Engaging The Challenge Of The New Atheism
by Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow
“Christianity isn’t just false; it’s dangerous and must be eliminated.” If the New Atheists had a mission statement, this is exactly how it would read. And if they had their way, this is precisely what they would do.
The so-called New Atheists (notably, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens) have launched an all-out assault on Christianity. Their books have been consistent best-sellers. Christopher Hitchens’s book God Is Not Great, for example, debuted at the No. 1 slot on the New York Times best-seller list within a month of its release. Nearly 300,000 copies were in print by its seventh week. Their books continue to rank high on the Amazon.com best-seller list.
The New Atheists have commandeered an unprecedented audience in the history of atheism. And their influence has gone well beyond the publishing world. They participate in debates, post YouTube videos, speak on college campuses, and are consistently interviewed on leading radio and TV shows.
Recent polls indicate that an increasing number of Americans identify themselves as atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious. The goal of the New Atheists is simple: to eliminate any rational basis for Christianity and to persuade believers to abandon their faith. In The God Delusion, Dawkins makes his agenda clear: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” So, how should Christians respond to the New Atheism?
The first thing we need to do as Christians is to be informed. Rather than responding in fear, we can see this as motivation for deeper understanding and defense of the faith. The Bible speaks repeatedly about the importance of being ready with an answer for the hope within (e.g., 1 Peter 3:15) and of the importance of loving God with our minds (Mark 12:30). Christianity has withstood the intellectual challenges of the past, and it will withstand this as well. But we need to be informed about the issues to minimize the damage. When we are uninformed about our beliefs, we tend to react defensively; when we know why we believe as we do, we can respond with confidence and clarity. Our hope is that the challenge of the New Atheism will be met head-on by families, teachers, and churches that take seriously the need for training in defending the faith. This should be a wake-up call for us all.
Second, teach young people to defend their faith. According to the National Study of Youth and Religion, the top reason formerly religious young people cited for leaving their faith was intellectual skepticism. One young person said, “I think scientifically there is no proof.” Sadly, this teen could not be more mistaken. The scientific evidence for design has exploded over the past few decades. This includes evidence from diverse fields such as cosmology, physics, biology, chemistry, and neuroscience. In fact, the late Antony Flew, one of the leading atheists of the past five decades, cited the burgeoning scientific evidence as the top reason for his conversion to theism. And yet surprisingly few students are even aware of these findings. Unfortunately, many young people have uncritically accepted the one-sided perspective of the New Atheists.
Third, join the conversation. While there is nothing really new in the substance of the New Atheists’ arguments, they have a new attitude and a much broader influence than atheists of the past. They have emboldened a new generation of atheists who are now mobilized to spread their message worldwide. “Free-thinking” clubs on both the collegiate and high school levels are sprouting up like never before. This is not the time for Christians to retreat. We need to engage! Whether it’s writing an article for a local newspaper, interacting with atheists on blogs, posting some YouTube videos, or intentionally building relationships with atheists in our spheres of influence, we need to join the conversation.
But let us not respond in kind. We ought to challenge their ideas as forcefully as we can, but we must do so with humility and respect. It’s pointless to win an argument but do so in a way that alienates the person. To engage the New Atheism we ought to remember the advice of the apostle Paul when he spoke of imparting not only the truth, but also our very own lives (1 Thessalonians 2:8). This is the approach we took in our recent book Is God Just a Human Invention? We take the arguments of the New Atheists to task, but we do so respectfully. Hopefully this model will characterize how we engage atheists and other nonbelievers in the future.