I’m reading a very good essay by Andrew Davison (DPhil, Biochemistry, Oxford) who is the tutor in Doctrine at Wescott House, Cambridge. He is speaking in general regarding the presentation of the Gospel message and Christianity in general to seekers and doubters alike. He is specifically addressing the use of “reason” and what “reason” means. He begins to trace the history of the idea of “reason” and its use and of course comes to the Enlightenment and the postmodern shift. As an aside, he helpfully differentiates between the, what I would call more radical postmodernism, the type that questions the very possibility of reason and the more common understanding of postmodernism that simply notes how “reason” is always context-laden and used in and under the employ of a narrative. I quote him at length:
All thought begins somewhere, and there is more than one place to begin. There is more than one way to think, and no one way is conveniently marked out as better than all the others. Western philosophy came to see this over the course of the twentieth century. This was part of the collapse of the Enlightenment project, which had supposed there to be only one way to be rational…This is a welcomed collapse. It is a genuine advance to acknowledge more than one mode of rationality, as is the realization that all thought involved prior commitments.
Several consequences follow…The first is that no one view of the world can rest on its laurels. None of us can take it for granted that our particular world-view is better than all the rest, or that it is the ‘natural’ or ‘obvious’ way to understand things. No longer can any perspective claim to be neutral, supposing that all the others are biased. As the philosophers like to say, there is no view “from nowhere’; thought involves presuppositions. That is not to say that no preconception is any better than any other, or more accurate. It simply means that there are always preconceptions.
As an immediate result, secular thought is not privileged over religious thought by means of some obvious and effortless superiority…Here the twentieth century’s tectonic shifts over reason come to our [the church] aid. Because there is no thought without prior commitments to axioms, no way of seeing and thinking has automatic pride of place. Intellectually, if Christianity were in a culturally stronger position, this realization would serve to nudge us out of our complacency. That would be no bad thing. Since, however, the dominant mode of rationality in the West is not Christian but secular, the message that no stance is neutral, and automatically better than any other, works strongly in the favour of the Christian apologist. Atheist rationality must state its case like any other. Naturalism is a faith commitment, and one that naturalist deny in their daily lives and loves.
This is all old news. This particular light dawned some time ago, especially for anyone exposed to thinking from Continental Europe. It was a real breakthrough in understanding what it means to understand, but it came decades ago.
That last point is interesting because one reason I think the New Atheists haven’t received much traction in the academy is because their views are already out of date and far behind current philosophy. I would imagine that most philosophers (of whatever bent) might read a New Atheist work and imagine they were reading a freshman philosophy paper by the student who slept through the history part of the course. The New Atheists’ books have done much better with the less educated, but we might well imagine this is true because it may be the first time they have ever heard these arguments. And, for a popular audience, everything is easy to understand when presented in black and white, right or wrong, as one shouts and pounds the podium. The other reason for the cold response from the academy is no doubt the writers’ lack of sophistication, complexity, or subtlety of argument in their works. Well, that, and the fact none of them have the foggiest notion what they are talking about when it comes to the history of philosophical thought or theology in general. If one is going to attack something, it helps to know what it is.
Clearly the New Atheists never got the memo that the Enlightenment project has been over for some time now and their view of reason is no longer privileged and has been unmasked. Oh well. Get use to it and get over it.
However, it is not only the New Atheists who didn’t get the memo. Many evangelicals seem to have also been absent the day it was circulated. I will post more on that irony in the near future.