Much more than another rejoinder to or even a critique of recent literary assaults on religion by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and their transatlantic cohort, Beattie’s thoughtful and frequently elegant contribution is a sustained reflection on the interaction between a scientific understanding of the world and a religious or least theological explanation of it. Presently vice-president of the Catholic Theological Society of Great Britain, Beattie teaches theology at Roehampton University in London. She is well-versed in feminist theology and comfortably at home in the heavily male-dominated Oxbridge milieu in which culture wars are conducted in the pages of literary reviews and the lecture circuit.
Beattie wisely avoids being distracted into a prolonged discussion of the largely irrelevant side-issue of Creationism vs. Evolutionism, although the battle merits some attention insofar as it provides such a tempting and easy target for scientific rationalists eager to dismiss theological argument as atavistic fideism.
In the central portion of the book, Beattie properly contextualizes the current debate historically and broadly (including the role of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche as well as Darwin), but focuses primarily on the significant differences between religious/theological and scientific approaches to the world of common experience. She also helpfully situates the recent escalation of hostilities in the wake of post-modernism, a condition (if not exactly a movement) that possesses the curious and possibly corrective potential of proclaiming a plague on both houses of rationalist interpretation.
No book is without its weaknesses, and if The New Atheists has one, I would locate it in the presupposition, which takes on something of the character of a thesis, that “Christianity, like many religions, has syncretistic elements insofar as it emerged through the encounter of two quite different worlds of thought — namely, the scriptures of the Hebrew people, and the ideas of Greek philosophy” (p. 114). Here I think Beattie too closely identifies Christianity with its theology. Christianity is both much more and much less than thinking or even writing about God. Interpreting even its theology as a product of the encounter between biblical faith and Hellenic culture also says too much and too little unless one takes a very narrow view of both Christianity and theology, which have been funded by many other factors in their long history. Beattie notes the influence of ordinary human experience, especially women’s experience, on the later and contemporary formation of Christianity and its theology, but while culture (including ancient classical cultures) certainly informed early theological speculation, influences other than Greek and “Hebrew” have always been at work. Asian and African influences are of particular importance today but were present from the beginning if in differing ways. It is not beside the point that Judaism at the time of Jesus was already thoroughly Hellenized.
It is also worth noting that the present conflict between science and religion is of prime importance in Northern European (and North American) discourse, where it is also a preoccupation primarily among the academic elite, especially those attuned to the mediating influence of the popular press. How all this plays in South Korea, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Oceania, and other areas of expanding Christian numbers, influence, and theological development is open to question. (Beattie’s understanding of the origin of fundamentalism in early twentieth-century America on pp. 35-37 also too closely identifies it with controversies over evolution, ignoring the far more important factor of German scriptural liberalism, which was also fueling the Catholic reaction against “modernism.”)
The significance of Beattie’s rejoinder to the cultured despisers of religion is not less significant or telling for all that, particularly because as a theologian especially sensitive to women’s role and contributions, she brings a perspective largely lacking in the debate. Perhaps the feminist critique of the debate itself will prove to be the most telling item in the Christian response to the tirades of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, et al., for (Polly Toynbee notwithstanding) the fracas has largely been a feud among intellectually irascible male doyens on both sides.
Although a general and, as Beattie confesses at the outset, a broad-stroke commentary, she provides The New Atheists with excellent resources for further study and reflection, both in the end notes and the extensive bibliography. Highly recommended.