Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: History of evangelical Christianity, reviewed.

The Worst Thing About Conservative Evangelicals Is That They Encourage Clowns Like Richard Dawkins

The Worst Thing About Conservative Evangelicals Is That They Encourage Clowns Like Richard Dawkins

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 6 2014 10:39 AM

Your Being Here

The questions at the heart of the wars between fundamentalism and modernity.

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What’s interesting is that the proposed solutions often rested upon the methodologies of secularism itself. Worthen recounts evangelical attempts to reinforce premodern dogma using the tools of modern empiricism, sociology, and anthropology—the very regimes of knowledge they often condemned for displacing Christ. This is perversely appropriate, if we consider Taylor’s argument that the Reformation itself laid the groundwork for secularization. What Weber diagnosed (borrowing from Schiller) as “the disenchantment of the world” began as the systemic disenchantment of Christianity from within. In its expulsion of “the sacred from worship and social life” and its “instrumental stance” toward the social order, radical Protestantism prepares the way for humanism. It doesn’t do so alone, and it can itself be seen as the product of shifting economic forces, but there is an important sense in which evangelicals found themselves hoisted on their forebears’ petard. So it is not too surprising to find Carl Henry arguing that biblical truth is propositional, to which Wheaton professor Clyde Kilby smartly retorted, “How can the Psalms be propositional?”

Author Molly Worthen
Author Molly Worthen.

Photo courtesy Michael Cotey Morgan

No doubt it was naive of the neo-evangelicals to think they could simply formulate a worldview, as if it were a matter of individual decision. But they had recognized a real fact about the world and their times, namely that the default options for the understanding of lived experience had changed rather dramatically, and fairly recently. As Taylor argues, it is not the same thing to be a Christian in the 21st century as it was to be a Christian in 1500, and we might add that it’s not the same thing to be an atheist, either.

Taylor uses the example of a person possessed by evil spirits in first-century Palestine: It simply wasn’t open to those around such a person “to entertain the idea that this was an interesting explanation for a psychological condition, identifiable purely in intra-psychic terms, but that there were other, possibly more reliable aetiologies for this condition.” We, on the other hand, “cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on.” We can’t help “living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty.”


It was this doubt and uncertainty that the evangelicals of Worthen’s history tried to exorcise, and of course they might as well have tried to recreate the social conditions of New Testament Galilee. What philosophers call the “background,” Taylor writes, has shifted from one in which a naive theistic construal was almost ubiquitous to one “in which everyone’s construal shows up as such; and in which moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option.” This transformation cannot be undone but by another, equally earthshaking transformation, and such events cannot be brought about deliberately.

One unfortunate consequence of this background shift is that as unbelief seems to more and more people the only plausible construal, they find it difficult to understand why anyone would adopt a different one. Thus “they reach for rather gross error theories to explain religious belief,” and we are subjected to ignorant books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Take Dawkins on Thomas Aquinas, for example, a discussion so inept that it’s as if Noam Chomsky had decided to publish a primer on black metal. (See David Bentley Hart’s elegant demolition of Dawkins’ analysis in The Experience of God.)

The “undergraduate atheists,” as the philosopher Mark Johnston dubbed them in Saving God, have been definitively refuted by Hart, Terry Eagleton, Marilynne Robinson, Johnston himself, and others. As intellectual bloodbaths go, it’s been entertaining—like watching Jon Stewart skewer Glenn Beck. But of course Richard Dawkins is merely a symptom. I have encountered atheists who seem not only to have never met an intelligent, educated believer, but to doubt that such a creature could exist.

Such unbelievers seem to me to have missed something quite fundamental about the nature of being, as it appears to the human animal, something that the major theistic traditions attempt to address with rather more nuance and generosity than contemporary updates to logical positivism can muster. You don’t, obviously, have to believe in God to feel humbled and bewildered before what Heidegger called “the question of the meaning of Being.” (Indeed, I often think the notion of “belief” is more trouble than it’s worth.) But you do have to acknowledge that there is a question, “the major question that revolves around you,” as John Ashbery puts it: “your being here.” And you have to recognize that it concerns something outside the scope of the natural sciences.

One of the worst aspects of conservative evangelicalism is that too often, especially on its fundamentalist fringes, its literalism encourages know-nothing atheism of the Dawkins variety. If Christianity actually entailed the beliefs that the earth was created 6,000 years ago and homosexuality is evil and there really was a Noah who built a gigantic boat, I wouldn’t want anything to do with it, either. I imagine Richard Dawkins never held a third-grader in a trailer and forced him to confess that the theory of punctuated equilibria is false.          

But Christianity does not entail such beliefs, I make bold enough to say. As usual, Marilynne Robinson has made the point with eloquent forcefulness:

People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of “to him who asks, give,” or “sell what you have and give the money to the poor.” In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with those of their adversaries, who yearn to disburden themselves of the weak, and to unshackle the great creative forces of competition. The defenders of “religion” have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor.

In 1931, C. S. Lewis was converted during a moonlit walk with J. R. R. Tolkien. In the space of that walk, Lewis later wrote, Tolkien convinced him that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth.” Taylor, Robinson, Hart, and Johnston—all of whom are open to the truths of other religions as well as to those of Christianity—help us understand what that means. Apostles of Reason, a thrilling, if partial, history of the fallout of the fundamentalist–modernist wars, helps us understand what it doesn’t.