Eagleton, Dawkins, and the Category Dismissal

In the October 19, 2006 issue of the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton published a scathing review of Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion.” It is not my purpose today to address either Eagleton, Dawkins, or Dawkins’s book, but rather to treat with a single, troubling argument that came from it. It’s what I’ll call, “A Category Dismissal.”

In his review, Eagleton argues that Dawkins’s assessment of Christian theology is, at best, fourth-rate. Allow me to quote his opening paragraph:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

Eagleton presents several arguments in this paragraph that are worth clarifying. First, that Dawkins’s theological knowledge is woefully inadequate given his declarations about theological truth. Second, disbelief in a theological system cripples Dawkins’s judgments regarding that system. Third, this combination (lack of knowledge plus lack of belief) produces the “vulgar caricatures” which permeate Dawkins’s prose (as well as that of other New Atheists). Fourth, the strong emotions of religious rejection fuel the process further. And fifthly, in any other discipline such ‘reasoned’ thinkers would feel obligated to study their subject in far greater depth.

He looks friendly enough, but his pen is filled with bitter ink...

In short, because Dawkins’s arguments are funded on a combination of both ignorance of and contempt for theology, he produces a vast array of easily crushed straw men which pass for arguments. Consequently, because Dawkins argues ignorantly, his arguments reflect more his own personal issues than anything particular about his favorite subject, religion. We can assert, in a sense, that Dawkins has found in Christian theology a favorite punching bag for his own anger issues (at which point we can observe that Dawkins’s arguments and methods say a great deal more about Dawkins than they do about Christianity, but that is beside my main point today).

Now, I asserted at the start that my point here is not to engage with Eagleton or Dawkins per se, but rather to identify a curious kind of argument that occurs within this debate. It is a problem that Eagleton identifies in his opening paragraph, and it is one that, ironically, the very first commentator on this article perpetuates. At the end of Eagleton’s piece, one A.C. Grayling from the University of London writes the following:

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises.

And there you have it—the category dismissal in action. I have denied your premises before you stated anything, Mr. Eagleton, therefore dealing with your religious arguments is tantamount to nonsense. Case closed.

You have an argument? Look at the hair. Case closed.

This is an argumentative twist that ought to raise our rhetorical alarm flags sky high. It is an argument that says, “I don’t have to listen to you because I disagree with you.” It is an argument-ending argument of the same order as, “Because I told you so.” There’s nothing to say in response because one of the parties isn’t listening to the other at all.

Let’s dig into this little rhetorical twist a bit further and see if, by taking a step backward into abstraction, we might better decipher what happened in this argument. Eagleton asserted that Dawkins has not studied enough theology to make useful judgments regarding the subject. Grayling made the counter point that you don’t need to study theology to judge it when you reject its premises. Let’s abstract this further for more clarity: Eagleton says this: X has made judgments about subject Y. X has not studied subject Y sufficiently to substantiate his judgments. Grayling responds with this: X does not need to study Y because X rejects Y.

Viewed this way, it becomes clear that the “Category Dismissal” I’ve identified here is really just a subtle and grand form of ad hominem. Eagleton has made an argument, and Grayling has asserted in response that the fact of disagreement is sufficient argument in matters of religion. “I disagree with you. Therefore you are wrong.” Or, in the spirit of the straw-man ad hominem, “I disagree with you, therefore you are an idiot.” Eagleton has argued for complexity, and Grayling has rebutted him by saying, “You are not worth addressing.” It is a refusal to engage the subject of religion on its own terms due to a priori judgments about religion. It is a highly biased and unethical approach to discourse. It is pervasive in atheist/Christian dialogue.

I don't need hair to make arguments.

Eagleton anticipates this argument in his opening paragraph. After all, if someone (especially a scientifically motivated New Atheist) were going to make a judgment about a given subject, that person, consistent with his/her commitment to scientific inquiry, is bound to research the complexities of the subject before pronouncing a judgment on that subject. But Grayling (apparently) has made his judgments about Eagleton’s assessment of Dawkins without needing to read what Eagleton wrote. This is a move that is (either ironically or tragically) entirely within the spirit of the Category Dismissal. After all, why deal with what is built on premises you disagree with if you disagree with those premises? And what a liberating philosophy of human discourse this is! Under its auspices I can grade papers without having to study them, write book reviews without having to read the books! I can even pronounce judgments on criminals without having to investigate the evidence! Life really is much simpler when I can declare people guilty without having to listen to them.

But this is clearly both unethical and dishonest. If the rhetoric of science is to be consistent, then each claim it encounters must be examined in all its fullness and complexity. If I, an otherwise reasonable person, came to you and assert that, “Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.” You have two options. First, you can dismiss me outright as an idiot because “you disagree with the premise that anyone can rise from the dead and therefore whatever I say in regard to that premise is worthless.” Or you can consider the claim, examine the evidence, consider the source (that I appear to be a reasonable person, not prone to believing in conspiracy theories, alien abductions, or the tooth fairy), and then make a determination on whether or not you will believe my claim that Jesus Christ lives. Only one response is consistent with scientific methodology. The other is stark judgmentalism.

What stands behind the Category Dismissal (to my estimation) is the thoroughgoing materialism that continues to drive the modern scientific worldview. Having made an a priori decision that nothing immaterial exists (which, note, is an impossible claim to verify), any argument or system which treats of the immaterial is therefore (at best) suspect or (at worst) dismissed outright. But as long as there is an a priori dismissal of any kind of evidence, the scientific mindset will be closed off to what is unexpected. It will only see what it is looking for, and never what it is not looking for. But in the same way that shutting one’s eyes doesn’t make one invisible, so shutting out evidence because you believe it doesn’t exist has no power over the actual evidence. Declaring something impossible does not make it impossible.

In the end, the rejection of evidence by way of the Category Dismissal is rude, unethical, unscientific, arrogant, and above all wrong. Unless this kind of dishonest rhetoric comes to an end, there will be no fruitful discussion between atheists and Christians. But this very observation sheds light on what is most unnervingly ironic about atheist/Christian dialogue: a profound absence of reason within it. And here, perhaps, what we must see is that the declaration, “I disagree with your premises,” is not an argument; it is a statement about the feelings of the arguer. And this statement reveals the deeper problem: if the atheist admits that your religious arguments are admissible then in some ways he has opened the door to the possibility of God. Perhaps, then, unfair argument is a kind of last defense, a prickly, irritating, and irrational response to protect the atheist mind from the possibility of God. What that would imply is that what the Christian is up against in discussions with atheists is the irrational—a childish, infantile reaction to the possibility of God. “I deny your premises”–the Category Dismissal–is then the last-defense argument against the possibility of God.

Hipster Faith: A Response

In the September issue of Christianity Today magazine, author Brett McCracken has penned an article called “Hipster Faith.”  It’s more or less an exposé on the “hipster” trend in modern Christianity—the fashionable, emergent, trendy faith that bears all the hallmarks of being the next ‘it’ thing in Christianity.  His evaluation is not particularly flattering, and I wanted to take a moment to address what I consider to be its strengths and weaknesses. (If you haven’t yet, please read the article here.)

Strengths:

Perhaps the strongest critique that McCracken offers to hipster Christians is the observation (somewhat implicit) that what we’re dealing with is a movement based on a reaction.  Here is a group of Christians seeking to break away from their parents’ faith and make it their own, essentially by reacting against it.  In light of this, McCracken can claim that, “In order to be a hipster, one must be a rebel.”

The problem, of course, with reactive movements is precisely their reactiveness.  They are often so focused on not being what others have been that they draw all their sense of identity from their dialogue partner.  They have definition only by virtue of being against something.  When that something which they are against fades, or weakens, or stops caring, then the whole power of the movement is lost.  Then, like the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19), everyone is shouting but no one knows what about.  The ultimate problem is that it is not possible to build a lasting movement upon a negation.  It must be built upon a positive.  Our foundational identity as Church is drawn from Christ, and not over against anything.

Another critique of hipster Christianity—and of many Christian movements in general—is the confusion these movements seem to inhabit when it comes to the concept of the subversive nature of the Gospel.  The logic seems to run like this: Jesus was subversive to religious authorities (a true statement); therefore, to be like Jesus we must subvert religious authorities (a false conclusion).  They then seem to conclude that anything subversive is also therefore Gospel, and this gives the rational force to the disavowal of traditional Evangelicalism.  Hence, McCracken states that “One thing we can fairly say of hipster Christianity is that it frequently strives for shock value.”  He cites, throughout the article, tattoos, alcohol, tobacco, swearing, non-traditional church locations (bars, warehouses).  He says, “If you aren’t willing to engage in at least some of this ‘subversive hedonism,’ you will have a hard time maintaining any hipster credibility.”  Many of these elements are subversion for subversion’s sake—reactions against the ‘rules’ of Evangelicalism.

The problem here is that hipster Christianity, so defined, is a self-negating entity.  McCracken’s comparison with the Jesus People of the 60s and 70s is appropriate:

“In a way, the contemporary Christian hipster is a full-circle return to the Jesus People hippies of yesteryear. But the Jesus People were secular “hipsters” first, then—having converted to Christianity—began to shed their hippie clothes and customs to form communities that were set apart, ultimately becoming their own subculture (e.g., Jesus People USA). Today’s Christian hipsters are doing the reverse.”

Here he hits the nail on the head.  The Jesus People were reformed rebels, people captured by Christ and made new by his grace.  They were ‘fringe’ only because of where they had come from.  The hipsters are reformed people who are now rebelling.  They are choosing to become fringe—and in McCracken’s estimation this seems to be because the fringe is cooler than what they came from.  Christ drastically subverted the culture he lived in, but not because he was attempting to subvert it—rather because he was committed to God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness.  Anyone who makes that commitment will become by definition subversive (see, of course, the eighth beatitude and its closing comment by Jesus himself).  All other subversive activity is mere rebellion against authority.

Weaknesses:

The previous comment provides an apt segue into the weaknesses of McCracken’s article, because subversion by virtue of commitment to Christ’s Kingdom and righteousness is one of the strengths of the ‘hipster’ trend.  Hence, McCracken offers some of the following criteria for identifying a hipster church (critically):

“What makes a church a “hipster church”? Does it have a one-word name that is either a Greek word or something evocative of creation? Does the pastor frequently use words like kingdom, authenticity, and justice, and drop names like N. T. Wright in sermons? Does the church advertise a gluten-free option for Communion? If the answer is yes to all of those questions, chances are that it’s a hipster church.”

These criteria clearly aren’t all that helpful, because most of them have nothing to do with the rebelliousness of hipster Christianity.  First, there are nearly as many names of churches as there are, well, churches.  Some with strange names, some with catchy names, some with ordinary names.  Most people, it is my guess, don’t really pick a church based on its name; they choose it based on the community of people that are there.  Second, of the three clue words, “kingdom, authenticity, and justice” that McCracken offers as hipster clues, go and do a word search on two of them—”kingdom” and “justice” (or, righteousness, dikaiosune accounts for both ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ in the bible) and you’ll see just how very biblical these terms are.  ‘Authenticity’ is the only non-biblical word which clues us in to a cultural preference.  (And, we might observe, a word such as ‘authenticity’, while sometimes an excuse for flagrant sinfulness, can also be a tonic against the pretense of church life in the past.)  As for N.T. Wright, he’s one of the finest biblical scholars living today, and his works will likely be read long after he’s passed into the Kingdom itself.  Third, what’s the point about gluten-free communion? Are people with wheat allergies permanently barred from Holy Communion? I think not.

At another point, when discussing the subversive ‘shock value’ of hipster churches, McCracken points out the trend of sermons dealing with “touchy subjects such as homosexuality, child abuse, sex trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and so on, sometimes with an f-bomb or two thrown in for good measure.”  Apart, of course, from the f-bombs, these are all topics which are real issues in our world today, and which, as the Church, we should be actively striving to address through our mission together.

My point is this.  You could attend “St. John’s Church,” or “Mosaic” in Anywhere, North America, where the minister preached regularly Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God (Jesus’ favourite subject), and about God’s passion for Justice, relating the issues of the bible to issues of today (sex trafficking and child abuse), quoting N.T. Wright occasionally, and offering gluten-free communion because a member of the congregation has a wheat allergy.  None of that would indicate a “hipster,” cool, or particularly rebellious community of faith.

Lastly, McCracken identified the following theological trends as indicative of the hipster movement:

“Hipster Christianity also expresses itself theologically, through preaching that often emphasizes covenantal and “new creation” ideas and attempts to construct a more ecclesiological or community-centric view of salvation. Things like soul-winning and going to heaven are downplayed in favor of the notion that heaven will come down to earth and renew the broken creation. Thus, the world matters. It’s not a piece of rotting kindling that we will abandon for heaven one day. It’s the site of a renewed kingdom. All of this informs hipster Christianity’s attention to things like social justice, environmentalism, and the arts, because if God is building his kingdom on earth, then it all matters.”

Well, I find nothing in this paragraph to disagree with.  In fact, I pretty much entirely agree with it.  Further, if the definition of “hipster” Christianity is that it’s reactive, rebellious, and subversive to Evangelicalism, then these are welcome reactions against the isolationist, destructo-creation trends which mark modern Evangelicalism.  Consider the following: “Covenant” is one of the central constructs through which God has communicated with His people. “New Creation” is central to the effects of the work which Christ has accomplished on our behalf as his Church.  And as regards a “community-centric view of salvation,” it almost seems too easy to point out that the entirely of the bible is intended as a community book, and that the goal of all creation revealed in Revelation is that we will dwell together in a city.  If there is a reaction against Evangelical trends and practices, then it is against the isolating and individualist trends of 20th century Evangelical evangelism.  Church, as Christ’s body, is the goal of creation, says Paul to the Ephesians, and we, as Church, must explore and understand our purpose.  In matters of Ecclesiology—one of the greatest theological shortcomings of the Evangelical church—any recovery or restoration of that area of theology should be a welcome correction.

All in all, the reactive, false, and pretentiously subversive elements of hipster Christianity will fade, as all reactive movements fade.  No church can survive such a groundless, negative, and Christ-anemic atmosphere.  However, the true subversive elements present among the so-called ‘hipster faith’—the creational, covenantal, N.T. Wright reading, ecclesiological, kingdom-justice and culturally relevant elements—these, because of their truly biblical foundations, will and should remain.  Such issues, in fact, aren’t specifically hipster at all.