Reasons to Believe

The "New Atheism" Phenomenon, Part 1 (of 3)

In the year 2007, four books on the topic of atheism (the view that no God or gods exist) topped the best-sellers list. These books were written by outspoken atheists Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell). While atheists make up a relatively small percentage of the world’s population, the so-called “new atheism” has succeeded in drawing considerable attention to its godless philosophy of life. In direct opposition to the biblical view that God created humankind, atheists insist that humankind created God.

In observing this recent interest in atheistic thought, religious believers are often perplexed as to why atheists would expend so much time and energy writing books to refute what they believe to be an illusion. For example, I have heard Christians express the sentiment that while they don’t believe in such things as “leprechauns,” they also don’t engage in heated attempts to persuade other people to stop believing in such non-existent realities. Encounters with “angry atheists” often leave believers in God wondering, “Why be angry about something that you are convinced doesn’t exist?”

Several reasons exist for the animated, in-your-face style of these new atheists. I think there are causal factors that have contributed to the more militant (i.e., confrontational, combative, but not violent) variety of atheism represented in these new books. Here are two out of my five reasons (three more next week) why the new atheists have become more activist and strident in their approach.

  1. The Rise of Radical Islam

    Many traditional atheists of the past have thought that if people want to waste their lives believing religious nonsense, then so be it. It’s no sweat off the atheist’s back. However, with the emergence of radical Islam and the war on terrorism, the new atheists now view religion as being both illusory and dangerous. For the traditional atheist, as long as religious people kept their superstitions to themselves, religion was a fairly harmless (though irrational) phenomenon. However, the new atheists view religion as a pernicious force in the world today, maybe the most pernicious of all.

    Unfortunately, some of these same atheists fail to appreciate that the secular ideologies of the twentieth century have led to the deaths of tens of millions of people. The death toll in so-called “religious based” wars throughout history (though obviously morally regrettable and, to some degree, undercutting of religious truth-claims) pales in comparison to the cataclysmic terror evidenced in Stalin’s purges and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Contrary to Richard Dawkins’s claim in The God Delusion, millions of people have been murdered by the communist philosophy that made atheism one of its central defining features (see Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism and Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity).

  2. The Perceived Mixing of Religion and Politics

    The new atheists are also likely to be troubled by the response of President George W. Bush to the rise of militant Islam. The perception that Bush views the War on Terror in religious terms seems to disturb those who embrace a godless worldview. However, the new atheism is likely galvanized by the overall perception that American politics is far too influenced by people who want to blend religion and politics (ignoring the separation-of-church-and-state principle that atheists admire).

    Christians have never enjoyed universal agreement about how the church is to properly relate to the state. Various approaches to this dilemma have been advocated throughout church history, such as theocracy, Luther’s two kingdoms, or Augustine’s two cities. However, some atheists fail to recognize the tremendous influence that the biblical religions had upon the founding of the American republic. America may not have been a strictly “Christian nation,” but its founders were profoundly shaped by biblical ideas about justice and liberty.

It is also important to understand that radical Islam can only be successfully opposed by a community of people who possess a philosophy of life built on a solid and objective foundation for such realities as justice and truth. The wisdom and courage to marshal physical and moral force to defeat fanatical religious elements needs to be grounded in a worldview that provides an adequate basis for objective values and virtues. The beliefs of those who would protect civilization must be stronger than those who would destroy it.

Do atheists and their worldview of naturalism have what it takes to protect civilization from those who would threaten it with misguided religious tyranny and oppression? Looking at the now-secular (post-Christian) European culture, I have serious doubts. Consider the words of the skeptical philosopher John Stuart Mill when it comes to the need to stand up and fight:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

In part two of this series I will explore three other issues helpful in understanding the emergence of the so-called new atheism.

For more on the Christian worldview and how it relates to the atheistic worldview of naturalism, see my new book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Subjects: Atheism, General Apologetics

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.