Wilson has no problem with a deep commitment to Christianity’s foundational doctrines; he is, after all, a convinced evangelical. Rather, he is concerned with a fundamentalist attitude which has no time for rational discourse, and which refuses to engage with other viewpoints. This style of fundamentalism intimidates or browbeats assent into the minds of believers; it never takes the time to convince anyone of anything. Wilson cautions Christians not to adopt this attitude; but then he warns us that you do not have to be religious to have a fundamentalist mentality.
They haven’t gone away, you know
Wilson’s warning is timely and important. Judeo-Christian belief has withstood critique for three millennia; today, anyone who defends that tradition’s understanding of marriage is simply dismissed as ignorant and hateful. New Atheism is making remarkable progress, despite a deluge of scholarly refutations of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens.2 But the New Atheists never intended to sell sound arguments.3 Through books, blogs and forums, New Atheism sells the feeling of intellectual superiority. Instead of writing penetrating criticisms of Christianity, they prefer what the eminent philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls ‘ignorant screeds’.
In this spirit Richard Dawkins suggested that his fellow New Atheists should ‘go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt… I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are — irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt’.4
This epitomises a fundamentalist attitude. There is no attempt to engage with serious critiques of atheism. Dawkins simply assumes that unbelief is infinitely superior to Christian superstition, and demands that his audience not only share his blind faith, but also revel in it. This should lead us to ask how a prominent academic can make a public virtue out of his own invincible ignorance.
Becoming what they behold
Perhaps the oddest feature of New Atheism is its tendency to be shaped by the very forces it implacably opposes. New Atheist literature found a wide readership in the wake of 9/11 because it offered a radical response to violent Islamism.5 Islamist ideology presupposes a two-dimensional and caricatured view of the Western mind. To the Islamist (or jihadist or Islamofacist), Western thought is biased by materialism. Western science, for example, is only interested in impersonal particles and the mechanical forces that operate on them; it has no concern with the realm of meaning.
Western economies are geared to producing material comfort and have no concern with righteousness. Democratic politicians are obsessed with practical problems, and are always focused on means rather than ends. Individualism trumps morality; the demands of the modern triumph over the yearnings of the spiritual. Given the inherent idolatry of the Western mind, the faithful have no choice; they must oppose such faithlessness by every means possible. True religion and Western society must always be at war; the believer will subjugate the infidel or be subjugated himself.
But the Islamist merely provides a perverted reading of a highly selective sample of Western thought and history. What about Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm and Abelard? It is bizarre to suggest that the Western world has no place for spiritual commitment. Western society has witnessed the Reformation, the Great Awakening and the birth of the Missionary Movement. Even if Christianity has been harassed to the margins of politics and the academy, a vibrant and resilient Christian community survives.
The retreat from reason
Now, although they might be a tad prickly, the New Atheists are not as violently intolerant as Islamists. How strange, then, to discover that the New Atheist and the jihadist agree on the nature of Western thought and values. New Atheists insist that there is a fundamental conflict between theism and Western values; the jihadist has simply picked the wrong side. After all, New Atheists insist that the quantitative, empirical methods of scientific investigation are the paradigm of rationality. And because they assume that Judaism, Islam and Christianity depend on blind, irrational faith, there can be no room for compromise between the Western mind and true religion.
To the New Atheist, theology is founded on superstition and expressed in tyranny. Sympathy is expressed for the deluded masses, but religious thought is the ‘root of all evil’. Religious belief necessarily produces Crusades and Intifadas; as Dawkins famously stated in his 1995 Desert Island Discs interview, it allows that ‘You can kill people because you know that they are wrong’.6 The fact that the list of politicians opposed to Christianity, and obsessed with modernity, includes Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin and Adolf Hitler does not even give New Atheists a moment’s pause.
In a panicked response to the dangers of religious violence, New Atheism forces false dichotomies on the reader. You can either have religion or rationality; you can either be devout or tolerant. But the simple fact of the matter is that our liberties grew out of Christian values. And Christians do not depend on blind faith; Christianity appeals to arguments and evidence. Philosophers and historians have noted the importance of Christian thought for the very concept of human rights. Christian theologians like Tertullian and Chrysostom were arguing for religious tolerance centuries before the Enlightenment.7 Lactantius, for example, argued: ‘If you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist’.
The apostle Paul presented rational critiques of paganism in Lystra, Athens and in his letter to the Romans. And from Justin Martyr, through Augustine and Duns Scotus, to Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, mainstream Christian thought has emphasised and defended the rationality of the Christian faith. We often forget that preachers, like Edwards, Wesley and Chalmers, devoted time to defending their faith. Evangelicals have always sought to give a reasoned answer for the hope that is within them. The New Atheist is welcome to disagree with centuries of Christian scholarship, but only a blind, prejudiced dogmatism could pretend that it does not exist!
In universities and schools across the country, Christians have been deafened by the sound of minds shutting to the gospel. Logged on to their internet forums, New Atheists cannot hear what the gospel has to say; logging off they find that they are deaf to the wisdom of Christianity. Our first duty, as the church, is to rediscover this wisdom for ourselves. And then, as kindly and as gently as possible, we must ask the New Atheists to reconnect with a traditional Western value: we must ask them to listen with an open mind.
Graham Veale is Head of Religious Education at City of Armagh High School. This article is adapted from the new Irish apologetics website http://www.saintsandsceptics.org
1. IVP-UK, 2012.
2. I would recommend three books to any reader who wishes to be thoroughly briefed on the weaknesses of the New Atheism: Naturalism by Stuart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro (Eerdmans, 2008); Atheism’s New Clothes by David Glass (Apollos, 2012); and Where the Conflict Really Lies by Alvin Plantinga (Oxford, 2012).
3. See the article ‘McAtheism’ in Evangelicals Now, March 2010.
4. http://richarddawkins.net/articles/3767-truckling-to-the-faithful-a-spoonful-of-jesus-helps-darwin-go-down/comments?page=1#comment_351636 (retrieved July 21 2012).
5. I’m following the analysis of Ian Buruma’s and Avishai Margalit’s Occidentalism(Atlantic Books, 2004). This anti-Western attitude is by no means confined to radical Islam.
6. Reported by David Martin in Does Christianity Cause War? (Oxford, 1997), p.24.
7. See http://www.saintsandsceptics.org/the-roots-of-tolerance-and-reason/ for more detail.