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The Origins of Aggressive Atheism

May 31, 2015     Time: 20:41
The Origins of Aggressive Atheism


What are some characteristics of the New Atheist movement?

Transcript The Origins of Aggressive Atheism


KEVIN HARRIS: Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. Before we get to today’s topic, there is something that you have to hear. This is why we do what we do.

TIM STRATTON: Hi. My name is Tim Stratton. I’m a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director here in Kearney, Nebraska. About ten years ago I was hired here at the Kearney Evangelical Free Church to be the Youth Pastor to work with high school and college students. I started Life Group - a Bible study - for young men. It didn’t take long for me to realize that although I was passionate about sharing the Gospel and telling people about Jesus many young people were having a hard time accepting it, having a hard time believing it. In fact, one young man who was the son of an elder at the church became an atheist in front of my face. He came up to me after a couple of years of being in my Bible study and said, “Tim, I’m not coming back to youth group this year. I’m not coming back to Bible study either.” I said, “Why?” He said, “I’m an atheist now.” And I said, “You know that is not true!” He said, “No, I don’t know that, Tim. I really don’t think God exists.” And I said, “You know that’s not true!” And he said, “I don’t know that, Tim. I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens over the summer. They’ve convinced me that God doesn’t exist.” And I said, “Why would you believe that?” And he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, Tim. If you can answer just one of these questions from these guys - one of their objections - I’ll stick around.” And he probably gave me ten or twelve to pick from. I couldn’t answer any of them. I was powerless. I was impotent to answer any of these questions. In fact, they were good objections. It kind of shook me to my core so to speak. This young man walked out of the church, and he has never been back since.

That sparked something in me. I went home that night and I was praying and although these objections shook me (they seemed good and shook my faith just a little bit) I went to God and I prayed, “What do I do?” I felt like God said, “Tim, if you are going to be a shepherd, you need to learn how to defend the sheep.” I felt like, “God, you’ve got the wrong guy. I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know where to turn. How am I supposed to learn how to interact with these atheistic scientists and philosophers?” Well, I began a journey. I was introduced to the work of a guy named Dr. William Lane Craig. I started going to his Reasonable Faith website, buying his books, watching his videos, listening to his podcasts, watching his debates, and wow! My life was transformed by the renewing of my mind, as we see in Romans 12:2. Studying the work of Dr. Craig helped me to see a bigger and more beautiful picture of God. My faith skyrocketed because now I had reasons to believe it - good reasons.

Well, this ultimately led to even going to Biola University to get a Masters Degree in Christian Apologetics. While attending Biola University, I also became a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director. Now we have Reasonable Faith club meetings on the university campus here in Kearney on Tuesday nights in the science hall. On Sunday mornings we meet here at the church. I’ll tell you what. I am seeing lives transformed. I am seeing young Christian students who have had their faith rocked not just get their faith back but have it stronger than ever. I am seeing atheistic students lose their faith in atheism and come to Christ. In fact, I am even seeing professors come to Christ in the process. Dr. Craig, I want to thank you for your work. It has radically transformed my life, and I am seeing it transform the lives of so many others. God is using you, Dr. Craig. He is using your work to transform this world. Thank you for what you are doing.

KEVIN HARRIS: “The Origins of Aggressive Atheism.” Dr. Craig, a lot of the characteristics of the New Atheism is very aggressive, very in your face. There is a new book out on it. We are going to look at an article that mentions this. It is called Atheist Awakening. It is from Oxford University Press. The Atlantic has an article from Emma Green about the origins of this more aggressive form of atheism.[1]

The article begins,

American faith has gone through many awakenings. Depending on how you count, there have been three or four distinctive surges of Protestant religiosity in the United States, marked by tent revivals, missionary work, widespread conversions, and, often, intense rhetoric about the consequences of sin. These "Great Awakenings" have been memorialized through texts like "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," a sermon delivered by the preacher Jonathan Edwards in 1741, who warned of the "fire of wrath" in hell.

One thing about the Great Awakenings, many are saying we are ready for that next Great Awakening.[2] I would like to suggest that this renaissance of Christian philosophy and apologetics could be leading to that if not considered a real awakening because what is it going to look like? We don’t have as many tent revivals and things like that. We have social media, the Internet.

DR. CRAIG: This is what Alex MacFarlane has said. He thinks that this renaissance of Christian apologetics could well lead to a sort of revival in the church. I have to say I have seen this happen over and over again in the lives of men - especially men - who have been lukewarm in their faith or perhaps even disinterested and come into contact with this material and their lives are changed because once they believe firmly that this is really the truth they get excited about it and about sharing it with others.

KEVIN HARRIS: I like the way you put it - electrified about their faith.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, that is very true. We get letters from these grateful wives about the transformation they’ve seen in the lives of their husbands or fiancees. That is a very, very encouraging sign. I had never anticipated that apologetics would have not merely intellectual effects upon people but that it would also have profound spiritual effects in reviving the soul.

KEVIN HARRIS: Ladies, come on in. In fact, we are reading an article here written by a woman from The Atlantic. She said, in light of all that,

So it's provocative to title your book Atheist Awakening. Oxford University Press's newest release on non-belief, by researchers Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith, claims to be the "first sociological exploration of organized secularism in America," tracing the evolution of the atheist community over the past several decades. The "awakening" part is "not so much a growth in numbers as an awakening to claiming atheism for themselves, and becoming more public about it," said Cimino.

By numbers alone, American atheists really aren't that big of a group.

Let me back up before we go there. Bill, there has been an atheist pride. Everything is about coming out of the closet these days, about wearing it on your sleeve. Wear your atheist T-Shirt, your bumper sticker, you are loud, you are proud. Trying to change the public persona. For so long it was just represented by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. She was the face of atheism, and she was the most hated woman in America. We as believers in Christ are not to be hating her. She just got penned that, and she earned a lot of it with the way she was.

By numbers alone, American atheists really aren't that big of a group. According to a 2012 Pew report, atheists make up only about 2.4 percent of the population. Even agnostics, whom you could maybe call atheistic-ish, only account for an estimated 3.3 percent of Americans. Although both groups have grown somewhat since 2007, the bigger change has been among those who identify as "nothing in particular"—roughly 13.9 percent of the population, which is an increase of 2.3 percentage points over five years.

DR. CRAIG: That is the lowest percentage estimate that I’ve seen of the “nones” in the literature. Only 13.9 percent.

KEVIN HARRIS: You’ve pointed out as well something she is saying here:

When you read headlines about the rise of the so-called "nones," or people who don't consider themselves part of a religion, that's what they're mostly referring to: the shruggers. They might be intensely spiritual or perfectly apathetic about faith, but for some reason or another, they don't self-identify as definitively atheistic.

That is very important. They could even be church-goers.

DR. CRAIG: Right!

KEVIN HARRIS: Christians or Evangelicals. But they don’t prefer to characterize themselves with any particular denomination. We’ve seen kind of a lowering of denominationalism.

DR. CRAIG: So atheism, according to these results, remains a relatively small percent of the American population. But I think that it indicates that Richard Dawkins has been largely successful in his effort to elevate the profile of atheism - to have atheists come out of the closet and to publicly proclaim their non-belief without shame or embarrassment.[3] It does seem to me that there has been a large cultural shift in that respect, which I think can be to the credit of the New Atheist efforts.


Among those who do identify as atheists, though, the tone taken toward organized religion, especially recently, has been more shout-y than shrug-y. At the 2012 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., for example, "a band fired up the crowd with a rousing song that lampooned the belief in 'Jesus coming again,' mixing it with sexual innuendo," Cimino and Smith write. Attendees sported T-Shirts and signs with slogans like "I prefer facts" . . . There was a life-sized Jesus puppet.

This wasn't just some small enclave meeting for some drinks and Judeo-Christian trash talk; there were between 8,000 and 20,000 people there. . . Richard Dawkins, one of the keynote speakers, encouraged attendees to "ridicule" people's faith. Not all atheists take this tone toward faith, but it's a somewhat common posture, especially among some of atheism's most vocal advocates, including Dawkins and people like PZ Myers and Bill Maher.

Bill, another hallmark of the New Atheist, not only loud-and-proud, but for too long dialogue they think (and they could be right about this to an extent) has been thwarted because you weren’t supposed to discuss religion in polite company. Don’t discuss politics or religion. Religion was off-limits in polite society for criticism. Why? Because it was just seen as personal taste and not necessarily as truth. Now they are saying if you are going to make any headway against religion (which they want to do) you’ve got to ridicule it.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, I don’t see this as an effort to engage in dialogue. Quite the opposite. These folks aren’t interested in dialogue. That is why ridicule, mockery, insult are their modus operandi. It isn’t an effort to have serious dialogue. If you want to see this on display, look at the “dialogue” I had with Lawrence Krauss in Brisbane, Australia.

KEVIN HARRIS: Perfect example.

DR. CRAIG: It was. It was not in any sense a dialogue. It was a rant and a personal sort of attack. So this is part of the subculture these authors are saying that characterizes this group of people.

KEVIN HARRIS: Yeah. And this book says this.

"It's definitely one of their strategies," said Cimino. "There is this strong attempt to be kind of irreverent." This is a quality particular to "new atheism," he said, a term for Dawkins-style arguments against faith, which rely heavily on science and invocations of rationalism. "There's a sense that once you make fun of it, you can kind of demystify religion," he added.

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, what do you think about that? Once you make fun of it, you can demystify it.

DR. CRAIG: This was a strategy that was used in the deist controversy in Britain and in Europe that I came into contact with when I was doing my research on the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus. The deist, I think, rightly understood that one of their most potent weapons was not intellectual interaction with the views of Christians but just mockery and ridicule and humor. Unfortunately, these are very, very potent weapons, I think, in the hands of unbelievers. This is an interesting strategy that they are deliberately adopting that we know has worked in the past. It remains to be seen whether it will work this time around. I get the sense among many people who are more cultured that they are a little bit tired now of this mockery and ridicule, and that the so-called New Atheism is beginning to show itself to be pretty intellectually thin. But unfortunately there is ample evidence in the Internet subculture and on the popular level that this way of approaching religious questions is still far, far too common - don’t engage intellectually with it, just mock and ridicule and speak condescendingly of it.

KEVIN HARRIS: That is different than, say, reductio ad absurdum, isn’t it? What would be the difference between mocking something and reducing it to the absurd?[4]

DR. CRAIG: In a reductio ad absurdum argument you try to show that your opponent’s view, if true, will lead to a contradiction or some sort of an incoherence and therefore is self-defeating. But that is very different than just name-calling and ridiculing those who disagree with you as mental midgets or as bad people. The one is an argumentative strategy whereas the other one is more of a rhetorical strategy, I think. Christopher Hitchens was very gifted rhetorically in the way he would attack Christianity. But I was, frankly, appalled at the lack of substance in his arguments. He had almost no acquaintance with theistic arguments or the historical credibility of the Gospels. All he could do was mock and ridicule.

KEVIN HARRIS: What do we do whenever someone got this memo - because I think the memo has been circulating that you are supposed to be derisive in order to demystify. What do we do in the face of that? What we will often cry is “persecution!” I don’t think we in America know what persecution is. What we call persecution is some guy in his basement sending us a flaming email. That is not persecution.

DR. CRAIG: No, not when we see what is happening in Syria and Iraq today and the Christians who are being persecuted there. But in responding to this, I think this requires an enormous amount of sensitivity on the part of the Christian to know whether to try to answer the question in a serious way or whether to simply say to the person, “If I were to answer that question, would you really then be ready to become a Christian?” If the answer is no, say, “I don’t sense that you are really sincerely seeking the truth about God. You just want to argue and to ridicule. I’ve got better things to do than that so I don't care to talk about this further.” I think there comes a point which you follow Jesus’ advice to not throw your pearls before swine lest they turn to attack you and trample them underfoot. There is a point at which it is simply counterproductive and fruitless to engage in conversation with a person like this. As I say, this requires sensitivity to know when you are talking to a person like this, and where perhaps by giving a good answer to the face value question you might take him aback and perhaps pull the rug from under his feet and he suddenly sees that, well, gosh, there really is a good answer to what I thought was a knock-down objection. So you’ve got to be careful and play it by ear in dealing with folks like this.

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, what do you think of this observation? I looked at hundreds of videos and listened to audio preparing for these podcasts. I go through a lot of atheistic and skeptical videos. You will see so many of them being very derisive toward God, calling God a moral monster, and spelling God with a small “g,” and things like that, but do you know what is still relatively rare is an attack on Jesus. Now, there are some there.


KEVIN HARRIS: There are. Even at this Reason Rally they had a big puppet of Jesus and things like that. But that is still relatively rare. That says something about the character of Christ for one thing, but it also says something about the character of the people. If you can do that - if you can make fun of him - one has really gone off the deep end. You really have gone off the deep end as far as I am concerned. You are in severe danger at that point. I don’t mind saying that, because that is really an indication of something profound.

DR. CRAIG: Jesus himself is, in a sense, his best defense. If we can just get the unbeliever to read the Gospels about the life of Jesus, I think there is tremendous attraction in the person of Jesus in terms of the authenticity of his life, his courage in the face of death, his convictions and uncompromising message for what he believed in. I think getting folks to read the life of Jesus and think about it themselves is a very powerful witness to them, more than just arguments that we might give.[5]