Collision on a Narrow Road

Every month in Toronto Darryl Dash organizes an event known as Theology Pub in which theology is discussed in, you guessed it, a pub. Well, every month but this one when a sort of movie night was held to view the film Collision.

As for the film itself, I’d concur with the Kinnons that it was painfully obvious that a music video director was sitting in the director’s chair. I don’t know if I really needed to see two middle-aged men walking across a helipad to a hip-hop beat like they were pop music sensations. Watching the raw footage of the debates held between Hitchens and Wilson on YouTube may actually give the viewer a better sense of the debates.

More interesting than the actual movie though was the discussion afterwards. One of the things that came up was whether this sort of apologetic method actually does anything. There was a sense that these two were talking past each other and I imagine that the people in every audience, be they atheists or theists, likely reckoned that their side had won the day. Part of the discussion pivoted around whether the greater threat to Christianity came from the New Atheists and their arguments about science or from the New Agers and the appeal of a sort of relativist view of belief. Which of these is the greater threat?

My answer now (I wasn’t fast enough to think of this on Monday night) is both. Christianity is famously the narrow road and, at least these days, these two movements are what impinge on either side of that Christian path to make it narrow at this juncture. Just as Charles Taylor sketches out the sort of triangle of late-19th Century Western philosophical views (Christianity, exclusive humanism, and Nietzschean anti-humanism), I want to suggest that right now there is a similar triangle – a triangle that, if the Christian looks out at the other two views on the other two points, would look like a narrow road:

Once again there is Christianity as part of this sort of triangle, the other points today though are a bit different:

On one side there are the New Atheists (who, as I have noted in the past, seem a lot like 19th Century atheists) suggest that all manner of religion is rotten for humanity (though they usually reserve special contempt for Islam – more on that later) and that science is steadily advancing as religion retreats and people abandon there old superstitions.

The other side is hard to pin down – I refer to it as “New Age” above, but even that is incomplete. The other term that has come into use and that captures some of this movement is “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD). Most in the New Age and MTD streams of thinking adopt a view that there is a god of some sort and some may even accept that Jesus was an earthly instantiation of such a god (though any number of other figures could fit the bill in their system). It doesn’t matter all that much though what one actually believes so long as one behaves in a way that is “good” – a concept usually arrived at by trusting one’s feelings or something.

On the one side then the New Atheists are prepared to used the evidence that they have gathered to draw stern conclusions about religion. They are not concerned about offending the values of others either. As I mentioned above they are also not squeamish about saying that while religion is all bad, certain religions are worse than others. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are particularly distressed by Islam. The New Atheists do not consider tolerance to be a virtue in all circumstances. Again, there seems to be something about them that is out of step with secular pieties of our age – nonetheless they are still effective.

When asked about who they think they can convert, most New Atheists suggest that they are not expecting to get the devout, more likely they will capture the “cultural” Christians. There are of course many people who list themselves as Christians on, say, census forms who have not seen the inside of a church for years (outside of weddings or funerals). Generally people in this situation hold on to their religious affiliations out of some combination of inertia, respect for their families or the sense that religion is a “good thing” for society. The New Atheists would like them to realize that such is not the case and the end goal may not be that such cultural Christians would rush to meetings of atheist clubs or something, merely that they’d stop lending their census responses to churches that they no longer attend and that, the New Atheists would have them believe, are actually wicked institutions. They don’t need nominal Christians to say “I am an atheist!” all they need is for them not to care about religion and/or stop pretending that they do – “meh” is an acceptable response.

To this end the New Atheists build a case against God using science, certain Bible passages, religious violence, and random brutality of nature. They are not relativists in the least, they want you to look at the evidence and be as objective as possible about their case. On these grounds they are convinced they can prevail. The sales of their books suggest that some people – a good number in fact – are buying into this.

On the other side of the triangle is the Oprah set. “Oh those New Atheists are so intolerant, even culturally insensitive!” they might say. The MTD/New Age Secret readers don’t worry too much about evidence, for them truth is indeed relative. If Jesus “works” for you, that’s okay. This is more welcoming than the excoriation that a Christian might get from a New Atheist, but the trade-off is that Christians end up buying into the New Age.

While at different times and with different people either New Atheist or MTD/New Age might hold a greater appeal, it is dangerous to presume that the pressure on believers now comes from one more than the other. Perhaps the best way to illuminate this would be to actually convene a three-person panel discussion instead of a debate: something like what was done with Wilson and Hitchens but with, say, Deepak Chopra tossed in there as well.