I’ve written before about Eric Reitan, a modern follower of Scheleirmacher, and on this episode of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, Reitan gives I think a great explanation of the disagreement between the new atheists and humanistic, liberal Christians: they may agree on nearly all of the same principles (being against Biblical inerrancy and other implausible and morally pernicious parts of fundamentalist Christianity) but still have a different overall assessment of religion because they’re “playing different language games.” His explanation of religion as an essentially contested concept (a new term to me, though certainly a familiar concept in outline) is alone sufficient to make the episode worth a listen. The concept “religion” is not just a categorization of various things, but it has, like “work of art,” a normative judgment built into it. It’s just that at this point in history, some folks have a positive evaluation built into the concept, and some have a negative evaluation. So Hitchens and a liberal theologian, according to Reitan, can both agree about nearly everything, but while the theologian holds up some historical fruits of religion and say “see, isn’t religion great,” Hitchens will respond that that isn’t really religion; while Hitchens will point out horrible crimes associated with religion and the theologian (like Scheiermacher) will deny that these are part of the essence of religion. So it’s largely an argument over words at that point, though we’d have to be more specific about the particular points of remaining disagreement to determine whether they’re really worth arguing over.
We expressed a lot of these same patterns on the episode in trying to elaborate the new atheists’ claims: historically, religion often involves ceding ones intellectual authority to a religious leader, and this move is inherently dangerous. Scheleiermacher and Reitan would say that even though this often happens historically, it’s no part of real religion, which is instead about direct, honest engagement with its subject matter. Religion can lead to violence, and willful ignorance, and ignoring your own nature and the suffering of those around you. Theologians themselves will certainly admit these facts but say “we’re all sinners, we’ll try to do better.” These aren’t the result of religion, but of human nature, though religion is one powerful tool by which these facts about human nature can be exploited, and we need to recognize that and not just blindly approve of anything with the name “religion” branded on it.
I don’t think in our discussion we really addressed Harris’s charge that faith regarding empirical matters is anti-intellectual. I think we all basically agreed with that claim, but just didn’t necessarily like him extending that to matters of faith about things over which empirical verification isn’t possible. Still, the line of what is empirical and what isn’t can be thin, and the same goes for what counts as “enough evidence” for or against a belief. Can one be rational and believe in miracles? Can one be rational and believe that praying will increase the likelihood of some desired outcome in the world? These issues seem to me crucial for the majority religious folks, and I don’t see a lot of common ground between them and the new atheists here, yet clearly, there are plenty of intelligent, self-examining people that will accept these supernatural possibilities even though they verge into the empirical.