No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers

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9780385526104: No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers

Surveying the contemporary religious landscape, the division between atheist and believer seems stark. However, having long struggled to understand the purpose of life and the meaning of suffering, Michael Novak finds the reality of spiritual life far different from the rhetorical war presented by bestselling atheists and the defenders of the faith who oppose them.

In No One Sees God, Novak brilliantly recasts the tired debate pitting faith against reason. Both the atheist and the believer experience the same “dark night” in which God’s presence seems absent, he argues, and the conflict between faith and doubt stems not from objective differences, but from divergent attitudes toward the unknown. Drawing from his lifelong passion for philosophy and his personal struggles with belief, he shows that, far from being irrational, the spiritual perspective actually provides the most satisfying answers to the eternal questions of meaning. Faith is a challenge at times, but it nonetheless offers the only fully coherent response to the human experience.

Ultimately, No One Sees God offers believers and unbelievers the opportunity to find common ground by acknowledging the complicated reality of the human struggle with doubt. Novak provides a stirring defense of the Christian worldview, while sidestepping the shrill tone that so often characterizes the discussion of faith, and given the challenges faced in the present age, all who value liberty will find hope in his new way of conversing.

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About the Author:

MICHAEL NOVAK received the 1994 Templeton Prize, an award that has also gone to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mother Teresa, and Charles Taylor. He has taught at Harvard and Stanford and has held academic chairs at Syracuse University and Notre Dame, and now holds the Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE

Not the Way to Invite a Conversation:
Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris
Atheists Speak Out

A recent shower of books by atheists--among them Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett, and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins--has fallen on the parched lips of lonely American atheists. These books have three purposes: to speed up the disappearance of biblical faith in America; to proselytize for rational atheism; and to boost morale among atheists, in part by calling attention to support groups to console them. Their overriding purpose is the first one: in Harris’s words, “to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity.” But the third one--to raise the morale of atheists--is not far behind.

All three books evince considerable disdain for Judaism, too. Dawkins calls it “a tribal cult of a single fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods, and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe.” And the God of the Old Testament, Dawkins calls a “psychotic delinquent.”

It is not as if these authors admire Islam; rather, they use Islam as a weapon for bashing Christianity and Judaism. Harris says to Christians, “Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well--by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God.” In truth, though, the main intention of all three authors is to praise the superiority of atheism, at least the rational atheism of professors such as themselves.
In Praise of Atheists

In fact, there is much in atheism to praise. With the evidence of the admirable moral code laid out in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in his hands, Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that in order to be good, in at least one important sense, it is not necessary to share in biblical faith. Aristotle showed a path toward human flourishing, both for an entire polity and for noble individuals. (To be “good” in another important sense, “being born again” or “saved,” requires a bit more than Aristotle could provide, or even imagine.) Atheists--or, at least, nonbiblical pagans--were able to build such magnificent buildings as the Parthenon, the pyramids of Egypt, the palaces of Babylon; and to produce great literature and the beginnings of several key sciences in varied fields such as astronomy, arithmetic, medicine, and agriculture. Finally, atheists--or, at least, nonbelievers--have always been a spur to biblical self-understanding, by raising questions, doubting, or throwing down insulting or respectful intellectual challenges. It was from the pagan intellectual class that many of the early Fathers of the Church (Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Saint Augustine himself) came to biblical faith, and they usually remained in close dialogue with their unbelieving peers, much to the benefit of their own understanding of their faith.

To come down the ladder a great distance, my own early work was centered on the dialogue between believers and unbelievers, the intellectual horizon of the Absurd (as Camus, Sartre, and so many others called it) and that of biblical faith--in such books as Belief and Unbelief and The Experience of Nothingness, for instance. For that reason, I really wanted to like these new books of atheism. I have learned a lot about atheists and believers from Jürgen Habermas, possibly the best-known atheist in Europe. Habermas writes of believers with respect and as equal partners in an important dialogue. A respectful regard for mutual dignity is, Habermas holds, essential to the practice of rationality among human beings; we shall have reason to return to his views on religion further on in this book. A very smart American atheist, Heather Mac Donald, agreed to engage me in conversations that were a pleasure to conduct, showing on her side patience, respect even in spirited disagreement, and candor. Heather’s precise, incisive contributions to this happy discussion also warrant a closer look; we shall reflect on her arguments in chapters three and four.
Dialogue or Dismissal?

Alas, it is extremely difficult to engage on the same level with Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins (and, as we shall see in the next chapter, Christopher Hitchens). All of them think that religion is so great a menace that they do not show much disposition for dialogue. The battle flags they put into the wind are Voltaire’s “Wipe out the infamous thing”: Écrasez l’infâme! Meanwhile, all three pretend that atheists “question everything” and “submit to relentless, almost tedious, self-criticism.” Yet in these books there is not a shred of evidence that their authors have ever had any doubts whatever about the rightness of their own atheism. Self-questioning about their own scholarly indifference to their subject; about the horrific brutalities committed in the name of “scientific atheism” during the twentieth century; about the restless and mercurial dissatisfactions in atheist and secular movements during the past hundred years (at times wearily nihilistic and bored in Parisian cafés; at times passionately marching toward murderous utopias; often full of free-floating dreads of “nuclear winter,” then “global warming”). All such questions are notable by their absence. Despite the fact that an atheist Zeitgeist dominates university campuses in America, it has not proved persuasive to huge numbers of students, who hold their noses and put up with it. Why does atheism persuade so few? Our authors never ask.

I particularly wanted to like the book by Richard Dawkins. I had heard that his is a well-furnished and well-rounded mind, and that he writes with the music and wit of an elegant literary stylist. His fans present him as the very model of a reasonable man. Dawkins, too, expressly presents himself and other atheists as “brights,” distinguished by their “healthy” and “vigorous” minds. Poor believers--he openly complains--are (by contrast with him) trapped in delusion, unquestioning, mentally dead. He makes not a gesture of seeking to learn from them.

Actually, Dawkins’s public record is worse than that. He led a two-part show on religion for the BBC, called The Root of All Evil? While writing now that he disagrees with the title the producers gave it, he freely appeared under it. This is what he asks of religious people: “Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion.” Wouldn’t most of the violence and distortion introduced into human life disappear? Now it would be rather original of Dawkins to make such a point, except that in Britain this view is quite conventional. Propagated by pop star and scientist alike, it is according to a recent poll shared by 82 percent of the British population.
Reason and Moral Courage

Throughout the West, it appears that neither scientist nor pop star takes time to consider contemporary religious experience in the light of some of its most sophisticated and heroic practitioners. For instance, never before our own time have so many millions of persons of biblical faith been thrown into concentration camps, tortured, and murdered as they have been under recent self-described atheist regimes. It would have been wonderful if any of our three authors had measured their vision of religion against the hard-won biblical faith of the originally atheist scientist Anatoly Sharansky, who served nine years in the Soviet Gulag simply for vindicating the rights of Soviet citizens who were Jews. Sharansky has written the record of his suffering in a brilliant autobiography, Fear No Evil. I think I have never read of a braver moral man, determined to live as a free man, courageously showing nothing but moral contempt for the morals of KGB officials, under whose total power he had to live. Sharansky went on courageously day by dreary day, deprived of sufficient food, deprived of sight of the sky and sun. He was punished in innumerable ways under a kind of scientific Skinnerian conditioning designed to “correct” his behavior, and this regimen went on year after year, attempting to wear down his resistance, to hold out for him trivial blandishments, tormenting his soul by isolating him and depriving him of human support.

Ironically, however, his prison experiences led Sharansky to dimensions of reason that far exceeded anything he had encountered in his earlier scientific practice. To survive, he needed to open himself to learning far more than science had taught him. He was asked to sign his name to certain untruths: “Who will ever know? What difference will it make? It is such a small thing, and it will make things go much better for you and for us, it will be for the common good.” One of Sharansky’s colleagues, a noble soul, nonetheless deceived himself into thinking that it would be better to lie about a few small things so that he would soon be freed to carry the message of human rights outside the camps. Sharansky watched still other men try to keep their spirits up by hope--hoping for better treatment, hoping for earlier liberation--and then suddenly find themselves so weakened by false hopes that they could no longer resist complicity. Sharansky found that he needed a source of discernment deeper than any he had previously known.

In those days, the love of his beloved and brave wife, and friends and other dissidents, came to his cell in rarely received letters or messages. But such messages could also have weakened and betrayed him. In his torments of soul, he found enormous companionship with King David of many centu...

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