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Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Responding to the New Atheism: Something to Commend, a Reason to Celebrate, and a misunderstanding to Correct

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:
  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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


J. K. Jones said...

Interesting post. Good blog.

I would disagree somewhat with your comments about not needing to defend our position against Dawkins and Hitchens. We are required to put fort positive reasons for the hope that we have as Christians.

Steve Martin said...
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Steve Martin said...

I think I was a little abrupt in my concluding paragraph above. I probably should have put a little more into this. Some clarifying points on my own view of responding to the new atheism:

- I agree that we need to provide a response to atheism when required. This response should include both reasons for our faith, and pointing out the problems of atheism. My point was that I don’t think this is our most urgent concern as Christians –its certainly below caring for the poor, making disciples, and spreading the good news (although I guess you can argue that an intellectual defense of your faith is part of this package).

- I think the intellectual arguments of the new atheism are probably over-hyped. From my limited exposure to this (calling myself an amateur philosopher would be an insult to amateurs) I don’t think they’ve improved on atheistic arguments from Bertrand Russell, Fredrick Nietzsche or even the ancient Greeks. Atheism may be trying to go mainstream but I don’t think it’s anywhere near the knock-out punch that is being claimed.

- My main argument however, is that I think that the New Atheism will be unsuccessful because it’s leaders seem so insulting, arrogant, and close-minded. They are offending people just as a lot of Christian leaders have in the past.

godma said...

I can agree that science and creationism don't necessarily have to conflict, but it really depends on what flavor of creationism we're talking about. Obviously, when interpreted literally, Genesis contradicts the scientific evidence. So if you're willing to interpret Genesis loosely enough so that it can be made consistent with the evidence, then you can of course make them compatible in practice. Such a creationist has to stay on their toes, though, since the scientific story is continually growing both sharper and broader. But it can be done.

But there's another conflict, not between the different claims but between the methods. The scientific method and religious faith are indeed incompatible (opposite!) methods that prove their incompatibility whenever they both try to answer the same questions.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Godma,
Regarding the conflict between science and creationism, indeed it is one of interpretation (actually true of both the scientific data & the biblical text). And most creationists take a concordist approach to the interpretation of Genesis. This, as you say, can keep you on your toes as you constantly need to evaluate whether the current understanding of the scientific data is still in accord with your interpretation. My own interpretive framework (when it comes to science in the bible) is one of accommodation ie. The bible is the revelation of an unlimited God accommodating himself to limited humanity using humanity’s limited language and ideas. This interpretative approach has its own challenges, but I’m pretty comfortable with it (and it certainly has a lot of support historically eg. Augustine, Calvin).

Now your last statement is so loaded I’m not really sure where to start - but judging from a quick perusal of your contributions to various blogs, baiting was probably your objective :-). Anyways, I’m not looking to get into a debate of the merits of atheism vs. theism so I’ll just finish with one point on which I think we have common ground. I agree with the last part of your comment that you can run into problems when trying to use scientific and theological arguments to answer some of the same questions. For example, using the bible to determine the age of the earth doesn’t make any sense. Neither does using science to determine the purpose of the universe.

godma said...

Thanks for the great response, Steve. For the record, I don't mean to be "baiting", at least not just for the sake of riling people up. I'm just trying to contribute to the dialogue. I really like your writing, by the way. This is just the kind of thing I enjoy most...discussing differences of opinion with people who make their points well and truly seem open-minded and thoughtful. I want my comments to come across that way too.

I do want to respond to one of the things you said in your response to me.

Neither does using science to determine the purpose of the universe.

I would agree with this in the sense that the very presupposition of purpose or purposeless is unscientific (at least in the sense that I think you have in mind, which requires an external (i.e. supenatural), intentional agent) ...and perhaps this is what you meant by this being outside the scope of science. Is it? I ask because there just might be a purely natural sense to the word "purpose" as well, which of course would be addressable by science.

(I hope you don't mind my going on... :) )

Since the supernatural is off-limits to science (because it is untestable in principle by empirical methods), then science has no business making claims about it in any respect.

However, this is interesting (to me):

If scientists learn one day that something previously attributed to the supernatural actually has some natural, testable causes, then all of a sudden they can start investigating it scientifically - but only to the extent that it is tied to the natural world. Historically, this has happened with many many other phenomena - and it seems to always be hard for religious people to accept it when it happens.

Likewise, if someday we receive what looks unambiguously like a message from God (words written in the stars, for example), the scientists will start scrambling for natural explanations - because that's as far as they can go with their tools.

What if we found out (in a testable way) that this universe was merely a simulation running on a big computer somewhere "outside" it? Well, that computer and the "outside", to the extent that it was testable, would automatically become considered part of "nature" (albeit a larger one that we previously considered). In this case, we would be closer to a scientific explanation of purpose, but would still be at a loss for ascribing a purpose to that computer itself.

Steve Martin said...

Excellent response. Thanks.

Re: Purpose. That God is beyond the scope of science is only part of it. More to the point, is that purpose implies some type of endpoint, a goal to be reached. As Christians, we trust God’s promise of a better future, that “all things will become new”. But God reveals this purpose to us through his incarnation (Christ) and his word (the Bible) and not necessarily through his creation (which can be studied by science). But this is purpose, not necessarily design. I like how Ted Peters and Martin Hewlett (authors of “Evolution from Creation to New Creation”) state it: There is purpose for the universe, not necessarily in the universe. This is where I part company with many in the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. I don’t think that “Design” is necessarily detectable – at least not in an unambiguous way.

Re: attributing processes to the supernatural. This is where I really part ways with much of ID. I have no problem with “natural” explanations for physical processes (for me natural does not mean “without God”, but the pattern through which God normally works). So, for example, I’m pretty confident we will at one point come to an understanding of how first life was formed on earth (ambiogenesis). This won't be any more of a strike against Christianity than was the discovery of gravity or biological evolution. And we may even figure out a cause for the “Big Bang”. Even this wouldn't be a big deal. The Big Bang may be caused directly by God stating “Let there be light”, but I’m not going to bet my faith on how God created the universe, only that he did.

Re: Supercomputers and the beginning of the universe: Have you ever read Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Last Question”? If not, find it and read it. One of my favorites. Also interesting is Robert Sawyer’s take in “Calculating God”. (Not sure if you are into Science Fiction).

godma said...

We agree on a lot of things, you and I. Although we diverge when it comes to faith-based beliefs, it seems that as far as finding common ground with each other within the empirical world, we have plenty.

I have read _The Last Question_, and enjoyed it. Asimov was a great writer. Did you know he wrote a guide to the Bible? I've been meaning to look into that, but haven't.

_Calculating God_ has been on my bookshelf for a while but I haven't started it yet. It's in the queue, though.

Nice chatting with you. Good luck with your blog...I think it's a great idea!

Cliff Martin said...


Good blog! I hope it lives on.

I want to comment on your statement about (not) using science to determine the purpose of the universe. True enough. However, I would suggest that science can help us to ask the right questions relating to purpose. The natue and origin of entropy is an example. This universe is 99.999% inhospitable to life. The entire cosmos is running on an engine fueled by death and decay. Left alone to its own process, the cosmos has a very scary set of possible fates. We might have thought this bondage to decay spoken of in Romans 8 was a result of the Fall, or of the judgment of Satan. But now we understand that entropy goes all the way back to the creation moment. We also know (from Romans 8) that entropy is temporary, not part of God's ultimate plan, but something he intentionally subjected the cosmos to ... in hope of its eventual delieverence. So God created a death-driven cosmos on purpose, and then stood back and said "it is good".

The purpose of God in creation cannot be properaly assessed without giving heed to this salient fact. We ought to be asking the question, why would God create the cosmos in this fashion. What might have been his purpose for that? I believe the Scriptures provide some light on that question, but not until we ask it. 1 Corinthians 15 gives a suggestion that the ages long battle between death and life involves biology and cosmology ... and that life wins in the end. Wow! "Naturalistic" evolution never looked so good!

~ Cliff Martin
btw, I live in Oregon, but my Martins hailed from Ontario. Waterloo County Mennonites. Any chance?

Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,

Very good point that science can help illuminate theology. The intent of my comments was to state that science should not, and cannot, be used to determine metaphysical conclusions – eg. How ID and metaphysical naturalists try to use it. I think you are agreeing with this but conversely saying that we should not relegate science and religion to completely different spheres of thought. (Like Stephen Gould’s NOMA). Yes, this is very important. Come to think of it, that is probably one of the key points of this whole exercise of mine – to examine the interface between science and theology/faith. And you allude to probably the number #1 issue of all for me: what can science add to our understanding of theodicy (If God is good, omniscient, and omnipotent, why then is there evil?).

My thinking right now is that something like Polkinghorne’s “free process theodicy” is the most satisfying – but I’m still grappling with this. (Can give you references to items that I’ve found helpful if you like). Not to put you on the spot, but it sounds like you’ve already thought through this already and maybe have some additional thoughts on it. Any references to books, articles etc. – or do you have something you’ve written yourself – that summarizes your thinking?


Steve Martin said...

On the mennonite connection - absolutely. My father was an old order mennonite (Elmira area) until he was 18 - many of my relatives are still old order mennonites. If you give me your email address, we can try to connect the dots offblog.

Anonymous said...

I've found a militant atheist if you want to try and help him; he's at:


GBWY, James