Reviewed by Jacques Berlinerblau
Sunday, September 28, 2008
NO ONE SEES GOD
The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers
By Michael Novak
Doubleday. 310 pp. $23.95
Only a modern theologian could interpret the middle finger that the New Atheists have raised to religion and religious believers as an invitation to dialogue. No matter how provocatively or condescendingly such authors as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett may state their case against faith, today's religious intellectuals remain eager to engage them in conversation, to assess their arguments and to set them back on the Right Path.
The desire for a heart-to-heart chat with these Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is on display in Michael Novak's No One Sees God, the latest entry in the category of Atheist Versus Theist Lit. While not without shortcomings, Novak's book is among the best of the genre; it is erudite, sincere and rendered in clear and accessible prose. This is the work of an older and wiser thinker, one who has understood that most painfully achieved axiom of Western civilization: In religious disputation, invective achieves absolutely nothing.
Which is not to say that I, an unrepentant Jewish atheist, am persuaded by any of his arguments in favor of God's existence. Novak, a Catholic theologian at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is no more likely to convert nonbelievers than the incitements of the Horsemen are to swell the ranks of apostates. To his credit, however, he seems to understand this. No One Sees God suggests, though somewhat mutedly, that the philosophical chasm between believers and unbelievers may be unbridgeable. With these two constituencies, proselytizing achieves absolutely nothing, either.
First among the virtues of this book is its author's commitment to civil, sober discourse. "My underlying thesis," he writes, is "that unbelievers and believers need to learn a new habit of reasoned and mutually respectful conversation." This means that Novak will not respond in kind to Hitchens, author of that bestselling compendium of religious grotesquerie, God is Not Great. Those expecting a smack-down between two inside-the-Beltway titans, with all its attendant Godzilla-versus-Rodan charms, will be disappointed.
Instead, No One Sees God calmly re-draws the "primitive fresco of Christianity" sketched by the New Atheists. Whereas they depict believers as simpletons and dupes, Novak offers a more complex portrait of the theist psyche. Believers routinely express dismay and anger toward their deity. They often feel betrayed by Him. And they sometimes even doubt that He exists. "The line of belief and unbelief," he observes, "is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us."
But the author's most intriguing contributions lie in the realm of epistemology. The really compelling question asked by this book goes something like this: How can God's existence, which is so abundantly obvious to believers, seem so incomprehensible to nonbelievers? Novak is at his best not when he spends 52 pages trying to convince the atheist (and politically conservative) writer Heather Mac Donald of God's mercy and kindness, but precisely when he ponders why nonbelievers seem incapable of accepting such arguments. To help frame the debate, he invokes the idea of a "blick," a "way of viewing reality that is not usually overturned by one or more pieces of countervailing evidence." Coined in about 1950 by the British philosopher R.M. Hare (who spelled it "blik"), the term refers to a mental filter through which people sift information, admitting some things as facts and rejecting others. To simplify somewhat, atheists and theists process information about the cosmos in radically different ways.
This is the unbridgeable chasm into which Novak gazes. His analysis suggests that the central dilemma confronting us today is not whether God exists but how those who disagree about God's existence can live together. Accordingly, Novak closes with a summary of a 2004 dialogue between the political philosopher and nonbeliever Jürgen Habermas and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Their conversation -- in which Habermas affirmed the importance of religion for civilization and Ratzinger stressed the importance of reason to the Christian faith -- is an exemplar of the ways in which bearers of differing blicks might be able to engage one another.
No One Sees God does not always hit its mark. Novak is wrong to argue that the New Atheists do not take the threat of Islamic radicalism seriously. They have been relentless (and justified) in focusing on this subject. The problem is that they cast all religious persons in the image of jihadis. In so doing, the New Atheists overlook (and alienate) the very constituency -- religious moderates -- with whom they could make common political cause.
No critique of nonbelief would be complete without equating atheism with nihilism, the view that life is pointless and morality has no solid foundation. Novak is quick to draw this association, so let me register the following concerns. For starters, any student of the Crusades, any reader of Bartoleme de Las Casas's The Devastasion of the Indies and anyone who witnessed 9/11 is aware that believers and nonbelievers are equally capable of depravity. Second, the overwhelming majority of atheists are not nihilists but do-gooders who want to leave the world in better shape than they found it, or some such thing. Most important, Novak fails to recognize that much of the atheist nihilism that does exist is of the creative variety; the few practicing nihilists out there perform acts of defamation and desecration on stages, movie screens or the pages of a novel, not on human or social bodies.
In my view, the author is also too quick to bundle Christianity and Judaism together as theological soulmates (and too slow to ponder what the historical intolerance of the former toward the latter might say about the goodness of religion, if not God). But that doesn't change my overall impression that this is a thoughtful and well-intentioned book, permeated throughout by the sage counsel that Novak dispenses at the end: "Let us be kind to one another." ·
Jacques Berlinerblau is director of the program for Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, and author of "The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously."