Faceoff: the New New Atheists vs. Maimonides

Sam_harris Chris_hitchens Dawkins

The New New Atheists (present day)

… from the vantage point of the 21st century, and thanks to the moral progress of mankind and the achievements of natural science, we can now know, with finality and certainty, that God does not exist and organized religion is a fraud. "



Moses Maimonides, aka the Rambam (רמב"ם)


"… Maimonides suggests . . . that, rather than talk about God, and give the impression that we understand what we are talking about, it might be wiser to contemplate His perfection in silence.  In this instance, silence would be the mark of learned ignorance."

In the July 16th edition of the Wall Street Journal, Peter Berkowitz, a law Professor at George Mason University who is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, writes an interesting though necessarily superficial critique of the ‘New New Atheist’ troika– Messrs. Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins (pictured above, respectively).  This being The Wall Street Journal, the article first notes how much money these gentlemen are making on "today’s fashionable  disbelief."  Getting to the theological point of the New Atheist argument, Berkowitz concludes that "the disproportion between the bluster and bravado of their rhetoric and the limitations of their major arguments is astonishing."

Berkowitz focuses on debunking Hitchens and notes many inconsistencies in his various writings.  In particular, he blasts Hitchens’ assertion that "all attempts to reconcile faith with science are consigned to failure and ridicule."  Citing Alistair McGrath, who holds a doctorate in molecular biology from Oxford, his wife, Joanna Collicutt McGrath, who is currently a lecturer in the psychology of religion at the University of London, and the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whom Hitchens respects, Berkowitz notes:

"According to the McGraths, Gould was correct to think that both conventional religious belief and atheism are compatible with natural science, in part because "there are many questions that by their very nature must be recognized to lie beyond the legitimate scope of the scientific method.

Berkowtiz continues, "The literalness of Mr. Hitchen’s readings [of the Bible] would put many a fundamentalist to shame."

Which brings me to Maimonides, a man of science and of faith, who happened to live 800 years ago and spent many years addressing these questions in a far more comprehensive manner (writing the Mishneh Torah, for example, while being persecuted and hiding in a cave for close to ten years) than any of the people mentioned above.

Maimonides, who wrote many of his manuscripts in Arabic, completely rejects the literal interpretation of scripture.  He also keenly grasps the battle between faith and reason from the standpoint of man’s intellectual limitations.

Kenneth Seeskin’s outstanding book, Maimonides: A Guide for Today’s Perplexed should be required reading for the New New Atheists because the story they are telling is an old one.

Maimonides starts developing his thesis at a place that the New New Atheists probably don’t spend a lot of time visiting: asserting the concept of God’s unity and transcendence and deriving the practical implications of what this means to man:

"The passages in the Bible which depict God as sitting on a throne or descending on a mountain cannot be true in a literal sense.  If we are to understand the truths such passages contain, we must go beyond the anthropomorphic language to the philosophic point they are trying to make.  … In the Middle Ages, philosophers like Maimonides claimed that God’s consequences or effects emanate from him.  It is as if God were like an eternal and inexhaustible source of light whose energy is so vast that it nourishes and illuminates everything around us.  But even the best scietific theories cannot explain how that light is generated….

When most people think about God, they try to imagine what it would be like to have infinite power or infinite knowledge.  They picture themselves being able to move mountains or see through walls.  Does this sort of conception help us to know God?  Maimonides is convinced that it does not, that it is no more than a ticket to incoherence. …

One can almost hear Maimonides saying: Do not focus your effort and attention on what you cannot comprehend….  Recognize that God is completely transcendent; no earthly force or entity can be compared to him.  When dealing with God as He is in Himself,all we can do is admit ignorance and contemplate God in awe.  On the positive side , we must focus our effort and attention on the qualities which flow from Him.  Think about justice. mercy, feeding the poor, healing the sick, observing the Sabbath, following one’s obligation to parents, friends, and civil authorities, respecting the dignity of other parts of God’s creation, living  in knowledge of and harmony with  the forces in one’s environment.  What is God? He is the one who bids us to perfect our souls and insures that such perfection is possible."

I am a rational person of faith. In my view, Maimonides posesses a far firmer grasp on the complexities of the universe and of the debate between faith and reason than anyone else I have encountered in my studies of religious philosophy. 

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