Arguing against the New Atheists

When I was young my mother saw that I was an overly inquisitive child who had a seemingly infinite set of questions about current affairs and religion. I remember with fondness when, in 1987, I got my first edition of the Guinness Book of World Records—so many facts to explore and things to learn. I also remember some of the books that sat next to my consecutive Guinness Books, written by Christians responding to the perceived threats of modern life in the 1990s: Lee Strobel, Philip E. Johnson, Ravi Zacharias, and Josh McDowell. Somewhat ironically, it was Zacharias’ book, Can Man Live Without God?, that actually raised, rather than settled, so many lasting and perplexing questions.

At the back of Can Man Live Without God? Zacharias offers a series of vignettes of famous philosophers who had articulated a philosophy that entailed a rejection of God by man. These enticingly labelled “Mentors to a Skeptic” were the bad guys: René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, just to name a few. Yet I found those little tidbits as interesting as the substance of the book itself, so much so that I subsequently borrowed several works by Nietzsche from my local library. Despite my mother’s good intentions, I had found the work of some of the most vocal critics of Christianity tantalizing.

Perhaps here is a good moment to pause and consider a question: for whom was Zacharias writing? My younger self, certainly. When my mother brought apologetics books home for me from the Christian bookstore where she worked, she was trying to help me navigate Christian faith in a world filled with challenging questions, the answers for which she lacked. So she turned to what she considered trustworthy Christian thinkers. What else would a good mom do?

In light of all this, I find it quite amusing that Nietzsche plays a large role in several recent books responding to the “new atheists.” Indeed, it wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that Nietzsche has become an odd sort of ally to a variety of anti-atheist arguments today. Take Ian Mackay or Alister McGrath. To them Nietzsche is the logical endpoint of any properly atheist argument. He represents a kind of heroic rejection of God, like Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above a Sea of Fog,” facing a brave new world alone. These writers would say about the new atheists what Nietzsche said about George Elliot, that she kept Christian morality while rejecting the Christian God. For both Nietzsche and these anti-atheists, this is unacceptable. To reject the Christian God means rejecting the whole culture and value-system that goes with that God. The baby must go out, so to speak, with the bathwater.

Nietzsche isn’t the only surprising ally; Darwin can be appropriated, too. McGrath, Mackay, and John Haught have no problem accepting the science of evolution. They argue that there is no contradiction between accepting evolutionary science and being a person of faith, provided that science and religion are properly conceived. Each makes a distinction between the kinds of things science investigates, the means of its investigation, and that which is appropriate to religion. McGrath, for example, approvingly cites Stephen Jay Gould “non-overlapping magisterium” in support of this distinction.

So these writers consider the argument for atheism on historical and philosophical grounds. To them, science simply does not and cannot answer the question of God by itself. That would be a category mistake. The scientific method, properly applied, deals only with the material, natural world, and may, they suggest, yield conclusions incompatible with strict materialism or “scientism.” Philosophical arguments can be made based on the evidence and conclusions of science, but as Gould noted, scientists themselves seem to be able to draw conclusions in favor of both religion and atheism. And these are philosophical, not scientific conclusions. Both Haught and McGrath have in fact attempted elsewhere to work out a theology in light of their scientific conclusions (Alister McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology; and his Gifford Lectures: Alister McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe; John F. Haught, God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution).

This argument based on the distinction between science and religion can be, and often is, accompanied by more direct philosophical confrontation. A relatively conservative strand of confrontation makes up a significant part of God is Good, God is Great, which conveniently summarizes some current forms of the cosmological, ontological, and teleological proofs of God’s existence. Alvin Plantinga sets out his argument that the naturalism of The God Delusion is philosophically incoherent, self-defeating, and cannot provide a sound basis for science. The anti-atheist chastisement of an overly-zealous science can accompany a defence of the coherence of some form of “theism.”

Against the “new atheist” claim that religion has had a pernicious role in human history, these authors consistently raise the spectre of twentieth century “secular” and “atheist” violence. The Holocaust and the Soviet regimes become trump-card counter-examples to religious violence. They draw a contrast between what these writers see as a less violent, indeed a non-religiously based violence in Christian history, and the palpable atrocities of modern secular political regimes. This somewhat shallow response—shallow in the sense that it is taken to be an obvious rejoinder to the “new atheist” criticisms that requires only brief elaboration—suffers when compared to David Bentley Hart’s detailed, polemical, and entertainingly witty criticisms of modern myths about antiquity and the triumph of Christianity.

Hart’s book does not really engage with the “new atheists” directly, but rather what he takes to be popular misconceptions that serve as the basis for their misinformed criticism, several of which he finds conveniently in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. While Hart is clearly on solid ground when criticizing popular myths like the supposed tolerance of ancient Rome, or the anti-intellectual character of early Christianity, he is less so when characterizing modern history. He too easily equates modernity with the Enlightenment; he too simply characterizes the Enlightenment as a unified, clearly defined monolith; and he moves far too breezily through the implications of late medieval, early modern and modern theology. Indicative of this superficiality, nor has he taken account of the massive historical reassessment of Gibbon and “the” Enlightenment by such scholars as J. G. A. Pocock (Barbarism and Religion, 5 vols., Cambridge University Press, 1999-2010).

No consensus exists among historians regarding the overall nature of “the” Enlightenment (is it one thing or many?), its implications for “modernity” (is the Enlightenment central to modernity? Romanticism? post-Romanticism?), or even about the trajectory of the history of theology and philosophy (is it all downhill after Occam?). Indeed, this criticism could be extended to each of the works considered here, which all too cavalierly insist on nuance and detail for their areas of expertise but then make sweeping generalizations regarding modern history.

The common themes of these Christian responses are accompanied by a common tone. Christian arguments about atheism, as Thomas Aquinas makes clear, have been capable of sophistication and subtlety throughout history. However, today’s responses are made in a new context, indicated perhaps by the sympathy many of these texts express for atheists and atheism (as opposed to the “new atheists”, who they contend give other reasonable and respectable atheists a bad name). Today’s defenders of Christian faith are generally aware that theirs is but one voice among many in a conversation with many participants; they recognize on some level the contested nature of truth today, and that we live in societies which embody that contestation.

And that may be the true value of these books. But this also raises a question. In their own way, each of these books answers the challenges brought forward by the “new atheists.” But if they persuade us that faith can be reasonably defended, and that the overstatements of the “new atheists” cannot, there is still the question of whether or not these books are the best means of coming to this conclusion.

The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundmentalism and the Denial of the Divine, by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. InterVarsity Press, 2010.
God is Great, God is Good: Why Believing in God is Reasonable and Responsible, ed. William Lane Craig and Chad Meister. Intervarsity Press, 2009.
Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, by David Bentley Hart. Yale University Press, 2010.
God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, by John F. Haught. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are Fundamentally Wrong, by Ian S. Markham. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
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