Belief in an Age of Unbelief – responding to the “New Atheism”

God-Delusion-700195by Peter Corney

(Delivered at SHAC Commnity on 14th March 2010)

This weekend Melbourne has hosted an internationally publicized conference entitled “The Rise of Atheism”. The headline speaker is Richard Dawkins, biologist, author of “The God Delusion” and well known promoter of Atheism. Also the widely read English writer A C Grayling will be present, and the usual local suspects, Peter Singer, Phillip Adams, Catherine Deveny etc.

Richard Dawkins is the current flag bearer for a new, articulate and very vocal group who has captured the media spotlight. They include the very talented and acerbic journalist Christopher Hitchens who has written “God is not Great”, a play on an Islamic chant. It was Hitchings who coined the phrase “Islamofascism” to describe today’s militant Islam. Then there is Sam Harris who has written “The end of Faith” and Daniel Dennett who wrote “Breaking the Spell”. They are sometimes referred to as the four horseman of the apocalypse!

These writers have a common theme – religion is the main cause of division, violence and conflict in the world, it is, they say, the root of all evil, not only a delusion but dangerous to society. It is the enemy of reason and scientific truth. The enlightenment is under threat….it must be defended from deliberate attacks from organised ignorance. The passion with which they promote their views can be quite intolerant  and narrow. Ironically these are the attitudes they claim to oppose.

They also make some very sweeping claims. Eg: Dawkins implies that no scientist worth his salt could be a theist! In fact many of the worlds leading scientists past and present are Deists or Theists and many are Christians: Here are just a few examples: Max Planck (father of quantum theory) John Barrow (the theoretical physicist and current Professor of mathematical sciences at Cambridge,) John Polkinghorne (a particle physicist and a previous holder of the same chair at Cambridge), John Lennox (currently Professor of Mathmatics at Cambridge,) Simon Conway Morris (the Prof of evolutionary paleobiology at Cambridge, someone Dawkins should know well professionally), Francis Collins (head of the international Human Genome Project.), Allan Sandage (the famous Astronomer.) Someone I know personally, Dr.John Pilbrow (emeritus Prof of physics at Monash Uni,) is a committed Christian. One could go on. In fact many of the academic and research scientists that I have known are not only theists but Christians.

Now because a significant number of leading scientists and philosophers are theists or Christians does not prove the existence of God. But it does support the idea that belief in God is not unreasonable. It certainly runs counter to Dawkins implication that belief in God is something that only the uneducated, prejudiced, and intellectually feeble embrace.

Dawkins is highly intelligent and it must be acknowledged that he and his associates present some very challenging and persuasive arguments in their books.

But there are now a number of well written rebuttals by Christian scholars and professional philosophers. Like John Haught’s “God and the new Atheism a critical response….” The Anglican theologian Alister McGrath has responded with “The Dawkins Delusion”, he is an Oxford theologian but began his academic career in molecular biophysics. (A list can be found attached to this paper)

Most interesting among the recent responses is the respected British philosopher Anthony Flew who for most of his academic career did not believe in God but has now changed his mind.

Flews early writing was recognized for many years as part of the classic argument against theism. His recent book, in which he explains why he changed his mind, is entitled “There is a God”. The book is very significant because it explains how academic philosophy has moved on from the philosophical presuppositions of Dawkins and coy. They are really working from a now discredited logical positivism. The idea that – the only statements that are valid and meaningful are those that can be empirically observed, ie: tested and verified by sense experience, or scientific study and experiment. The effects of logical positivism have carried over into popular culture and remain widespread . Comments like “Well hasn’t science disproved the Bible and Christianity!” are typical.

Every culture and period of history has what sociologists call a plausibility structure, ie: what the people of a particular time find plausible or easy to believe (and what they find difficult to believe.) Logical Positivism and its twin, scientific rationalism, have greatly influenced the plausibility structure of most contemporary Western people, even though they may never have encountered those terms, particularly people over 50years of age. Younger people who are more influenced by a post modern framework of thinking are often more open or flexible in their plausibility structure. They can flip easily between modern and post modern. Eg: the ease with which they embrace the idea of the spiritual and supernatural as well as modern technology. We will return to this idea of plausibility structures later.

This phenomena, the rise of the new atheism, raises a number of questions that I’d like to try and address today.

Is it new?

Is it a broad popular movement gathering strong momentum?

What is driving this new militant and vocal atheism?

Is there a significant decline in religious adherence in Australia today and is there a connection  with the new atheism?

And what should our response be as Christians?

Addressing the questions:

1. Is it new?  No! It is basically the old arguments recycled. ( In Dawkins case with a heavy emphasis on evolutionary theory, which as a biologist is his field of expertise.)

2. Is it a broad popular movement gathering strong momentum? No! Not really although it has a high media profile. Those who choose conscious atheism is still a minority section of the population in the West.

The recent Age Neilson Poll (18/11/09) showed that:

68% of Aus believe in God or a universal spirit.

( In another poll by CPX, 54%  said they believed in Jesus and that he rose from the dead!)

In The Age poll 50% say religion is an important part of their lives.

In the developing world belief in God in some form is almost universal and Christianity in particular has been growing rapidly for years now particularly through Pentecostalism. But also in the main stream denom’s. Eg: In Nigeria there are 11mill active Anglicans alone!

  • Christianity is now the majority religion in South Korea.
  • It is estimated that there are now in excess of 50 mill. Christians in China, and the Fallen Gong religious movement is also numbered in the 100’s of millions, and this in spite of years of active atheist propaganda and active suppression by the state.
  • In addition we have resurgent Islam all over the world, and a resurgence of Hinduism in parts of India. (This is associated with Hindu nationalism.)

The factor of religion is now so important in international relations   that Tony Blair has formed a special organization to harness faith in the service of international political solutions.

So in the bigger picture atheism is not growing, in fact it is diminishing.

But having said that there is definitely a decline in Christian adherence in Australia and the West in general.

Let me say something about the categories of belief and unbelief in western culture, and in Australia in particular – six categories:(I’ve borrowed some of these from Tom Frame’s book “Loosing my Religion”.)

  1. Believers who are active and committed adherents
  2. Believers who are inactive (a signif. % Christians)
  3. Vague believers – there is a God or a supreme being
  4. Non belief – neutral, never considered it, indifferent.
  5. Unbelief – non dogmatic agnosticism
  6. Disbelief – conscious atheism

Bishop Tom Frame in his book  estimates that the majority of Australians are now in the category of unbelief, ie: they are ‘non dogmatic agnostics’, not really sure. I don’t think he is right about that. The research does not support that they are a majority, but I certainly think they are a large proportion now and growing. But the point is these people are not conscious atheists. In The Age Neilson Poll 24% say they have no religion or do not believe in God and the % is highest among the under 25’s (Gen Y) and going up. So is conscious atheism growing at the same pace as the decline of Christianity?   No!  But non belief and unbelief are growing (c’s 4&5) and the situation with the under 25’s deserves our close attention.

3. What is driving this new and militant group of public apologists    for Atheism?

I think there are three things:

(a) The rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism, the West’s reaction to it, and the increasing violence and suffering that has resulted.

(b) The growth of “Creationism” (the young earth view) within Christian fundamentalism.

(c) The decline in Christianity in the West. They smell the blood in the water!

Let me develop these three and then think about how we should respond.

(1) The bloody conflicts around the world and international terrorism have in most cases a religious factor. The response of the west has been described as a new crusade and is seen as such by many in the Muslim world.

People like Christopher Hitchens see militant Islam in eg: its Iranian revolutionary guise or the Taliban in Afghanistan as the new religious fascism of the 21st C. They see it as the enemy of all we have achieved through the European enlightenment over the last 300 years.

The running sore of the Israel / Palestinian conflict is deeply embedded in religious issues.

The terrible conflict in the Sudan is between Islamic and Christian tribes.

So it is very easy to frame an argument that religion is the great cause of evil, hatred and violence in the world, get rid of it and we will be free of the hatred and the violence and the suffering.

But little if no attention is paid by these writers to the fact that the most bloody regimes in the recent past were militantly atheistic. It is estimated that over 40 mill people lost their lives in the atheistic, communist regimes of Stalin and Mao. A whole nation was traumatized and over 2.5 million lost in the Killing fields of Kampuchea by the fundamentalist Marxist Khmer Rouge, and no one knows what the toll is inside N. Korea.

Therefore the idea that atheism will deliver us from evil, violence and mans inhumanity to man seems rather implausible when you reflect on its recent track record.

Dawkins says that religious faith is the problem but I think he confuses faith and conviction. Unbalanced fanatical conviction that is driven by religion or atheism or a political ideology, that has no restraints or any moderating values like love and compassion, is frequently destructive. Nietzsche said “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies”.G.K. Chesterton made a similar point when he warned “Beware of the well lit prison of a single idea” passionately held.

Of course the truth is that it is the darkness in fallen humanity that is the cause of wars and hatred and the quest for power. “The heart of darkness”, as Conrad put it, is in us all. It is only the radical message of the gospel that is the answer to that darkness. Only Christ and the cross can both judge and free us from our evil and guilt.  Only the transforming power of the Holy Spirit can change our hearts and enable us to live above our weakness’s.

But Christians must confess, that in spite of our knowledge of the gospel, we have at times been seduced by our national or ethnic culture and its inevitable pride, its prejudices, its fears, its tribalism – and that has then led us into being accomplices in the abuse of faith as a tool of discrimination, division and the oppression of others. (Eg: Serbian Orthodoxy and the Balkins conflict in recent times)

We can forget the clear NT statement that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but all are one – that the gospel calls us to a new identity that transcends race and culture. When we forget this we can fall back into the darkness.

When we forget that forgiveness and reconciliation are central to the gospel we can easily embrace revenge and retaliation  – When we allow faith to becomes aligned with a political ideology – then the darkness overpowers us and we too can resort to coercion and force rather than love.

But when rightly understood and practiced the Christian faith transforms not only individuals but families, cultures, tribes and nations with love, forgiveness and reconciliation.

On the other hand – Atheism offers no radical answer to the darkness in the fallen human heart. At its best it offers only the existentialist position – to will, to decide to do good in the face of evil, to fight the plague even though ultimately you know that it has no lasting effect or meaning, and you even have no objective way of determining what the good is. Like the Dr in Camus’ famous novel “The Plague”. You go on fighting the plague trying to save lives but in the end the plague wins.

Jean Paul Sartre the French atheist and existentialist said : “Atheism is a cruel long term business.” (And I would add, not many have the strength or courage to follow it with complete consistency.)

(2) The second thing driving the new atheism is the growth of Creationism within contemporary fundamentalist Christianity. “Creationism” is an interpretation of the Genesis creation account as taking place in 6 literal 24 hr days and rejects the Darwinian evolutionary theory and believes in a young earth (10,000 yrs, not Billions.) This has stirred up people like Dawkins who is a biologist. His other reason for visiting Australia is to promote his new book on evolution and Darwin’s work “The greatest Show on Earth”. Dawkins feels that Creationism is anti scientific and irrational and is taking us back to a pre enlightenment world view.

(It should be said that there are a variety of views that are held under the “Creationism” banner, like Intelligent design, some are more nuanced than others and not all who hold the various views can be fairly described as fundamentalist.)

It is worth noting that there are many thoughtful Christians who believe in divine creation and evolution and have some sympathy with Dawkins at this point. We need to make it clear that it is thoroughly Biblical to hold a view that believes in some form of evolution and a divine creator who designed, began and guided the process –God.

(3) The third thing driving the new atheism is the decline of Christianity in the West. The new atheists sense this weakness and are moving in for the kill.

I mentioned earlier that every age and culture has a plausibility structure ie: a mental framework that finds some things easy to believe and others not. The age of science bolstered by a philosophical frame work like logical positivism has made the believability of transcendent realities implausible for many western people. The idea that there is no absolute truth or absolute moral standard makes what Christianity offers no longer attractive and in fact it seems rather restrictive.

The response of the Church to this since the 60’s has been less than helpful. There have been two common reactions:

(1) At one extreme we have had the liberal theological reaction of accommodation – of reducing core truths to fit the prevailing plausibility structure.

Eg: If resurrection is unbelievable then redefine it as just the idea of Jesus coming alive in our hearts and minds.

If Jesus’ claim to be Gods divine son is implausible then deconstruct the NT text to say that he didn’t really say that, this was what the early Christians wanted to believe and so they changed Jesus’ words. What he really meant is that we are all Gods sons and daughters.

If the idea of atonement is too offensive to modern ears then re interpret the cross as merely a symbol of passive resistance to evil or a sign of identifying with us in our suffering.

You can even retain the most disturbing symbols, like the cross and the Lords Supper, but evacuate them of their radical first order meaning of substitutionary sacrifice and turn them into some kind of feel good emotional spiritual mystery. Keep them clothed with traditional liturgy music and art and no one will know the difference!

Or take the uncomfortable idea of judgment and accountability –  that Christ’s call to follow him must be responded to and the failure to do so places you outside his kingdom. You can reinterpret it to a more comfortable idea that says everyone in spite of their personal decision will find their way into the Kingdom of God.

The end result of liberal reductionism is of course a Christianity so emptied of its classical content that it has nothing radical to offer the contemporary culture. It is so seduced into conformity with it, so domesticated that it is unable to challenge the spirit of the age. Its ideas are now provincial, trapped in the mental landscape of the culture it inhabits.Instead of challenging the intellectual idols of its day with the gospel it submits to them.

(2) The second response is at the other extreme.Fundamentalism! Creationism is one expression of this. Fundamentalism is a retreat from the intellectual challenges to belief. It is a result of pitting reason against faith rather than seeing it as a partner. It is a retreat into a closed certainty.

It has some devastating results for the Church and its mission, eventually it produces:

1.  An intellectually shallow Christianity that is very vulnerable.

2. An over dependence on emotion and subjectivism

3. A withdrawal from culture rather than engagement

4. A shallow evangelism that fails to engage the mind.

5. A simplistic and uninformed approach to the Bible

Fundamentalism also produces generational faith decline:

  1. Gen. one has a living faith with moral practice but fails to pass on intelligent understanding.
  2. Gen. two has faith and practice but without intelligent understanding   is unable to convincingly pass on vital faith, and so only passes on moral practice by example.
  3. By gen. three even moral practice is weakened because its foundation of vital faith and understanding has gone. As it no longer has these, and the example of moral practice is now compromised, it is unable to pass on any of the three key things. In fact it may even pass on a negative attitude, as a result of children seeing moral compromise.
  4. So gen. four has neither faith, understanding nor moral practice.

That is how generational faith decline works. (Gen. five may begin to feel the emptiness and ask ‘what have we lost?’ or it may not.)

So liberal theology or fundamentalism are two extreme responses that weaken Christianity.

But we do not have to be limited to these two responses there is a third way.

(3) The third response is intelligent orthodoxy alive with personal faith and infused by the Holy Spirit. That seeks to bring all the wisdom and intellectual resources from the history of the people of God to bear on the issues of the day. We have been in a battle like this before. Maybe in a different shape and context but the same questions re – occur. Classical Christian orthodoxy frees us from the provincial and present and lifts our horizons to the broad sweep of history and the treasures of Christianity’s intellectual and spiritual resources.

I have defined this third way as “Intelligent Orthodoxy alive with personal faith and infused with the HS.” Our response to the new atheism must be intelligent and thoughtful but it must also come out of a living personal relationship with God – We need “Minds ablaze and hearts on fire”. Essentially Christianity is relational. It is about being in a personal relationship with God, it is an encounter with both the mind and the heart of the living personal God. That relationship must then flow out in love to others. Jesus summed it up succinctly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Finally we must confront the new atheists with two questions:

In relation to the arguments from science – the material that scientists are working with is basically, forces, particles and spaces and that is important work. But you simply cannot get to values, purpose, meaning and hope from there alone. And it is self evident that these things are part of our reality, they inform and effect every day of our lives. They must be found in a different place. This leads me to my first question for the new atheists:

(1) Do they have a meaningful alternative to belief in God?

Ronald Aronson an atheist but one of the more measured critics of theism has written a book entitled “Living without God”. He makes the important point for his side to consider – “That living without God means turning to something.” What will that be?

(2) Given the immense complexity of the universe and all living things, and the immense improbability of life happening on this planet in this solar system, why then is belief in a creator less probable than the idea of our origins being in blind chance?

It is of great interest to me that physicists and cosmologists are generally much more open on this question than biologists like Dawkins. Einstein wrote: “Everyone who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble”

The burden of proof for the faith of  atheism lies squarely with the atheists!

Let me close with these two quotations, the first  from Richard Holloway which expresses the stark alternative to belief in God :

“The person who gives up belief in God because it brings with it certain unresolvable dilemmas ends  up believing in a dying universe in which there is no meaning anywhere, a universe that came from nothing and goes to nothing, a universe that is cruelly indifferent to all our needs. And there is no point in feeling resentment against such a universe, because in a Godless universe there is no reason why anything should not happen, and there is no one to resent or blame. We are alone in an empty universe. No one is listening to our curses or our tears. We stand, tiny and solitary, in a corner of a vast and empty landscape, and if we listen, all we hear is the bitter echo of our own loneliness.”

The second is this bleak conclusion of the Richard Dawkins of a previous generation the late Bertrand Russell – mathematician, philosopher, atheist – here is his conclusion of the alternative to belief in Christ and his resurrection: “No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve the individual life beyond the grave;…..all the labor of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system,…… the whole temple of mans achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins

  • Paul and Diana Smithers


    Just received latest TMA, a better issue than most, thanks to your article. Splendid researched work in the usual Corney style. We agree with you. Thank you for it, and keep it up. We wonder if the Atheists will deign to read it and give it credence?
    Hope you are both well
    Paul and Diana

  • Tony Helm

    Thanks for your erudition. I enjoyed reading it and can agree with 99%.
    Please – where did the quote from the late Bertrand Russell come from? I have never read this statement before.

    I could be wrong, but I thought that he had changed his rabid atheism towards the end of his life.
    I own and read often his “History of Western Philosophy”.

    In “Unpopular Essays” [1950] he published his own Obituary [dated 1937]. This includes the following statement:
    “His historical writings, by their style and their wit, conceal from careless readers the superficiality of the antiquated rationalism which he professed to the end.”

    There was a footnote to the title:
    This obituary will (or will not) be published in The Times for June 1, 1962, on the occasion of my lamented but belated death. It was printed prophetically in The Listener in 1937.

  • Peter Corney

    Dear Tony,
    Thanks for your encouragement. The source of the B. Russell quote is ‘A Free Mans Worship’ in “Why Iam not a Christian” Simon and Shuster 1966, p107.

  • bert pratt

    It was good to meet you at the gallery, and catch up…. and find out about Rupert Bunny.
    You suggested logging into your site, and obv I have.
    It will need more than a few minutes to read the article by you about Dawkins. Skimmed it. Looks good. Next week I will have finished painting my son in law’s house, then I’ll sit down and have a good read. I saw him (Dawkins) on the tele, and he is obv a good communicator etc, but missinterprets the basics of the faith rather tragically.
    Bert Pratt

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  • Geoff Waddell

    A bit late on the scene here, but wanted to agree with the sentiments about this evolution nonsense. It has to be the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind!
    By way of post script, I suggest we not be too hasty in adopting the God-guided evolution stance. I am always on the lookout for evidence consistent with the idea that we evolved somehow, but so far I have seen none (being careful to distinguish between suggestions about what COULD have happened, and hard evidence of what DID happen). So why accept the hypothesis at all? It is no more likely than that God sent aliens here to set things up. The Bible contradicts the idea, and it does not accord with reason (mine, anyway — would the Creator of the universe really bother with such an approach?)

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