Reply to Schneider’s Review of My Christianity Today Article

July 27, 2008
Posted by Administrator

I must confess that I had to catch my breath for a moment after finishing Mr. Schneider’s review of my Christianity Today cover article. Never could I have anticipated that my advocacy of natural theology should bring me into alignment with Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust. Astonishing!

Although there is much to appreciate in Mr. Schneider’s comments, philosophers will quickly realize that when he begins to engage the theistic arguments themselves, he is out of his depth.

For example, he seriously misconstrues the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe. “Fine-tuning” does not mean “designed” (lest the inference to design become patently question-begging) but rather indicates that the fundamental constants and physical quantities appearing in nature’s laws are such that tiny deviations from their actual values would have far-reaching consequences that would render the universe life-prohibiting. The argument does not aspire to show that the universe was designed with the production of human beings as its goal, but rather that intelligent design is the best explanation for the extraordinarily precarious existence of life, whatever the telos of the universe might be. Thus, the superiority of the design hypothesis to the rival hypotheses of physical necessity and chance in no way presupposes that the purpose of the universe was human life to begin with.

Or again, in his treatment of the moral argument Mr. Schneider doesn’t seem to appreciate that his appeal to “compelling evidence in human psychology and animal behavior that moral instincts [sic; arise from?] biological mechanisms that evolved to facilitate group cooperation and kin loyalty” is, if anything, supportive of the first premiss of the argument, that If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist. Moreover, if, as he seems to think, moral values and duties are the contingent spin-offs of the evolutionary process, then his moral disapprobation of the events of the Holocaust is either inconsistent or purely subjective. Objectively speaking, the Nazis committed no moral atrocities whatsoever, a conclusion that I doubt Mr. Schneider is ready to embrace and that is in any case highly implausible.

Finally, as to cosmological arguments, Mr. Schneider complains of the gap between the conclusion of those arguments and the Heavenly Father of Christian theology. Never mind that these arguments, being the property, as I noted, of all the great monotheistic religious traditions, were never intended to demonstrate the existence of the God of Christian theology. These arguments, if successful, give us a beginningless, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, metaphysically necessary, enormously powerful, Personal Creator of the universe — more than enough to keep the atheist awake at night! Whether this Creator is also the God revealed by Jesus of Nazareth will be a question of Christian evidences, not natural theology.

So the more interesting feature of Mr. Schneider’s review will be, not his critiques of the arguments proper, but his reflections on their cultural impact and importance.

It’s gratifying that Mr. Schneider acknowledges the reality of the renaissance in Christian philosophy and natural theology that has transpired and is ongoing in our day. He does exaggerate the extent to which the vanguards of this revolution are confined to Christian colleges and seminaries. A search of the institutions at which the natural theologians whom I listed in my article teach will show the diversity of their institutional affiliations. (I was disappointed that Mr. Schneider did not mention Philosophia Christi in his review; this shows that we in the EPS still have some ways to go in making our impact felt.) Nevertheless, in view of the “intellectual vibrancy” of atheism at the university today, he finds my tone of celebration “premature.”

I accept his admonishment; there is no room for triumphalism here. Nevertheless, those of us in the academy know how seriously Mr. Schneider errs when he takes the admitted dominance of atheism at the university as evidence that “today’s atheism is positively fueled by intellectual inquiry.” This naive assessment fails to appreciate that academics are narrowly focused in their respective areas of specialization and remain largely ignorant on subjects — especially subjects in which they have little interest — outside their chosen fields. When it comes to topics outside their areas of expertise, the opinions of great scientists, philosophers, and other academics carry no more weight than the pronouncements of a layman — indeed, on these subjects they are laymen. Mr. Schneider was more accurate when he said that atheism is all but assumed. In scores of debates with non-theistic professors over the years, I have been astonished at the incredible ignorance of admittedly brilliant scholars when it comes to matters of theology and philosophy of religion. Thus, I have frankly long since ceased to be impressed when a prominent scientist, for example, a Stephen Weinberg, inveighs against religion.

Thus Mr. Schneider misunderstands me when he says that my “bygone atheism” is a straw man. What I characterized as “bygone” was not atheism, but the past generation dominated by the sort of scientism and verificationism that still lingers in the so-called New Atheism. The fact that such popularistic drivel continues to pour forth from the presses and to fill our bookstores at the mall does nothing to refute my claim that the New Atheism is in general predicated upon epistemological assumptions that are no longer viable.

Of course, there are today brilliant philosophers writing in defense of atheism. But the New Atheists are not they. The New Atheism is not representative of the best non-theistic work being done today. I tried to be frank about what we’re up against by acknowledging in my piece that “there are now signs that the sleeping giant of atheism has been roused from his dogmatic slumbers and is fighting back. J. Howard Sobel and Graham Oppy have written large, scholarly books critical of the arguments of natural theology, and Cambridge University Press released their Companion to Atheism last year.” I hope to have accurately informed readers concerning the lay of the land today.

Finally, with respect to the cultural importance of natural theology, Mr. Schneider correctly observes that my advocacy of theistic arguments pits me not only against post-moderns but also against Barth’s neo-orthodoxy with its “Nein” to natural theology. No Barthian, I was trained under Pannenberg, who has been sharply critical of Barth’s attempt to sequester faith from the attacks of secular reason. “For much too long a time faith has been misunderstood to be subjectivity’s fortress into which Christianity could retreat from the attacks of scientific knowledge. Such a retreat into pious subjectivity can only lead to destroying any consciousness of the truth of the Christian faith.”* One has only to look at the secularism of contemporary German society and the weakness of the German state churches to see that Pannenberg’s words have proved to be prophetic. If we in the United States are to avoid Europe’s slide into secularism, then we must respond to Barth’s “Nein” to natural theology with a firm and insistent “Doch!”

This is not to endorse some sort of theological rationalism, to affirm that “we need . . . science in order to learn faith” — that would be to embrace the scientism that shapes the New Atheism. Rather as proponents of so-called Reformed Epistemology have shown, one may present arguments in support of faith without making those arguments the foundation of faith. Barth remains correct, I think, in seeing that knowledge of God is not dependent upon evidential foundations; but, as Thomas Aquinas saw, it does not follow from that insight that reason cannot discover much of what faith delivers.

I’m puzzled by Mr. Schneider’s closing question, “Why is the truth so difficult for other people to recognize, even when we proclaim it to them?” Nothing he has said leads up to this question, nor do I understand why it is “terrifying.” I should have expected him to ask at this point, “If we base faith upon scientific reason, what do we do if scientific reason leads us to moral nihilism, rendering us incapable of condemning the atrocities of Nazism?” The scientism undergirding the New Atheism does lead to such a nihilistic terminus, and the prospect is terrifying. But the natural theologian need not and should not embrace scientism.

As for Mr. Schneider’s own question, the answer, at one level, surely is that the arguments of natural theology, though cogent, are not rationally coercive, especially given people’s predispositions formed by their diverse circumstances. At another level, the answer must be, as Paul emphasizes in his treatise on natural revelation, that fallen human beings, eager to avoid God at all costs, “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18).

* Wolfart Pannenberg, “The Revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth,” in New Frontiers in Theology, vol. 3: Theology as History, ed. J. M. Robinson and J. B. Cobb, Jr. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 131.