Friday, 13 September 2013

Living on the Edge - Jacques Berlinerblau: atheist critic of New Atheism

I have to be blunt when I say that I am less than impressed with the New Atheists, as their ignorance of religion is palpable, and embarrassing. Turns out that even other atheists are embarrassed by the New Atheists. The latest excerpt from Living on the Edge follows:

One of the most sustained and detailed criticisms of New Atheism has come from atheist Biblical scholar Jacques Berlinerblau, who argues that secular people cannot treat religion with indifference, and should not treat it with outspoken disrespect.[1]

Berlinerblau notes that most non-religious people are highly ignorant of religion in general, and of the Bible in particular, which is one of the reasons why their attacks on Christianity are so ineffective.

‘In all but exceptional cases, today’s secularists are biblically illiterate. Truth be told, their repertoire of knowledge about religion in general leaves much to be desired.’ [2]

Although Berlinerblau acknowledges that the non-religious are free to maintain their ignorance, and that there is no need for them to increase their knowledge of the religious beliefs to which they object, he also points out that to do so is counterproductive to their aims, and that this is not an advisable approach.[3]

He is particularly scathing of those who claim religious belief is dying or shortly to be abandond, recalling previous failed claims of this nature which are more than 100 years old.

‘Contrary to what so many nineteenth- and twentieth-century social theorists believed (and hoped for), the species has not abandoned its faith in the divine. Karl Marx’s optimism about the impending abolishment of religion was unfounded.

The masses have not turned away from their beliefs “with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth,” as Sigmund Freud predicted. And no, the gods are not “growing old or dying” – to invoke Emile Durkheim’s famous words.’ [4]

Despite repeated attacks by generations of skeptics and atheists since the 17th century Enlightenment, says Berlinerblau, religious belief remains strong and largely undamaged.[5] In particular, he advises his fellow atheists that religious believers now have stronger and more sophisticated arguments than ever before.

They now draw skillfully on the full range of sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In so doing, their proofs for the existence of God and the importance of belief, ritual, communities of the faithful, and so on have become increasingly rigorous and coherent.’ [6]

According to Berlinerblau, atheists and agnostics willing to challenge religious believers now have a far more difficult challenge, and must inform themselves extremely well before engaging with religious believers.

‘To the atheist or agnostic who wants to rationally justify his or her own nonbelief, we say, “Come prepared. Come armed with erudition. Shuck the Bertrand Russell quotes, for the love of God! Your opponents have regrouped. Do not take them lightly.”’ [7]

Berlinerblau’s words are highly encouraging for Christians, and demonstrate the importance not only of knowing the Bible well, but also of knowing, appreciating, and understanding how to use, professional Biblical scholarship. As a Bible scholar himself, Berlinerblau is well aware of how foolish atheists can be made to look when faced with a believer who is far more educated and knowledgeable about the Bible than they are, especially when the believer’s arguments draw directly from the work of academics and scholars, which cannot simply be waved away.

[1] ‘This books starts from the premise that indifference to all things religious is no longer a viable option for secularists.’, Berlinerblau, ‘The Secular Bible: why nonbelievers must take religion seriously’, p. 1 (2005).

[2] Ibid., p. 1.

[3] ‘Secularists are free, of course, to disregard issues pertaining to religious belief. They do not need to pay attention to the actual words of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament or to those of the New Testament and the Qur’an. Nor do they need to think about the countless ways in which such words have been interpreted. These interpretations, incidentally, inspire those manifestations of piety that so puzzle nonbelievers: the fasting and the frenzy; the pilgrims on bloodied knees; the athletic feats of sexual repression; the acts of utterly selfless grace, and the wearing of turbans, Yarmulkes, veils, and other forms of sacred headgear, to name but a few. Secularists are free to remain oblivious to all this. But perhaps now is not the best time to exercise this freedom.’, ibid., p. 1.

[4] Ibid., pp. 1-2.

[5] ‘Believing intellectuals, in contrast, are thriving once again. The enlightenment critique of religion that came to maturity in the nineteenth century did not strike the fatal blow, the “kill shot.” Although staggered, theological modes of reasoning arose, dusted themselves off, focused, amended, and absorbed.’, ibid., p. 5.

[6] Ibid., p. 5.

[7] Ibid., p. 5.