Aug 02 2008

The New Atheism: a Response from Drewermann

Published by under The New Atheism

Eugen Drewermann, the outspoken German theologian who is very well-known in Europe, but almost unknown in the English-speaking world, now has his own monthly radio programme. Each session is three hours, during two of which he answers listeners’ questions. Thanks to the modern miracle of podcasting, I can download and listen to these programmes.

Recently, I was listening to his programme on the topic “The Unfreedom of Free Will,” which dealt with issues that modern brain science raises about free will. To my surprise, Matthias Beier, author of the only full-length book on Drewerman, called in. He wanted to know Drewermann’s response to the new atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens. In particular, Dawkins regards God as a human projection, but Drewermann regards God as ‘absolutely good person.’ “Why is God more than a projection?” Beier wanted to know.

Drewermann responded first by saying that he has learnt a lot from Dawkins. In particular, from “The Blind Watchmaker,” years ago. After Darwin, we have a mechanism that explains, for example, the complexity of a cat. This is a blind combination of chance and natural selection. Theology hasn’t reflected on this blind mechanism. There is only one chance in a million that a genetic mutation will have a positive outcome. Just think of all the creatures that have had mutations that resulted the inability to live properly. Life has no sympathy for us, does not care for us. We are only a means by which genes get to replicate themselves.

But why do we live, if the only meaning of our lives is to be a concentrated form of energy, destined eventually to provide energy to another creature in the food chain? Biology doesn’t answer any of the questions that we humans ask ourselves. Therefore, it is infinitely important that we know more than what the sciences can tell us.

However, Drewermann agreed that there is a kind of projection at work in our talk of God. Feuerbach (and German Idealism) saw this correctly. We construct a counterpart (wir entwerfen uns ein Gegenueber) in order to confirm ourselves. In asking about God, we are seeking ourselves. But we discover that we don’t invent God, we presuppose Him in all the things that are essential to us.

We want to believe in love. We carry it in our hearts but we don’t find it in nature. We want to talk about our anxiety and we have no conversation partner. In short, in all these areas where we see ourselves challenged by nature, we are searching for something that really means and encompasses us.

Biology can only answer the question why we live by pointing to a bundle of improbabilities. Genes came together. Nothing of this was necessary or willed. But every child experiences why it is loved. And then it learns why it is permitted to be and finally why it needs to be. Only a goodness that is person-bound can say this to us in words that we humans understand. And so the theologians talk about God. The whole anxiety that the world prepares for us as individuals needs a counterpart, of which we in the end even be so bold as to say that it made the world.

More than one person has commented to me that Drewermann speaks “print-ready.” I find it astonishing that he can produce such a well-rounded, focussed response to a question off the cuff. He also takes modern science very seriously and has reflected more concretely and deeply than any other theologian I know. These relatively simple words are a distillation of the work he has done producing a multi-volume work “Believing in Freedom” which engages over many thousand pages in the dialogue between religion and science.

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