The New Atheists present the church with an opportunity to assess its failings and refocus on priorities.
I first encountered Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” in a college philosophy class. It could not have been found within five miles of my Mennonite high school’s library.
But the Christian liberal arts college I attended considered us spiritually mature enough to not be derailed by a five-page modernist screed that just celebrated its 80th birthday. Russell’s principal objection to Christianity was its alleged foundation on fear: “Fear is the basis of the whole thing—fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.” Our classroom discussion eventually determined that the rise of postmodernism has allowed Christianity to return to the table of intellectual respectability.
Now a new batch of books has reopened the case against faith with a fervor that even Russell never approached. Among the recent crop of atheistic apologetics are Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (2004), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006), Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) and, most recently and most provocatively titled, Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great (2007). These books have been selling phenomenally in Europe and America, revealing a widespread hunger for open and aggressive skepticism about the role of religion in public life. This group of writers even has a name: the New Atheists.
The basic arguments of the two I read (Harris and Dawkins) are similar. First, they note that religion and the irrational belief it inspires stand behind much of the conflict in the world and many of the atrocities of past centuries (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, Sept. 11). Faith, they claim, ignores evidence and common sense, making a believer capable of great evil. Second, they argue that the world can be more satisfactorily explained by science instead of a supernatural designer and that an appreciation of the difference between good and evil does not require scriptural basis. Third, they propose an alternative approach to spirituality; Dawkins admits to a “pantheistic reverence” and Harris advertises the mind-opening possibilities of meditation. Ultimately, though, they serve less to outline a worldview than to attempt to destroy another.
These books seem to be a response to the perceived expansion of fundamentalism in the Middle East and the West. Political leaders all over the world favor religious language when praising their own policies and condemning their enemies. Nonbelievers in the West also fear the erosion of the separation of church and state, as evidenced by the resistance to accepted scientific ideas such as evolution and global warming. But the most convincing answer, though hard to admit, may be that organized religion is actually sick. While Harris and Dawkins advocate euthanizing theistic worship, the church must look for healing.
The vast majority of Christians will not read these books, and some will even question the judgment of a believer who is curious about them. Are they harmful? Are they worth our time? I would differentiate between a frivolous attack on faith and serious, rigorous questioning, a category these books seem to fall into. On the other hand, the response of some believers has been to rush into battle against these bold denials of faith. I’m sure pastors are thumbing through the books for juicy quotations, if not actually reading the whole text, in order to set up an atheistic straw man to pummel with Scripture.
As Anabaptists, though, we should consider our practice of seeking a third way, which seems to me to be the willingness to ask not how we can prevent these ideas from spreading but what the community of faith can learn from them.
Refuse to demonize atheism: The vitriolic tone of these books is a direct consequence of the long tradition of demonizing unbelief. Atheism is a convenient foil, a label for any suspect political, social or scientific movement. We should recall that the people most roundly criticized by Jesus, John the Baptist and even the Old Testament prophets were not unbelievers but religious hypocrites. Jesus socialized with publicans, Roman commanders and spiritually searching religious elite. Even more crucially, he did not “perform” miracles in order to create belief; he healed the sick and fed the hungry. Early in his ministry, he even instructed the beneficiaries not to spread the news, possibly concerned about the cheap belief such rumors would inspire. The hero of the most famous parable of Jesus, the Good Samaritan, could well be a compassionate atheist.
Rediscover the radical Jesus: As Sam Harris writes in The End of Faith, “Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on par with fundamentalism.” The religious moderate is only moderate because he or she is not fully committed to the faith and is not willing to follow through with (or is not aware of) the commands of God. There is something to this argument; in fact, we can read it as a prophetic challenge to the church.
Although hostile to such beliefs as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, the New Atheists are surprisingly open to the actual message of Christ. In fact, they contrast it with the church’s values and actions. Harris ponders the question of “how the church managed to transform Jesus’ principal message of loving one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek into a doctrine of murder and rapine.” Dawkins scoffs at the “gentle, meek and mild” Jesus but observes that “this milksop persona owes more to his Victorian followers than to Jesus himself,” who he considers “one of the great ethical innovators of history.” The New Atheists recognize—in a way some of the church has forgotten—that the message of Christ is radical. Christ calls us to nothing less than love for enemies and servant leadership. True discipleship is not moderate.
Embrace a multicultural church: Harris and Dawkins write from an academic environment that is moving past moral relativism, which claims that our ideas can never completely correspond with reality and thus no one can claim a monopoly on the “truth.” These two firmly believe that statements about the world can be true or false and that ethical truths can be discovered.
Harris argues, “Respect for diversity in our ethical views is, at best, an intellectual holding pattern until more of the facts are in.” To his mind, multiculturalism is weakness.
In fact, religion is intimately bound up in culture, and an attack on a particular religion will be felt not as a merely intellectual foray but as ignorant, insulting and often threatening. The great strength of the church—and the reason it continues to be compelling for many—is the ability of the community of believers to make a truth claim while continuing to accept differences in interpretation and application. One of the great challenges of worshiping in a Mennonite church in Indonesia has concerned the question of military participation. While I hold fast to a commitment to nonviolence, it has been instructive to consider the question from the perspective of a people treated as a Dutch colony as recently as 1947. Our embrace of a multicultural community refutes the claim that truth rules out diversity and that religion can only inspire conflict.
Disciples of Christ stand opposed to most of what the New Atheists assert. We proclaim not only the existence of God but the imminence of the kingdom of God. We accept the mystery of parts of our faith, including the Trinity and the afterlife. But we miss hearing a prophetic word if we ignore them entirely, no matter how stridently secular the mouthpiece. The rise of New Atheism presents us with an opportunity to assess our failings and refocus on our priorities. The best counter is not another slightly more shrill argument but a searching look at ourselves.
Victor J. Sensenig is a member of Souderton (Pa.) Mennonite Church.