You may not realize this, but there is an embattled group of religious believers in this country that is badly in need of protection from public hostility. Fortunately, help is on the way. Bestselling books by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are providing encouragement, support, and supposedly rational argumentation to help lonely atheists who are feeling isolated in the dominant Christian culture of America and the West. Another morale booster is coming this month with the release of a new book by Christopher Hitchens: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Several new things seem to be happening at once. To begin with, the success of these books has put atheism on the public agenda. The main religious viewpoints in America are still Christianity, deism, and agnosticism (not necessarily in that order); but now out-and-out atheism is part of the discussion. The new atheists are hoping that more and more of their fellow atheists will come out of the closet and say that they do not believe in God.
The new atheists seem to be angrier than ever. They write with the kind of utter disdain for people of faith that we have rarely seen since the time of Voltaire. Sam Harris says his goal is “to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity” [see Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006)]. If you are stupid enough to believe in God, Richard Dawkins wants you to know that he is “dumbstruck by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God”—a God he describes as “a psychotic delinquent” [Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)]. These are men who believe that Christianity is not simply wrong, but also evil.
Also new is the zeal these men have to convert people to their cause. We are witnessing a kind of missionary atheism that is not content simply to ignore religion, but wants to eliminate it. Britain’s National Secular Society even offers converts from Christianity a certificate of “de-baptism” as a way of making their atheism official [Andrew Higgins, “As Religious Strife Grows, Europe’s Atheists Seize Pulpit,” Wall Street Journal (April 12, 2007), A1].
Ironically, these strident, militant atheists often come across like the very people they want to criticize. They themselves are believers, for they firmly believe—without any scientific proof—that there is no God. Furthermore, they read the Bible with such rigid literalism that they sound like fundamentalists, doing forcible violence to the biblical text. At times it seems like they wouldn’t know a poetic metaphor if it came up and slapped them in the face (I speak metaphorically, of course). In effect, they are also evangelists, for they are actively proselytizing people to turn away from Christ. They themselves are openly intolerant of Christianity, even though this is one of their major criticisms of Christian believers. And all the while they are advocating the atheism of the 20th century tyrants who put more people to death, and more brutally, than any other worldview in history.
How should Christians respond to resurgent atheism? To begin with, we should recognize that this is the direction our culture is going. We are facing many other spiritual challenges, of course, from many different religions, but more and more Americans will simply decide that there is no God. Far from being embattled, as these writers try to claim, missionary atheism is getting emboldened.
If there is anything good about this, it could be the way that it helps to clarify the spiritual issues. It is mortally dangerous to be an atheist, but at least when people say that they don’t believe, they are clear about what they do not believe. If anything, it is more dangerous not to think about what you believe at all, or even worse, to think that you are a believer without ever putting your faith in the one true God.
Bible-believing Christians have little to fear from the new atheists, for their diatribes do very little to advance the age-old argument between Christianity and atheism. In fact, Dawkins and Harris have received brutal reviews from secular critics for completely failing to make any real attempt to understand Christianity. Their description of the Christian religion is such a caricature that even Christians would be morally obliged not to believe in the God in whom they say we believe. However much these men know about science, they know very little theology and give no evidence of having read any of the great theologians who have given serious answers to their age-old questions and objections. This is not surprising, for the Bible says it is the fool who says in his heart that there is no God (see Ps. 53:1).
The way to be wise is to believe in the God of the Bible and to live faithfully for Christ. Dawkins, Harris, and other atheists love to attack Christians by rehearsing all the terrible things that have been done in the name of Christ. Admittedly, there is plenty for them to criticize, from the Crusades of Europe to Apartheid in South Africa.
It is tempting to respond by saying that the people who committed these sins were never really Christians to begin with. But maybe it would be better to say that we also believe in the depravity of Christianity. Our claim is not that we are any better than anyone else, but rather that we need as much forgiveness as anyone. We also believe that there is forgiveness for us in Jesus, who died for all the wrong things that Christians have ever done.
Now we need to live like we believe it, with such sacrificial service to others that whatever else the atheists may say, they will never be able to claim that we do not know how to love. To paraphrase the apostle Peter: “Keep your conduct among the atheists honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12).
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