The "New Atheism" as "Good News"While the new atheism has generated worry among Christians, perhaps it isn't warranted. One gets a sense of growing worry among atheists as well, and for good reason.
The last few years have seen the rise of the so-called “New Atheism”. a loose coalition of vociferous atheists who have denounced Christianity and religion generally in a number of high profile, bestselling books including Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve, 2007) and Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006). In addition to topping the bestseller lists, the new atheists have made their presence felt in public debates, documentaries (e.g. The Root of All Evil) and through numerous public appearances on television and radio.
Christianity has experienced renewed vitality through recent work in New Testament scholarship...
As one might suspect, the new atheism has generated a significant amount of worry among Christians, for it creates the impression that atheism is on the rise both demographically and intellectually.
In point of fact however, that impression is false. While demographically speaking, atheism has been increasing in Europe, over the last three decades it has remained fairly dormant in North America. According to Reginald Bibby, in 1975 six percent of Canadians identified themselves as atheists, a number which rose to nine percent in 1995 but had dropped back to seven percent in 2005.
Nor does the new atheism represent a new high water mark of intellectual sophistication. Indeed, much of what passes under the banner of the new atheism is nothing more than the punchy and irreverent skepticism of a Mark Twain or H.L Mencken warmed over.
While the new atheism offers little new by way of argument, it conveys the erroneous impression that orthodox Christianity is on the ropes intellectually speaking. On the contrary, Christianity has experienced renewed vitality through recent work in New Testament scholarship and philosophy of religion.
With regard to New Testament studies, just a few short decades ago it was widely assumed that the historical Jesus was all but inaccessible to critical scholarship. However, today works like N.T. Wright’s monumental The Resurrection of the Son of God (Augsburg Fortress, 2003) defend an orthodox picture of Jesus Christ on solid historical and evidential grounds. (Indeed, such is the evidence that even Pinchas Lapide, a Jewish scholar, has concluded on wholly historical grounds that Jesus was resurrected!)
Perhaps even more striking is the renaissance in philosophy of religion. Fifty years ago the field looked bleak with many philosophers dismissing the notion that statements such as “God exists” or “Jesus is God” were even meaningful let alone rational or warranted. The radical shift that has subsequently occurred is well illustrated in the case of Antony Flew. For 50 years Flew was arguably the world’s leading academic atheist until he converted to theism (though not yet any organized religion) in 2003 based largely upon the intellectual power of arguments forwarded by Christian philosophers. And far from being an isolated incident, Flew’s conversion is a bellwether for a much broader movement. This is evident, for instance, in the recent explosive growth of the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its flagship publication, Philosophia Christi.
One gets a sense of the growing worry among atheists when, in a recent edition of the skeptical philosophy of religion journal Philo, the respected atheist Quentin Smith wrote a call to arms for atheists to counter the rising tide of Christian philosophy. In the article, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” he laments: “Naturalists passively watched as realist versions of theism … began to sweep through the philosophical community, until today perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians.” What a startlingly different picture from that conveyed by the new atheists!
Interestingly, while the new atheism regrettably obscures Christianity’s vitalization, it also ironically constitutes a sort of good news. To appreciate this one must first understand that for many years Christian intellectuals have been marginalized by the devastating fact/values dichotomy that relegated Christianity to the hinterland of private feelings, far from the bustling metropolis of relevant facts. Within such a climate Christianity was emasculated as a worldview, at best a non-rational bit of private sentimentalism utterly irrelevant to the business of the academy.
By contrast, the new atheists, to their credit, acknowledge that Christianity makes factual claims about the world, and thus that it is disingenuous to consign it to the realm of private feelings. Not only have they returned the question of factuality to discussion of Christian faith, but they have thereby placed discussion about God at the center of national consciousness and serious public debate. As such, they have unwittingly provided a golden opportunity for Christians to enter the public discussion and set the record straight. And that, it seems to me, is good news indeed.
Randal Rauser is associate professor of Historical Theology, Taylor Seminary, Edmonton, Alberta.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2007 Christianity.ca.