New Atheism (4): Different strokes for different folks—Ground zero

[This is the fourth article in a series on New Atheism. Read parts 12, and 3.]

The third group New Atheism has an effect on is Christian believers. It seems to have some success in persuading some people to abandon their faith. My impression is that the numbers involved are fairly small, and New Atheism’s effect is usually only one of a constellation of factors; there’s usually a number of other things going on in that person’s life. Nonetheless, given New Atheism’s weaknesses and flaws it’s a bit surprising it has any effect at all.

The success it does have is primarily, I would suggest, because New Atheism is almost entirely targeted at Christian theism. While it is called ‘atheism’, which suggests a belief in the non-existence of God, or even gods, in its rhetoric and arguments it tends to focus almost exclusively on attacking the credibility of the Christian faith. New Atheism appears to exist pretty well purely in order to convince Christian theists to stop being theists. It is rare to hear a New Atheist attack the credibility of the Koran, or riff on the stupidity of reincarnation, or assault horoscopes, or take apart the life and teaching of Mohammed or Buddha. No, the target in the sights is usually the Bible, the Christian knowledge of God, and Jesus Christ. That is true even in what is arguably the heartland of New Atheism, the United Kingdom, where a case could be made that Islam demonstrates more vitality than Christianity at present. Even (or perhaps especially) here, New Atheism has eyes only for Christian theism in its evangelism for atheism.

I’d suggest a couple of reasons for this.

First, most New Atheist ‘true believers’ seem to have had some kind of Christian background that they decisively rejected. When you’re dealing with a New Atheist, you’re more often than not dealing with some kind of ex-believer. They weren’t necessarily a convinced, committed, practicing Christian, but often they were raised in a family that identified itself as Christian in some sense and/or that exposed them to Christian teaching as they grew up. They then didn’t just drift away from that heritage, like most who leave the Christian faith; instead they defined themselves by their rejection of it in favour of another world view, another explanation for reality. And like many people who experience this kind of conversion experience, they are far more provoked by the people who hold to the beliefs that they used to hold to than by people who hold other views that, while still in contradiction to their atheism and empiricism, aren’t the views that they decisively rejected.

Second, Christianity has a much stronger sway in the west than rival gospels. In differing ways in differing countries, Christianity has a greater impact upon public decision-making, a higher public profile, more people who identify themselves as belonging to it in some sense, than any alternative. While Christians are often attuned to how much of that is a mirage, and are conscious of the various developments that suggest that such a situation might be changing, nonetheless, if you want to take on the religious Goliath in most western countries, taking on Christianity is a no-brainer. That’s a kind of reverse-compliment for us. If the day ever comes when a ‘New-New Atheism’ arises that invests heavily in anti-Islam or Buddhist or Shinto or New Age polemics, that will be a clear sign that Christianity really has moved to the margins. The fact that the atheists speak as though the choice is basically between God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ or no god at all is hardly all bad.

Third, Christianity has a history with the west that just isn’t there with other faiths. The modern liberal democratic state came into existence through the deconstruction of Christendom and the dismantling of Christianity’s role as the more-or-less ‘default’ position for people to believe in. Ever since, the defenders of liberal democracy have had their guns aimed primarily at the Christian faith to ward off any return to something more like Christendom.

There were two great arguments against the potency of faith that lost their credibility at the start of this century: that all religions are basically the same, and that religion doesn’t influence people’s behaviour—people do what they do for other reasons and religion is only a justification. One only has to look at the movies and TV shows of the latter half of the twentieth century to see that, unless religion was the focus of a story, it almost never featured in a significant way. Whether it was subversive M.A.S.H. or feel-good Brady Bunch, religion only featured as a motivation for specifically religious behaviour, never for how people might go about every daily life. Thus it was easy to argue that people could be just as good without religion as with it—stories were told about people living without religion in the frame all the time.

These two arguments came tumbling down with the towers on 9/11. It was pretty clear that all religions weren’t the same—atheists, Christians, Hindus, and Shintoists weren’t hijacking planes and flying them into skyscrapers. Even the vast majority of Muslims weren’t doing it or supporting it. Clearly this was something particular to one religion, and to one subset of followers within it. Religious difference mattered; not all religions were the same. It was also clear that religion profoundly shapes people’s behaviour. It strained credibility to believe that the people who undertook that suicide mission were simply using religion to justify actions that they were taking for other reasons.

The days of saying “religion is just for people on a power trip and people who want to play at it privately in their spare time; it has no effect on life in the real world” were gone. Nonetheless, despite the fact that it was a subset within Islam that had demonstrated the terrifying power of religious belief to prompt people to evil, New Atheism never really turned its guns on it. Despite the fact that since then most religiously-inspired violence that has made it into western media reports has had an Islamic dimension, New Atheism still focuses most of its ‘religion is the cause of almost all the evil in the world’ argument on Christianity. Western intellectuals have a long tradition of attacking Christianity, as seeing it as the big threat to their ideal world, because Christianity had such a key role in society in the past. Even though that role has diminished, the instincts and tradition remains. Therefore, when (because of militant Islam) atheists switched from the argument that religion is powerless to the argument that religion is powerful and dangerous, Christianity remained in the sights.

When one also takes into account that the overwhelming majority of New Atheists are white, middle-class males who usually speak English only and who are hardly well-known for their exposure to non-western cultures, this makes even more sense. The eyes of New Atheism are, as a whole, not on the majority of the human race: they are fixed firmly on debates being carried on within western society alone. New Atheism is an anti-faith by and for English-speaking westerners.

All of these things are, in my view, worth keeping in mind when engaging with New Atheism, if you want to try and grasp its tone, rhetorical manoeuvres, and stance towards Christianity. A bit like the question of whether someone is a freedom fighter, rebel, or terrorist, New Atheism can be labelled either positively or negatively. To its adherents it is a robust intellectual movement made up of people who saw the light, which fights for the integrity of science against its biggest single threat. In the other light, it is a movement of converts, filled with a convert’s passion against what he or she used to stand for, getting most of its energy from its attack on Christianity and hence parasitic upon it. Wherever on that spectrum you care to place New Atheism, the same basic issues that give it its distinctive features are being identified.

Keeping some of that in mind is worth doing when and if you decide to take on some of New Atheism’s arguments (especially its argument that religion is the cause of much/all of the world’s evils). Understanding that it isn’t simply their rationality that leads New Atheists to attack Christianity (as they seem to think), nor is it simply their unbelief (because there are lots of other ways someone can be an unbeliever), can help you to both address the actual arguments as well as unpick some of the dynamics going on under the surface.

But the nature of New Atheism’s relationship to Christianity is only one side of the issue. The other thing to consider when responding to New Atheism’s attempts to de-Christian believers is the kind of Christian that New Atheism has an effect upon. Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to highlight three main groups of Christians, and the issues that might be worth keeping in mind when engaging with New Atheism’s influence on these groups.

[This article is part of an 8-part series: read parts 1234567, and 8.]

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