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.

Illustration by Matthew Roberts.

Illustration by Matthew Roberts

When I was 8 or 9, I was very briefly kidnapped by well-meaning lunatics. My younger sister and I were exploring the FIBArk (First in Boating the Arkansas) Festival in Salida, Colo., when we were lured by the promise of candy into a small trailer with a number of other children. It turned out that in order to get the candy we had to suffer through a short film on Jesus, which, as I recall, depicted with graphic horror the torments that await the unsaved in the next world. After the film, a clean-cut young pastor and four or five of his flock delivered some bromides. Finally the pastor said, “Before you leave, let me ask you a question. Is there anyone here who has not accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior? Raise your hand if you haven’t been saved.”

I don’t know what perversity impelled me to raise my hand—I like to think I was registering a protest against the coercive flim-flam I had just been peddled. It wasn’t, at any rate, that the film had scared me—I knew I was already saved. I had invited Jesus into my heart, I attended church, the whole nine yards. I also knew I didn’t like these people—if I’d known the word, I’d have said they were unctuous.

Whatever the reason, I raised my hand, and when the pastor dismissed us, two of the adults physically prevented me from leaving with the other kids. They prayed over me and, despite my increasingly freaked-out demands to be allowed to leave, refused to release me until I said, “I accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior,” which I finally did, racing from the trailer to join my sister without even accepting the proffered candy and Jack Chick tracts.

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This was my first encounter with conservative Protestant evangelicalism, but it was far from my last. I grew up in Colorado Springs—home of Focus on the Family, and a city in which a high-school friend of mine once beheld a group of people sitting in a circle in the street in front of someone’s house. He asked them what they were doing, and one of them replied, “A witch lives here; we’re praying for her soul.”

But the Lutheran pastor of the church in which I was confirmed was remarkably open to my youthful attempts to reconcile the rationalism I had inherited from my father, a liberal atheist, with the attraction I felt to the teachings of Christ. I was, for instance, firmly opposed to the doctrine of hell, on the grounds that it was hardly fair for the creator to subject people who never asked to be created in the first place to eternal torture just because they failed to figure out the mysteries of being in their paltry time on earth (or, you know, for any other reason). Could a Hindu be blamed for practicing Hinduism, having been born into a Hindu culture? The pastor talked to me of allegory and metaphor, and was ready to agree that a God of love was unlikely to resemble the caricature presented by foaming preachers high on sulfuric fumes. He was more interested in grace, and in this strange fellow who pissed off the authorities in ancient Galilee and urged the rich to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor. He wasn’t afraid to say “I don’t know” and “I struggle with that, too.”

I can’t remember this man’s name, but I owe him a lot. He didn’t keep me from straying into faddish atheism in my teens and 20s, but because of his example it was easier for me to return to a very liberal version of Christianity later. He was exactly the kind of steward of God’s word who, generations earlier, had kept men like Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga up at night, men who, guided by an abomination of modernity and a belief in biblical inerrancy, spearheaded a neo-evangelical movement that would culminate in the fundamentalism of Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition and today’s creationist cretinism.

In Apostles of Reason, UNC history professor Molly Worthen tracks the intellectual history of modern American evangelicalism, which for her is defined by a “crisis of authority.” “Three questions unite evangelicals,” she writes:

how to reconcile faith and reason; how to know Jesus; and how to act publicly on faith after the rupture of Christendom.

Worthen begins her story in 1942, with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in St. Louis, “a self-aware intellectual movement of pastors, scholars, and evangelists within the conservative Protestant community.” These neo-evangelicals sought to establish that, in Carl Henry’s words, “the Christian world-life view is not only intellectually tenable, but … also explains reality and life more logically and comprehensively than do modern alternatives.” Following his teacher Gordon Clark, who worried that evangelicals were neglecting “the philosophical, scientific, social, and political problems that agitate” the 20th century, Henry called for Christians to engage secularism at a specifically ideological level.

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Worthen traces the ripples of the resulting evangelical offensive in ever-widening circles that eventually encompass the highest reaches of American power. Along the way, intra- and interdenominational battle lines are meticulously redrawn—Mennonites and Wesleyans vs. the Reformed tradition, Presbyterians vs. Pentecostals, Southern Baptists vs. Southern Baptists. Worthen’s a beguiling portraitist, especially as she recounts the intergenerational frictions that arose among evangelicals in the ’60s. Here’s a young Wes Craven being removed as editor-in-chief from Wheaton College’s student magazine for publishing “disturbing and morally complex stories.” Here’s the president of Biola University assuring angry alumni that “we do not endorse … left-wing folksingers, nor do we endorse the visiting of breweries at any time, especially on a Sunday afternoon.” One comes away from Worthen’s book with an impression of slapstick chaos on a sinking vessel, all hands knocking into one another in clashing attempts to bail water and plug holes (at least until the Christian Right decided to abandon ship and hijack the Republican Party’s passing yacht).

The key to understanding the anxieties that led conservative evangelicalism to such frantic action lies in Henry’s phrase “world-life view,” an awkward translation of Weltanschauung, a word that, in Worthen’s telling, obsessed the neo-evangelicals: “They intoned it whenever they wrote of the decline of Christendom, the decoupling of faith and reason, and the needful pinprick of the gospel in every corner of thought and action.” They picked up the term not from Kant but from Reformed theologians, and it came to represent a set of shared premises and guidelines that, once discovered and articulated, would reknit the dispersed body of faithful into a new Church Militant.

Apostles of Reason, then, is a chapter in the broader history of secularization, and as such it makes an interesting companion to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I happened to be reading alongside it. “It’s a commonplace that something that deserves” the title of secularization “has taken place in our civilization,” Taylor writes. “The problem is defining exactly what it is that has happened.” (The vulgar popular version has it that science in some sense proved religion to be false; this is simply another way of saying that scientism is the faith proper to late capitalism.) Regardless of the precise content of secularization, Worthen’s neo-evangelicals saw that a coherent picture of the world, a shared presumption of the truth of the Christian religion, had disappeared. And they set about trying to figure out how to restore it.

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.

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Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator and the forthcoming The Second Sex, as well as a forthcoming critical work, Equipment for Living.

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