The Challenge of the New Atheism

Adam S. Francisco
Friday, February 29th 2008
Mar/Apr 2008

Denial of the existence of God-or atheism-is by no means novel. There were atheists as far back as the first millennia b.c. King David referred to such people who, despite the manifest evidence in creation, acted like and even convinced themselves that there was no God as outright fools (Pss. 8:3, 10:4, 14:1). The Greeks had their share of atheists too. The Epicurean philosopher Philodemus (c. 110-35 b.c.) went so far as to identify three different types of atheism found in Hellenistic thought. There were those who were unsure whether any deity existed (we would call them agnostics), those who explicitly and publicly denied it, and those who, although keeping up appear-ances of religiosity, implicitly advocated atheism in their speeches or writings.

How many atheists there were in medieval and early modern Europe is uncertain as overt denial of God's existence would not have been tolerated, but it wasn't too long afterward that atheism became a viable modern worldview. With the so-called European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the religious certainty of earlier ages was challenged by the cynical and seemingly sophisticated skepticism of intellectual elites in the British Isles and throughout continental Europe.

Atheism reached its zenith when it was wedded to Communist politics and enforced east of the Iron Curtain; but as its political hegemony began to dwindle toward the end of the twentieth century, so too did its credibility. Now in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, Alister McGrath concludes in The Twilight of Atheism that atheism "finds itself in something of a twilight zone….But is this the twi-light of a sun that has sunk beneath the horizon, to be followed by the darkness and cold of the night? Or is it the twilight of a rising sun, which will bring a new day of new hope, new possibilities-and new influ-ence? We shall have to wait and see." (1)

The answer, it seems, came sooner than expected. Just as McGrath's rather aloof historical survey of atheism was released, Sam Harris's aggressive philosophical attack on religion, The End of Faith, hit the market. Before long it topped the sales charts. This was followed by several equally forceful scientific and literary assaults on theism accompanied by outright defenses of atheism. Richard Dawkins' and Daniel Dennett's works, The God Delusion and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, were released in 2006; and Christopher Hitchens' belligerent tirade, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, appeared in 2007. There were certainly others-such as Victor J. Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis-but, in many ways, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens are the spokesmen for this recent trend. Their popularity-evidenced by exceptional book sales, numerous media appearances, and widely publicized debates-indicates that atheism is far from slipping into obsolescence. In fact, it seems poised to present some of the most significant challenges to Christianity in the years to come.

There is something different about the Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens quartet in comparison to their atheist antecedents. Journalists and scholars have even taken to calling them the "New Atheists" (and their thought as the "New Atheism"). It does not differ markedly in content from the atheism born during the Enlightenment. Its hostility toward Christianity is equal to that of Marx and his intellectual kin. What makes the New Atheism so novel is its agenda: it aggressively seeks the conversion of those who would hear its arguments. Richard Dawkins says as much in the opening pages of The God Delusion: "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." (2)

What gave birth to this proselytizing zeal? In many ways, September 11 was its initial impetus. The New Atheists are certainly convinced of the malignancy of Islam and its preposterous but nevertheless very real vision of global domination. They contend, however, that such political aspirations and willingness to employ violence in order to achieve them are not endemic to Islam. "The evil that has reached our shores is not merely the evil of terrorism," Harris claims. "It is the evil of religious faith at the moment of its political ascendancy." (3) Both Christianity and Judaism are also capable of legitimizing violence; and he sees them, alongside Islam, as a common enemy of reasonable men and women everywhere. By enemy he doesn't just mean an intellectual adversary either; Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are political and military threats as well. Thus, with a sense of urgency he closes his book, appealing to the emotions of his readers, by claiming that unless we are convinced of this, "the days of civilization itself are numbered." (4) Such apocalyptic overtones are common in the literature of the New Atheists. They are all convinced that religion is the source of most of the world's problems. It has "retarded the development of civilization," says Hitchens. (5) The only way to reverse this trend is to abandon religion and all its intellectual and scientific restraints.

To strike at the heart of religion, the New Atheists charge that there is no good reason to believe God exists. They do so by treating the question of God's existence as a scientific hypothesis. If he can be said to exist, they argue, it must be demonstrated on the grounds of empirical observation. Dawkins anticipates the obvious objection to this criterion. In what seems like a rare moment of humility, he concedes that ultimately one cannot prove the nonexistence of something. One can, however, evaluate the proposition of whether or not God exists on a scale of probability. In other words, the question is not one of proving that God does or does not exist, but whether God's existence is more probable than not. Dawkins' answer is clear. After a chapter-length (and superficial) survey of traditional proofs for God's existence, he concludes with characteristic hubris: "There is almost certainly no God." (6) Harris's hubris goes even further than Dawkins. He argues that because the assertion that God exists is a factual claim, it must be factually verifiable. Since he assumes there is no unequivocal factual evidence for God's existence, such a proposition is not just highly improbable; to even speak about the existence of a god in the first place is utterly meaningless.

Is this the case though? Is belief in God a mere intellectual leap of faith without any objective, factual evidence to support it? Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig argues that the situation is quite the opposite of what the New Atheism proposes. He writes in a chapter of The Cambridge Companion to Atheism that even many university philosophy departments (typically the bastions of atheism) are reconsidering the question of God's existence. He claims that "atheism…is a philosophy in retreat" and attributes it to a "renaissance in Christian philosophy" that has been responsible for rearticulating several well-established arguments for God's existence. (7)

The cosmological argument is one, for example. In its classical formulation, it claims that whatever begins to exist has a cause. Because the universe began to exist, the universe must have a cause, and that cause was God. As perhaps expected, the New Atheists dismiss the argument on the basis of its first assertion: that whatever begins to exist has a cause. Such a claim, they argue, assumes the impossibility of an infinite regress. That is, it assumes there has to be a first cause or a beginning to everything. But this, Dawkins claims, is an "entirely unwarranted assumption." (8)

An assumption it is, but is it unwarranted? What's the alternative? Dawkins claims it is more logical to believe some stuff in the universe simply existed from all eternity, and it was merely a chance big bang-certainly not a creator-that just happened to set everything in motion. While such reasoning is rather commonplace in atheistic thought, it still begs the question: is this not just as, if not more, presumptuous than suggesting there has to be a creator who caused the universe?

The cosmological argument is even more compelling when considered alongside what is typically termed the argument from design. In essence, it argues that the universe is fine-tuned to sustain life and that nature as a whole shows evidence of design. This is either due to mere chance or the work of a designer. That it is a result of chance is more improbable than if a designer created it; so, the argument concludes, there must be a designer and that designer is God. The New Atheists respond by simply asserting that even if there is design in the universe, it is all attributable to chance.

Beneath the surface of these altogether briefly stated arguments are some enormously complex issues; and the side that one takes-after weighing all the evidence and sometimes regardless of where the evidence really points-is still largely determined by the position one originally takes. But these arguments do demonstrate that belief in the existence of God is not just wishful thinking or an unwarranted assumption. They certainly leave much to be desired. Even if they could demonstrate God's existence to be more probable than not, the God they suggest is not necessarily the God that Christians confess.

In any case, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens do not take these arguments for God's existence very seriously. They do, however, spend considerable time responding to allegations made from what is generally known as the moral argument. It claims that God's existence is required for there to be objective, universal moral standards and duties. In other words, morality needs to be ultimately anchored outside of nature. If it is not, at best morals are determined by a person's relative historical circumstances.

The New Atheists typically respond to this argument by diverting attention away from it by pointing out the immoral things religious people have done through the centuries. But this is not the issue. The issue concerns the source of general morality. If our moral norms cannot be grounded in something outside the flux of history, and humans are merely highly evolved mammals, there really is no such thing as morality in the objective sense-only survival instincts. Some atheists are certainly content with seeing morality as normative behavior that has evolved with human beings for the express purpose of the survival of the species. Such reasoning, however, is wrought with problems. The chief issue being that moral relativism inhibits our ability to deem something immoral, for no one could not say with any certainty that something currently regarded as immoral couldn't possibly in the future contribute to the survival of the species.

Consider how such vacuous reasoning might play out in the mind of Harris. "Some propositions are so dangerous," he argues, "that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." (9) Notice that he does not claim some actions or even planned actions, but rather that mere propositions (or beliefs) may warrant a person to be executed. Presumably, he has the Al-Qaeda fighter in mind, but he never does specify. Even so, the thought that it might be moral to kill someone for believing a certain proposition seems to rest on some rather dodgy moral ground. Where Harris's proposition becomes even more dangerous is when one considers what the result might be if his convictions were fused with another of his ambitions, "a world government." (10) According to Harris's own standards, wouldn't this government-in order to eliminate the potential for violence fueled by religion (to protect civilization)-need to rid the world of religion as well as those who refuse to abandon such dangerous ideas? Who would make such a call? He doesn't say as much, but it would probably be a safe bet to suggest that Harris would put himself, or one of his atheist comrades, forward as a good candidate.

At the end of the day, what the New Atheists are really calling for is a revolution in our thinking about the world. They claim that worldviews informed by religion hamper the progress of civilization; but thanks "to the telescope and microscope," Hitchens writes, religion "no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a worldview, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard-or try to turn back-the measurable advances that we have made." (11) Here then is the agenda of the New Atheism. It seeks to replace what it considers outdated worldviews informed by religion with philosophical naturalism, a worldview that denies the existence of anything beyond what can be observed with a telescope or microscope.

This basic philosophical assumption is the heart of the New Atheism. Where this is especially clear is in their responses to the traditional arguments for God's existence. They always opt for a naturalistic explanation for things. The original elements behind the makeup of the universe always existed. They certainly were not created from nothing. And it was by chance-not design-that the universe took its shape. Regardless of how philosophical naturalism informs one's cosmology, it still assumes from the beginning that everything can be explained naturally. Assuming this requires, at the very least, an act of faith that such an assumption is in principle true. But as Phillip E. Johnson puts it, this "is no more 'scientific' (that is, empirically based) than any other kind of faith." (12)

Of course, looking to a natural explanation for commonly occurring phenomena is not unreasonable in and of itself. What is unreasonable is the ruling out the existence of anything beyond the natural world, such as God, before any empirical investigation. But this is precisely what the New Atheists do when faced with the particular claims of Christianity.

Christianity claims that God especially made himself known in the natural world by taking on human flesh and walking the earth in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. To demonstrate his deity, he offered numerous miraculous signs throughout the course of his life; but the chief sign was his resurrection from the dead. All the claims of Christ and the Christian faith rest on this one claim. This anchors the veracity of Christianity in empirical history. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, St. Paul went so far as to argue that if Christ did not bodily rise from the dead, then the Christian faith is a scam. In other words, Christianity is capable of being verified or falsified with historical evidence.

Do the New Atheists-empiricists who claim to be interested in facts and evidence-undertake any investigation into the remarkable claims of Christianity? No. Instead, true to form, they dismiss it. Dawkins and Hitchens are not convinced Jesus existed and they all regard the Gospels as fiction. Why? They contain reports of miracles. Naturalism rules out the possibility of miracles. Thus, documents that record them, such as the Gospels, are untrustworthy.

Modern scholarship-from F. F. Bruce's older The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? to Richard Bauckham's recent Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony-claims exactly the opposite. The Gospels are primary source documents that, from four different vantage points, provide historically reliable accounts of Jesus' life and work. In the Gospels, Christ claims to be God in human flesh, and he evidenced the veracity of this claim by performing numerous miracles throughout his life. The greatest evidence, however, came when he rose from the dead three days after his death. It is this-not emotions, intuition, or even the authority of the church-that serves as the evidentiary basis of the Christian religion. Isn't it time we start advancing this claim with as much rigor as we can muster?

Regardless of how contemptible one may find the New Atheism, we would ignore it to our peril. They have an ambitious agenda, and it is sure to proliferate over the coming years. Dennett, a professor at Tufts University, even advocates that atheists everywhere adopt a "policy" to "firmly educate the people of the world" in atheism. (13) Now more than ever Christians need to be ready to respond to whatever challenges they may raise. Peter enjoins us to do as much in 1 Peter 3:15: "Be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that is in you."

1 [ Back ] Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (New York: Doubleday, 2004), p. 279.
2 [ Back ] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 5.
3 [ Back ] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), p. 130.
4 [ Back ] Harris, p. 227.
5 [ Back ] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), p. 8.
6 [ Back ] Dawkins, pp. 113-159.
7 [ Back ] William Lane Craig, "Theistic Critiques of Atheism," The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 69.
8 [ Back ] Dawkins, p. 77.
9 [ Back ] Harris, pp. 52-53.
10 [ Back ] Harris, p. 151.
11 [ Back ] Hitchens, p. 282.
12 [ Back ] Phillip E. Johnson, "Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism," Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing, ed. William A. Dembski (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI, 2004), p. 27.
13 [ Back ] Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin, 2006), p. 338.
Friday, February 29th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology