June 10, 2009

Touching Atheism Where it Hurts

"Pooping on the church requires no more than a pigeon’s courage.”

“Does even one [atheist] . . . during the night, sometimes ask himself: Could I be wrong?”
“Atheists are fond of offering psychological ‘explanations’ for the practices of believers. . . . Do any atheists also study the psychological ‘explanations’ for the beliefs of atheists?”
“Every detective story is a proof of God’s existence.”
2009 1516 page26 capast December I wrote a cover story for Adventist Review entitled “Going for the Jugular: Religion Faces Atheist Fundamentalism.”1 While preparing the piece, I attended a book forum at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in downtown Washington featuring a dialogue on a new release very much in line with the subject of my upcoming article. In the end, however, I could not include a single line about the bookÅ?or even the eventÅ?because of space.
The book in question, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers,2 makes a powerful contribution to the philosophical-theological debate regarding the existence and character of God. And its author, Michael Novak, was on hand to argue the case, with an atheist and an agnostic responding. The thumbnail vita on the book’s flyleaf captures the experience and caliber of the author: Novak, it says, “received the 1994 Templeton Prize, an award that has also gone to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mother Teresa, and [Canadian philosopher] Charles Taylor. He has taught at Harvard and Stanford and has held academic chairs at Syracuse University and Notre Dame.”
Eminently qualified for the task, NovakÅ?in this, his twenty-seventh book (I believe)--goes head-on with the atheist establishment of our times; and the quotes at the top of the article represent just a sampling of the compelling ideas that permeate the book.
2009 1516 page26Yet his avowed aim is not confrontation, but conversation--which came through loud and clear in his empathetic engagement with his atheist and agnostic friends that evening. “Believer and nonbeliever,” he’d argued in a previous work, “are both voyagers” on life’s dark way, “sometimes closer together, sometimes farther apart, than appearances indicate.”3 In a sense, Novak says, we are all “in the same predicament,” “we are all in the same darkness” (p. xix), and we “need to learn a new habit of reasoned and mutually respectful conversation” (p. xxiii).

Unfortunately, says Novak, typical atheists today (prominently represented by people such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens) “think that religion is so great a menace that they do not show much disposition for dialogue” (p. 31). Dawkins, for example, he says, “presents himself and other atheists as ‘brights,’ distinguished by their ‘healthy’ and ‘vigorous’ minds. Poor believersÅ?he openly complainsÅ?are (by contrast with him) trapped in delusion, unquestioning, mentally dead. He makes not a gesture of seeking to learn from them” (p. 32).
But Novak pitches his book to everyone engaged in the common struggle with the complexities and contradictions of lifeÅ?atheists and Christians alike. Christians are not immune from the insane randomness of tragedy.
The 75-year-old Novak is a staunch Catholic, and this becomes obvious at several points in the book. Open to a fault, he talks about how he once toyed with becoming a priest, and about his spiritual struggles--with prayer and doubt; and he describes how at one point he wondered whether he might not be an atheist, after all.
Does Not Mince Words
However strong Novak’s desire for conversation rather than confrontation, he does not kowtow to atheists, does not soft-pedal his convictions. The atheist concept of God, he says, “is a caricature, an ugly godhead that anybody might feel duty-bound to reject” (pp. 54, 55). Atheists “pretend” to “question everything. . . . Yet in . . . [their] books there is not a shred of evidence that their authors have ever had any doubts whatever about the rightness of their own atheism.” Why do they not question “the horrific brutalities committed in the name of ‘scientific atheism’ during the twentieth century” (p. 31)?
In this connection Novak refers to “the horrors of the self-declared atheist regimes in modern history: Fascist in Italy, Nazi â?¨in Germany, and Communist in the Soviet Union and Asia. Never in history have so many Christians been killed, tortured, driven to their deaths in forced marches, and imprisoned in concentration camps. An even higher proportion of Jews suffered still more horrifically under the same regimes, particularly the Nazi regime, than â?¨at any other time in Jewish history” (p. 51).
Yet, he says, “when you consider that just a short time ago atheism was the official metaphysic of more than half the world’s populationÅ?in the former Soviet Union and all its satellites, along with a billion Chinese, plus North Koreans, Cubans, and othersÅ?the fact that 87 percent of the world now (so soon afterward) holds that God is real is rather stunning” (p. 179).
The problem with classical atheism, he says, is that it tries to examine God “using human perceptual equipment.” But (to explain the title of his book) no one “sees” God. We cannot “touch” God with our senses. “Our imagination cannot encompass Him, nor even bring Him into focus. . . . Our minds can form no adequate conception of Him; anything â?¨the mind imagines is easily ridiculed. The God who made us and out of His infinite love redeemed us and called us to His bosom is divine, not human” (p. 5).
This does not mean, however, that God is unknowable. And Novak tries to show how “out in the dark, and without ever wholly coming in from the dark” he has come to know God through the Jewish and Christian sacred writings. What these two sources teach us “about God, about human beings, and about ourselves is a truer account of reality,” he says, “than any other [he has] encountered” (pp. xxii, xxiii).
The Limitations of Secularism
One of the characteristics of great writing is the voice it gives to thoughts that for years have lingered only as inarticulate murmurings in readers’ minds. I hear this voice as Novak grapples with the limitations of secularism. The atheist has major problems with the simple notion of gratitude, for example. To whom do they give thanks? French atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre experienced this issue, Novak says. “He had often found himself spontaneously, naturally, giving thanks to he knew not whomÅ?some transcendent presence interpenetrating all around him. A splendid sunset could propel that outward movement in his heart.” But Sartre would instantly dismiss the thought “as unworthy of a rational person” (p. 129).
Then there are those occasions that call for sympathy and comfort. What does an atheist do? “‘[But the] religious life keeps intact . . . a number of sensitivities, nuances, and modes of expression for situations’” such as chronic illness, tragedy, and death. For such critical events, secularism has no appropriate language (see pp. 252, 253).
Problems of His Own
Given the purpose of the book, I find some of Novak’s concessions surprising. Decrying what he sees as atheism’s literalistic interpretation of Scripture, he makes the precarious point that much of the Bible should be considered “allegorical, metaphorical, poetic, or resonant with many meanings” (p. 35). But isn’t this the approach, carried to some of its logical conclusions, that led to the mythologizing of the Creation story in Genesis and of the Resurrection story in the Gospels, to name just two?
2009 1516 page26Novak argues, moreover, that “from a Roman Catholic point of view, . . . there is no difficulty in accepting all the findings of evolutionary biology” (p. 50). Perhaps still spooked by the whole Copernicus affair of the sixteenth century, he states that “the largest of all Christian churches, the Roman Catholic Church, leaves to science the task of figuring out descriptions and theories of the material ‘origins of man and the cosmos’” (pp. 59, 60). “Believers,” he says, “cannot allow atheists to own the word ‘Darwinism.’ Darwin’s theory is widely viewed as an enormous accomplishment and a pillar of modern science. For believers to lock themselves into a rhetorical stance against ‘Darwinism’ is wholly unwise” (p. 168). “It is entirely possible that one form of existence evolved from another over eons of time, in the way that the new Darwinians â?¨picture human history” (p. 226).
It all sounds very much like what Novak himself in one part of the book calls “preemptive moral surrender.”
Overall Positive
No One Sees God is, nevertheless, a breath of fresh air. It’s apologetics at its brilliant best, and it’s the type of work more Adventist scholars should be doing in respect to the biting issues of our times.
An old saying goes: “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring.” In No One Sees God Novak has drunk deep. We may not--and should notÅ?agree with him on every point, but in this skillful work he has done severe damage to the arguments and pretentions of contemporary atheism. His book signals a strong and credible way forward. In the words of the book’s flyleaf: “Novak provides a stirring defense of the Christian’s worldview while sidestepping the shrill tone that so often characterizes the discussion of faith.” 
1Adventist Review, Dec. 11, 2008, pp. 14-18.
2New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland: Doubleday, 2008, 310 pages; U.S. $23.95; Canada $27.95, hardcover.
3Novak in Belief and Unbelief, 1965; quoted in No One Sees God, p. xi.
Roy Adams is an Associate Editor of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines.