New Atheism: There’s probably no lasting impact

[Note: This is an edited and condensed version of the series of posts on New Atheism that have appeared here previously. This version appeared in the May/June issue of The Briefing as below.]

I think the New Atheists are overrated. I find myself under-whelmed at their bus campaigns, their books, the way that journalists throw softball questions in response to their every problematic pronouncement, and their whole position. I have been scratching my head for years trying to work out where all the interest in them comes from, let alone why they are treated as some kind of serious attack on religion in general and the Christian faith in particular.

I’d like to put forward my couple of cents as to why I think ‘New Atheism’ will get old fairly quickly from here on, as its current crop of celebrity names fade from public view. My interest is in getting Christians to think about how New Atheism’s dynamics and distinctive features should shape our response to it. I’ve got two closely-related basic reasons, and a third that supplements them. Then I’ll move on to who is likely to be affected by New Atheism’s arguments, and how we might address them.

A passing fad

A few years ago at an event hosted by Oxford University’s resident atheist, secularist, and humanist societies, one speaker lectured on the question “Can the natural sciences answer all questions?” To my surprise, it turns out his answer was “Yes, the natural sciences can answer all real questions”. He apparently argued strongly that questions like “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is good and evil?” or even “What does it mean to be a human?” are not real questions. Real questions involve the chemical composition and molecular make-up of bits of the human body, questions about the rate of fusion in stars, and the like. Only questions that can be answered by scientifically analysing nature are real. All other questions are merely errors in thinking.

There’s three problems here, and it seems to me that they are endemic whenever New Atheism raises its head.

Not an assault on God

First, this isn’t primarily an assault upon God. It’s primarily an assault on everything other than the natural sciences. Yes, obviously the speaker above was attacking the validity of theology as a discipline and whether there is a God to be known. But he’s also throwing philosophy under the bus, along with history, literature, psychology, education, sociology, and anthropology. It is a rejection of the validity of any discipline other than natural science, because apparently only natural scientists ask real questions. Everyone else is wasting their time.

This kind of radical empiricism is only ever going to appeal to a very small group of people—natural scientists, and people who wish they were natural scientists. The vast majority of the human race have to deal with questions that cannot be answered by the natural sciences, and value those disciplines that help them to come to grips with them. This extraordinary shrinking of what human beings are allowed to ask questions about just doesn’t ring true for most people. Life is more than the lab.

A dehumanizing view

This leads to the second issue. Removing the validity of all questions of our human experience results in saying that pretty well all the things that make human beings distinctive lack any substance. “To be or not to be”—not a real question. “What is the good life?”—not a real question. “How should we respond to the threat of terrorism?”—not a real question. “Should we encourage societies to be based on human rights?”—not a real question. Almost every question that normal people ask in daily life and in affairs of state are, according to this view, not real.

Steven Hawking is reported to have recently said that the human brain is nothing more than an organic computer, and:

There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark1 

The point here is not that Hawking doesn’t believe in heaven. It is that he compares a human being facing their own death to fearing turning off a night light. It is breathtakingly inhumane: if there’s no difference between the dark and the death of a human being, why fear either?

And if you reflect on that, you’ll realize that if I shouldn’t be afraid of my death, then I shouldn’t grieve your death either. Did your husband or wife die? Did a child die? Well, would you be sad because a light was turned off? It’s no big deal. Stop being scared of the dark. Throw the broken computer away.

Bluntly, this worldview can only be really accepted by a very small group of people. Yes, they’ll be very, very convinced of it—they’ll have to be, in order to hold something that so cuts against the grain of their own humanity. But most people will never become New Atheists. People simply cannot live anything like a rich and full human life on the basis of what New Atheism offers.

Preaching to the choir

The third reason is more simply stated. Most New Atheists (with some notable exceptions) in their books or in their comments on online discussion threads come across as world-class jerks—smug, contemptuous of views they disagree with and those who hold such views, making points tangential to the discussion, and the like. They give every impression of preaching to the choir—of writing and speaking primarily to win the approval of fellow New Atheists. All of that behaviour may be justified. Those of us who have religious faith might indeed all be so stupid and ignorant that contempt is the only valid response. The New Atheists may well be so staggeringly smart that a degree of self-consciousness about their cleverness is warranted. Nonetheless, it’s not really attractive to anyone other than another New Atheist ‘true believer’. This doesn’t prove New Atheism wrong, but it does make it unlikely that it will ever really take off as the world view of choice for most people.

The thing to realize about New Atheism is that its atheism is not its important feature—there are other forms of atheism out there. Its important feature is its radical commitment to the idea that only the natural sciences ask real questions. This idea gets pushed from time to time in western societies as we come to grips with what a powerful tool science is. The idea makes a buzz for a while, and then fades away again. It is too inhuman to have staying power. For that reason, New Atheism will have its five minutes of fame, but it will be yesterday’s news fairly quickly.

Some passing impact

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, acknowledging that they’re broad categories and there’ll be a fair-sized assortment of people that don’t fit into these three broad categories.

The true believers

The small group of true believers is 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.

My observation of this group is that they are, by and large, intelligent, and tend towards being good at the natural sciences. Further, 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 into debate with a New Atheist, you need to just accept that is part of the package.

On the ‘important’ questions—the questions that show that you are a paid-up member of the smart set—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 comprehend.

Putting that together means that I think someone needs to think 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 for debating the actual substantive issues to do with faith in Christ. Many online discussions rarely get beyond pre-evangelism.

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 is their equal intellectually (even if they don’t admit it) 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 number of New Atheist ‘true believers’ around and the factors at work mean that they shouldn’t really be at the centre of your ‘ideal reader’ or ‘ideal listener’ for your public ministry. In my opinion, very little public ministry should be aimed at trying to convert the stereotypical New Atheist.

Mr and Mrs Average

The second main group relating to New Atheism is ‘Joe and Jill Average’. This is the average Aussie or Englishman or American, etc.. They are not signed-up members of New Atheism, but they aren’t signed-up believers in anything in the way of organized religion either. They’re the bread-and-butter targets of our evangelism.

This group has an interest in New Atheism, but for different reasons. They might be smart, but they value more about themselves than their brains, so New Atheism’s whiff of intellectual elitism is not much of an attraction. They think very highly of the sciences, but they don’t think they hold the answers to every part of life. They might be down with the idea that people should think for themselves and be rational, but they distrust ideologies—which they interpret as pretty well anything that claims to be able to answer everything. And so while they might dislike Christianity’s absolute truth claims, they aren’t all that much more fond of New Atheism’s either. New Atheists are, for them, just as disturbingly confident about their views as religious believers are. Irrespective of whether a person’s confidence is based on reason or religion, this group distrusts all absolute pontificating.

And most of what New Atheism pours scorn on—people’s fear of death, their desire for meaning in life, their wrestling with questions of right and wrong—are wrapped up in the parts of life that are what gets the average person out of bed. The average person isn’t that interested in stories about natural science, let alone interested in studying any of it. That’s because they are interested in all those bits of life that New Atheism dismisses—walks on the beaches with friends, family life, finding a sense of purpose to frame one’s decisions over a lifetime, getting enjoyment out of the activities of living, researching their family tree, or going on overseas trips to encounter other human cultures. None of that has much to do with the natural sciences.

That is, there is very little that New Atheism offers that they want. Most people find it thin gruel when it comes to offering a platform on which to live life.

What New Atheism does offer, and the reason why I suspect it is appreciated, is that it offers people reasons to not believe in God. In the face of various religions and sects who challenge people’s relaxed approach to just focusing on making the most of life as they find it, and who strive to get them to take seriously the prospect that the meaning of life might be found outside of the things that make up normal life, New Atheism is a useful defence.

New Atheism gives people a reasonably easy way to justify their desire to not have to seriously consider becoming religious freaks. They probably haven’t followed Dawkins’s or Hawking’s arguments carefully, but they know they’re pretty smart guys who are very good scientists, and since those guys think religion is bogus, that means it’s a safe bet to do so. In the same way that they don’t follow the details of science but just use its results, so they hook into the scientific status of the New Atheist spokesperson, and don’t sweat the small stuff. New Atheism does in the scientific realm what Dan Brown does in the historical—offer a vague sense that something out there has disproved Christianity.

It can be tempting to then think that because most people are only using New Atheist ideas for their own purposes, and aren’t really paid-up believers, that New Atheism’s arguments can therefore be ignored, or bypassed. Sometimes that is appropriate—for example, to go for the way most secularly-minded Aussies want to live a ‘Hedonism Lite’ kind of life, with minimal intellectual, religious, or ethical baggage.

However, precisely because many people are drawing upon a fairly vague sense that the smart guys are against religious belief, it is worthwhile to pick off some of the views of New Atheism and nail them properly to the wall. While New Atheism might be a flag of convenience for people, they’ve still invested some of their resistance to the knowledge of God in it. Shake New Atheism a bit, let alone rip the tablecloth out from under it, and that can sometimes disturb someone’s complacent view that they don’t need to wrestle with Christianity’s truth claims.

It is worth looking at investing some time in our public ministries—our sermons and evangelism—to addressing the issues raised by New Atheism, and doing it properly. New Atheism has set the debate up in such a way that one doesn’t actually have to ‘win’ the argument to make it profitable—all one has to do is show that New Atheism’s approach doesn’t hold all the answers to questions people care about.

Christian believers

The third group New Atheism has an effect on is Christian believers. It seems to have at least some success in persuading some people to abandon their faith. There are three groups of Christians that I have observed who seem to be particularly vulnerable to New Atheism’s polemics.

Teens and young adults

The first group consists of teenagers and young adults growing up in some kind of Christian framework. This group will generally be relatively ignorant of the content of the Christian faith and how it can answer challenges such as those presented by New Atheism, as they haven’t had the time to mature and sink their roots down deep. They are in the process of transitioning into the man or woman they are going to be and so are usually, whether they realize it or not, coming to conclusions about where they stand in relation to the God they have grown up with. They are in the process of deciding whether or not, and if so to what degree, their life will be a pursuit of the kingdom of God.

I’d suggest that the quality that makes this group vulnerable is also where the solution lies. What this group primarily needs is more knowledge, either explicitly in response to New Atheism arguments or implicitly before the problem begins as an inoculation. Teaching, especially with an eye to the ‘relationship of science and religion’ question (e.g. whether science has all the answers, but also whether religion is fundamentally a source of evil in the world) can fairly quickly bring people in this group up to speed. And for most of them it is a pretty straightforward matter to show them why New Atheism’s arguments are not overly compelling.

Those who are reconsidering the gospel

The second group are adults who have been Christians for some time, and who have lived on the basis that the gospel is true. Now they find themselves reconsidering that commitment and the conviction behind it. This gives their dilemma a different flavour from those in the first group.

They are querying if what they got in life is what was advertised, or as compelling or convincing as it was before. They need a reason not to disbelieve—not to step back from (or drift away from) their current convictions and commitments. In general, I think people in this group need more troubleshooting to identify where the problem exists for them, the area that has begun to cause a significant question mark to appear over the truth and goodness of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Often this group needs a different style of communication to that of the first group when addressing these issues. This group has lived the kind of life that you have when you live by faith in the crucified Lord. They have experienced the ambiguities, the paradoxes, the things hard to explain. In differing ways, these have raised a question over the validity of the way of life lived under the cross, so a simple reassertion of black-and-white is often highly counterproductive. However, the more liberal approach of trying to reconstruct a Christian faith with fewer doctrines and more grey areas is also a dead end. What this group often needs is an attempt to acknowledge these ambiguous aspects of life but that expounds the faith in such a way that it comprehends them, even if tensions remain. The battle lies not just in teaching the fundamentals in the abstract but in relating them to the world they live in, how these truths shed light on their experiences and continue to ring true despite the tensions. This group knows the answers but hasn’t internalized them, or has struck a snag in working their implications out in daily life. Some attention to the details of how the rubber hits the road will usually provide the most help for these Christians.

Christian leaders

The third group is Christian leaders. The issues here are usually similar to the second group’s, and the solutions will work much the same. The distinctive extra element leaders bring to the table is the particular demands that come from exercising some kind of leadership role. On the one hand, they usually (if they’re any good) have high expectations of themselves. So the ambiguities and compromises of life can often impair their sense of the vitality of the Christian life more than for others. The right expectation that they will be an exemplar of the life of faith puts pressure on them, and their falling short in life and godliness can make the whole faith seem less real. This in turn can leave them vulnerable to arguments that the faith is merely a human construct, with no inner objectivity or power.

On the other hand, they tend to be the person that others look to for solutions to their own crises of faith. Part of their life is given over to encountering just how fragile faith can be, the myriad of reasons why someone might not believe or even take back a faith once proffered. Over time, this constant dealing with the problems of faith can have an effect on them. Doctors who deal regularly with sick people should probably be prepared to catch some diseases.

In dealing with such concerns, they often have to push deeper into the arguments of the opposition than those to whom they minister. Being a teacher often requires people to read every Dan Brown novel or New Atheist publication that is currently making waves. If a particular heresy or attack is having some influence, then many Christian leaders will make sure they have some firsthand knowledge of it. Thus leaders are often exposed to far more attacks on the faith than the average believer. In the words of Gandalf the Grey in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill”.

This ‘occupational hazard’ can sometimes be exacerbated by a weight of expectation. There is a certain appropriate anticipation, by others and themselves, that Christian leaders will be able to refute arguments against faith in Christ. It’s part of the job description, but it’s not always possible. A very intelligent person can make a good argument out of a bad idea, and a good rhetorician can take a bad argument and make it more compelling than a better argument. Sometimes you find yourself facing someone who can run intellectual and rhetorical rings around you. Most of us are used to that, and we don’t automatically assume that losing an argument means we are wrong (indeed, some of us could afford to recognize that sometimes losing an argument can mean that we are wrong). But Christian leaders are expected to be ‘experts’ about the knowledge of God, and this can lead to a wrong view that one will always be able to win the argument.

In this situation, it helps to remind people that they aren’t all that smart, and it’s no surprise that they get bested, or go up against an argument they can’t prove wrong. There are a lot of very intelligent people that have existed in history, and they disagree strongly with each other about a wide range of things. They can’t all be right, and yet you might not be able to win an argument with any of them. One of the most important survival skills for any teacher is to realize that very intelligent people can be profoundly wrong, and so develop an instinct for when a hard-to-answer argument might be a sign of some truth, and when it is just more evidence that You Are Not the Smartest Person Ever. Intelligence and rhetorical ability are no guarantors of truth. Working out when a winning argument is an indication of truthfulness is a harder task than simply saying, “I can’t answer that, so it must be right”.

Steps to a diagnosis

There are three final things that are good to keep in mind, whichever ‘group’ of Christians you are dealing with. First, the kind of people who are attracted to the arguments of New Atheism will invariably be people who have an aptitude for science and some kind of respect for scientists and the capacities of the scientific method. People who don’t care, or who are orientated to other aspects of life, like art, are rarely going to be swayed much by New Atheism (although they may be attracted to forms of atheism grounded in other approaches). Thinking highly about science is hardly a bad thing—science is a good gift from God—but it is something to keep in mind. One of the things that might be useful to check and address when you think someone might be susceptible to New Atheist arguments is the level of the person’s respect for science and scientists. Do they think science can answer almost any question, for example? Do they see it as having any limits, and if so, what?

Second, New Atheism runs two main kinds of arguments. One is primarily intellectual—there is no reason to believe in God; belief in God is inconsistent with an empirical view of knowledge. The other is more existential—religion is a night-light for people who are scared of the dark; religion is the cause of most of the world’s evil. The first addresses primarily whether the Christian faith is true, the second addresses whether it is a force for good or harm, or just utterly irrelevant for living life. When someone is being swayed by their arguments, usually only one of those two prongs is doing most of the heavy lifting, the other is simply support. Identifying which one is which can often help uncover the area of concern for that person. Focus the energy on the prong that’s doing the heavy lifting.

Third, it makes a big difference whether the person is primarily being swayed by New Atheism’s arguments and so is finding themselves in a position where they’d like to believe but find that they can’t with intellectual honesty, or whether they just don’t want to be a Christian. These are two very different paths to unbelief, and it makes a huge difference in how you address the issue. In a sense, the person being swayed by the arguments is the kind of person who might end up being a New Atheist ‘true believer’, the other is the kind who will likely end up as ‘Mr or Miss Average’. And so, some attention to the issues to do with those two groups is worth keeping in mind as well.

When it is all said and done, I think New Atheism is a fairly limited challenge, and responding to it is moderately straightforward, not least because a large number of written resources doing so have been produced over the years. You don’t need to have the answers, you just need half-decent abilities in reading and comprehension and then to pick up something in your Christian bookstore on the topic. However, that doesn’t mean that New Atheism is nothing at all; because of the respect that science and scientists are held in, when and if you choose to deal with New Atheism it needs to be dealt with seriously, and shouldn’t simply be waved away with empty rhetorical tricks.

  1. Ian Sample, “Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; its a fairy story'”, The Guardian, May 15, 2011

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