Michael Novak’s latest book, No One Sees God, is a welcome addition to the ongoing conversation (or is it more of a shouting match?) with the most prominent of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens). I’ll confess that Novak, a brilliant writer, scholar, religious thinker, and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is much kinder than I would have been to the new bile-spewing atheists.
In fact, a quite unique aspect of the book is its measured tone and approach. It would take someone of the stature and demeanor of a Michael Novak to break through the shouting with something so different and so effective.
The book’s thesis is one I don’t believe I’ve seen put forth quite this way anywhere else: "that atheists and believers in God can and should open civil, reasoned conversations about questions important to each. Who really are we? What may we hope? How ought we to live?"
That is the biggest problem preventing such civil dialogue: absolute certainty on both sides of the divide. This is an assertion that I am sure both sides will have difficulty swallowing, but Novak points out that many or even most of each camp at times doubt the certainty of their convictions. Thus the title, No One Sees God. He points to the experience of many religious believers in encountering “the dark night of the soul.”
I am sure many religious believers will balk at such a contention, but Novak persuasively makes the case that God is on such a completely different plane than we mere humans, that accepting the inconceivably non-human nature of God means we have moved to a more mature, less childlike understanding of our place in the world.
Theologically this is called the incomprehensibility of God. Novak calls it a “dark knowledge.” I know that feeling, and I’m sure that many other honest religious believers would be unafraid to admit as much.
This honesty about the nature of our faith gives us a bridge to understand those who think of God as a Santa Claus for the benighted. Most of them, if honest, would also admit to doubting the certitude of their convictions of a universe devoid of deity.
After all is said and done, then, there is not really so much separating those of either faith, one believing in a personal God, the other believing matter is all there is. As Novak puts it,
The experience of nothingness is . . . practically universal. Yet some in the two groups . . . seem blessedly to have been spared it. Trying to understand it, however, I prefer to speak of this experience without the –ism, prior to any ideology about is, as “the experience of nothingness.
“The line of belief and unbelief,” he notices, “is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us.”
So why the vitriol and lack of humility of so many atheists, and the lack of humility of so many religious believers? Although he doesn’t put it this way, it seems to me that Novak is saying that this is simply human nature. Belief and certainty just come easier to some, and it is those to whom it comes most easily who find it impossible to credit the other side with anything positive or constructive.
The so-called “New Atheists” are a particularly egregious example of just how blind absolutely certain people can be. Religion is the bane of all human existence, they assert over and over again, and must be scrubbed from the earth.
Novak begins the dismantling of said atheists in a curious way: “In fact, there is much in atheism to praise.” I don’t disagree with him after reading his arguments, but that phrase would never occur to most religiously inclined people. Novak uses as his example an atheist of a completely different kind than those of today’s vitriolic sort, Jurgen Habermas, who “writes of believers with respect and as equal partners in an important dialogue.” Dialogue is the last thing the new atheists are looking for.
Novak includes an important insight that has always seemed rather obvious to me but has not previously received much if any attention in the debate:
Their [the new atheists’] natural habit of mind is anthropomorphic. They tend to think of God as if He were a human being, bound to human limitations.
Thus when this anthropomorphisized God doesn’t measure up to their limited human expectations, they not only reject him, they ridicule anyone who dares to believe in such a pathetic excuse for a deity—which is in fact a fiction they themselves have created out of their own imagination.
In praising certain aspects of atheism, Novak lays the foundation for the religious and atheists to have a spirited yet respectful dialogue. And from a Jewish and Christian perspective, he also helps the believer understand why such a dialogue is possible.
Novak in fact gives us an example of such dialogue in a debate with an atheist friend, Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute. He makes several powerful arguments. One is in reply to the common atheist refrain, and an understandable one, that bad stuff happens, and therefore God must either not exist or not be fully good. Making use of the term Providence, Novak points out that the Jewish and Christian faith doesn’t paper over the horrors of life. God is present in them all, he observes.
Interestingly, Novak implies that this great difference may all come down to “blick.” This concept, which became part of a debate between a famous atheist (Anthony Flew, who has since become a theist) and theists, seems basically to mean something like a basic paradigm. It is the way one interprets the facts of existence. Many people cannot help but interpret things a certain way, because of their blick (originally spelled “blik”).
One reviewer of the book used this as evidence that the convinced atheist could never be convinced by argument to embrace religious belief. Yet that ignores an important aspect of the argument: Novak uses Anthony Flew, a powerful longtime advocate of atheism, to make his point.
My one minor quibble with the book is that in discussing the world we currently inhabit, with all its sin and misery, Novak doesn’t make much reference to the Fall. At one point he states that God “made the earth to be a place of trial.” He discusses the goodness of creation, but it is vitally important to remember that God did not create a fallen world. He created a perfect world that was marred by the freedom he gave his creatures.
It is that fallen world that is the place of trial, and it is in this world that Michael Novak does such a tremendous job of helping religious believers and atheists see that they might, if they wish, get along a little better and search for the truth together.
No One Sees God, by Michael Novak: Recommended