David B. Hart on the New Atheism

6 May 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

You know an article is good when it gets mentioned on the blogs of both Justin Taylor and Scot McKnight. So, at the risk of jumping on the bandwagon, I offer a selection from a recent article from David B. Hart entitled “Believe it or Not.” You can read the whole thing here.

Hart takes to task the “New Atheism,” which he argues is but a “passing fad.” The article puts into words my own reactions to the New Atheism, and I’m encouraged by Hart’s willingness to take to task the insufferable (and often misguided) attacks against theism. My favorite line: “The whole project probably reaches its reductio ad absurdum when the science-fiction writer Sean Williams explains that he learned to reject supernaturalism in large part from having grown up watching Doctor Who.”

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that 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. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).

But how long can any soul delight in victories of that sort? And how long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for?

I am not—honestly, I am not—simply being dismissive here. 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.

But 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.

Again, I’d encourage you to read the entire article.

My thoughts?

  1. Yes! Yes! A thousand times, yes!!! Having read Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, I found myself missing Bertrand Russell (there; I said it). The newer generation of writers has, quite simply, become more comfortable with an anti-religious agenda than with actual engagement of the issues. Dawkins, for instance, boasted that he didn’t “need” any additional sources to write The God Delusion. Why? Because, he argued, “do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?” (and he was being serious).
  2. Not everyone has the benefits of a Master’s Degree on a solid education in theology and philosophy. So while I appreciate Hart’s post, it also made me think of those who have followed the New Atheism simply because they don’t know any better. Atheist writers deserve challenge, as do their followers. But often their followers cannot be dealt with on the same level, and so responding to these individuals requires a tightrope-act of speaking the truth in love.
  3. “Passing fad” or no, I find it hard to believe this rhetoric will go away entirely (which I don’t think that that’s what Hart was saying). In all likelihood, it will evolve into something else entirely. Christians would be wise to continue to pursue education and learning.
  4. The New Atheism also reflects what America increasingly thinks/feels about Christianity (note that Dawkins and Hitchens made the bestseller list). Christianity has an image problem that ain’t going away. While apologetics makes a good defense, Christians must also remember that it is better to be proactive than reactive. Churches can do this through vibrant community and high-quality education – which together can help those who begin to slide away through outside influence (young people are especially susceptible to this during the university years – churches can care for them by being fluent in the language of the lecture hall so that they may provide answers to life’s greatest questions).

6 May 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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