John Haught and the New Atheists

Tom Shipka

John F. Haught is a Roman Catholic theologian who specializes in religion and science and who has served on the faculty at Georgetown University for most of his career. His new book, God and the New Atheism, is a reply to recent assaults on religion by three popular religious skeptics - Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. (1) Let's focus on three of the many issues which Haught raises.

Firstly, Haught charges that the unholy trio have only a superficial grasp of religion. (2) For them, Haught says, religion means Biblical literalism, creationism, and terrorism, "the most extreme forms of rabid religiosity." (3) As the New Atheists "unveil religion at its absolute ugliest," he says, they altogether ignore both theology and religious moderates. (4) In doing so, he writes, they miss the nuanced interpretations of religion of "biblically informed, critically reflective, religious thinkers" such as Paul Tillich, Alfred North Whitehead, Paul Ricoeur, Bernard Lonergan, and Karl Rahner, among others. (5) Had they done their theological homework, Haught says, they would have discovered that these seminal figures long ago critiqued and repudiated the literalist, anti-scientific, and violent expressions of religion which the New Atheists ridicule so tirelessly in their books.

Secondly, Haught says that the New Atheists commit methodological errors when they proclaim, on the one hand, that "science alone can be trusted to put our minds in touch with reality" (6) and, on the other, that a scientific explanation makes a religious one superfluous. (7) On the first claim, while conceding the importance of science, Haught observes that we often abandon the objective, analytical stance of science to discover reality. For instance, we rely on subjective, interpersonal experience to learn that we love a person and that he or she loves us. (8) The same happens, he says, in our encounter with a work of art or with beauty in nature. (9) Indeed, according to Haught, it is in our subjective intuition that a divine "Thou" is reaching out to us that we encounter God. (10) On the second claim, Haught argues that science does not trump religion because science and religion offer non-competing levels of interpretation. (11) Consider, he says, that a page in his book can be seen simultaneously as marks made by a printing press, as words used by him to convey ideas, and as the result of his publisher's request for a reply to the New Atheists. (12) Similarly, he notes, nature can be seen simultaneously without contradiction as unfolding dramas of natural selection and divinely inspired liberation. (13)

Thirdly, Haught argues that the New Atheists's disdain for faith is paradoxical in that the scientific enterprise is permeated by faith. For instance, he observes, scientists take it on faith that they can trust their minds, that nature is intelligible, and that truth is worth seeking. (14) Further, he adds, theology, not science, furnishes the only plausible justification of these assumptions, namely, they manifest the handiwork of a loving God. (15)Haught's reply to the New Atheists reflects his deep knowledge of science and theology. This is why both seculars and religious should read it and why it deserves a serious response by one or more of the New Atheists.


  1. John F. Haught, God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
  2. Page 36.
  3. Page 28.
  4. Page 29.
  5. Page xii.
  6. Page 41.
  7. Page 83.
  8. Pages 45-46.
  9. Page 45.
  10. Page 54, page 86.
  11. Page 84.
  12. Pages 84-85.
  13. Page 85.
  14. Page 46.
  15. Pages 50-52; page 43; page 97.

© 2009 Tom Shipka