Faith and the “New Atheists”

I am—as anyone who spends any time poking around this blog can surely tell—a committed believer in Jesus Christ.  Some days, I can also call myself a committed disciple of Jesus Christ; some days, not so much.  As Andrew Peterson wrote in “The Chasing Song,”

Now and then these feet just take to wandering;
Now and then I prop them up at home.
Sometimes I think about the consequences—
Sometimes I don’t.

Still, for all my failures in living it out, I’m committed to the walk.  I’m committed because I believe Jesus spoke truly when he told his disciples he is the way, the truth, and the life.  I believe the people of God, from our founding in Abraham all the way through to the church of today, have been given the only true account of the existence of the material world, and the only true account of human existence.  I don’t think any one branch of the Christian tradition has a perfect or complete understanding of that truth, and still less any individual believer; the fact that each of us is both limited and sinful ensures that our best understanding will be both incomplete and flawed.  I believe God uses even those flaws to his own purposes.

I’m absolutely committed to Jesus because I believe that faith in him is true, even if my faith in him is only imperfectly true.  If anyone could prove to me that the Christian faith is false, I would abandon it.  That might seem like a hard right turn to some, but it isn’t; I want to believe what is true, not what is congenial.  That’s why I’m still a Christian after forty-plus years of life and twelve-plus years in the pastorate.

Two things need to be said here.  First, prove is the key word, and to me the key modifier.  I don’t particularly care if someone else finds their own arguments convincing; that imposes no obligation whatsoever on me.  If anyone wants me to change my mind about anything, they have to prove to my satisfaction that I’m wrong.  For some things, that’s easy, as I hold them lightly, with no great certainty.  I admit I’m wrong about one thing or another all the time.  For matters on which I have thought long and deeply, and on which my beliefs have survived multiple challenges, it’s a very different case.  I’ve had entirely too many people accuse me of being closed-minded because I didn’t roll over and agree with them.  No, I’m not closed-minded—you just made bad arguments.

Second, I believe in holding my positions humbly, with the understanding that I could always be wrong, and I don’t believe that is in any way inconsistent with being a completely committed disciple of Jesus Christ.  I know there are many Christians who would disagree with me on this point.  I recently read an essay (which I am currently unable to find; I believe it was by the late Fr. Edward T. Oakes, but I’m not sure) which argued that a Christian must a priori rule out any possibility that the Christian faith could be wrong.  I understand that point of view, but I don’t think it’s necessary, and I don’t think such an approach truly honors God.

According to Scripture, God is truth, and he is the source of all truth.  If that’s the case, then whenever we are sincerely searching for truth, we’re looking for God, and any move toward truth is a move toward God.  If I’m wrong to believe the word of God, then it would be better for me to be corrected.  If I’m not, if the word of God is true, then I don’t need to be afraid to give any argument serious and respectful attention.  While I may well hear truths which will challenge my faith, that’s no bad thing, because it’s only as we’re challenged that we grow.  If the word of God is true, then there is nothing that can invalidate my faith in Jesus; nothing true will, and no falsehood will stand.  I can listen fearlessly to any argument, because there is absolutely nothing to fear.

To be sure, this requires great discernment to be able to see what is true and what is false.  That’s often far from obvious, and no one ever gets it all right all the time.  Certainly I don’t.  I know there are lies I believe and truths I miss.  Equally, none of us is ever searching for truth in perfect purity.  We’re all contaminated by agendas of the heart and obstructed by the unwillingness to accept being wrong.  If the Scriptures are true, however, then I can listen to others and consider their points in the assurance that the Spirit of God is at work in me to guide and grow my heart and mind.  I can search for truth in the assurance that the perfection and wisdom of God are more than enough to outweigh my enduring imperfection and frequent foolishness.  If God is truth and I’m searching for truth, he’s not going to let me miss him altogether.

It seems to me, then, that one who has a robust and secure faith is unthreatened by the fact that others hold different beliefs, and is able to engage in discussion with them to learn from them, not merely to “win” an argument with them.  If we’re unwilling to try to understand those who disagree with us on their own terms, if we only credit them with bad motives for disagreeing with us, these are signs that we’re insecure and anxious in our beliefs.  If we’re unafraid of the truth, there’s no reason for mockery or flippancy toward those who challenge us, because the challenge of their beliefs cannot threaten us.  It can only provoke us to grow.

This, I think, is why David Bentley Hart could write,

Today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. . . .

The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.

He’s absolutely correct.  In the first place, he’s right to call the “New Atheists” banal and trivial.

A true skeptic is also someone who understands that an attitude of critical suspicion is quite different from the glib abandonment of one vision of absolute truth for another—say, fundamentalist Christianity for fundamentalist materialism or something vaguely and inaccurately called “humanism.” Hume, for instance, never traded one dogmatism for another, or one facile certitude for another. He understood how radical were the implications of the skepticism he recommended, and how they struck at the foundations not only of unthinking faith, but of proud rationality as well.

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

I’ve written on this a number of times before, and on occasion I’ve been pleased to discover atheist writers who are also aware of the problem.  As Hart understands, this isn’t just a problem for atheists.  It’s also a problem for the church.  Absent the challenge of a strong skeptical tradition, the result tends to be “arid dogmatisms, inane fideisms, and worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods.”  If there are no atheists around, it doesn’t mean the Devil’s on holiday.  It probably means he’s choosing to attack the church from within.  If the common complaints about the vapidity of much of American Christianity are true, it probably has something to do with the vapidity of American atheism.

The challenge of the “New Atheists” to Christian faith is inconsequential because they don’t know or understand much of anything about Christianity or the Christian tradition.  It doesn’t help that they persist in making theological, philosophical, and historical arguments when they don’t understand those disciplines.  Even those who are trained as philosophers have little or no understanding of traditional Christian metaphysics, and thus their philosophical arguments are ignorant exercises in missing the point.  Hart attributes this in large part to indolence, but I suspect it’s rather that the faith of folks like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is really quite fragile.  (Harris’ recent book Waking Up seems to me to be further evidence for this idea.)  R. R. Reno observed some years ago,

The intemperate, even violent tone in recent criticisms of faith is quite striking. Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens: They seem an agitated crew, quick to caricature, quick to denounce, quick to slash away at what they take to be the delusions and conceits of faith. And the phenomenon is not strictly literary. All of us know a friend or acquaintance who has surprised us in a dark moment of anger, making cutting comments about the life of faith. There is no way around it. There is something about faith that agitates unbelief.

That intemperance and intolerance read to me as the sort of defensiveness that believes the best defense is a good offense.  I have a hunch that the arrogance and contempt of people like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett toward faith, believers, and anything connected with them is their defense against the terror that they might be wrong.  I suspect they’re afraid that if they gave Christianity a respectful hearing, they might find themselves unable to argue it away—and I’m dead certain they find that prospect intolerable and completely unacceptable.

If they were honest, I would guess that all the “New Atheists” would have to agree with the philosopher Thomas Nagel.  In his book The Last Word, Nagel diagnosed “a fear of religion which has large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life,” and then continued,

I am talking about . . . the fear of religion itself.  I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself:  I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.  It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief.  It’s that I hope there is no God!  I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

Give Nagel credit:  his faith is strong enough to admit and face his fear.


Photo:  Friedrich Nietzsche, by Hans Olde, 1899.  Original at Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv Weimar, signature GSA 101/37.  Public domain.

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