Monday, February 25, 2013

The Disdain for What Was

The Literature of the Heretics, pt. 4

One thing I have never understood—that I freely admit to never having understood—is the vehemence with which the heretics denounce beliefs about nature that do not conform to their own. When I say this I am not referring to their opposition to their contemporaries, like myself, who disagree (they have every right to disagree vehemently with me). Rather, I mean their strange reverence for the shifting of historical paradigms and the consistent change of perspective brought about by nothing more complex than the passage of time.

The heretics—at least, some heretics—simply cannot bring themselves to believe that anyone could have been ignorant enough to ever have believed that the Earth was the center of the solar system (or the universe), or that matter was made up of anything but atoms. They stand on their high-horses and ridicule anyone who came before them, not merely as the products of a less-enlightened age—but as malicious contributors to the stunting of knowledge.

I am referring, of course, to the concept commonly called “chronological snobbery,” as made famous by C.S. Lewis, who rightly considered it one of the hallmarks of the heretic. There is a decided inability to empathize with our predecessors in thought or deed; a decided lack of understanding of the movement of history and how things have really played out.

I made special note before to say that this particular trap only ensnared some heretics. I am focusing here specifically on Christopher Hitchens, who is an offender to the point that some of his more clear-minded acolytes really ought to have pointed out how petty he had begun to sound. On the other hand, at least in this area, I can give some credit to Richard Dawkins, who at various points actually acknowledges his separation from the past. For example, when mentioning Lord Kelvin’s theory that the earth could not be billions of years old or else the sun would have spent all of its fuel, Dawkins notes, “Kelvin obviously could not be expected to know about nuclear energy.” Of course he couldn’t.

Likewise, when discussing the “changing moral Zeitgeist,” Dawkins makes an astute observation: “The American invasion of Iraq is widely condemned for its civilian casualties, yet those casualty figures are orders of magnitude lower than comparable numbers for the Second World War. There seems to be a steadily shifting standard of what is morally acceptable. Donald Rumsfeld, who sounds so callous and odious today, would have sounded like a bleeding-heart liberal if he had said the same things during the Second World War.” While I am certain that I disagree with the argument Dawkins is ultimately making, he raises an interesting point: we cannot ultimately comment on history through the lens of the twenty-first century.

Now, consider those relatively magnanimous comments compared with just a few of the cringe-worthy denunciations of Hitchens:
“The early fathers of faith (they made very sure that there would be no mothers) were living in a time of abysmal ignorance and fear.”
“Aquinas...was convinced that the fully formed nucleus (not that he would have known the word as we do) of a human being was contained inside each individual sperm.”
“Augustine was a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus: he was guiltily convinced that god cared about his trivial theft from some unimportant pear trees, and quite persuaded—by an analogous solipsism—that the sun revolved around the earth.”
The last seems to me to be the most egregious. Disagreeing (even vehemently disagreeing) with Augustine’s theology is one thing—a thing that wouldn’t bother me in the least—but what sort of snob does it take to criticize a man for saying that sun revolved around the earth in a time when everyone said that the sun revolved around the earth? And what possible reason could Hitchens have for being so upset that Augustine felt guilty for stealing fruit? Hitchens, like many of his scientific colleagues, also frequently derides ancient scientists for refusing to believe in atomism, even though it was proposed by Democritus in the fifth century, B.C., ignoring the fact that no one believed it because there was no evidence for it.     

There is the assumption (and Hitchens was not alone in believing it) that to believe such things as geocentrism (the idea that the sun revolves around the earth rather than the other way around) or to fail to believe in atomism could only have been a product of ignorance brought about by dogma—but the truth is exactly the opposite: I would be far more inclined to ridicule any foolish pre-Galilean astronomer deluded enough to believe in anything but geocentrism, or any pre-Newtonian naive enough to put any amount of faith into atomism. The humanist makes a great deal out of common sense, and from the perspective of man before the invention of the telescope there was no reason, apart from pure love of dissent, to believe in anything but that the Earth was at the center. The early astronomers were not being willfully ignorant in their beliefs; they were being observant, which, I understand, is something generally applauded in science.

Would any of us be foolish enough to ridicule the darkness of Dickensian London because they had not yet mastered the incandescent light? Do we think, as we read Great Expectations, that someone really ought to have just flipped a switch and so do away with that dreaded gloom? Should we mock them for thinking that they had achieved anything at all with their primitive gas lamps when there are such greater sources of light to be discovered? There is a pitiful perception that time has made humanity wiser, more intelligent, and less prone to being duped, when the truth is that we simply know more. We have no greater capacity for knowledge—we simply have a greater (and often contradictory) body of knowledge through which to sift.

It did not take two thousand years for science to reach its present state because it was stifled by dogma or because it was persecuted by the church. In fact, apart from isolated incidents that are given more than their due weight, science really has not been persecuted by the church. So few are the actual occurrences, in fact, that Hitchens had to stoop to making one up: “Atomism was viciously persecuted throughout Christian Europe for many centuries, on the not unreasonable ground that it offered a far better explanation of the natural world than did religion.” Suffice it to say, this didn’t happen at all. Atomism was never persecuted. No, science was not held back by religion, it was held back by the fact that it took people a while to figure things out.

Though it may be common among the heretics, Hitchens’ snobbery seems especially egregious, as he seems to imply that, in a similar situation, he would surely have easily seen through the “ruse” of superstition. Had he been born centuries earlier he would have been the exception; the revolutionary able to see the world as it truly was. But he would not have. If he really believes at all in reason he would have looked into the sky and come to the conclusion that the earth was at the center of things. He would have looked at the material world and decided that it could not possibly have been made of atoms. He would be the same ignorant fool that he derides.

Suffice it to say, I can’t help but think that this chronological snobbery plays a large role in preventing people from believing in God. There is a strange sense, and I have written about it several times before, that we, as human beings, have become something unique; that we are somehow different from all who came before us. There is a sense that we have the right to mock our primitive ancestors and their primitive beliefs because we have come to know and understand so much. Suffice it to say that there is no real evidence to support these conclusions. The truth, if one cares to really look at it, is humbling. We may know a few more facts about the world, we may have unlocked a few more of the universe’s gears and pulleys, but in fact we have gotten nowhere. We think that we have understood enough to supplant God in the minds of the people, relegating Him to a “God in the gaps” but in truth we have only just begun to realize how big those gaps truly are, and just how big a God would be needed to fill them. We believe that we are inching our way closer and closer to the eternal, but the fact is that our advancements might come in leaps and bounds and yet the eternal will remain the eternal.  

If the situation demands anything it is precisely the reverse of chronological snobbery. We ought to be humbled by a history that shows humanity leaping every hurdle to obtain knowledge and understanding; to shine the light of understanding into the darkness. It must be disheartening to the humanist that the majority of his fellow humans have not yet accepted the glory of self-worship. It must seem strange to the devoted secularist that the world remains religious despite the tremendous achievements of science. The fact is that reason is not all it’s made out to be. Faith is on the rise, and no appeals to science or reason have stemmed the tide; and almost certainly the petty arguments of a few heretics don’t seem to be doing much either.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Man Seeks God

The Literature of the Heretics, pt. 3

This might be considered a bit of a sidebar in relation to this present series, which has focused on my rebuttals regarding two very specific books by two very specific heretics: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I do have every intention of getting back to those books, but I want to use this one post to address another work that I have just read, by another heretic I have learned to pity.

The book is Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, and the heretic is a talented writer (but terrible theologian) named Eric Weiner. Weiner is, for all intents and purposes, an agnostic, which may seem odd, considering I have already labeled him a heretic. I stand by the label; however, as I believe that this particular brand of agnosticism may amount to one of the most powerful, dangerous, and prevalent forms of heresy.

Reading the book wasn’t my idea. I was far more focused on the literature of the “true” heretics—the well known God-haters, who have provided me no lack of material. But the book presented itself before me in the form of a Christmas gift from my grandmother this year, and I couldn’t help but read it when she gave me her reason for the purchase: “I thought you might like to argue with it,” she said. Who can deny that this is one of the most perfect reasons a grandmother has ever thought to give her grandchild anything—a devout Christian grandmother gives her devout Christian grandchild a book, not for edification or entertainment, but that he might have the glorious challenge of argument. If only all 86 year old women were as enlightened.

So I read it, happily seeking the aforementioned argument, but I admit that from the very beginning I was disappointed. I found in the pages of this book, much to the dismay of the inveterate iconoclast within, that there is nothing here to argue with; nothing tangible enough to fight. Even thinking of taking up arms against the whimsical search for religion in this book is as futile as taking a sword to the body of a ghost; no matter how perfect or true the strikes, one is really only ever swinging at the air.

For the record, the book is the account of a young agnostic who, faced with a medical emergency, is confronted with the question, “Have you found your god yet?” The question intrigues him and inspires him to travel the globe, investigating the pros and cons of some of the world’s most popular and intriguing religions. Every priest, rabbi, shaman and monk is given fair treatment; every faith is treated as equally valuable; every religion seems to have an even weight of pros and cons. In the end (at the risk of ruining it), the conclusion is just as non-committal as the search: “So, instead of looking for my God, I must invent Him. Not exactly invent. Construct. Assemble. His foundation is Jewish, but His support beams are Buddhist. He has the heart of Sufism, the simplicity of Taoism, the generosity of the Franciscans, the hedonistic streak of the Raelians...” and so on. Hopefully you get the picture.

This is, roughly, the content of the book. How does one possibly argue with something so lacking in any real value or weight? Or, a better question, where do I even start? So it is not the content of this book that I am addressing, but the lack thereof; it is not the theology (or even lack of theology) that I find concerning, but the overall sense that theology does not matter. It is not that the author did not find truth; it is that he treated truth as if it does not matter. As far as I’m concerned, it is not orthodoxy or heterodoxy that proves the state of society, but the question of whether or not society understands that things such as orthodoxy and heterodoxy so much as exist in the first place. Chesterton once said that “there are some people—and I am one of them—who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them.”

What I mean is simply this: what could be more important than the question of God? And why would anyone embark on such an absurd quest as to find “his” god—as if there is some unique deity awaiting him in the heavenly realms, a specially tailored, perhaps genetically altered, cosmic being perfectly suited to his tastes and proclivities. One cannot help but understand the sad truth of this question: though the title of the book may bear the name God, complete with capital “G”, the book only ever sets its sights on the small “g” gods. The author is concerned, not with truth, but with perception. Not with theology, but with personal fulfillment.

The question the author faces is one I hope no one in my audience can relate to. “Have you found your god?” What a difference a word makes! Who would have thought that the inclusion of a little pronoun like “your” could turn a  question of eternal importance into a question of abysmal impotence. A non-question, really. It can turn the most important question in the universe into a question that could almost have no less impact. (The purist, it might be noted, will take the argument a step further, reminding us that, even without the “your” it is an improper question, as it is God who does the finding, but I’m not prepared to entertain those hopeless theologians here)

Suffice it to say, to find one’s own “god” is not to find God. To suggest that one may search the panoply of the gods of the religions of the world in order to find the one deity fitting one’s personal hopes and expectations is to neuter the very concept of deity beyond all recognition. In fact, could there be a more powerful rejection of God then to believe that one could fold him up and carry him around in the neat little box of our expectations? Why would anyone even want to seek such a weak creature?

But this is precisely what happens here. The author strives to create a perfectly-balanced presentation of a number of different faiths, showing mostly sympathetic images of the various “gods” sought by men all over the world, each chapter ending with the same indecisive shrug—a quick “this isn’t quite what I was looking for”, and a “let’s try another one.” It goes without saying that the search is doomed from the start.

So what have I brought out of all of this?

First: I will gladly say that I would rather read Dawkins or Hitchens any day of the week, for those men may be classic heretics, but at least there is some conviction in their heresy. At least they aren’t wandering the globe in a vain, self-centered search for the “-ism” that best matches their personalities. At least they give me something to argue against.

Second: My own faith is reaffirmed, as I am reminded that my hope is placed in the “Word made flesh”, who came to us in Grace and in Truth. I find my spiritual comfort in Christianity’s grace—it’s devotion to a perfect love that is unconditional and unending—and I find my intellectual comfort in Christianity’s truth—it’s assertion that the one who has found the Word has found the truth; a truth that is absolute and unchanging; a truth that frees one from the pursuit of religion and sets him on the path toward true freedom.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Misunderstood Word

The Literature of the Heretics, pt. 2

“To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries.” – Richard Dawkins

“...just like the Old Testament, the “New” one is also a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right.” –Christopher Hitchens

If Dawkins and Hitchens are to be believed—a presumption that goes without saying for many of my readers—the greatest, most powerful tool to wield against the rising tide of Biblical indoctrination is nothing more complex than the reading of the Bible. The greatest threat to Christianity, so they imply, is that the Bible is actually read. Nothing could be more detrimental to the faith than that it be made to actually experience these poorly “cobbled-together”, poorly planned (Dawkins says of the Gospels that, “(those) that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew and Mary Magdalene,” which tells me that he has both never read any of these “alternative” gospels and that he has never bothered to understand the complexity and drama of canonization) scriptures.

Indeed, surely by reading the scriptures one could not possibly miss the terrible truth discovered by Hitchens: “It would be hard to find an easier proof that religion is man-made. There is, first, the monarchical growling about respect and fear, accompanied by a stern reminder of omnipotence and limitless revenge, of the sort with which a Babylonian or Assyrian emperor might have ordered the scribes to begin a proclamation. There is then a sharp reminder to keep working and only to relax when the absolutist says so. A few crisp legalistic reminders follow, one of which is commonly misrendered because the original Hebrew actually says “thou shalt do no murder.’” While I, personally, have been unable to find the proof of a man-made religion in these rambling points, certainly, by simply picking up the Bible, one could not possibly miss it. Could they?      

To be fair, one of the tragedies of Christian history is that for some centuries the church did at least appear to agree with this sentiment, and kept the scriptures out of the hands of the lay parishioners out of fear that they did not have the appropriate aptitude to understand them. Perhaps, the state of education and literacy being what they were, there was some truth to this, but their extreme dogmatism about it leads one to seriously doubt their faith in the Word of God.

The truth that seemed to escape the early Catholic Church as well as the modern skeptic, however, is that this weapon is more prone to backfiring than a child’s slingshot (personal experience). I do agree with both Dawkins and Hitchens that there is a remarkable (and perhaps even mystifying) diversity to the scriptures—an almost unimaginable roster of authors of every background, a multitude of styles, written over a tremendously long span of time. And yet, no classic of literature or survey of history stands up as perfectly under repeated readings.

The Bible, in fact, seems to be only truly understood and appreciated under thorough investigation—the thorougher the better. Sure, we have all heard stories of the skeptic or the furious God-hater who, in a misguided effort to prove their hatred, took to the scriptures, only to find their faith (or, rather, lack of faith) shattered by sudden revelation. These stories exist (and they are not entirely uncommon), but I think that they prove a noteworthy and beautiful exception rather than the rule. I gladly accept these sudden conversions as works of miracle rather than logic.

But there are always miracles in the scriptures—some obvious and some hidden.

Here is one of the smaller, often missed miracles: Repeated readings of scripture yields the very opposite of doubt. Though logic might suggest that to look too closely at a single work of literature would inevitably make its flaws all the more glaring and its imperfections all the more noteworthy, the truth, at least in my experience (despite my background in literary criticism) and in the experience of countless others, is very much the opposite. Reading the Bible makes even the perceived “inaccuracies” melt away as the pieces of the larger narrative and the greater theology fall into place. Though the complexity of the book may, indeed, make a first reading (especially if unguided) somewhat disorienting and, in fact, somewhat strange, only a superficial examination of the scriptures or a severe prejudice could lead one to the conclusion that there is nothing remarkable about the continuity on display.    

Even a strong believer can be negatively stricken by skeptic who provides only lists of the Bible’s most “difficult” moments out of context (as both Hitchens and Dawkins do quite capably, effortlessly weaving their witty commentary with non-contextual passages of scriptures that seem to portray a vicious, selfish God). I readily admit that I cannot read the works of the skeptics without at least faint pangs of... doubt may be too strong a word, but it is something along those lines; maybe something more along the lines of disquiet. It is a feeling that, true to the intent, at first makes me want to recoil from scripture, but I know that this is the wrong reaction. Alas! It is only by looking into scripture—toward the Word of God—that I find the welcome cure.

There is a difference—and not a subtle difference—between the words of the Bible and the WORD of God. The skeptic may freely attack the former but is absolutely powerless over the latter. The first is a collection of letters forming words, words forming phrases, and phrases spelling out ideas, and as such, they may be taken, warped, misunderstood, and bastardized to the heart’s content. The words of the Bible is not the WORD of God that became flesh, that dwelt among us in Grace and Truth.

The WORD is not a mere collection of words. It has little to do with language; it is unaffected by arguments concerning grammar or syntax or morphology or any of the nonsense that I was forced to learn in college. The WORD is not a series of verses held fast by rote memorization and then repeated at Sunday School (though there is inestimable value to this practice, which I genuinely desire to pick up again myself). Knowing the words of the Bible is not knowing the WORD of God. One is tempted to be reminded of Satan himself, who quite ably used scripture to make his own evil point... but that argument seems out of place here—the example of Satan is not worthwhile when directed at those who pointedly do not believe in the existence of such a being. Far more applicable are the arguments of the heretics, who follow firmly in Satan’s footsteps, reading the words but entirely missing the WORD. It is precisely these of whom the Apostle Paul says: “For the WORD of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’”

I understand that this concept might not be understood by some, and to the skeptic it will seem like nothing more than a logical fallacy. I can only respond by saying that this is how one often sounds when describing a miracle. The fact is that the WORD is not always the thing that a person is looking for. As I said before, there are some who have been reading the words of the Bible in hatred, and yet have suddenly found themselves reading the inexplicable WORD of God. For others, it is only after the words are studied and pored over and held up to the light of scrutiny that it is suddenly transformed into something living and active and sharp—but it is no less a miracle.

But, setting aside that crucial distinction for a moment:

No matter how one looks at scripture, there is power to it. The vehemence with which Hitchens, Dawkins, and the others in their camp attack it is a testament to its strength as well as its continued effects on every facet of our society. This is why I cannot help but feel something when I force myself to read their attacks on the Bible. The truth is, it’s remarkably difficult to read any subjective account of scriptures (whether positive or negative) and not be touched with a pang of something or other—of revelation or anger, hope or doubt. It is impossible, that is, to stand unaffected by scripture, which says something in and of itself. Especially when taken out of context, or given a healthy dose of spin, there is potency to scripture not found in Shakespeare or Dante or Homer, and perhaps it is because it stands as something to be lived by rather than read. Thus we cringe when the Israelites are directed to administer punishment to seemingly harmless minor criminals; thus we are encouraged when told of a God who loves and pursues His chosen ones, even when turned against at every turn; thus we treasure being reminded of God’s faithfulness in providing for His people; thus we treasure the hope of salvation; thus in love we pursue those who are perishing. 

For this reason, I can’t simply ignore the attacks I see continually being made on the scriptures. I must have a response—but I must be careful that it is the right response. If I am touched by pangs of doubt I must respond by facing them head on. I can respond, as the creators of these arguments surely hope, by fleeing from the scripture, allowing the seeds to take root in a purposeful ignorance, willingly living with a deeply-rooted seed of doubt, or (perhaps worse yet), I can retreat to a selective reading of scripture, believing that my faith might be restored by simply acknowledge only those bits and pieces of neutered verse that make me feel good and are easily understood. Or I might, as Thomas Jefferson, quite literally take scissors to the Bible, trimming away those bits and pieces that I find difficult to digest, simply acknowledging that I have not yet learned to chew properly.

But I choose not to take these courses: I choose, instead, the course that feels far less natural; far less intuitive: I accept this subtle pang of doubt and take it into my study of the WORD. It is no accident—and certainly no self-delusion—that those most enthralled with God’s word; those most enamored by its beauty and its divine origins; are those who have most thoroughly familiarized themselves with its intricacies; who have not shied away from those pieces that seem difficult or counter-intuitive. The truly faithful are those who are the least surprised, the least shocked by those who would seek to pit scripture against scripture; who are never fearful of those who have only read the words of the Bible but never known or sought after the WORD of God.

The skeptics have focused the wrath of their reasoning—for they are far too reliant on the unreliable human mind—on an old, stale, unmoving tome of stories and poems—as stagnant in corporeality as Aristotle—and surely find it an odd thing that The Bible should assert itself to be living and active. They cannot understand how anything so ancient and unmoving could be considered as swift or sharp as a sword. They cannot understand that the Word is not a collection of chapters and verses, it is God choosing to speak through such human things as chapters and verses.

One cannot possible expect a humanist to understand that the Bible is a human thing—a collection of chapters and verses—but the WORD is God speaking through this same human thing. Yes, it may seem like a terrible logic trick, to say that there is something hidden and invisible in scripture that only the Christian can see (it is quite circular, isn’t it?), but all I can say is that this is how it appears to be. The Christian sees scripture differently than the humanist; and yet, that is the miracle of the incarnation—that is the mystery of it. Just as God injected Himself directly into human history, so also can He inject Himself into the stubbornness of the human soul. That is certainly one of His greatest miracles.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Literature of the Heretics

Part 1

It is impossible to understand, let alone face, an enemy that one has ignored.

The difficulty faced by many Christians today, who seem as bold as ever in standing up to the heresy of skeptics is that they have never actually bothered to listen to the skeptic. This is as general a truth as they come: the Christian is far more likely to be found reading the words of those with whom they generally agree than of those who oppose them. We tend to flock, like swallows to Capistrano, to the words and arguments that reinforce the ideas we already hold.

I don’t say this because I think that it is a generally bad thing. After all, the famous heretics of today must have become famous because their heresies are powerful; they have demonstrated an ability to shake the faith of their readers. And though I would never say that there is anything for the Christian to fear from skeptical literature—really, I believe that it is the other way around: an atheist ought to be extraordinarily careful about what he reads if he is to guard his faith—I can nevertheless understand those who do fear it, who are afraid—deathly afraid—that by so much as cracking the spine of The Origin of the Species they might be ingesting the poison of doubt—a slow-acting, bitter concoction that will lead to the death of faith. So we close our minds to the ideas of the heretics.

For some these fears are well-founded: the heretics who create literature are very good at preying on the fears of weak believers, and the power of their words are only increased by their certainty. They state things as facts; they make every point as if one would be a superstitious fool to disagree; just as the humanist scientist knows that, if he is to disprove faith, he need only confidently state that he has already done so.

What I have discovered, though, is that one blessedly reaches a point in their faith where the confidence of the heretic is no longer sufficient ammunition to be led astray. While the weak and the new—those Paul admonishes for craving spiritual milk rather than solid food—might find ample reason to abandon their faith when faced with well-written heresy (and should therefore seek only edifying words), the mature believer need not fall prey to such false fear. Eventually one can explore the literature of the heretics freely, to understand them in order to reach the steady hand of the gospel into a non-believing world.

It was in this spirit that I spent several years seeking the truth about science, only to find that our progress in science has provided neither an implicit denial of God, nor explicit evidence against His role in our lives. Science, I learned, is perfectly harmless, once one gets past the scientist’s assertions that he stands on the cusp of destroying God once and for all. I can say with confidence that there is nothing to this because I have sought the truth for myself.

Now I have begun down the same path in exploring the literature of the unbelievers. There are certain pieces of literature that, if the assertions of the skeptics are to be believed, amount to an almost absolute destruction of the faith; modern documents that prove, once and for all, that God has no place in our lives or our world. There are men who are as much prophets and priests of the secular world as have ever been found in Christendom.

My next several posts will be spent in addressing some of the claims made in two of the most popular of these works: Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Hitchens, who died in 2011 and now understands the tragedy of his life’s work, was as famous for his wit as for his humanism; he appears to have been likeable as a person, but incendiary as an opponent to religion. Dawkins, on the other hand, takes a more scientific approach to speak against faith, having written numerous books on the evidence of natural selection in addition to cataloguing the social evils of religion.

Both of these books, I readily admit, I have read in their entirety. And, I can say without hesitation, I am no closer to abandoning my faith than I was when I began the first pages.

I am not, of course, the sort of reader either of these men had in mind when they wrote their books. In almost any persuasive work there is the understanding that the arguments will be the most effective against the undecided or the fence-straddlers. A polemic against Christianity is far more likely to mollify those who already share the belief than to sway those who are already Christians; these books, like the pleadings of politicians, are meant for those who take the middle-ground. Their arguments will far more readily persuade those who already had lingering doubts than those who have faced and conquered their doubt.

Of course, Hitchens considered the difficulty somewhat differently: "Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design)." He is forgetting, of course, of those "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads" who were converted later in life rather than indoctrinated in their youth--a remarkably bountiful school of individuals almost too numerous in my own church to count, but never mind that little fact.

There remains little expectation, either by Dawkins or Hitchens, that a person like me (a faith-head of the indoctrinated type) would likely be made an atheist by reading their books. They might hold out hope that by some miracle (if it is appropriate to use such a word in this context) I might stumble in my faith, but the odds are certainly against them in this, and they know it. After all, they don’t believe, as I do, that there is a Holy Spirit or a God who is able to change even the hardest of hearts. They know that there is very little chance that a person like me, who actively opposes their offensive, will be convinced to abandon them. I believe, however, that there is a force powerful enough to prick the conscience of even the most ardent opponent to faith, and that we are but tools of this force. This is why I will persevere in speaking out.

Now, about these books:

I have to admit, first off, that while both books thoroughly engaged me through the first several chapters, by the time I finished either of them I was no longer avidly consuming every word or making detailed notes on every argument. I was no longer finding cause to highlight select passages on every page or even to stop and consider my own responses to the arguments presented. I became, in fact, almost disinterested.

The reason for this wasn’t exhaustion—I admit that I had geared up for a fight when I sat down with these books, and I was more than ready to be challenged. Eager to be challenged, even. It was not that I found the arguments presented by Hitchens or Dawkins to be horribly off-target and unwarranted; on the contrary! The truth is that, more often than not, I agreed with them.

I think that both Dawkins and Hitchens would be horrified to learn that I, a proud Christian who believes in conquering the world for the gospel of Jesus Christ, find myself in common, if not frequent, agreement with these anti-religion screeds, despite the utter disparity between my life’s mission and theirs, despite the fervor with which they denounce my beliefs or the reams of paper I would happily use in demonstrating the futility and hopelessness of theirs.

 “Yes,” I said emphatically, more often than not as I read of some tragedy or another perpetrated in the name of religion. “Yes,” I could say without hesitation, “there have been many shameful things done by those who claim to be religious. Yes, these are things that should be both understood and spoken out against.”

The joyful truth is this: these books spend chapter after chapter detailing the horrors of religion, and as they did so I could happily agree, because I recognized the one thing that eluded the authors: they were hardly ever writing about my religion. Dawkins titled his book The God Delusion, and Hitchens, God is Not Great, and in both cases I found many, many mentions of many, many gods, but I found hardly any mention of my God. They only rarely touched on the things I believe, the positions I hold, the relationships that are central to my life. Hitchens affirms that religion poisons everything, and yet he seems to have taken very little notice of what I believe. Both men have penned scathing critiques of religion—and many of their attacks are not entirely dissimilar from those of Christ Himself, who thoroughly lambasted the religious zealots of his day, or of the Apostle Paul, who fought fervently against the early church becoming a slave to religiosity. Dawkins and Hitchens might wince at the comparison, but there is truly something eerily similar about their arguments and those of the very Christ they deny.

I won’t attempt to defend religion here. Where would be the point in that? I won’t defend the horrors of the suicide bombers of Islam, the Temple Prostitutes or Caste system of Hinduism, or even the cultural evils of many Christian denominations today. I’ll proudly stand by the humanists in condemning the cult of Westboro and the bombing of abortion clinics and I will proudly denounce a so-called Christian openly acting against the Word of God. Some things are simply indefensible. I will only defend the God of the Bible, who is as wholly separate from these things as good is from evil.

The points of agreement I find with these men may be evident and surprising, but our disagreements remain far more important—carrying, as they do, the weight of eternity. And while I agree with many of their points—and I would encourage all believers to become familiar with these points and to never hesitate in voicing their agreement—I do not excuse their intentions. These men may not understand the God that I worship, they may not even believe in Him, but their efforts are nevertheless to destroy Him (a paradox, to be sure, but what is life without paradox?). They may not have ever understood the Bible, but they still seek to build a society that has no need for it.

I will spend the next several posts offering my counter-argument to these books, for they represent nothing less than an opposition to God, and that alone makes them worth my attention. I only hope that I am able to demonstrate that, though they have learned much about religion, they seem to know almost nothing at all about Jesus; and that is the true tragedy.