“The Christian religion is one of those subjects about which it is cool to be ignorant.”

Rowan Williams

It’s a kind of unspoken truism of the academic world: Religion departments are the only faculties in a college or university forbidden to be committed to their subject matter. Professors of religion should study religion, the reasoning goes, but not actually practice it. Religion scholars can admire particular traditions or doctrines but they can’t really take them seriously. (Not if they want to be taken seriously).

So it’s common to hear: “We don’t teach religion; we teach about religion.” But, as John Dixon has pointed out, “does anyone ever say, ‘We don’t teach chemistry. We teach about chemistry.'” 

In the post-Darwinian world we inhabit, the tenets of religious faith must be, if not renounced, at least re-worked. In the name of tolerance and scientific progress, all dogma must be repudiated. We forget, though, that “the repudiation of dogma is itself a dogma, one of the most rigidly fixed in the modern mind” (Dixon).

“Think for yourself” is the message imparted to the young. “Question authority,” we tell them. (But do Chemistry professors really want their students to “think for themselves”?).

None of this is new. But the rise of the New Atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, and others) has brought it into sharper relief.  The “tony nihilism” of this dogmatism and its devotees (and these people think they’re not “religious”?) assumes a posture of cool indifference to classical forms of faith — picture Christopher Hitchens dragging on a cigarette, flicking the butt, apathetically, to the curb.

That metaphorical gesture is meant to communicate “I don’t give a shit about religion,” but of course, Hitchens cares deeply about it, enough to hold forth for 300 plus pages on its monumental failures — on the pathetic legacy of Christianity, the dangers of Islam.  Religion, he is sure, “belongs to the prehistory of the species.”

But listening to the New Atheists talk theology is, as Terry Eagleton has observed, like hearing someone hold forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds.

Yet it’s not just the embarrassing amateurism. It’s the smug assumption that the kinds of theological questions posed by present-day intellectuals would  not also have occurred to Augustine or Aquinas, Bonhoeffer or Barth.

What the New Atheists believe they have accomplished — a devastating critique of religious faith such that no thoughtful person could possibly embrace it — can be very seductive on college campuses where, as I’ve already said, an ethos of skepticism is not only prized but actively cultivated.

It’s easy to collude with this cool skepticism. The harder task is, I think, two-fold: One, to recognize and name for what it is the difficulty of the religious life. As Rowan Williams has said, “Living in the Christian institution isn’t particularly easy. It is, generally, today, an anxious, inefficient, pompous, evasive body. If you hold office in it, you become more and more conscious of what it’s doing to your soul. Think of what Coca-Cola does to your teeth. Why bother?”

Some of us bother, to get to the second point, because in the flawed, erring body that is the Church we believe we have been met, primarily in the sacraments, with the truth of all life: that the world subsists, coheres, and endures by love — a divine love that summons every person and all of creation toward wholeness, toward participation in that ceaseless flow of caritas that is the Source of all that is.