John F. Haught Responds To My Review of His Book, God and the New Atheism

I am honored, of course, in having a scholar like Dr. Haught write a response to my review. There have been five parts to it: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; and Part 5. Here is his response in full:

October 11, 2008

Dear John,

Thanks for your five-part review of my book. I’m especially impressed that you have avoided the lovelessness and ad hominem attacks featured by some other blogs on the topic. I do not agree with most of your criticisms, but I appreciate your non-defensive reaction to my book, and I think you have made an honest attempt to look for points where we might find common ground. Perhaps a longer book on my part might have prevented some misunderstandings, but my editors wanted me to be brief. Some of your criticisms have been addressed already in other books of mine such as Is Nature Enough?, God After Darwin, What Is God?, and Christianity and Science.

There is too much in your critique for me to address here, so let me just mention three items. First, I did not wish to give the impression that Sartre, Camus, and Nietzsche speak for all atheists, although this is how you read my intention. I simply see their writings as articulating what I consider to be the ultimate implications of any atheism that is thought out with thoroughgoing logical consistency. You do not agree with this, it is clear, but my point is precisely that Nietzsche and Sartre do not speak for most atheists since the latter, in defending moral values they have inherited from a Christian culture, are still theistic at heart.

Secondly, I cannot help noticing your own sincere sense of disillusionment with the biblical God who does not live up to your ideal of how an appropriate deity should behave. In this respect you seem to agree with Dawkins and Hitchens whose moral idealism I discuss in Chapter 8. Like them you are disappointed, even scandalized, that the Bible is so often crude and that its portraits of God don’t always measure up to what most of us now expect of truly moral persons. You rightly point out that scholars have read the Bible with diverse hermeneutical perspectives, but most of them no longer read the Bible in the moralistic and accusatory way that you and the new atheists do. I am by no means alone in holding that the dominant biblical contribution—from Genesis to Revelation—is not moral instruction, but an emphasis on the themes of liberation, promise, and the need to trust in spite of all present doubts about there being any final redemptive meaning to history and the universe. Whether this trust is justifiable in an age of science is a major theme in my other books, but here I cannot say any more in defense of it.

My point, for now, is that in reading the Bible we don’t need to look to it primarily as moral instruction. If we do we will be disappointed, as you have been. People, including most atheists, can be quite moral without having to read the Bible. Morality is not the main point. Here I agree with A. N. Whitehead: “Conduct is a by-product of religion—an inevitable by-product, but not the main point. Every great religious teacher has revolted against the presentation of religion as a mere sanction of rules of conduct. . . . The insistence upon rules of conduct marks the ebb of religious fervor.”

My own theological formation, which I share with many other Christians, has led me to read the Bible in the spirit of Jesus’s main concern, namely, that people, starting with the most immoral of us, should trust that our lives have everlasting value in spite of all pain, death, mourning, persecution, personal failings, and needless guilt heaped upon us by the morally righteous.

It is hard for me to read the New Testament without noticing how thoroughly it subordinates moral instruction to trust (pistis, which is often translated as faith or hope). Hope gives rise to moral aspiration, not vice-versa. Paul’s letters typically lay out his new vision of hope before daring to undertake moral exhortation. In the Gospels, when Peter and the disciples exhibit their weaknesses Jesus does not say to them “why did you not behave”?, but “why did you not trust?” As S. Kierkegaard puts it, “the opposite of (moral) evil is not virtue but faith.” When I read the Hebrew Scriptures I don’t ask “why doesn't Yahweh behave better?” Rather, I ask “how can I and my fellow seekers capture for our own age, especially an age of science and evolution, some of the spirit of hope that led our ancestors in faith to look toward ultimate liberation and a redemptive future?”

Reading and interpreting the scriptures, I would add, has always been selective in every age, whether people are aware of it or not. Jesus, for example, left out the barbarism and vengefulness in the Torah, Psalms, Prophets, and historical books while radicalizing the message of hope and love. The selectivity of his reading is an inherent part of his message.

You and the new atheists are no less selective than generations of Christians have been when they have focused on morals rather than faith. Like them, you are still looking primarily (and I think wrongly) for the Bible to provide unambiguous moral teaching and ethically pure role models. This becomes clear to me when you write, for example, that Haught “utterly fails to understand that there would be no need to reform the Church from sanctioning such things as heretic and witch killings, along with slavery, racism and sexism, if God was clear from the beginning. God could’ve said things like: ‘Thou shalt not buy, beat, trade, or own slaves,’ and said it as often as needed without giving contradictory advice. If God was this clear from the beginning [my emphasis] there would be nothing to reform in the first place.”

Here your demand for moral purity is accompanied by an ahistorical perfectionistic ideal of biblical inspiration (which you share with Sam Harris who demands that the Bible give us not only perfect moral teaching but also perfect science and mathematics). Here I wonder if you are not still clinging to your own prior religious assumptions. Am I wrong to suggest that, like the new atheists, you still implicitly idealize a rigorously exacting (I do not want to say literalist) ideal of biblical inerrancy and a theologically traditionalist unwillingness to tolerate ambiguity in sacred scriptures and in humanity’s long religious search? What else would account for the transparent annoyance you express that the Bible and Yahweh did not get things perfectly right “in the first place.” Here there is a major difference between your theological criteria and those that I and many other theologians share.

At this point, judging from your blog, I can anticipate that your next step may be to repeat the new atheist’s typical reproach that I have departed from theological rectitude and am not playing by the rules. The Bible, you will insist, is supposed to be inspired, inerrant, and morally perfect, and yet we now know (from natural and historical science) that it is all poisoned by the ambiguity, contingency, and messiness of history. Therefore, Christian faith is false.

I don’t know whether the following observation applies to you, but in the case of Bart Ehrman and many other ex-Christian ministers and theologians I have often sensed a refusal to let go of what I consider to be deeply entrenched, but unrealistically lofty, assumptions about biblical inspiration, inerrancy, morality, and ancient peoples’ images of deity. I am only one of countess Christians and theologians who simply do not share these perfectionistic and ahistorical ideals. I even judge them to be contrary to the incarnational thrust of the ancient Christian creeds. Like everything else in an unfinished universe I am not surprised that human spirituality is still coming into being. And if it is still evolving and remains unfinished, it seems inappropriate to expect perfection at this point in its genesis. Maybe your own disillusionment with your previous understanding of Christian faith is part of this ongoing creative process.

In any case, the misplaced traditional emphasis on the Bible as moral instruction culminated in the banality of the 19th century Christian “liberalism” that Barth and other dialectical theologians rightly chastised for its refusal to look for deeper biblical themes. You have also expressed moral disillusionment, while Dawkins has erupted in outrage, at the moral backwardness of parts of Scripture. This reaction, I would say, is also the consequence of a very selective reading, since other readers have highlighted the Johannine theme of charity and the new wave of hope that the Bible introduced to the ancient world.

Thirdly, your accusation that the God I believe in is a distant do-nothing deity, seems inaccurate. In God and the New Atheism I cited Pope John Paul II’s words:
“‘The prime commitment of theology is the understanding of God’s kenosis [self-emptying], a grand and mysterious truth for the human mind, which finds it inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return.’ No theological radical himself, John Paul expressed here what countless other Christian thinkers now agree is the radical message of Christian faith. The God who for Christians became manifest in Jesus of Nazareth is vulnerable, defenseless love. It is this same love that Christians confess to be the ultimate environment, ground, and destiny of all being."
In light of this citation from my book I find it hard to understand your accusation that my God is a “distant” one. The God I believe in is unsurpassably near and intimate. I could have cited countless other Catholic and Protestant theologians who have made the same point, but by citing the Pope’s own words I wanted readers to know that I am not outside the boundaries of Christian theological tradition, and that I write as a committed Catholic. In spite of all its imperfections and ambiguities—and they are many—it is still a source of inspiration and hope to me and many others.

Yours cordially,


John F. Haught, Ph. D.
Senior Fellow, Science & Religion
Woodstock Theological Center
Box 571137
Georgetown University
Washington, DC 20057