Why Christianity Is Believable: A Reply to Dawkinsians and Their Ilk (Part One)

A couple of posts ago, I replied to Richard Dawkins’s charge that theologians don’t do anything useful. I replied in a couple of respects to that charge, but under friendly pressure from some of you it emerges more clearly that there are at least two more kinds of things to be said and argued.

First, is there something there that theologians describe? I argued the other way: If there is a God, and theologians know something about that God, then their/our work is useful. But of course many people wonder about the premise: Is there indeed a God and is that God the God of the (Christian) theologians?

Second, if theology somehow disappeared tonight, has it contributed something useful anyhow? This is a bit of an odd question Dawkins poses. I could reply in a qualifiedly positive way, and I do in the next paragraph, but I would say instead that the work of Christian theologians is fundamentally an all-or-nothing proposition: Either what we theologians say is true, and therefore useful, or it isn’t, and therefore isn’t.

Theology in fact has been used to motivate people to do good things (like abolish slavery or campaign for women’s rights) or to prompt enjoyable mystical feelings or to patch up various social divisions. I suppose those are the sort of thing Dawkins seeks as he wonders what good has been accomplished by theologians beyond the work of theology itself. But Christian theologians would say that the main thing we do is try to acquaint people with God and with the main information we can have about God. If we’re wrong, then yes, it’s good that people have used our wrong ideas to press for positive political change or stimulate happy spiritual feelings or heal ethnic or other social divisions. But it’s also also rather pathetic, since they depend upon a mistake, and once no one believes in the truth of that theology anymore, those good effects will unravel with their justification gone.

So let’s turn to the matter of fact: What are the grounds–and by “grounds” here I’m going to mean “publicly accessible and decidable grounds”–for Christian belief (and therefore for the work of theologians)?

There are lots of grounds on which Christians do in fact believe in the truth of Christian teaching. Christians believe they see evidence of answered prayer. Christians believe that they have spiritual experiences that are best accounted for by labeling them as genuine encounters with God. Christians believe that Christian teaching prompts them to live more virtuously than they otherwise would–or did. And so on.

In this series, however, I’m going to respond to Dawkins-types in a mode of public science, namely, history. I hope you’ll stay tuned.

0 Responses to “Why Christianity Is Believable: A Reply to Dawkinsians and Their Ilk (Part One)”

  1. Anson

    Hi Dr. Stackhouse. Speaking of Richard Dawkins, I have a recent post on my blog about how he actually resembles a religiously fervent revivalist.

    I also wrote a paper for my History II class showing how in the 18th century the so-called “rational” Deists were actually quite sensational and irrational, and the so-called “enthusiastic” evangelicals have shown themselves to be quite rational and sensible. I just find it interesting that this pattern is happening all over again with the rise of the New Atheists.

    As you said you’re going to discuss this topic through the lens of history, I hope you can tell us more about these patterns, and if they are indeed repeating in history.

    Here’s my blog post:
    http://blog.theoryspace.com/2009/09/29/richard-dawkins-is-a-revivalist/

  2. poserorprophet

    An alternative approach is to explain to Dawkins that all of our disciplines are, in fact, deeply theological (I’m thinking here primarily of Carl Schmitt’s writings on politics but a good many others have extended Schmitt’s insights into other realms like economics, physical sciences, and so on). Therefore, to try to bracket out theology, with the intention of then excluding it, misses the point altogether.

    By the way, Dr. Stackhouse, I emailed you to see if there is a time when we could get together, but my emails seem to have trouble getting through to you. Could you email me? I’m currently available in the mornings next week, and all day Friday.

  3. Al

    Thomas Aquinas argued that the meaning of Scripture is very far from being self evident and that it must often be interpreted in light of other truths. If a literal interpretation is contradicted by an obvious fact; then the literal intrepretation must be false. But as Chesterton points out many scientists have been just as ready to jump to the conclusion that any guess about nature is an obvious fact…just as much as fundamentalists and the biblical literalist jump to the conclusion that any guess about Scripture is an obvious fact.

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