Here be the ninth installment of my interminably long review of John Loftus’ book Why I Became an Atheist. For part eight click here. In this chapter I finally round out my discussion of chapter 2
(See? I am making progress.)
Loftus commits the fallacy of the single cause
Beginning on page 58 John Loftus starts discussing natural theology. He notes that since the 1980s there has been a renaissance in the discipline. However, Loftus then goes on to make the surprising claim that the waning fortunes of natural theology throughout much of the twentieth century were wholly attributable to the corrosive impact of historical biblical criticism:
“But let’s not forget that the reason why natural theology fell into a state of disgrace was due to the onslaught in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of biblical criticism. Because of biblical criticism defenders of the faith had to resort to faith-based rather than evidence-based arguments.” (59)
With this statement, Loftus commits the fallacy of the single cause. That is, he erroneously assumes that the decline of natural theology in the mid-twentieth century was wholly attributable to a sole cause. In fact, this is demonstrably false for there are several well known causes for the past retreat of natural theology.
To begin with, there are major philosophical factors to consider. At this point it is important to keep in mind that the fortunes of natural theology are intimately tied to the fortunes of metaphysics generally. If skepticism about the value and/or prospects of metaphysics becomes widespread, this will inevitably impact natural theology adversely. And that’s precisely what we see in the twentieth century, viz. several philosophical objections to metaphysics including Kantianism, logical positivism, pragmatism, behaviorism, and Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy. Several of these philosophical perspectives promoted views of metaphysics as hopelessly speculative, futile, or even an exercise in sophisticated gibberish. So it is little surprise that natural theology languished in this austere landscape.
There were other philosophical causes to be added to a general skepticism about metaphysics. Perhaps the most significant was the pre-Vatican 2 hegemony of Thomism among Catholic philosophers and theologians. In other words, for much of the twentieth century good Catholic scholars were limited to the tools of Thomism. Vatican 2 opened the door for other approaches to natural theology, but there can be little doubt that the hegemony of Thomism prior to Vatican 2 tended to have a stultifying effect on theological reflection.
Loftus mentions Karl Barth as a major factor in Protestant skepticism toward natural theology. And he is right to note that Barth was very much concerned with how to develop a post-critical understanding of the Bible — the so-called “Neo-orthodoxy” — that could sustain the challenges of historical biblical criticism. But the assumption that Barth was critical about natural theology because of historical biblical criticism flies in the face of the evidence. There are at least three central factors to explain Barth’s particularly strong rejection of natural theology, and none of them are motivated by historical biblical criticism.
To begin with, the Reformed tradition in which Barth worked has always been defined by a general skepticism toward natural theology. To be sure, there have been Reformed theologians who endorsed natural theology (the Princetonians, for example), but the Reformed tradition has long been critical of the enterprise, believing it to evince an inadequate conception of the noetic effects of sin. Barth fits comfortably within this tradition of skepticism.
Second, Barth was deeply impacted by Kierkegaardean existentialism and the notion of an infinite qualitative difference between God and humankind. For Barth, as for Brunner, the idea of divinely initiated experience becomes central to theological reflection. This runs counter to the assumptions of natural theology that God is available for critical, rational reflection
Third, and most importantly, Barth was thoroughly Christocentric, believing that all reflection on God must be rooted in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Barth’s position is powerfully illustrated in the booklet that Barth wrote in response to Brunner’s tentative commendation of natural theology — it was titled simply Nein! Fine, you’re thinking, Barth doesn’t like natural theology. But why the exclamation point in the title? Isn’t that a bit much? Not for Barth. He witnessed the rise of the Third Reich and believed that Hitler was using natural theology to start a new neo-pagan fascist German religion. In response, Barth authored the famous Barmen Declaration which eschews natural theology in favor of the sole revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
Barth’s influence on contemporary theology has been massive. He is likely the most influential theologian of the twentieth century, perhaps since the Reformation. So it is difficult to underestimate the influence his extremely skeptical stance toward natural theology has had on contemporary theology. (Barth took a more moderate perspective toward natural theology later in his career, but the nuance hasn’t always been appreciated by his followers.)
Why does Loftus commit the fallacy of the single cause?
I am taking the time to point out the complex nexus of philosophical, cultural and theological factors that weakened natural theology in the twentieth century to illustrate how woefully inadequate is Loftus’ understanding. The puzzling thing is that anybody who has been to seminary (as Loftus has) should be aware of these factors. So why does Loftus ignore them all here?
The best answer that I can come up with is that Loftus wants to bind natural theology to historical biblical criticism as part of a polemical attack on natural (and systematic) theology and the alleged cognitive dissonance of those who engage in these disciplines. As he puts it, “What I see as the rise of natural theology in recent times is based on an ignorance of critical biblical studies.” (59)
I agree that there are Christian theologians, philosophers and apologists who have indefensible views of biblical inspiration and inerrancy which are only maintained via compartamentalization and cognitive dissonance. And I have repeatedly critiqued those positions in my sustained engagement with issues like biblical violence, the Bible and science, and (in my recent critical interaction with apologist Michael Brown) homosexuality. But that is a completely separate issue from natural theology.
While there is undoubtedly much that contemporary Christian philosophers and theologians can learn from historical biblical criticism, it seems to me that Loftus adopts an uncritical endorsement of the results of these critics which is driven by his own anti-Christian polemical commitments. Historical biblical criticism is often driven by dubious assumptions and conjecture. Consider, for example, the way that many critics embraced the so-called Gospel of Secret Mark as a legitimate ancient book — and one which may be more ancient and reliable than Mark — based on the thinnest of evidence. Stephen Carlson’s detective work in The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark provides overwhelming evidence that this so-called gospel was in fact a hoax perpetuated by the scholar Morton Smith. The rapidity with which it was embraced by many supposedly hard-nosed scholars is a cautionary tale for us all.
The need for ongoing dialogue
Natural theologians and Christian philosophers do need to keep dialoguing with historical biblical critics. This project has been progressing in a faltering manner for the last couple decades, beginning with the important interdisciplinary collection of essays Hermes and Athena: Biblical Exegesis and Philosophical Theology, eds. Thomas Flint and Eleonore Stump (University of Notre Dame Press, 1993). (See Stump’s essay “Modern Biblical Scholarship, Philosophy of Religion and Traditional Christianity” which is available online here.)
Recently, philosophers have been engaging with the biblical text with an increasing degree of sophistication. Two notable examples are the Christian philosopher Eleonore Stump’s Wandering in Darkness and Jewish philosopher Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Both Stump and Hazony are cautious about the results of historical biblical criticism, but their caution is not borne of unthinking dogmatism. (I have reviewed both of those books in my blog.)
In conclusion, Loftus’ attempt to bind the waxing and waning fortunes of natural theology to the degree to which one (uncritically) accepts the results of historical biblical criticism is a failure. Loftus naively commits the fallacy of the single cause. Once again, he has allowed his polemical aspirations to override careful, judicious analysis.