Novak and New Athiests

Jacques B in the Washington Post warmly reviews Michael Novak’s latest, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.

First among the virtues of this book is its author’s commitment to civil, sober discourse. “My underlying thesis,” he writes, is “that unbelievers and believers need to learn a new habit of reasoned and mutually respectful conversation.”

…, No One Sees God calmly re-draws the “primitive fresco of Christianity” sketched by the New Atheists. Whereas they depict believers as simpletons and dupes, Novak offers a more complex portrait of the theist psyche. Believers routinely express dismay and anger toward their deity. They often feel betrayed by Him. And they sometimes even doubt that He exists. “The line of belief and unbelief,” he observes, “is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us.”

Novak then addresses the group bias issue familiar to students of Bernard Lonergan or Aaron Wildavsky.

The really compelling question asked by this book goes something like this: How can God’s existence, which is so abundantly obvious to believers, seem so incomprehensible to nonbelievers? To help frame the debate, he invokes the idea of a “blick,” a “way of viewing reality that is not usually overturned by one or more pieces of countervailing evidence.” Coined in about 1950 by the British philosopher R.M. Hare (who spelled it “blik”), the term refers to a mental filter through which people sift information, admitting some things as facts and rejecting others. To simplify somewhat, atheists and theists process information about the cosmos in radically different ways.

This is the unbridgeable chasm into which Novak gazes. His analysis suggests that the central dilemma confronting us today is not whether God exists but how those who disagree about God’s existence can live together. Accordingly, Novak closes with a summary of a 2004 dialogue between the political philosopher and nonbeliever Jürgen Habermas and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Their conversation — in which Habermas affirmed the importance of religion for civilization and Ratzinger stressed the importance of reason to the Christian faith — is an exemplar of the ways in which bearers of differing blicks might be able to engage one another.

This development is to be celebrated, for sure.  What remains missing, based on this review, in Novak’s civil dialogue are two elements which Lonergan and Wildavsky addressed, dialectics and politics.  On the broadest level, dialectics refers to the process of logical debate which suggests that from common terms  extreme positions can be brought closer together.  Dialectics also refers to the historical process in which opposing notions clash and create new syntheses.  Time is not indifferent to our debates.  Politics enters.  Coalitions between various blicks or skewed views are formed to accomplish specific agendas.  Witness the populist coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans who resisted the Bailout plan and who are also leery of “free trade.”

The extension of Novak’s book thesis is not simply greater civility, though that is surely needed.  Our next step, while we try to reduce individuals attachment to distorted worldviews, is to examine trends and identify common goals which can entertain and direct the warring factions.

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