A lot has been said recently on the “New Atheism”. This is a more strident atheism that is asserting itself not in the halls of academia, but in the mass media. (Both “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens are runaway best sellers). It is an arrogant atheism that expresses exasperation at the fact that a majority of educated people still hold “illogical medieval” religious beliefs. It is a judgmental atheism that accuses religion of being not a force of good but the "Root of all Evil". And it is an evangelistic atheism that seeks to convert others to its cause. In particular, it believes that “fence sitting” agnostics and “dialoguing atheists” should join the more militant brand of atheism (Check out "The Church of Non-Believers" article in Wired and the “Should Science Speak to Faith” discussion in Scientific American).
Of the four leading voices of the new Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris) it is Dawkins that interests me most. He an evolutionary biologist that claims the science of biological evolution supports philosophical atheism. One of his more famous quotes is that “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”. There have been numerous replies and rebuttals to Dawkins claims; even many who agree with Dawkin’s conclusions seem to think his arguments extremely weak (See this review of "The God Delusion" in the New York Review of Books ). I’m not going to add to these responses. Rather, I’d like to identify one belief I share with Dawkins, identify a positive side effect to Dawkins aggressive atheism that we can celebrate, and correct a claim made about Dawkins.
Something To Commend:
Although our philosophical worldviews are polar opposites, there is one point on which I agree with Dawkins. When he is asked “But isn’t religion good for people? Even if the metaphysical claims are false, doesn’t it still provide some benefit?” Dawkins disdain usually comes through loud and clear. He rejects the idea that the actual truth of a religious belief is irrelevant. No mushy “It’s ok if it feels good” for Dawkins. This view of the importance of truth actually mirrors that of a biblical faith. As Paul states in his first letter to the Corinthians: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor: 15:19). If the resurrection of Christ is but a fable, if our own resurrection is not assured, and if “all things will become new” is but a false hope, then indeed our faith would be misplaced.
A Reason To Celebrate:
For too long, it’s Evangelicals that have been embarrassed by strident fundamentalists. I cringe every time the likes of Pat Robertson expresses an extreme political statement (eg. calling for the killing of the Venezuelan President) or Oral Roberts recounts his latest message from God (“I need $8 million dollars or God will take me home”) or Young Earth Creationist provide their latest evidence for a young earth. It almost makes you want to apologize for being a Christian. Now it’s the turn of those opposed to religion (and Christianity in particular) to be embarrassed by offensive assertions (“Religious people are stupid, lying or evil”), extremist social policy (“parents should not be allowed to teach religion to their children. It’s a form of child abuse”), and crusading evangelism. It’s not difficult to find comments from atheists and agnostics embarrassed by vitriol of their philosophical brethren. One amusing comment will have to suffice:
I agree with what Dawkins says in 'The God Delusion', just not the way he says it. If he'd toned down the ridicule and sarcasm aimed at 'faith-heads' then he might have secured the desired result. But, it's a lesson for me; I also have a tendency to ridicule religion. This book is written in such an egotistical and patronizing way, it was quite an effort to finish it. Now I know how my Catholic fiancée feels when I tell her what nonsense religion is! So thank you Richard, our upcoming wedding (in a church) will be a much calmer event!Something to Correct
There is a common misconception that the ideological fight is between the extremists (eg. New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and YEC leaders like Ken Ham). I.e. It’s the old tired assertion that the conflict is between science and religion. For example, in a Wired article commenting on a debate between Dawkins and Lawrence Kraus (an agnostic scientist who believes dialogue with religious believers is beneficial), Brandon Keim comments:
… but the boorishness of people like Dawkins doesn't help anyone, except maybe people who think scientists hate God. Is there some way of making him switch teams? At this point, the best thing that could happen to the public acceptance of evolution would be Richard Dawkins' full-fledged conversion to Christianity, whereupon his alienating intellectual tendencies would show moderate, generally sensible fence-sitters the stupidity of fundamentalism.
Keim seems to be equating fundamentalism and YEC with Christianity, and believes that having Dawkins switch to Ham’s team will be good for evolution since all the “boorish” people would be on one side. My view is that Ham and Dawkins are already on the same “team”, the team that states that evolution and creation are contradictory concepts, the team that believes science and scripture are in conflict, and the team that believes the bible must be interpreted literally in all cases to be true. In short they are the team that wants to continue the ideological warfare between science and religion. But for most of us, I believe, we just want the war to be over.
So how should we as Christians respond to the New Atheism, an atheism that openly ridicules our most cherished beliefs? There is certainly room for Christians with the gift of apologetics to respond. I appreciate much of what Allister Mcgrath says on Dawkins. However, I really don’t think that defending our faith against Atheisim is our most urgent priority. And defending ourselves against a brand of Atheism that seems to shoot itself in the foot is not something that we need fear. Christ's Kingdom is so much more than this.
Some interesting Dawkins info on the web:
- Most polarizing figures incite a flurry of reactions, and Dawkins is no exception. There is a tonne of stuff written about him and its generally either glowing (those that support his cause) or extremely critical (those that don’t). Much of the stuff (on both sides) is, from my perspective, not very thoughtful or useful. One site I recommend for a good Christian response to Dawkins is the Christians in Science website. Check out: http://cis.org.uk/resources/dawkins.shtml
- If you like “good diatribes” (and I do), check out http://andrewrilstone.blogspot.com/2007/05/being-for-benefit-of-people-who-want-to.html.
- For an entertaining parody of Richard Dawkins (it helps if you’ve seen or heard some of his interviews already) see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QERyh9YYEis