Adam Gopnik is one of my very favorite essayists, but when he turns to religion, I must turn my head. As with me and economic theory, Gopnik simply doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. I’d been waiting for the vinegary theologian David Bentley Hart to respond to Gopnik’s New Yorker essay about theism and atheism, and DBH’s reaction does not disappoint. Excerpts:
Simply said, we have reached a moment in Western history when, despite all appearances, no meaningful public debate over belief and unbelief is possible. Not only do convinced secularists no longer understand what the issue is; they are incapable of even suspecting that they do not understand, or of caring whether they do.
Nothing is happening here. The conversation has never begun. The current vogue in atheism is probably reducible to three rather sordidly ordinary realities: the mechanistic metaphysics inherited from the seventeenth century, the banal voluntarism that is the inevitable concomitant of late capitalist consumerism, and the quiet fascism of Western cultural supremacism (that is, the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players). Everything else is idle chatter—and we live in an age of idle chatter. Lay the blame where you will: the internet, 940 television channels, social media, the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup, whatever you like. Almost all public discourse is now instantaneous, fluently aimless, deeply uninformed, and immune to logical rigor. What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best. Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend. Now, perhaps, it is only so much bad intellectual journalism, which is to say, gossip, fashion, theatrics, trifling prejudice. Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends—not with a bang but a whimper.
Trust me, you’ll want to read the whole thing.
I do hope that Hart will not wait quite so long to have the fatuous atheist critic Jerry Coyne for lunch. The rigidly ideological Coyne is one of the least-interesting critics of theism, precisely because he routinely gives scant evidence of understanding the position of his opponents (see Edward Feser on this point). His New Republic piece dismissing Hart’s book is on par with Gopnik’s, except that Gopnik, to his very great credit, is a marvelous prose stylist and a generous human being, and does not write as if he were delivering his message while standing on a bench in Hyde Park.