If asked whether he’s a believer, Wes, a Christian pastor, won’t give a simple answer. He has struggled with his faith for years. He can’t say whether he believes or disbelieves in any easy way. Instead, he tries to explain something more subtle, closer to “both” and “neither” than “yes” or “no.”
“The difference between me and an atheist is basically this,” he says, “It’s not about the existence of God. It’s: do we believe that there is room for the use of the word ‘God’ in some context? … I think the word God can be used very expressively in some of my more meditative modes. I’ve thought of God as a kind of poetry that’s written by human beings.”
Wes—a pseudonym—is one of five men who participated in Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola’s recently released study, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers.” LaScola is a social worker and Dennett, a philosopher, is one of the original New Atheists (and the “Four Horsemen”), well-known for his vitriol against religion. Much of their report is subtle and moving. It allows five Protestant ministers to express their isolation and private wrestling with questions of belief, venturing careful and sometimes complicated explanations. Unfortunately, though, the authors don’t seem to be listening. Instead, they seem intent on catching religion red-handed by exposing hypocrisy at the top.
What these clergymen really have to offer is ultimately not the fact of whether they believe in God or not but, rather, the struggles of honesty, faith, and reason that are a part of so many people’s lives today. Yet Dennett and LaScola dismiss the nuance in what their subjects say, foisting a severely restrictive framework onto the ministers’ carefully thought-out positions. Even in the title, the study labels them “not believers,” though that doesn’t really describe them at all.
As one of the men says, “We are not ‘un-believers’ in our own minds.”
In whose minds, then, do they disbelieve? In the mind of Albert Mohler, Jr., certainly. The prominent Southern Baptist calls their beliefs “heresy, apostasy, and hypocrisy.” Dennett and LaScola seem to agree with this when they write that the five ministers “live out their ministries in secret disbelief.”
“It’s not,” says “Darryl,” one of the five, “that I’m not a believer. I do believe in God.” He raises the all-important question posed by Augustine: what do you believe when you say you believe in God? Or, maybe just as important: what do you disbelieve when you disbelieve in God?
Dennett and LaScola try to describe the range of possible (Christian) answers. They come up, though, with a curiously limited set of options:
A spectrum of available conceptions of God can be put in rough order, with frank anthropomorphism at one extreme—a God existing in time and space with eyes and hands and love and anger—through deism, a somehow still personal God who cares but is nevertheless outside time and space and does not intervene, and the still more abstract Ground of all Being, from which (almost?) all anthropomorphic features have been removed, all the way to frank atheism: nothing at all is aptly called God.
This simple framework, however, doesn’t make any place or space for some of the most traditional, philosophical conceptions of God in Christian tradition. Those who have thought about this question seriously—Anselm, Aquinas, Barth, Boff, and on down to the ministers in this study—have developed sophisticated understandings of God that don’t seem to fit among the “spectrum of available conceptions.”
It begins with a basic confusion of terms. Dennett and LaScola, for instance, quote Karen Armstrong’s statement that, “God is not a being at all.” But instead of understanding that to mean God is more than a being among beings, or that God is Being itself, they take it as a veiled declaration of atheism. They react as if Armstrong is trying to disguise her true unbelief behind tricky language. Yet Armstrong is only repeating an old and familiar formula that believers have used for centuries to answer Augustine’s question.
We’re told that two other ministers declined to participate in the study because of “concerns about the term ‘non-believing.’” Dennett and LaScola seem surprised by this. “Though neither of them believed in a supernatural god, both strongly self-identified as believers,” the authors write. “But what do they mean by this? Are they perhaps deceiving themselves? There is no way of answering.”
This is preposterous. There is no reason to assume they’re deceiving themselves, and it’s dishonest to suggest there is. Dennett and LaScola were forced to recognize that their terms were inadequate and misleading, but they proceeded to use them anyway.
There are also, of course, many ways of answering, many ways of believing and not believing. But the study dismisses all but a few characterizations of belief as untenable. Most of the preachers “who do not believe” make attempts to stake out other points on a spectrum of belief, but they are criticized as “spin doctoring.” With this judgment, and the moral weight it carries, the authors come to the end of their empathy. Dennett and LaScola are mono(a)theists: they claim to know exactly what God is and they call it hooey. For them God is ridiculous, and they insist on their simple definitions even if that means dismissing the accounts of more reasonable beliefs offered by those who hold them.
Dennett and LaScola would say my objection is just “assiduously” ambiguous, attempting to confuse the question by making the definition of God more complicated. They think such complications are really a guise, protecting religion with “a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God,” so that “many people could sincerely say that they don’t know what they are being asked.” But if the question of belief is worth asking, it’s worth understanding. Like most things human, it’s challenging. If something’s worth believing in, it’s worth believing in rigorously.
“Philosophical theology,” Dennett has said elsewhere, “is a pseudo-sophisticated mugs game, full of willful obscurities.” But this is as much a premise as a conclusion. Even if all the theists are really mugs playing a mad game of absurdism and obscurantism, rationally engaging with them requires responding to the most sophisticated among them. Rejecting a mischaracterized God that isn’t worth taking seriously isn’t much of a feat.
All of the preachers in the study have struggled, primarily, with denominational dogma that tries to strip down belief much as Dennett does. They have wrestled not with God so much as with particular doctrines, particular understandings of God, and, especially, with the conventions about what can and can’t be discussed openly in church. Three of them insist that, though they have rejected their denominations’ dogma, they still believe in God; they just say it’s complicated. The other two seem to accept that they, in fact, are unbelievers, that the line drawn by fundamentalists and the New Atheists is right, and they fall on the side of not believing.
Wherever they end up in their answers to the question of belief, all five of these men have taken belief seriously. They have not simply accepted or rejected imposed definitions of what faith means. They have struggled and tried to be honest about it.
To the point that Dennett and LaScola listen and let these men talk about their wrestling with faith, their report deserves our attention. It rightly calls for more openness, and even empathy, in listening to these men and hearing out their stories. But then the authors try to stuff these stories into boxes that don’t fit them. An honest atheism must come to terms with the God it rejects. Dennett and LaScola took the time to find these preachers and ask them to speak out—so why do they dismiss the answers?