There is much buzz lately about the so-called ‘New Atheism’. It’s an odd term given that there are not all that many ways you can spin atheism. Old atheism denied the existence of God and new atheism does the same, so what is the difference?
There is a sense in which even old atheism is new – until the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century real atheists were hard to find. Nevertheless, practical atheism can be traced throughout history.
Psalm 14:1 speaks of ‘the fool’ who says in his heart, ‘There is no God’. Most see this fool not as a philosophical atheist who mentally denies the existence of God, but as one who lives as if God does not exist.
Of course such ‘practical atheists’ far outnumber those who adopt atheism as a worldview. Most people, especially in the Western world, give God a nod (92% of Americans say they believe in God) yet live as if God was nonexistent.
Biblically speaking, the very existence of atheism is problematic. God’s work of creation is a constant reminder of his existence (Romans 1:18-23). Those who deny this evidence should know better – they are ‘without excuse’. And God has also placed in man’s heart a moral standard – his fingerprints are found in our conscience (Romans 2:15).
Humans are not just animals; we bear the image of God. Even self-avowed atheists sense this to be true but such is the blinding power of the evil one that what they intuitively know to be true is overlaid by a worldview that eliminates God.
That New Atheism is gaining traction among such people is evidenced by the attention afforded its leaders and their writings. More of this later, but first let’s turn to old atheism for a backdrop.
Albert Mohler identifies Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud as the ‘four horsemen’ of old atheism.1 These nineteenth-century men have had an incredible impact on modern society.
Nietzsche influenced philosophy and laid the foundations of postmodernism. Marx changed people’s understanding of society and government. Darwin rewrote the scientific textbooks and Freud redefined the human mind.
Few in the Western world have influenced the way we think and live as these four men – their work and influence stemming largely from their denial of God’s existence.
Nietzsche is representative of the views of old atheism, famously declaring, ‘God is dead’. He didn’t mean that God once lived but has now died, but that society no longer needed God.
Formerly, he said, belief in God was necessary to impose moral order upon humanity, but it was now time for people to grow up and move on. Once accepted that God was dead there would inevitably be an adjustment period which would prove painful for mankind – after all, why behave morally if there is no God and no eternal reckoning? But ultimately something far better would emerge.
Nietzsche recognised that the loss of an Absolute would produce nihilism and despair. Without God, where would humans find their reason to live, their morals and values? He took this problem seriously and worked to replace God with what he called the ‘will to power’. Once God was disposed of, men could finally stop wasting time and turn to self development and to the value of the world itself.
Still, the old atheism was haunted by a sense of loss – despair is hard to shake off if there is no God. As a result, Nietzsche and many other early atheists lived with unresolved tension between their godless philosophical systems and the reality of living in a universe which seemed purposeless without God.
Four more horsemen
Fast forward to the New Atheism and its four horsemen (according to Mohler) – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.2 These men claim to have moved beyond the nihilism of a godless universe and are living Nietzsche’s dream – framing the world around an uncreated creation rather than around the Creator himself.
The new horsemen are thrilled with their beliefs and eager to spread their atheistic gospel. They seek converts aggressively and take their message to the masses in popular lectures, books and articles.
Richard Dawkins makes clear his intention in his book The God delusion: ‘If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down’.3 This evangelistic fervour has gone mainstream in some places.
For example, the American Humanist Association launched a campaign last Christmas in Washington D.C., with advertisements on buses that read, ‘Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake’.4
In Britain a similar campaign placed messages stating, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy life.’5 These groups define humanism as ‘a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity’.6
This is the good news the New Atheists want the world to hear. How do they go about their mission? Let me illustrate their agenda using Richard Dawkins as my source.
They attack Christianity
While atheism denies any form of theism, Christianity is their main target. Dawkins and company know that most of their potential readers live in Christian cultures and that Christianity, arguably, presents the most formidable case against them.
Certainly, Dawkins reserves his most venomous attacks for the God of the Bible. He states: ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully’.7 And even though the God of the New Testament seems a bit more admirable, Dawkins suggests, ‘There are other teachings in the New Testament that no good person should support. I refer especially to the central doctrine of Christianity: that of “atonement” for “original sin”. This teaching, which lies at the heart of New Testament theology, is almost as morally obnoxious as the story of Abraham setting out to barbecue Isaac’.8
From the perspective of the New Atheists, the stories and teachings of the Bible reveal a God so odious as to be unbelievable.
They claim that faith is foolish
On a scale of one to seven (7 being 100% certainty that God does not exist) Dawkins places himself at six, which technically makes him an agnostic rather than an atheist. However, Dawkins explains: ‘I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden’.9
This reflects the style of the New Atheists. Lacking a good case, they resort to berating and ridiculing theists. Not only is belief in God on the same level as belief in fairies, but Dawkins dismisses out of hand the evidences presented by Christians throughout the ages.
He fails to interact in any meaningful way with the evidences for God presented by Aquinas and others, implying that such arguments are unworthy of discussion and not taken seriously by anyone today10 (which is not true, as we will see). Only the teleological argument – that design implies a Designer – gets any attention at all and that is cursory.
Yet, I still recall hiking through the wilderness of Alaska and coming across a fire ring. My assumption was that someone had camped in that spot and arranged 20 or so stones in a circle. It never crossed my mind that evolution over a period of millions of years had created that fire ring – and I am willing to wager it would not have crossed Dawkins’ mind either.
It amazes me that people who would see a designer behind a fire ring can so casually dismiss a Designer behind the universe, but such is the mindset of the atheist. Dawkins’ best retort to the teleological argument seems to be that, if God designed the universe who designed God? Unable to unravel this question to his satisfaction, he concludes that the teleological argument is lame.11
No monopoly of wisdom
Recent and respected theists are similarly dismissed. Of C. S. Lewis’ argument that Jesus must have either been a liar, lunatic or Lord, Dawkins simply says, ‘[Lewis] should have known better’12 – suggesting that Jesus could have been sincerely mistaken instead.
However, it seems to me that such a ‘mistake’ would have placed our Saviour firmly in the lunatic category (as Lewis suggests). No normal person mistakenly thinks he is God.
Dawkins furthers his argument by stating that theistic scientists are either deluded or senile or out of touch with the research. After all, of the scientists who are members of the National Academy of Sciences, only 7% believe in a personal God.13
However, if 7% of USA’s top scientists do believe in God, along with around 40% of all that nation’s working scientists, where does that leave the 10% of the US population who do not believe in God and the 0.4% who are avowed atheists? Scientists have no monopoly of wisdom.
1-2. R. Albert Mohler Jr., Atheism remix, a Christian confronts the New Atheists (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), respectively, p.19 and p.39.
3. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p.5.
7-13. Dawkins, loc. cit., respectively, pp. 31, 251, 51, 77-79, 157-158, 92, 100.