Who are the “New Atheists”? Do their proposals threaten to undermine the Christian Faith?
IN RECENT years there has been a rash of books challenging Christianity in particular and religion in general. The authors of these books are sometimes referred to as the “New Atheists” and they are a motley crew of scientists, philosophers and freelance writers.
Some of them write with the fervour of an evangelist, eager to preach the “good news” that God is dead, and that religion is not only unnecessary but that it is in fact harmful. Their books have flown off the bookshelves in Singapore as well as elsewhere. Most of them try to sell a form of scientism that dogmatically asserts that the hard sciences are able to unlock the mysteries of the world and even solve its problems. All of them are materialistic or naturalistic in that they insist that the physical world is the only reality there is, and that everything about reality is observable, either with the naked eye or with the microscope or telescope.
The titles of these books are certainly carefully crafted to ensure that they create the greatest sensation and perhaps generate the best sales. For instance, Richard Dawkins’ newest book is entitled, The God Delusion. Christopher Hitchens’ book bears an even more provocative title, God is Not Great, and it has a sub-title to match: How Religion Poisons Everything. No less provocative is Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith.
As the titles indicate, these authors are not only interested in rubbishing religion. Their mission is to convince readers that religion is evil, and that society would do well to be rid of it. But in their attempt to eradicate the traditional religions, these authors have also introduced new ones, namely, secularism and scientism.
When one peruses the pages of these books, one finds much heat but very little substance. Often, these writers play reason against faith, as if faith is totally irrational. Writing about the traditional proofs for the existence of God, Richard Dawkins asserts that these proofs fail because they avoid the question. “Who made God?” Dawkins insists that “Faith is a cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate the evidence … Faith, being belief isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice in any religion.”
Compelled by his uncritical scientism Dawkins speaks of the “fatuousness of the religiously indoctrinated mind”, and concludes that religion “is now completely superseded by science”. These assertions betray either that Dawkins is totally unfamiliar with what the Christian tradition has to say about faith and reason, or that he has simply chosen to ignore it.
As a scientist who lauds reason, Dawkins often gives the impression that he writes with great objectivity. But when writing against religions his assertions are broad and often unfounded generalisations (some would say “pontifications”, making him and others like him dogmatic atheistic fundamentalists!).
Let’s take an example outside Christianity – Dawkins’ comments about Muslim suicide bombers. He categorically blames religious schools for nurturing such extremists when he writes, “If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior value of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers. Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools.”
Dawkins asserts this with such certainty that to the undiscerning reader what he says seems plausible. But he offers no evidence, no sociological backing for his thesis. He may be unaware of the solid study by Robert Pape, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, on this issue. Based on detailed studies of every suicide attack since 1980, this study, entitled, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2006), convincingly shows that religious zealotry in itself is not sufficient to produce suicide bombers.
Such imprecision is endemic in Christopher Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great. In his review in Christianity Today, Preston Jones observes that under the broad umbrella of religion, Hitchens groups
Mother Teresa, voodoo, the pope, “fear-ridden peasants of antiquity”, Muslim suicide bombers, animists, “arid monotheism”, the Archbishop of Canterbury, séances, Thomas Aquinas, an evangelical huckster “dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit”, Muhammad, the “tawdry myths of Bethlehem”, the “vapid and annoying holiday known as ‘Hanukah’”, Mormons, “hysterical Jewish congregations”, the “sordid” theology of Pascal, Martin Luther King, rednecks, “cobbled-together ancient Jewish books” (i.e., the Bible), WWII-era Japanese emperor worship, and male circumcision (which Hitchens describes as “mutilation of a powerless infant with the aim of ruining its future sex life”).
The claims of atheism could be shown to be false even without appealing to the revelation of God. For example, the atheist claims that since there is no evidence to prove that God exists, we must conclude that He does not exist.
Theoretical physics, however, has taught us that the absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. In theoretical physics, certain entities are postulated for which there is (as yet) no evidence. But the absence of evidence does not mean that one is therefore justified in thinking that these entities do not exist.
Atheists often present Christians with the burden of proving that God exists since Christians claim to know that He does. But the assertion “God does not exist” is also a claim to knowledge. Atheists are saying that they know that God does not exist. But they have not to date provided theists with convincing justification for their claim to know this to be true.
Atheism will never succeed in undermining the Christian Faith. Still, writers like Dawkins and Hitchens may create doubts in the minds of believers who are not sufficiently grounded in Scripture and Tradition. Their presence therefore challenges the Church to take seriously the theological illiteracy of some of its members, and to diligently teach the Faith it received from the Apostles.
‘The Church should take seriously the theological illiteracy of some of its members, and to diligently teach the Faith it received from the Apostles.’
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.