New Atheism (2): Different strokes for different folks—The true believers

[This is the second article in a series on New Atheism. Read part 1.]

So, if New Atheism is a passing fad, what kind of impact should we expect while it’s around, and where should we expect it? I’ll suggest three main areas over the next three posts, acknowledging that they’re broad categories and there’ll be a fair-sized assorted grouping of people that don’t fit in these three broad categories.

First, the true believers.

This will invariably be, as I suggested last time, a very small group. But it’s the group that gives this movement its public profile and energy. They are the celebrity leaders, the people who go around the internet looking for threads to comment on, the people who join the local atheist society and the like. More broadly still, it is those people who define themselves by this movement. To the degree that they’ve grasped Hawking, Dawkins, even Singer, those views determine what they stand for and form the basis of how they act.

There’s a couple of features that characterize this group when taken as a whole. In my view, the key one is that they tend to be intelligent, or at least of above average intelligence. However, what sets this group apart from the rest of the 50% or so of people who are also of above average intelligence, is that they are among those people for whom it really really matters to them that they are the ‘smart guy’. They’re the kind of person who wouldn’t mind joining the Mensa Society (if they could get in). They’re not just smart: being smart (and being smarter than most other people they meet) forms part of their self-identity. Whether that is due to pride or insecurity varies; that it is there is pretty much a constant.

A couple of features flow from this. First, they rarely tolerate fools gladly. If they disagree with you, you are not just wrong, you are an idiot. They have no ‘noble opponents’; people who take views they disagree with in this area are stupid, ignorant, or deliberately deceptive. You can’t be smart, educated, and hold views that contradict New Atheism. If you enter debate with a New Atheist you need to just accept that is part of the package. They may or may not engage with your arguments (many believe that arguing with someone who doesn’t have their views is on a par with arguing with someone who believes in fairies, so they often won’t even engage) but they will make it clear that you are a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. They almost always have no respect for people they disagree with.

Second, they tend to be attracted to views that set them apart from average people. Whatever views are currently in vogue among the smart science set will tend to be taken on fairly uncritically by people who identify with this group. On the important questions—the questions that show that you are a paid-up member of the smart people—there is little room for dissent. If the view you offer is one that doesn’t require someone to be intelligent to make it work (like, say, the gospel) then it lacks the attraction of other views that need a certain amount of intelligence to make work. These people like views and arguments that only a smart person could grasp and make work and views that mark out the smart science set.

The other factor is they tend to be good at the sciences, and poor and uninterested in everything that is not the sciences. They tend towards the stereotypical scientist who is good in the lab, or great solving an equation, but who can’t handle people. They are overwhelmingly male, and fit the male stereotype of being good with things and bad with feelings and people. This is part of the reason why they have such confidence in science. Most of us find we are good at some things and bad at others. It is tempting to conclude that the things we are good at are the ‘silver bullet’ that really matters in life, and the things we are bad at are fairly unimportant. Practical people think being able to fix things around the house is what matters. Entrepreneurial people think business savvy is what matters, intellectuals think being able to think deep thoughts is what matters, people persons think relationships matter, caring people think good works matter, etc. New Atheists are much the same. Part of their commitment to ‘science holds all the answers’ is because it makes the playing field solidly in the area where they think they hold all the aces, and keeps it out of those fields that they never really got, or don’t excel at. It doesn’t matter if you are basically ignorant about everything other than the natural sciences as long as you’re good at the natural sciences and the natural sciences hold all the answers.

Putting that together means that I think someone needs to weigh carefully before getting into arguments with New Atheists, especially online.

So much of the argument is really over whether empiricism is the one and only way people come to know things, that it gets bogged down in philosophical questions—questions that the New Atheists themselves resent you raising anyway as it is ‘just obvious’ that science is the only way to know anything at all. Unless you find a way to bypass the issue, an awful lot of time gets sucked into debating the merits of empiricism, which leaves little time or enthusiasm to debating with the actual substantive issues to do with faith in Christ. Many online discussions rarely get beyond pre-evangelism.

Add into that that most New Atheists don’t see themselves as arguing with someone they should respect, or whose views might be wrong but still have integrity, and you are pushing a big rock up a steep hill. Very few of the conditions required for constructive debate exist. Add further that the gospel is opposed to the kind of elitism that is the sine qua non of New Atheism—that there are no prizes given to the mighty, the strong, the smart, but all are equally debtors to grace—and your good news is actually bad news for the average New Atheist.

I’d suggest that most New Atheists who come to faith will do so primarily through relationships, not arguments. Arguments will be of some importance—most will probably be helped if they find themselves with someone who they recognize (even if they don’t admit it) is their equal intellectually but who utterly rejects their empiricism, let alone their atheism. But that’s not really the work of weekly sermons, evangelistic events, or internet debates. In those forums the combination of the small numbers of New Atheists ‘true believers’ around and the factors at work means that they shouldn’t really be at the centre of your ‘ideal reader’ or ‘ideal listener’ for your public ministry. Very little public ministry should be aimed at trying to convert the stereotypical New Atheist, in my opinion.

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

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