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November 16, 2006

The Skinny on New Atheism

The New Atheism is making a splash. Here is the skinny.

Last year I read a good history on the key figures of early atheism. Its called God's Funeral by A.N. Wilson (1999) which gets its title from a poem by Thomas Hardy. It was interesting and informative but there was no expectation that atheism would make a comeback and honestly, i wondered whether i was wasting my time reading the book. Now its 2006 and New Atheism has become a hot issue on the blogosphere with its fundamentalist intolerance for faith and Christianity.

Richard DawkinsRichard Dawkins' new book The God Delusion is part of that conversation. I was tempted me to part with £16 last week but after thumbing through the book, i didnt think it a serious reason to part with my money. Alister McGrath agrees, calling it his "weakest book to date" [Wikipedia] You can always read the free essay by Dawkins released the same day as his book called "Why There is Almost Certainly No God.

I DID, however, buy Wired magazine for their feature article on new atheism by Gary Wolf called The Crusade Against Religion (or The Church of Non-Believers) which was worth every cent and btw is available freely on the website. Dawkins' brand of atheistic fundamentalism is not supported by quite a number of atheists and the article takes a more rounded approach, looking into other voices on atheism that are not as extreme as that of Richard Dawkins.

2006-11-14T210543Z 01 Lon328 Rtridsp 0 Leisure-BondAnd talking about extreme intolerance to religion, Michael Medved has a good article entitled "The 'tolerant' Sir Elton wants to Ban Religion" in which he argues that religion is more tolerant than Elton thinks.

But back to Dawkins. Ted Haggard makes it into Dawkins' book. In fact, I watched Ted Haggard chat with Dawkins on the BBC special called The Root of All Evil. You can view part one here, and part two here.

Images-1-1IMHO Ted Haggard could have done a lot better by appealing to the supernatural realities he had already witnessed. I once heard Ted Haggard speak at the Post-denominational Symposium in Pasadena (1996 or 97?). He told us about a trip to Colombia where so many people get raised from the dead that people who lose loved ones call the church before they call the morgue - just in case. Ted went out on one of these calls and the guy had been dead for a few days. In fact, Ted said he was secretly hoping the guy wouldn't come back to like because he smelled so bad (tongue in cheek). And he didn't, actually. But many others do and Dawkins would be struggling for a rational scientific explanation to the raising of the dead, and the supernatural healing of the sick in answer to prayer - something that is quite common in poor countries but not applicable to wealthy intellectuals who have enough medical care and enough money to never pray for a miracle. Which seems to be the the small elite demographic that embrace atheism.


But Ted did not play that card. I think he should have. A religion with no power will become a haunt for demons and a place for decay to set in. And it will leave the church struggling to find rational answers for realities that are mysterious and supernatural and not easily boxed up in scientific terms.

Once I was blind, but now I see.

Anyway, I am reading through Wilson's book on atheism again, thinking through the impact of Gibbon and Hume, and getting ready for some new conversations.


Al Mohler speaks out.

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I picked up Wired too for that article. There's also a few very interesting articles in this weeks Newsweek (Nov 13th) on 'America's God Complex' and 'Why Europe is Getting Religion.'

Posted by: emma | Nov 16, 2006 2:24:09 PM

ohhhhh. thanks!

Posted by: andrew (tall skinny kiwi) | Nov 16, 2006 3:13:39 PM

I'm hearing stories of scientists who come to realize that there has to be a designer and have gone from aethiest to at least their belief in a God. His name escapes me, but there's one that came to that conclusion but would not ever become a Christian because he associated it with Nazism.

Good post, and good point. It's easy to not believe in God when you can self-sustain. Those that need to rely on God every day for survival believe in something. That's a bit of a circular argument and I'm sure and aethiest would call me on it. ;-)

Posted by: David | Nov 16, 2006 3:18:19 PM

regarding Nazis . . .. i see more links to fascism with this new fundamentalist atheism than i ever noticed with fundamentalist christianity.

Posted by: andrew (tall skinny kiwi) | Nov 16, 2006 4:38:24 PM

"A religion with no power will become a haunt for demons and a place for decay to set in."

good words.

Posted by: Susan | Nov 16, 2006 4:40:15 PM

I preordered The God Delusion, even though I have only read the intro (guess I jumped the preorder gun).

Bertrand Russell's Why I'm Not a Christian is another atheistic view of the world, though from many years ago. I find Dawkins to be cut from similar cloth to Russell. Both can be quite bitting, and both are/were brilliant thinkers.

Your observation about miracles being important to a Christian response to atheism is right on.

Posted by: Chad Smith | Nov 16, 2006 4:40:23 PM

Have you heard of the Jedi Knight group? I suggest you check them out...


Posted by: MinorRipper | Nov 16, 2006 6:17:28 PM

Interesting, I posted on the same thing today. I also saw this as a new form of fundamentalism.

I was disappointed as well by the Dawkins/Haggard interview. I would have liked to have seen Haggard take the same tact you suggested. But I also would have liked to have seen him not respond as confrontationally as Dawkins.

Posted by: John Smulo | Nov 16, 2006 6:30:46 PM

I, like you picked up Dawkins' book a couple of weeks ago and decided to spend the money on your recommendation instead and bought Frost's Exiles and Colossians Remixed! I have started Exiles and after the first chapter is likely to rate in my top five best books. Zietgiest.

Posted by: David | Nov 16, 2006 7:19:30 PM

I find it very difficult to use miracles as valid responses to atheism, when there are so many.. maybe especially in the United States, that are false. People find it hard to believe that they're not all false. Sometimes I think this tendency is fading as modernism fades, and sometimes I'm not sure.

Posted by: jon | Nov 16, 2006 7:21:39 PM

I read most of Dawkin's newest book, and agree with McGrath; it is quite weak. Not so much because of his arguments, but because of his tone. I felt embarrassed as I read. A man with such a sharp mind, penning page upon page of venomous rhetoric.

However, IMHO, I would stay away from any supernatural (subjective) claims relating to the dead being raised, etc. (Has there ever been a story in Time magazine or on the cover of The New York Times talking to and about the person raised from the dead? Or the Army amputee whose limb was gone one minute, there the next?) I think such claims are too rare, and fringe, to hold much weight with someone who believes Adagio for Strings was scored by chance.

Posted by: Tom | Nov 16, 2006 7:33:11 PM

I agree with your Nazism comment above. This happened to be one percpetion of a scientist who must have had some bad experiences with Christians.

Posted by: David | Nov 16, 2006 7:43:55 PM

i am not holding my breath for NYtimes to validate God's miracles in other countries. and there are plenty of doctors reports of healed people (AIDS, etc) to give objective evidence of supernatural power.

Isnt our own faith resting on teh resurrection of Christ?

Posted by: andrew (tall skinny kiwi) | Nov 16, 2006 7:44:05 PM

Scot Mcknight, some weeks ago, brought up the subject of atheism on his blog. One of the points made was that christians and atheists have similar problems. While for christians it is the problem of evil, for atheists it is the problem of good. In the past a good modern atheist may point to the continual advancement of human progress as “the good.” However today that “good” would seem to be less certain. So my question is what does a post modern atheist look like?

Posted by: Mark (marksbog) | Nov 16, 2006 8:30:56 PM

The problem with TH using miracles to defend Christianity is that in the eyes of most he's lost some credibility, so any story he tells, in their eyes will probably not hold much sway.

Posted by: Whitey | Nov 16, 2006 9:32:17 PM


I would point you toward Daniel Dennett for an interesting current atheistic take on religion.

You can get a taste of his ideas here from his interaction with Rick Warren @ TED.


Dennett makes an interesting policy suggestion: World Religions education for all children as part of the basic level of education required for a democracy to function well.

Is that fundamentalist? Is that something you would be comfortable for your own children's education? I am not a parent and I recognize that on questions like this it is best for me to be silent, but it is a important question to consider.

Posted by: Nate | Nov 16, 2006 10:22:02 PM

No doubt God heals. Often.

I just had to comment on:
"...Colombia where so many people get raised from the dead that people who lose loved ones call the church before they call the morgue..."

Any journalist worth their salt, no matter what their presuppositions, would pursue such a story. As far as I know, the only people in history who were raised from the dead made such an impact that we are still talking about it two thousand years later.

Lest you think me one of the Greek-minded, I spent my childhood amongst the Ayore Indians in Bolivia.

As we engage the "intellectuals" (ie, Dawkins, etc.), I favor using the their language in the stead of risking apples and oranges conversations.

Posted by: Tom | Nov 16, 2006 10:54:37 PM

I agree that atheism is on the rise again, but I feel there is something much more sinister afoot...

I very much doubt that my atheist medical colleagues would accept a resurrection unless they saw it for themselves. People like Prof Dawkins may have to be raised from the dead himself to believe! We can tell them the truth but it will be like a foul smell to them, they have too much to loose. (Pray pray pray for them!)

Bertrand Russell's book that was mentioned (in a comment)was a rant against religion which I thought showed his closed mind and poor thinking rather than brilliance. I think Christ allows us freedom in thought life as well as spiritual, so as Christians we can have the imagination of the impossible, we can think, glimpse the thought's of an infinite 'impossible' God. Atheists are stuck in their small mindedness - they think that because they can see in the visible spectrum of light, then, that is the only valid sensory modality. Telescopes search the heavens in ultraviolet, infrared and even x-rays - we can't see these stars with our naked eyes but we still accept that they are there. I see the Bible as our 'telescope' for seeing in these other realms of thought and being.

I see a problem when a Christian think tank called Ekklesia joins hands with the British Humanist Association to call on the UK government to teach evolution as truth and fact, quote "a matter of straightforward scientific truthfulness". This is what Prof Dawkins believes wholeheartedly, he is the self appointed high priest. This is science as religion. I see a great problem when people who profess to follow Jesus as Lord (therefore believe the Bible is truth) decide to hold hands with the religion of the world.


Posted by: PTD | Nov 16, 2006 11:27:58 PM

I watched "The Root of All Evil" (twice!) when it aired on CBC a month or so ago. It was, truly, "weak". I especially liked the part about athiests in America meeting in clandestine secret gatherings out of "fear" of Christian reprisals.

The Canadian showing was followed by an "open" panel discussion. It was interesting to me that the Jewish and Islamic clerics were thoughtful, highly educated, and thought Dawkin's work was sloppy, poorly researched, and full of dumb stereotypes. They even defended Christianity as being misrepresented by Dawkins.

Honestly, the more I watched the "town hall" discussion (with Dawkins participating via sattelite), the more it reminded me of Slice of Laodicea.

Posted by: robbymac | Nov 16, 2006 11:33:10 PM

It's not just atheists in today's money-consumed society that have difficulty finding faith in the supernatural. Many "Christians" caught up in American or Western culture have a "form of godliness, but deny its power" because they are living out the truth that we can't worship both God and Mammon. They can't walk both by sight and by faith. And, as a result, they are fodder for the New Atheist's point of view.

Posted by: Bryan Riley | Nov 16, 2006 11:33:50 PM

Russell's book that was mentioned isn't a case for his brilliance, only a small example of his general disbelief in God.

The problem that we as Christians run into by presenting a purely intellectual argument to the veracity of God is that we don't share a common basic understanding of the universe with atheists. While atheists would align with naturalism, we as Christians would at a very basic level at least align with dualism (physical and spirit).

Posted by: Chad Smith | Nov 17, 2006 1:21:32 AM

Interesting post, Andrew. I have read some Erich Fromm books, like "The Art Of Loving" (1956), when he says that "God is everything and God is nothing". I think that this dicotomy tend to blur things to people who can't establish for themselves an absolute point of view on the issue.

Posted by: Natanael Disla | Nov 17, 2006 3:43:19 AM

I'm thankful for this post, Andrew. The Wired online article is worth the read. I do wonder, though, what leg of reason is Dawkins standing on as he pronounces belief in God as "evil"? Isn't he standing on air as he attempts to define evil-from-good without an infinite reference point?

Posted by: Jenelle | Nov 17, 2006 1:48:56 PM

Andrew - The Chronicle of Higher Education's Review had an interesting Utne Reader style collection of excerpts from book reviews of Dawkins' latest. Non-subscribers can't access this article, but here are a few of the more salient comments:

Terry Eagleton, University of Manchester: Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don't believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. ...

Jim Holt, science writer: Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins's failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience. As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds. ...

PZ Myers, University of Minnesota at Morris: [Dawkins] is not proposing the abolition of religion, but rather that we acquire a proper perspective on it. Religion is a cultural heritage that should be appreciated for its contributions to history, literature, and art, and Dawkins actually advocates more education in the subject. ...


Posted by: Andrew | Nov 17, 2006 4:12:56 PM

It's interesting that this conversation has focused more on miracles like raising people from the dead. Something I have been questioning lately is how our (Christians) attitudes to things like miracles affects our cultures attidue to them. Many of you comment here that you believe in miracles today, but they are not that common, and non-Christians don't really believe in them. If we really believed in their power and reality, wouldn't we pray more expectantly for miracles? And if we really believed what we say we do, culture around us couldnt help but be transformed. Just some thoughts!

Posted by: emma | Nov 17, 2006 4:23:21 PM

I wrote something on the new athiesm as well, just a few days ago. Stop on by! (Backtracking...)

Posted by: knsheppard | Nov 17, 2006 5:18:05 PM

I recently found a very interesting website:
There you can purchase ad space for your Blog etc.

Posted by: jack | Nov 17, 2006 8:16:18 PM

What I find when I dialogue with atheists is that intellectuallism is a cover for the emotional dismissal of a God. Really, they don't want to submit themselves or acknowledge there is anything out there greater than their own being. If man is God, who can argue with them. Reading the Wired article, that is the real foundation they are going toward...a way that they can propel a god-like status on their own thoughts and reasoning.., creating a new religion that would entrap followers to the highest of intellectual minds. We all bow at their impressive thought capacity...lead me on, oh great thinker...
On our side, we need great thinkers to continue to rise up to give reasonable and sound assertions for critical thinking within Christian circles as well.


Posted by: Andy Opie | Nov 17, 2006 10:08:48 PM

I have just bought the New Scientist magazine, 50th anniversary special. It is very interesting and has much to link in with this topic of 'new atheism'. One of the articles is "Beyond belief", it is a discussion on 'Can secular science ever oust religious belief - and should it even try?'. There are 3 main questions:
1) Should science do away with religion?
2) If not God then what?
3) Can we be good without God?

Guess what their answers to these questions are? Oh, Prof Dawkins was a speaker at the symposium.


Posted by: PTD | Nov 17, 2006 10:32:10 PM

I should also have mentioned, on Gibbon and his history, see the *great* J. G. A. Pocock's "Barbarism and Religion". He's a fellow Kiwi, so there's another reason for you to check him out! Wikipedia has a pretty good intro to him.

Posted by: knsheppard | Nov 18, 2006 1:51:44 AM

To repsond to this post...

I'm thankful for this post, Andrew. The Wired online article is worth the read. I do wonder, though, what leg of reason is Dawkins standing on as he pronounces belief in God as "evil"? Isn't he standing on air as he attempts to define evil-from-good without an infinite reference point?

Dawkins said he disagreed with the name as the special. You can read that in the opening dialogue of the book.

Posted by: Jimmy Kirk | Nov 23, 2006 3:06:33 AM

thanks jimmy

dawkins is also pointing to fundamalist inspired war and violence as a reason to dismiss christianity.

Posted by: andrew (tall skinny kiwi) | Nov 23, 2006 5:43:04 AM

Ok, this is just me but I'd like to hold my hand up and agree with Dawkins et al that there have been a lot of evil done in the name of God by the people who claim to represent him - I don't think we can whitewash that out of our history so I for one hold up my hand and apologise -

heck I've been a fundamentalist and bashed people around and taken bashings myself so i might not have done massive evil but I have certainly done a lot of things that were evil in miniature and also provoked reactions which could be considered evil.

I might well have missed the point back then, love was the velvet glove that I wrapped the iron bar of truth in to give people a good verbal bashing to - love my enemies oh yes in a kapow! sense...

Personally I think we should welcome critique, instead of reacting to Mr Dawkins I should be thanking him. He rightly says is religion making the world a better place - ok what evidence have I got to contradict him? How is me following Christ allaying his concerns and not encouraging them? If anything his words make me start back at home base and make me look at all the blessing I want for myself and the very little blessing I want to give to anyone else - seriously i love the idea of it but do I actually deliver?

I also view Mr Dawkins as someone who actually I have a lot of common with - we are both people who have a position of faith - i can't prove ultimately there is a God; I need to make a step of faith, altho not a blind one I like to think. Likewise, Mr Dawkins cannot prove that there is no God and therefore chooses to make a step of faith albeit not a blind one (unless it’s a watchmaker) he likes to think.

So here we are two people of faith, both asking do our respective beliefs make the world a better place? In my case i admit I should be doing a lot more than just asking the question...

Posted by: Paul | Nov 24, 2006 8:38:04 AM

thanks paul. i also think we should show some respect to richard dawkins. he is insisting on intellectual honesty, asking hard questions, being consistent with ones beliefs, and insisting on the moral obligation of "evangelism". despite being on opposite sides, we do have some common ground.

Posted by: andrew (tall skinny kiwi) | Nov 24, 2006 8:55:17 AM

I think we as christians should be careful with using miracles as proof. Obviously they are the merciful exeptions in an God ordained order, and we should treat them as such. Nothing carries more weight than the change taking place in a discples life, and that witness to his/her friends.

Posted by: Pasor Astor | Nov 25, 2006 9:02:49 PM

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