“CREEDS must disagree: it is the whole fun of the thing. If I think the universe is triangular, and you think it is square, there cannot be room for two universes. We may argue politely, we may argue humanely, we may argue with great mutual benefit; but, obviously, we must argue. Modern toleration is really a tyranny. It is a tyranny because it is a silence. To say that I must not deny my opponent’s faith is to say I must not discuss it. . . It is absurd to have a discussion on Comparative Religions if you don’t compare them.” —G.K. Chesterton
It is a canard that the polite atheist does not disdain religious belief. Whatever one makes of the reasons the religious person has for her faith, it is considered bad taste to rub her nose in any inconsistencies one sees therein. The Four Horsemen and their thoroughly evangelistic brand of atheism remain popular with a certain kind of young man, the sort that waxes poetic about the intellectual charms of Rick and Morty while mainlining Mountain Dew: Code Red. But particularly since the death of Christopher Hitchens (the only half-interesting pen among them), they have commanded far less respect from the broader and more respectable parts of the secular public.
As this more odious breed of unbelief loses cultural cachet, it naturally confuses those who were previously sympathetic to a Sam Harris type in his quest for “Truth for its Own Sake.” For those who were not, such rhetorical vehemence reeks of the same dogmatism normally attributed to bigoted religious folks like myself. The New Atheist denies this of course, being officially obedient only to the raw facts of science, but to those of us who are not party to that school, the phenomenology of their movement resembles nothing more than a religion that isn’t being honest with itself.
Puns about non-prophet atheism aside, why have the fortunes of these men and their acolytes turned so sour in the public sphere? One can only speculate, but the gap between the New Atheists and polite society may have grown in recent years as it became clear to liberal progressives that these positivists were just as keen to target Islam, which western progressives perceive as a religion of the oppressed, as they were to knock traditional Christianity down a few pegs. If these fundamentalists can’t recognize where the real threat is coming from, why should they be bothered with as allies?
At the end of the day, the different strategic schools of secularists in responding to religion arise from incompatible and mutually incomplete views of what religion is. The dogmatic atheist understands religions as primarily presenting claims about the world, models of reality analogous to scientific theories. When he sees that religious claims lack the kind of evidence associated with scientific theories, he therefore determines that religion is irrational, and must be overcome by rational argument. Religion is seen as a threat to society’s commitment to the truth.
The secular liberal, meanwhile, sees religion as an expression of individual identity, which transforms religious belief into a statement not about the universe, but about the believer. Religion is thus not irrational, but arational. Its claims become essentially internal to the claimant, and thus immune to challenge from the outside, while simultaneously rendering them impotent to make claims against anyone else.
Religion-as-personal-attribute is consistent with a sort of fatalism which one often encounters in both the speech and writing of well-bred infidels. Religion or “spirituality” (which is really nothing but agnosticism on a massive LSD trip) is understood as something people either do or do not possess innately, whether that be by nature or nurture. They perceive that the believer, whether in Christ or Buddha or Luke Skywalker, derives certain therapeutic benefits from her faith, but they themselves are too intelligent, or too educated to derive the same assurances from the myths and liturgies of religion. Alas, self-assurance is rarely the primary psychological consequence of faith, and religion is not the only source of myth or liturgy.
One might suppose that, as a Christian moving in a university community mostly composed of unbelievers, I would be glad that the second view has come to dominate the first. It certainly has made it easier to be friendly with people across the veil of faith. Moreover, Lit Hum would have doubtless been a far more tedious endeavor, had I been obliged to relitigate the Scopes Monkey Trial for some combative classmate rather than explore the deep metaphysical beauty and moral insight of Genesis.
However, there is a certain restless aspect in my soul that longs for the opportunity to vigorously defend my faith. Though most are not inclined to attack me as a believer, the positivism of the Dawkinsite school is quite common among the students of this once religiously motivated institution. Where once we might have said to God, “In thy light, we shall see light,” many of my peers and classmates reject the necessity of this spiritual dimension of knowledge, believing that we as humans perceive the world unguided, illuminated by the material spark of the natural sciences, in which the divine is generally absent if not altogether excluded from the realm of possibility. When this empiricism, which bears little resemblance to actual scientific practice, is united to a squeamishness about confronting perceived weaknesses in religious thought, the result is not tolerance but ignorance. For while the unbeliever loses the opportunity to have their understanding informed by the knowledge and catechism of the believer, so too the believer loses the opportunity for her faith to be refined by the challenges of the world.
To borrow the trope of Christian apologetics, religion is a “both/and” matter when it comes to ideas and people. At least, Christianity (the only true religion in any case) is. It is both a creed and a kingdom, a confession and a church, an evangelion and a whole adopted family of evangelists. The evangelical atheist often overestimates his advantage, to the extent that he has one at all, because he fails to recognize that Christianity makes claims about the physical mechanics of the world only insofar as it must to make sense of the structure it provides for the community of believers here on earth, which is to say, hardly at all. The science on which he supposes himself the unbiased expert doesn’t even approach the key insights of the faith. The polite secularist meanwhile fails to appreciate that religion, being pre-liberal, is incapable of confining itself within liberal ideals of individual freedom and personal choice and autonomy. The local paganisms have died out. Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, make universal and exclusive claims about and upon the entirety of mankind. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me,” and also “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” It is the task of the Christian to convince you that what sounds like slavery is in fact the only real freedom in the world. A failure to acknowledge that the claim has been made is to deny that which gives Christianity its unifying principle, and thus makes it worth anything (or everything, as we partisans would claim) as a source of identity. My faith cannot join me in songs of praise with “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,” an eschatological hope which at Columbia is a manifest reality, unless it is a faith which we hold in common, and which binds my wandering heart strongly enough to subsume every other interest to itself.
Christians can exacerbate this confusion when we treat our personal experience of faith as its ontology rather than its phenomenology, a mistake which obscures its confessional and communal reality. Last semester at Columbia, the evolutionary biologist David Lahti delivered a talk as part of an event put on by Columbia Christian Union, the Veritas Forum, and the Atheist and Agnostic Society, about how he reconciles his academic work with his Christian faith. Lahti’s defensive rhetoric extricated Christianity from its alignment with creationists (to the moderate annoyance of this creationist) but failed to articulate any compelling basis for his belief beyond his own perception of its beauty and coherence. It was from him that I first heard faith described as arational. Lahti, who has a PhD in philosophy from Oxford in addition to his scientific credentials, should know better. It beggars belief that a man with Lahti’s education would have nothing to say for Aquinas or Anselm, or any number of thinkers in the Christian tradition, who sought to prove the assertion of St. Paul that, “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” While he denied relativism, insisting that if Christianity is true for him it is true for everyone, Lahti did so as a caveat to other commitments as he reminded people that he had no intention to compel them to his point of view. He spoke earnestly, if somewhat woodenly, about the beauty and elegance of the Christian conception of the world, but his framing confined the power of this vision to his own life, without any necessary extension of this principle to the listener. That he ignored arguments from the historical record for Christianity is scarcely less surprising, though such arguments admittedly lay outside his expertise. Lahti, by omission, granted excuse where Paul does not.
Dr. Lahti is at least correct that no Christian need fear the possibility that evolution is true. My own ignorant opinions aside, it was only after Darwinism birthed its social variant that any Christians saw doctrinal content in the crude mechanics of creation, and while the modernists and their disciples in mainline Protestantism have largely fallen into heresy, the fundamentalists are not the only orthodox believers left standing. I may very well stand in Heaven one day and be informed that man evolved from single-celled organisms. Such information will do nothing to persuade me that I am not in the presence of my Maker. It is the shortsighted capitulation to fools who imagine any existence whatsoever to be possible without the activity of the Great I AM that I find so deficient in Lahti.
At this point dear reader, having most likely insulted you, your friends, and my own coreligionists, you may wonder what I dare ask of you, and it is at this point that I must confess that my desire is to provoke you. I do not provoke for the sake of provocation; if that was all I could have just invited a nitwit who thinks his reproductive fluid is magical to speak to all of you. No, my desire is for ideological combat, something which a Viagra salesman with delusions of grandeur and a Twitter account cannot provide. I have expressed my beliefs aggressively, but truthfully, and thus any reaction you now feel is not merely a success of my manipulation, but a very real reaction to a strain of thought which lurks in the minds of at least one of your classmates. It is neither healthy or wise to suppress this. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “It is better to be violent if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.”
I do not expect many of you to bring violence against my person (Not even my friends come down to Harmony more than once a week; why should I expect my enemies?), but if you think my beliefs or ideas perpetuate violence, consider this permission to do violence to those ideas. Let us argue honestly with one another. Insult me to my face if you must. I can take it. Are you a died-in-the-wool disciple of Daniel Dennett? Accost me for leaning uncritically on Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God. Are you a radical progressive who longs to see the last nationalist strangled with the entrails of the last patriarch? Take me to task for my bad theology in defense of both of those things. Are you a Muslim, incensed at the reduction of your religion to mere victimhood? Sorry; I tried, and perhaps failed to get inside the heads of secularists, but I’d be happy to get breakfast while you accuse me of polytheism if it’ll make you feel better. Are you a Christian, who thinks I’m an idiot for trying to speak on behalf of such a big tradition? You’re right, but the only way that we as Columbians will move closer to the truth is if we allow weaker ideas to be broken against stronger ones. I am confident that Christianity, to the best of my understanding, will destroy all comers, but I fully expect every other person I encounter to share such confidence in their own beliefs. Therefore, if we are to observe manners, let them be chivalric manners. Let them be the manners of battle. May we respect each other not by tolerating wrongness, but by striving honestly to understand just how wrong they are. Perhaps at that point, we can come to some sort of consensus about who’s right.
Elijah Schultz, SEAS ‘19, is an ex-pat West Virginian studying mechanical engineering. He is an active member of Christian Union and president of Jubilation!, Columbia’s Christian a cappella group. He spews his ignorant opinions on Twitter @eschultz9696.