Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Atheism is in the news. As I write there is controversy in the New Zealand media over the decision not to run atheistic adverts on buses in Auckland. By the time you read this, Richard Dawkins will have spoken to sell out audiences in New Zealand and will be doing the same in Australia. Many universities have atheist societies. At the Wellington Sevens last year a whole row behind us were wearing Victoria University t-shirts with the new atheist symbol proudly printed on the front. Why is this happening, does it matter and how should we respond?
This new wave of atheism has been promoted by an unlikely alliance of academics and comedians. It finds voice in the lecture and the open mic. In books, movies, and on television there is a worldview being articulated that says clearly and persuasively that there is no God.
On The Buses
The bus campaign is an interesting example. In June 2008 Araine Sherine, a British comedian, wrote an article in The Guardian complaining about the adverts from JesusSaid.org which linked to a website that spoke about God’s judgement and the reality of hell. Sherine raised the idea of non-Christians giving £5 to pay for a ‘positive philosophical advert’. The initial response was slow but a follow-up piece in August drew support from the British Humanist Association, and Richard Dawkins offered to match-fund half the £5000 needed for the first campaign. The official launch of the campaign in October 2008 exceeded all expectations with £48,000 given in the first day. To date, over £150,000 has been given in the UK and the idea has spread around the world. The New Zealand fundraising campaign was launched in December 2009 by the Humanist Society of New Zealand and had doubled its original target of $10,000 within a couple of weeks. This being sufficient to fund 12 buses in Auckland, 8 in Wellington and 4 in Christchurch for 4 weeks.
The slogan on the original campaign, which has been widely copied around the world is, ‘There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy yourself’. The word ‘probably’ has not been without controversy with some hardliners feeling that ‘there almost certainly isn’t’ or ‘definitely isn’t’ would be less of an accommodation. That aside, the slogan is interesting in that it does say a great deal about the view of God and religion that the campaign seeks to counter.
The kind of God being dismissed is a God who in some way is against us enjoying ourselves. Religion is a source of repression and anxiety. The message is clear: atheism will set you free.
In the USA, a number of other slogans have been used in campaigns. Washington DC ran with: ‘Why believe in God? You can be good for goodness sake’ which counters concerns that Christians believe they have a monopoly on morality. New York in a similar vein chose: ‘You can be good without God’. Seattle went with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: ‘Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear’.
The bus adverts have been a global phenomenon. Many atheists feel that they have been given a vehicle to express their beliefs and have been able to participate in something that promotes their opinions.
The Four Horseman
The bus campaign is just the tip of the iceberg of the new atheism. The key ideas have been shaped and championed by four successful authors. These self-styled ‘four horsemen’ have between them sold over 3 million books and have increasingly dominated the shaping of the conversation in Europe and North America over the past twenty years. Richard Dawkins is a scientist who made his name as a geneticist with his first book The Selfish Gene. He went on to be Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He argued against Natural Theology and an argument from design in his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker, and subsequently authored The God Delusion in 2006, which has been translated into over 30 languages and has sold 1.5 million copies worldwide.
Christopher Hitchins is an author and public speaker who is English by birth but has become an American citizen. Daniel Dennet is an American professor and philosopher. Sam Harris is the youngest and most articulate of the ‘horsemen’. His best selling books The End of Faith in 2004 and Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006 combining political commentary with atheist and rationalist ideology have had a significant impact in the US.
The common threads of the new atheism are the assertion that God does not exist, the dismissal of religion as nothing more than an illusion or delusion, the assertion that morality and good living does not depend on referencing behaviour to any theological text or deity and that non-religious people can and do, live good, and even better lives than religious people.
High on the agenda is the intention to move people away from faith. In the roundtable discussion between the four, Christopher Hitchins comments on this explicitly.
‘I think it may be easier than we’re supposing to shake peoples’ faith. There’s been a moratorium on this for a long time. We’re just the beginning of a new wave of explicit attempts to shake peoples’ faith. And it’s bearing fruit, and the obstacles it seems to me are not that we don’t have the facts or the arguments, it’s these strategic reasons for not professing it, not admitting it. Not admitting it to yourself, not admitting it in public because your family is going to view it as a betrayal, you’re just embarrassed to admit that you were taken in by this for so long. It takes, I think, tremendous courage to just declare that you’ve given that all up and if we can find ways to help people find that courage, and give them some examples of people who have done this and they’re doing just fine, they may have lost the affections of a parent or something like that, they may have hurt some family members, but still I think it’s a good thing to encourage and I don’t think we should assume that we can’t do this. I think we can.’
The influence of the four through published material, lecture and debate is significant but it is the Internet that has accelerated the spread of their ideas and helped build a sense of solidarity or community around a shared worldview. To many, these men are heroes. Regardless of our opinion of them, they are thinkers whom we should be familiar with first hand. They all have websites where their material is readily available at no cost.
The Coming Out of the Comedians
The kind of high-level thinking that characterise the ‘horsemen’ has some popular appeal, but the new atheism has another group of proponents who are not just popular but populist.
An increasing number of comedians and celebrities have been coming out as atheists. I have been reading, There is probably no God – The Atheists Guide to Christmas. It is a collection of largely humorous observations on Christmas and life. Each of the contributors is an atheist. They include Richard Dawkins, Derren Brown, Lucy Porter, David Baddiel and Ed Byrne. Atheism has become fashionable.
Eddie Izzard is typical of the new wave of celebrity atheist. He talks about the hypocrisy of religion and the problem of suffering in his shows, and in interviews he has been upfront about his views: ‘Kids brought up in the Catholic Church have to really fight to separate their own minds from an indoctrinated idea. And yeah – I don’t believe in an organised God. He doesn’t seem to be organised at all.’ The main argument is that if there is a God, he should have intervened in the Second World War. Or got rid of the dinosaurs quicker. And if there is intelligent design, why do we have appendixes?’
A recent movie The Invention of Lying saw Ricky Gervais playing a character living in a world where everyone speaks the truth. Unable to cope with his mother’s fear of dying he invents a story to make her happy. This initial description of a great place, with the people you love, where everyone gets a mansion, soon grows into a more elaborate invention. In this place everything is under the control of ‘the Man in the Sky’. Gervais becomes the prophet of the man in the sky, even having his image on a stained glass window in a ‘church’. His ‘religion’ is a big lie. His answers to life’s big questions are bogus. The parable is not difficult for people to apply.
Philip Pullman is a children’s author who is on record as regarding himself as the atheist version of C.S. Lewis for a new generation. The world of The Golden Compass is intentionally seeking to undermine young people’s faith in God and to help them trust in themselves and in science.
This new wave of atheistic ideology in the arts and media is having an influence on those inside and outside the church. Whether we are interested in this kind of thing or not, it is impacting us all. We need a response which is pastoral in helping nurture faith and which is missional in engaging evangelistically with culture.
A short history of inadequate responses
Some Christians have responded with indifference. What does it matter if people are atheists and if their teaching is promoted? I was talking to a student recently who said, ‘Me and my friends are not remotely interested in all that atheism kind of stuff, it is not where we are at’. Maybe so, but it is shaping the landscape that they live in. Debates around the environment, equality, poverty and euthanasia all revolve around what our understanding is of human nature. The Bible teaches that human beings are unique in being made in the image of God, that we have a responsibility for the environment to its creator, that God is the giver and sustainer of life, that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the pivot of human history and that there is accountability for how we live now which has implications for our future. It is not an option to absent ourselves from the interface of the whole gospel applying to the whole of life. One of the key issues here is that our comment or contribution should not be dismissed as ‘being religious’ as if that somehow invalidates the ideas which we bring to the table. God is not an opinion.
Some Christians respond by developing an entirely alternative worldview. I chatted with a church leader in the US in January who told me ‘all science is the work of the devil’. He believed that to be a scientist you had to be an atheist. I asked if there were any students in his church studying science or any academics working in the university. He confided that there were some and that while he did not believe in what they were doing it at least gave them the opportunity to tell other scientists about Jesus. This compartmentalisation of life and the building of a parallel universe do little to acknowledge Jesus as Lord over all creation or God bringing all things together under Him. We need to be engaging on the cutting edge of science and technology, listening, conversing, challenging and participating. I did raise an eyebrow when the minister produced an iPhone from his pocket but my comment ‘why should the devil have all the best toys?’ was lost on him.
Other Christians respond with personal criticism. The level of personal attack on Dawkins and others has been extreme. The most common charge is of arrogance, but they have also been accused and labelled as evil, uncaring, smug, self-satisfied and self-serving. We need to make sure that we do not undermine the heart of the gospel in attempting to defend its core. The Bible says, ‘The fool says in his heart there is no God’. Foolishness is one of the worst things God can say about somebody. God does not mince words when it comes to those who distort and corrupt the truth but much of that anger is directed against false teachers within the church. Even if there are hard things that need to be said, Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Paul dialoguing with the philosophers of his day on the Areopagus in Athens does not start by flinging mud and calling names, he engages with them, respects their beliefs and introduces Jesus into the conversation. One of the errors in relating to atheists is for Christians to insist that atheism is a religion. We argue that it requires more faith to disbelieve in God, that they have their own sacred texts and high priests and that rational humanism goes beyond science into the area of beliefs covered by religion. Atheists are very clear that atheism is not a religion. For Christians to insist that it is does not help the conversation or respect their views.
So how then do we respond?
The way that Jesus deals with Thomas and his questions after the resurrection is very interesting. Jesus lets him close, speaks to him, engages with his doubts, invites him to make a hands-on inspection. The faith that is asked for is not a leap in the dark; it is a step in the light. Thomas’s acknowledgment ‘My Lord and my God’ comes as he uses his mind and his senses and discovers the truth for himself.
Jesus makes it clear that not everyone in the future will see things as conclusively as Thomas, but faith will be required. We can never be absolutely certain of everything, but God meets us in our uncertainty and as we trust in Him our faith grows as the father of the possessed boy in Mark 9:24 exclaimed ‘I believe, help me overcome my unbelief’. Faith is not a supernatural experience for a certain kind of person. It is a daily event for everyone following through on as much as you know with all that you have. The faith question is who do we trust, what do we have faith in, who do we believe and why?
Evidence for God’s existence and clues as to his nature are to be seen in the world around us, in the phenomena of religion and spiritual hunger, in our conscience and our humanity.
The God of the Bible is not an absentee landlord who got things going and then left. God is imminent in creation; it is his power that sustains it. The God of the Bible is not indifferent to human death and suffering; he sent his son Jesus to die in an act of redemption. The foolishness of the cross will not be any more popular in this era in history than it was in previous times. It is not the job of the Christian to modify Christ to make the gospel more acceptable to culture, rather to communicate the good news with boldness and confidence.
One of the key challenges that we face is to shape the debate more constructively by not surrendering the framework of the debate to the atheists. Truth is not, fundamentally, an abstract concept, it’s personal. Being clear that the truth is found in Jesus and it is Him that brings life, forgiveness, freedom and community is at the heart of our work with students on campus.
We also need to apologise. Some of the things that have been done in the name of Christ in history and in society have done nothing to advance his kingdom. We need to beware of trying to corner political power as a minority. The tagline of the National Secular Society in the UK is ‘challenging religious privilege’.
We need to be equipping Christians to engage with the big issues of our times. Apologetics is not a special subject for a few crack teams. We may not be debating with Richard Dawkins but we need to be able to engage with our friend who has read The Greatest Show on Earth or chat over coffee after the movies. We all need to be able to give an account of the hope that we have with gentleness and respect.
TSCF also sees the academic world as being a key place where ideas are debated and refined before finding their way into the mainstream of culture. We are working to give greater support to Christian academics and postgraduate students. We want to see more students feeling called into education at every level and are working to make quality books and speakers available in New Zealand, which will be a help and an encouragement. We want to see people equipped to think through schools and universities and trained to think Christianly through churches and Christian unions. Thinking is important. Deep thought is not just one of our aims - it is one of our passions. We need to be debating and discussing these ideas in public. If we focus on shoring up the beliefs of the faithful in private then we surrender the public ground to those who talk the loudest and do not help Christians to engage with integrity.
Richard Dawkins’ website describes itself as ‘a clear thinking oasis’
We are committed to clear thinking. We are renewed through the transforming of our minds. God, who made our minds, works through our minds to renew us and recreate us in his image.
Some of the thinking of the new atheism may actually help get us away from sloppy thinking and defective theology. I think as Christians we should be the most enthusiastic people in the world about ideas. I believe that God is real and powerful, I believe the resurrection is the key event in human history with profound implications for every single person on the planet, I believe God loves all people including Richard, Christopher, Sam, Dan, Eddie, Ricky and Araine.
And for the record I am entirely happy to see a bus in Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch or anywhere else with the line ‘There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy yourself’. I do not believe for a moment that it is true but I would be more than happy to talk about it.