarrassing betrayal of the freethought legacy.

Common responses to atheism from religion's defenders aren't any better. The bookstore shelves are bulging with hasty reassurances to the faithful, pointing out how noisy atheists hardly know anything. Intellectual standards are slipping everywhere. Too many "refutations" of atheism just complain about its failure to appreciate religion's depths and nuances, without going on to explain theology. Plenty of preachers and professors take the easy path by simply agreeing with atheists that God is very mysterious, so who can be blamed for resorting to faith? Very tempting, that fallacious argument from ignorance! Religious people are drifting into their own hazy corner, lulled by a reassuring message that faith is quite reasonable when no one knows there isn't a God.

Mystery now seems like a theologian's safest refuge, only perpetuating the blind faith that infuriates atheists. It's just too easy to proclaim a mysterious God, deride atheism's inability to prove that such an unknowable God cannot exist, and conclude that the faithful are above criticism. Lately too much theology involves notions of God abstract enough to avoid all refutation, yet so vague that a distracted churchgoer isn't sure what God is being talked about. But don't worry, defenders of religion say, there's no need to learn deep theology or debate God, thanks to dogmatic atheism's bad example. Just stick with faith; after all, who can argue with faith? Believers reveling in their ignorance are an embarrassing betrayal of their religion's theological legacy.

How did know-nothing atheism and lazy theology grab the spotlight? This dead-end trap of mutually assured ignorance was not inevitable. Ironically, better educated classes of believers and freethinkers had emerged over the past 200 years. All this thought found an outlet through the internet; ecumenical discussion and debate, led by laypeople as well as by ecclesiastics, is a fascinating world wide web phenomenon. The God debates should be doing better. Christians, for example, can access all the resources they need for discussing their religion with a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Taoist, or a nonbeliever. Atheists have the same opportunity for debating believers of any faith.

If you are religious, don't be wary of the God debates. Respectful debating yields deeper knowledge about one's religious beliefs. After all, religions are hardly strangers to debate. Many religious texts contain examples of debating. For example, accounts of debates between Jesus and Jewish teachers can be instructive for Christians; while Krishna's arguments to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita teach Hindus. Questioning and debating has helped shape many religions. Confucianism grew from philosophical meditations and debating with rival schools. Much of Hinduism and Buddhism developed through intellectual argumentation as rigorous as any in the Western philosophical tradition. Both Judaism and Islam have produced some of the world's finest religious literature and heights of philosophical thought. The Catholic Church's long reliance on councils of debating bishops directed its development. The fragmentation of Protestantism into thousands of denominations and churches is a long tale of disputation in the pews over ever-finer points of scripture interpretation, theological doctrine, and church practice.

Christian theology has come a long way since St. Thomas Aquinas. Under stress from modern science and Enlightenment philosophy, it has explored cosmological, ethical, emotional, and existential dimensions of religious life. Many kinds of theology have emerged, replacing a handful of traditional arguments for God with robust methods of defending religious viewpoints. There are philosophical atheists who have quietly and successfully kept pace. The discipline of atheology is quite capable of matching these theologies with its skeptical replies, so atheists need not be intimidated. Taking theology seriously enough to competently debate God should not be beneath atheism.

I expand on these observations from the front lines of the God debates in my new book, The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists, Believers, and Everyone in Between. All of the major traditional and contemporary arguments for God are reorganized by these five categories: Theology From The Scripture (can we trust its accounts of Jesus?); Theology From The World (should we supplement science with acts of God?); Theology Beyond The World (does cosmology need supernaturalism to explain the universe?); Theology In The Know (placing religious certainties before any other knowledge); and Theology Into The Myst (letting religious experiences of God take priority over creeds). The final chapter on Faith and Reason evaluates the competition among Western worldviews struggling to balance reason and faith, including fundamentalism, liberal Christianity, panentheism, mysticism, religious humanism, and secular humanism.

Strident atheism is mostly uninterested and unprepared for this broad theological landscape, and faithful believers aren't much better off. Everyone needs a better education on the current state of the God debates. If atheists are going to produce a rational worldview capable of replacing religion, they must take religion and theology more seriously. If believers are going to defend a sensible faith capable of advancing civilization, they must become fluent in their reasoned theologies. We hear plenty of complaints from all sides about the low level of intelligent discussion on religion. Yet we have no one to blame but ourselves, and ignorance is no excuse.

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