He begins with a personal account of how his faith ultimately flourished despite his Colorado childhood bringing him into contact with some grisly manifestations of fundamentalism:
[The] Lutheran pastor of the church in which I was confirmed was remarkably open to my youthful attempts to reconcile the rationalism I had inherited from my father, a liberal atheist, with the attraction I felt to the teachings of Christ. I was, for instance, firmly opposed to the doctrine of hell, on the grounds that it was hardly fair for the creator to subject people who never asked to be created in the first place to eternal torture just because they failed to figure out the mysteries of being in their paltry time on earth (or, you know, for any other reason). Could a Hindu be blamed for practicing Hinduism, having been born into a Hindu culture? The pastor talked to me of allegory and metaphor, and was ready to agree that a God of love was unlikely to resemble the caricature presented by foaming preachers high on sulfuric fumes. He was more interested in grace, and in this strange fellow who pissed off the authorities in ancient Galilee and urged the rich to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor. He wasn’t afraid to say “I don’t know” and “I struggle with that, too.”
I can’t remember this man’s name, but I owe him a lot. He didn’t keep me from straying into faddish atheism in my teens and 20s, but because of his example it was easier for me to return to a very liberal version of Christianity later. He was exactly the kind of steward of God’s word who, generations earlier, had kept men like Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga up at night, men who, guided by an abomination of modernity and a belief in biblical inerrancy, spearheaded a neo-evangelical movement that would culminate in the fundamentalism of Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition and today’s creationist cretinism.
The book he’s reviewing Apostles of Reason, by Molly Worthen “tracks the intellectual history of modern American evangelicalism, which for her is defined by a “crisis of authority.” “Three questions unite evangelicals,” she writes: how to reconcile faith and reason; how to know Jesus; and how to act publicly on faith after the rupture of Christendom.” This came to mean trying to refute secularism using the intellectual tools of the secular world. What resulted was an attempt to present Christianity not as going beyond science, history and philosophy but a direct competitor to them. This was never something it was supposed to be and it started harming Christianity as whole.
One unfortunate consequence of this background shift is that as unbelief seems to more and more people the only plausible construal, they find it difficult to understand why anyone would adopt a different one. Thus “they reach for rather gross error theories to explain religious belief,” and we are subjected to ignorant books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Take Dawkins on Thomas Aquinas, for example, a discussion so inept that it’s as if Noam Chomsky had decided to publish a primer on black metal. (See David Bentley Hart’s elegant demolition of Dawkins’ analysis in The Experience of God.)
The “undergraduate atheists,” as the philosopher Mark Johnston dubbed them in Saving God, have been definitively refuted by Hart, Terry Eagleton, Marilynne Robinson, Johnston himself, and others. As intellectual bloodbaths go, it’s been entertaining—like watching Jon Stewart skewer Glenn Beck. But of course Richard Dawkins is merely a symptom. I have encountered atheists who seem not only to have never met an intelligent, educated believer, but to doubt that such a creature could exist.