Nelson Jones on why Dawkins disappoints: The theism/new atheism debate reconsidered

In “Why Dawkins Disappoints” (New Statesman, 20 May 2011), Nelson Jones argues that atheism is now the default position in the modern world. In science, in law, and in everyday life, we make no appeals to God in order to explain natural phenomena or to resolve all-too-human disputes. And this, he implies, is something new, something peculiar to the modern age.

I agree with Jones up to this point. From here, however, he suggests that theists have to make stronger arguments for the existence of God, and so the best of theists are bound to win such debates with their flabbier atheists. Finding themselves in a corner, theists have had to sharpen their wits. It does not follow, he says, that theists are right and atheists are wrong. Fair enough.

I mean to disagree with Jones’ very modern characterization of religion as an entity that is “analyzable” in terms of a discrete set of propositions or beliefs and in terms of valid and sound arguments concerning, e.g., the existence of God. This is sheer nonsense. The essence of religion has always been a certain way of being in the world, a kind of orientation toward the divine. In this way of life, true and false propositions will play a role (to be sure, a theist can’t find meaning in this way of life unless God exists), but these utterances will be folded into meaningful social practices and, even more generally, into a style of life.

It follows that most of the ink spilled about proofs for or against the existence of God is, ahem, nothing more than onanism.