But Oliver Burkeman, a blogger at the UK paper The Guardian, has a different opinion. He recently published a piece entitled The One Theology Book All Atheists Really Should Read. It concerns a book called The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart.
Burkeman says in his blog that, “If a committed creationist wrote a book called The Evolution Delusion, but only attacked the general public’s understanding of evolution, we’d naturally dismiss them as disingenuous. We’d demand, instead, that they seek out what the best and most acclaimed minds in the field had concluded about evolution, then try dismantling that.”
We saw exactly this happen in the news a few days ago. A teacher in Louisiana reportedly told a sixth grade student who was a Buddhist that his religion was stupid. The school board backed up the teacher and recommended the student transfer to a school district where there are more Asians. This teacher also taught that evolution was wrong because, “if evolution was real, it would still be happening: Apes would be turning into humans today.”*
This understanding of evolution is, of course, stupid, to use the teacher’s own terminology. It is a view that is willfully ignorant of the actual mechanics of evolution held by someone who obviously never studied the subject. We can safely assume, I think, that this teacher is ignorant of evolution for much the same reasons Richard Dawkins is ignorant of theology. She doesn’t feel there is any need to study it because she has already decided it has no value.
However, if one really wants to seriously challenge the theory of evolution, one needs to know precisely what the theory of evolution actually says. Similarly, if one wants to seriously challenge the belief in God, one really needs to know just what people mean when they talk about God.
Burkeman’s article talks about two ideas of God. One he calls the “superhero God.” About this concept of God he says, “The superhero God can do anything he likes to the universe, including creating it to begin with. Demolishing this God is pretty straightforward: all you need to do is point to the lack of scientific evidence for his existence, and the fact that we don’t need to postulate him in order to explain how the universe works.”
But David Bentley Hart’s book talks about a much more sophisticated concept of God. Burkeman quotes Damon Linker of The Week summarizing Hart’s position thus, “According to the classical metaphysical traditions of both the East and West, God is the unconditioned cause of reality – of absolutely everything that is – from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God ‘exists’ in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.”
This is pretty much the same idea of God that I wrote about in my latest book There Is No God And He Is Always With You. As in Burkeman’s blog, I admit in my book that there really are people who actually believe in what he calls the “superhero God.” To a limited extent it’s useful to criticize that view. But to attack and/or dismiss all belief in God based on those who fear and worship a giant white man up in the sky who can make one team beat another in the Super Bowl is… well… stupid.
I tend to agree with most of the things atheists say. I think evolution is real. I don’t believe in miracles. I don’t believe in Noah’s Ark or Krishna’s love-making prowess. I don’t think Buddha could fly and make fire come out of his head. I don’t think Jesus rose from the dead — though I do believe he existed. I think religious fanaticism based on the belief in a superhero God is a dangerous thing, a kind of pervasive social disease that should be eradicated for the good of everyone.
But I have been and remain deeply disappointed in most of the output of the neo-atheist movement. I bought Dawkins’ book The God Delusion thinking that it might be an interesting critique of the more sophisticated view of God. Since he was a scientist, I thought perhaps Dawkins would talk about how our delusions about God developed over time and what sort of function they may have provided early in human evolution. Instead, it was a long rant against a version of God that was so easy to demolish I don’t know why he needed so many pages to do it.
I have practiced zazen for many years for a great number of reasons. But one of those was to see if I could discover anything about God as “the unconditioned cause of reality.” Because if God is the unconditioned cause of reality then God is also the unconditioned cause of me. And perhaps if I learned to be very, very quiet I might just be able to hear the voice of God. Not like the voice of Charlton Heston drenched in reverb commanding me to go forth and hump the president’s dog, but the “still, small voice” spoken about in the Bible (Kings 19:12).
Many of us who do this practice have heard that still, small voice. A few of us have even been able to learn not just to hear it but to listen to it. That takes a lot more work and I am still making my efforts to really listen more often. But even just to hear that still, small voice at all, one has to first become extremely quiet. There is nothing I know of that can bring about the necessary quiet except consistent meditation practice.
Theology can tell us a lot about what humans have thought about God and God’s place in our lives. It’s not my personal favorite subject, to be honest. But to dismiss it as unworthy of study at all is a huge mistake. It you want to criticize the belief in God effectively, you have to know what your opposition is actually talking about.
So get with the program, neo-atheists! I would definitely read that book if anyone ever wrote it!
* Whitney says, “Why would apes be evolving into humans? Maybe they’re OK as they are, school teacher!”
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You can see the documentary about me, Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, at the following locations (I’ll be at all screenings):
• March 11, 2014 Ithaca, NY
• March 14, 2014 Brooklyn, NY
• April 20, 2014 San Francisco, CA