New Atheism, Old Arguments

ThinkChristian has an interesting item citing a Wall Street Journal editorial about the “New Atheists,” and the recent publication of their popular books attacking religion. Author Peter Berkowitz does a fine job of showing how some very intelligent people—like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens—can be as passionate and ill-informed about religion as some of those they criticize. As the author points out, the strongest arguments against religion offered by these atheists are nothing new and have been wrestled with, and commented upon, by many believers for centuries. Instead of responding to what the best religious thinkers have believed and written about these things, they argue as if all that thinking and writing never existed.

I first came across these arguments back in the 1980’s in Bertrand Russell’s book, Why I Am Not A Christian, and on an interactive internet forum called Usenet (now known as “newsgroups” on most ISPs). I took them seriously because I had never thought deeply about them before and, for me, there was a lot at stake. I placed a high value on the truth and these arguments, propounded by very intelligent people seemed to be a strong challenge to my faith. There are three responses to such challenges: Ignore them and hope they go away, capitulate to them and lose your faith, or try to meet them (take the “red pill” and see how deep the “rabbit hole” goes). I chose the latter path and spent many free hours over those ten years researching, writing and debating. Rather than undermine my faith, it stretched it quite a bit (and, in some ways, unbalanced it but that’s another story). For me the experience was worth the time and effort spent. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to expose themselves to it, yet I learned some important lessons.

The average level of education that most Americans have about religion, even their own religion, is at about the 6th grade level or lower. That’s about the time their parents stopped making them go to Sunday School or Catechism. This, I think, has a lot to do with why the New Atheists’ arguments seem so convincing–especially to people who are highly educated in other areas–and why they can seem so intimidating to many believers who haven’t had the time or opportunity to think them through. The best way to learn is not necessarily from people with views that strongly oppose your own. As intelligent as those people may be, they can easily end up holding those views just as blindly as any True Believer (in Eric Hoffer’s meaning of the term). I think you learn the most from people who have similar religious views as your own but who have more at stake in them than you do. That is, they rely more heavily on them and try to face honest opposition with intellectual integrity. These are the people who will dig the deepest for understanding; not the debunkers who have no skin in the game. Francis Collins is one such person. Time Magazine’s 5 November 2006 cover story was an interview with Collins and Richard Dawkins, one of the “New Atheists” entitled “God vs Science”. Read it yourself and see who you think has thought about both sides of the issues more deeply.

It’s easy to be a debunker, to poke holes in another person’s religion when your own position is simply maintained as the absence of religion. But no coherent world view is that simple, and honest atheists have a lot more responsibility than to simply debunk religion. They have to demonstrate that we would be truly better off without religion. This they often don’t see the need to do. Since their position is stated in negative terms, they see nothing they have to defend. They are like non-players sitting in the stands at a tennis match, critiquing the players’ abilities as if it matters not whether they themselves can do better. But in the game of life everyone’s a player. No one sits on the sidelines and, as Berkowitz hints in his editorial, the implications of a world without religion seem very disappointing given modern day examples that such societies have provided. In my experience, strident atheists have a much harder time in the defender’s role than as debunkers. We all do. That’s the positive burden of an honest faith.

[Edit 10 August 2007:]  ThinkChristian has another update on this issue with a link to an interesting piece by Richard Bewes called “Seven Steps for Atheists.”   I think Bewes is having a little fun chiding the anti-theist atheists here, but there’s some serious reasons here about why so many people simply dismiss what they have to say.

This entry was posted in Books, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to New Atheism, Old Arguments

  1. Neal Locke says:

    I have several friends who are professed atheists, but they are about as turned off by Richard Dawkins as they are by James Dobson. Fundamentalists (of both varieties) have a hard time making their case to a post-modern audience.

    That’s why I like Pete Rollins view of the subject in “How (not) to Speak of God.” I’m butchering his logic, I’m sure, but he says something to the effect that all Christians constantly alternate between phases of wrestling with God (atheism in the literal sense: anti-God) and periods of flowing with god (theism). He defines himself as an (a)theist. Either way, theists and atheists are labeling themselves in relation to God.

    That makes much more sense to my postmodern, pluralistic sensibilities than religions (or irreligious) fundamentalism.

  2. Paul Dubuc says:

    Hello Neal,
    I’ve had atheist friends like that as well. I guess they are more “old school” than these “New Atheists.” “Fundamentalist atheists,” as you call them, are probably more accurately labeled anti-theists. I try not to use “fundamentalist” in the pejorative sense. Christian Fundamentalists usually identify themselves as such whereas no atheist would go by that label. Literally, atheism is belief in no god. It’s not necessarily an anti-god attitude.

    I’m afraid my sensibilities are a blend of modern and postmodern. I haven’t got a good home in either camp and I think some of the characterizations of each present false dichotomies.  I embrace much of what emergent Christianity is doing, but I think it owes more to its modernist predecessors than many want to admit.  I think truth is in the mix.  I can certainly fit Rollins’ wrestling with and surrender to God in my experience though I have never been an atheist (only felt like one sometimes perhaps).

Leave a Reply