Saturday, December 09, 2006

Some Thoughts on the New Atheism

The fact that three recent books have lauded atheism and savaged religion has caught the attention of the media. A recent Wired cover story wrote of "The New Atheism." US News and World Report had a similar story in a November issue. Time Magazine weighed in (mostly with pictures, as usual) as well.

The two books leading the charge are Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation and Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion. I plan to review both for The Christian Research Journal soon, but I offer a few preliminary comments. (The other is by Breaking the Spell, by Daniel Dennett, and I will not comment on it.)

1. These two books are offering nothing new by way of critiques of theism or specific religions. Christian philosophers and biblicla scholars have responded to all the charges before. What is different is their severe tone. Religion is not just wrong, but terribly dangerous. It should scarcely be tolerated. To demonstrate this, one must argue that a belief is both false and deleterious. That doubles the intellectual load--and produces a fair amount of bombast.

2. Harris especially assumes that all believers are fideists or rely on the worst possible arguments. This is false. A debate with Bill Craig would demonstrate this in short order. When Harris's book was discussed on NPR, the host said, "Should religion, which is based on faith and not reason, have a say in public policy?" Talk about the fallacy of the complex question! Some people's faith is unsupported by evidence and argument, but this is not true of all religions people. It is not true of me, for example. So, the good old straw man makes another appearance to supply the fallacy.

3. Harris and Dawkins are correct in demanding that religious worldviews supply good arguments for their beliefs. Blind faith is no virtue in Christian teaching and apologetics is not optional (Acts 17:16-34; 1 Peter 3:15; Jude 3).

4. Harris in particular conflates all religious claims: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. They are all of a piece in being irrational, false, and dangerous. He thus commits the fallacy of hasty generalization. Believing that one will receive the ministrations of exactly seventy two virgins after dying in a jihad is an order of belief far different than believing that since Jesus Christ rose from the dead in space-time history, one who believes in him will enter paradise after death as a martyr (which precludes anything resembling jihad). Christianity is well supported apologetically; Islam, which denies the central tenets of Christian, is not. For example, it denies that Jesus was crucified--a fact affirmed by virtually every biblical scholar in the world today. The fact that both are "religions" says nothing about their relative epistemic status.

5. Harris and Dawkins are wrong in saying the religious moderates (this probably includes evangelicals to them) give safe haven to religious extremists, such as jihadists. Their reasoning seems to be that moderates give religion a pretty face and insulate it from rational testing. That means that radicals' religious beliefs cannot be intellectually critiqued either. Some moderate may make this claim to intellectual immunity, but I do not. As an evangelical (or historic Protestant) I believe that (a) religious beliefs should hold water philosophically and historically, (b) that Christian fulfills the condition of (a) and that (c) Islamic militants' religion is at once false, irrational, and dangerous. I fail to see how my "moderate" religion encourages, shields, or emboldens radicals in any way whatever.

There is much more to be said. This is but a preliminary blast of the trumpet. The rest of the troops will follow later.


Frank Walton said...

The New Atheism movement encourages disrespect toward God belief! I write about it here.

Tim said...

The funny thing about the New Atheism is that it's actually warmed over Old Atheism. Check out the rants of Celsus in the second century and of Porphyry in the third. Pick up some works from the deist controversy and check out the disrespect evident in the work of Thomas Woolston in the Six Discourses on the Miracles of our Savior (1727/8), thinly disguised by being put in the mouth of a "Rabbi friend." Have a look at the works of Peter Annet or Thomas Chubb, not to mention Voltaire.

Plus ├ža change, ...

Tim said...


In the sense in which that's true, it's not very interesting. It's on a par with saying that nonbelief in atoms is a perfectly respectable philosophical position -- which it is, in the abstract and apart from consideration of the evidence. The interesting questions arise at the point where one asks whether the publically available evidence supports such belief.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Are there really all that many people who will be impressed with a militant stand against religion??? I mean on a wide scale???

The tone of New Atheism doesn't scare me all that much, especially if it involves a somewhat careless/reckless treatment of the facts. I'm more concerned with what I see as a growing apathy towards religion: You have yours and I have mine - we only quibble about the fact, we don't really find it all that interesting to quibble anymore....

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Antipathy toward Christianity is in some ways easier to engage than apathy toward Christianity. The one who cries "Wrong!" is engaged. The one who mutters "Whatever.." is disengaged. The former needs answers; the latter needs questions.

Tim said...


That is excellent. May I quote you?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


You can always quote me, except when I'm stupid.


Tim said...


You write:

Nonbelief in the supernatural is a perfectly reasonable philosophical position, whereas nonbelief in atoms is not, given the available public information.

You can get away with saying that in many quarters without being challenged. But not on this blog. On the contrary, the position that Doug holds -- and I'm in complete agreement with him -- is that given the available public information, disbelief in God runs counter to the evidence and is, in precisely that sense, unreasonable.

This is, to be sure, an unfashionable position in some circles, even in some Christian circles. If you haven't encountered it before, you may well have formed the impression that all Christians are either intellectually effete, dodging questions of evidence and inference with elaborate redefinitions and misdirection, or else howlingly ignorant of modern scholarship. What luck, then, that you've chosen to hang out here! If you're serious about looking at some of the historical evidence -- not because you want to see how much of Doug's time you can waste, but because you sincerely want to know the truth about Christianity -- just say the word and you won't be able to run fast enough to avoid the red carpet.

Tim said...


Christianity is, at its core, a historical religion: its central claims are historical claims and can be evaluated by canons of historical evaluation that are applicable to all historical claims. There is a body of historical evidence against which we can test the truth of these claims to see whether they best explain the facts. When we do, we find that they are verified and alternative explanations of the facts are implausible and ad hoc.

Kevin Winters said...


This is coming from someone who does believe in Christ's historical sacrifice and our need to be so regenerated: what "canons of historical evaluation" demonstrate that Christ did so die for our sins and did indeed resurrect from the dead as reported in the New Testament?

Tim said...


For the key historical claims, the procedure is really rather pedestrian, though that is not to say that it does not take skill, knowledge, and diligence to carry it out. Consider the NT books as documents, not as sacred scripture. Assess the manuscript evidence both for the prospects of recovering a substantially accurate text (outstanding) and for their provenance (from the standpoint of historical reporting, very close in time and place to the events they report). Determine genre. (Varied, but much that is plainly intended to be taken as history, including the gospels, Acts, and numerous references in the epistles.) Check for internal consistency on matters of substance. (Minor discrepancies of detail are common fare in history and it would be an alarming suggestion of collusion if there were none.) Check for external corroboration -- that is, from sources we have reason to believe are independent of the documents in question -- regarding people, places and events named in the texts. (On the whole, outstanding. There are a few points of friction such as the difficult question of the enrollment in Luke 2, but by the standards of historical research this is not a serious problem for the general reliability of the narratives if you did not start out with an assumption of inerrancy.)

At this point, if the documents have held up well under the investigation so far, turn to the specific claims of the texts that have no parallel in the independent literature. If they are plausible in their own right, the documents deserve the benefit of the doubt. If they are spectacular and prima facie implausible -- if, say, they involve the testimony of individuals who purport to be eyewitnesses to miraculous events -- proceed with open-minded caution. Were the events such as the witnesses are likely to have been deceived about? If the events are attributed to the power of God, do they make any sense in that role or do they appear to be pointless or mere showing off? Do they fit into any wider context of divine action or are they stand-alone sorts of events?

Could the events plausibly be ascribed to the workings of nature or the frenzy of a crowd? Did the supposed witnesses stand to gain, or could they plausibly have believed that they stood to gain, anything of temporal value from promulgating a false tale -- say, military conquest, sexual gratification, or political power? Were the events in question supposed to have been observed only by the writers or those interviewed by the writers, or were the events matters that at least in some respects came within the notice of a wider public? If so, were they proclaimed openly so that the public might have an opportunity to refute them?

Did the witnesses have anything to lose from sticking to a fabrication, and if so could they reasonably have known that they did? How many witnesses were there? What did they undergo in attestation of what they claimed to have seen? Was their testimony tried in aggregate or one at a time?

If, but only if, the claims hold up well under this sort of scrutiny, they deserve our assent.

Shawn said...

Christianity is well supported apologetically; Islam, which denies the central tenets of Christian, is not. For example, it denies that Jesus was crucified--a fact affirmed by virtually every biblical scholar in the world today. The fact that both are "religions" says nothing about their relative epistemic status.

This is the most eloquent summation of "Na na, na na, boo, boo; My religion is better than yours" that I have ever heard. Well done.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

This is the most eloquent summation of "Na na, na na, boo, boo; My religion is better than yours" that I have ever heard. Well done.

No, it is a summary of the evidence, the arguments, the facts. Facts may proves things right or wrong. There is no one-up-manship or petty name-calling. See Saleeb and Geisler, Answering Islam, for starters.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Here is a brief argument to back Christianity over Islam:

1. The New Testament documents were all written well before 100 AD by eyewitnesses or those who consulted them.

2. New Testament history is partially, but significantly confirmed by extra-biblical history and archaelogy.

3. Islam denies Jesus was crucified or claimed to be God, things abundantly attested to in the New Testament (NT)--and outside of it.

4. The NT does so not on the basis of any more credible historical document, but on the basis of a supposed revelation from God, the Koran.

5. This supposed revelation has no historical, moral, or supernatural credibility. It denies key NT facts, calls for perpetual violence against unbelievers, and evinces no fulfillment of prophecy (unlike the Bible).

6. Therefore, the New Testament documents are far more trustworthy than the Koran.

7. Therefore, Christianity is better attested to logically and historically than Islam.

This is an argument, not an insult. For more on the reliability of the NT, see chapter two of my book, On Jesus.

Shawn said...

No, it is a summary of the evidence, the arguments, the facts.

There's about 1.5 billion people who, having "evidence" just like you, would humbly (if killing themselves for their beliefs could be called humble) disagree. They have "documents" to. Does that make them right?

There is an entire tribe of people that reject "Jesus", even condemning, Yeshu. They have "documents" also. And they "were there". They right?

Heck, there are countless upon countless "documents" inside and outside of any given subject, does this make them true?

But challenging one faith-based belief system over another is far from my point, but it does bring up another thought; if there's so much "evidence" why again is there a need for "faith"?

1. The New Testament documents were all written well before 100 AD by eyewitnesses or those who consulted them.

Which document was an eyewitness account? Tactitus? Josephus? The Gospels? Lucian? Thallus?

None were written after 100 AD? Can we say that most were written some 20-80 years after the supposed death of Jesus? Wouldn't we be remiss in challenging the veracity of something written almost a generation after "the fact"?

From earlier:
Jesus was crucified--a fact affirmed by virtually every biblical scholar in the world today.
I would think that any bible scholar would have something to lose if they affirmed anything less. Of course they're going to affirm this "evidence". It's the whole of Christianity: no death/resurrection, no Christianity. I fail to see how an affirmation from someone today is "evidence"; another who believes? Sure. But evidence? And I like the wording you used "a fact affirmed" ... nice. So it's a priori?

see chapter two of my book, On Jesus.
Where can I find your book? I may look into it and see what you have to say.