Atheism is in trouble. You can tell because its most eloquent spokesmen are receiving icily critical reviews in the very mainstream press that Christians often dismiss for liberal bias.
Take, for example, the reviews of Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion that appeared in The New York Times, the London Review of Books, and Harper's. No one would mistake those journals for members of the Evangelical Press Association, but the Times reviewer, science and philosophy writer Jim Holt, upbraided Dawkins for not fully appreciating the intellectual force of classical arguments for God, especially in light of the more sophisticated versions presented by today's theistic philosophers: "Shirking the intellectual hard work," Holt wrote, "Dawkins prefers to move on to parodic 'proofs' that he has found on the internet."
"Those books really haven't dealt with compelling evidence for the existence of God," says Craig Hazen of Dawkins's God Delusion and its close cousin, Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation. Hazen, who directs Biola University's M.A. program in Christian apologetics, told CT, "It's a stronger form of fundamentalism than you can find anywhere."
In the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton complained that Dawkins reduces complex social problems to simplistic narratives in which religion is the villain. Take Northern Ireland. Dawkins thinks that "the ethno-political conflict" there "would evaporate if religion did."
And Islamist terrorism? Dawkins apparently "holds, against a good deal of the available evidence, that Islamic terrorism is inspired by religion rather than by politics."
But politically inspired Islamist terrorism provides the opening for this new antitheism, says Biola's Hazen. "They are taking advantage of Islamic radicalism to tap into subterranean American fears about religion. There's this notion that religious people will end up strapping dynamite to themselves, and this has got to be stopped."
Reducing the wide spectrum of faiths to a single unfashionable color. Refusing to give the arguments for faith the respect they deserve. These are just the first in a litany of weaknesses in the current antitheism rhetoric.
Crowbar or baseball bat?
You can also tell that atheism is in trouble because it is becoming increasingly intolerant. In the past, atheists (or secular humanists or freethinkers) were often condescendingly tolerant of their less-enlightened fellow citizens. While they disdained religion, they treated their religious neighbors as good-hearted, if misguided.
But now key activists are urging a less civil approach. At a recent forum sponsored by the Science Network at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, the tone of intolerance reached such a peak that anthropologist Melvin J. Konner commented: "The viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"
This newly aggressive mood (Dawkins calls religious education "brainwashing" and "child abuse") is in danger of undermining civil society.
CT columnist David Aikman recently sounded a warning in a commentary for the Trinity Forum. Sam Harris, he noted, not only advocates a shift from viewing religion as harmless to treating it as dangerous, but he also wants to suppress religion. Aikman evoked images of Mao's China and Stalin's Russia as the future of Americaif liberals ever abandon true liberalism.
Make no mistake; it is that potential abandonment of liberalism that Harris and Dawkins are calling for. Dawkins told the forum in La Jolla, "I am utterly fed up with the respect that weall of us, including the secular among usare brainwashed into bestowing on religion." In a blog post cited by Aikman, Harris wrote that he is as "wary" of his fellow liberals as he is of "demagogues on the Christian Right."
Christians have long disdained what Eagleton calls the "mealy-mouthed liberalism which believes that one has to respect other people's silly or obnoxious ideas just because they are other people's." But we have also understood it to be a safeguard in civil society. Despite its vapid quality, such liberalism has been a blessing. The antitheistic rhetoric that erodes the ethos of respect is a clear and present danger. Atheists may be a minority (from 8 percent to 27 percent of the American population, depending on the poll and the questions asked), but they tend to dominate elite institutions.
The new atheistic rhetoric betrays panic, another sign of weakness. Atheism knows that it is losing both arguments and the global tide. Stories of the global vibrancy of religion are everywhere trumping the grand narrative of evolutionary progress. And the best philosophers are still taking the God-hypothesis seriously.
Christians should learn from the confident work of apologists who frame for our time arguments for God's existence. (Witness Antony Flew's conversion to theism, reported in CT's April 2005 issue.)
We should also pay attention to the state of civil society, being careful not to overreact to atheism's newly aggressive stance. In an already polarized culture, we cannot afford to destabilize the balance further. Most of all, we must be careful to live out our faithwith demonstrable neighbor loverather than coasting along in a civil religion that blesses consumer culture and sings praises to the God of materialism. After all, the greatest apologia is love lived out.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The New York Times, The London Review of Books, and Harper's Magazine published reviews of The God Delusion.
On his website, Dawkins includes an excerpt.
Clockwork Origins, parts 1, 2, and 3 (Books & Culture) discuss Dawkins' previous books.
NPR interviewed Sam Harris on Letter to A Christian Nation.
David Aikman's "Atheism and Moral Clarity" is available at the Trinity Forum
Anthony Flew's conversion to theism was reported in the April 2005 issue of Christianity Today.
Other Christianity Today articles on atheists and religion include:
The Twilight of Atheism | Why this once exciting and 'liberating' philosophy failed to capture the world's imagination. (March 2005)
Pledging to Fight | Atheist says battle over 'under God' has just begun. (August 1, 2004)
Forced by Logic | It took philosophy and a friend to convince this atheist (June 1, 2003)
Russian Intellectuals Try to Revive Atheism | The Moscow Society of Atheists says its ideology has fallen out of fashion (January 1, 2001)
The Trials of Being Agnostic | A conversation with skeptic Wendy Kaminer. (Books & Culture, January 1, 2000)
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