We are called in Scripture to contend for our faith. I think that means something different today than it would have meant a generation ago. Because today we are living to a degree not seen before in secular culture. And that means that Christian assumptions which used to be taken for granted in our society, are now no longer shared.
Very interestingly, we have seen in recent years, not just atheism, but a kind of new atheism more militant, more suave, more effective than the atheism of the past. In fact, if you thought of atheism 20 years ago, you think of someone like the activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, or an ACLU lawyer. It’s not an atheism with mass appeal.
Today, however, the new atheists are a pretty suave bunch. I’m thinking of people like the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, the author of the book, “The God Delusion”, a book that sold 2 million copies. There is the English writer, Christopher Hitchens, who writes every month for Vanity Fair, and is the author of the book “God Is Not Great”. And of course, Hitchens has the British accent, the Richard Burton voice, the artfully disheveled hair, the carefully crumbled pants. In other words, he makes a very suave appeal to young people, a kind of a rebel stance. And then there’s the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the writer Sam Harris, who wrote the book, “The End of Faith”. There’s the bioethicists Peter Singer, it’s a long list. And these new atheists have a very different agenda than the atheists of the past. In the past, what the atheist wanted to do is police the boundaries of church and state. So let’s take down the 10 commandments from the Texas State Capitol. That was their agenda. If you want to practice your faith at home or in private, that was okay.
But the new atheists are very different. They want to attack Christianity in the private sphere. Also, they really want to make every Christian feel like a total idiot for believing in Christianity. This is a different kind of challenge than I think we’ve had in the past.
Now, this atheist threat comes at a time when I think we as Christians are perhaps not as well prepared as we should be. We’re not prepared for what happens when you set foot in a secular world; your beliefs come under attack under scrutiny, The new atheists want to make you feel foolish and says things like “you believe someone was born of a virgin, walked on the ocean, brought dead people back to life? Are you out of your mind? We’re living in the 20th century now the 21st century, don’t you believe the world has fixed laws, you think these laws can be suspended at somebody’s whim or discretion”?
This is the strategy of the new atheists; to drive a wedge between the mind on the one side, and the heart on the other.
I think the second reason that as Christians, we sometimes have difficulty with the new atheists, is because we are accustomed to when we are faced with a question we to turn to the Bible. If somebody says, Hey, Christian, why do you believe this? We say, well, the book of Matthew says this or the Book of Leviticus says that. And that’s a pretty good approach if you are speaking to a fellow Christian. But if you’re speaking to a secular guy, or to an atheist, if I said this in a debate with Christopher Hitchens, he’d say, Well, I don’t care what the book of Matthew says, I reject the authority of the Bible to decide the matter. And then as Christians, we are a little tongue tied, because, well, that was our argument.
So what I want to suggest is that I think as Christians, we would do better, you might say, to be a little more bilingual. And by bilingual, what I mean is to speak one language in church, but to learn a little bit of a different language when we step out into secular culture, because we are often going to be dealing with people and our children are going to be dealing with people who don’t share our assumptions.
Now, the new atheists are particularly targeting young people. Their point is, okay, we are going to let the Christian parents breed them. But at some point, these parents are going to have to send their kids into the world. That’s when we’ll get them. Why? Because we the atheists are influentially ensconced in the media and the universities in education. So we’re going to use the tools of skepticism and inquiry to challenge these young Christians. And you might say, torpedo their beliefs.
What I’d like to do is to take a couple of the strongest arguments of the new atheism and analyze them. I’m not going to focus on the weak points of the new atheism. I’m going to focus more on its strong points. And what the new atheists have become very good at is surfing on the wave of current events. That’s one reason they get a lot of media coverage. I was recently reading an article by one of these guys. He was talking about the war on terror. He said that’s a clash of competing fundamentalisms. Over here, Islamic fundamentalism over here Christian fundamentalism. What do the two groups have in common? They’re both fueling their fanaticism at the same holy gas station. In short, religion is the problem He went on to write that 911 was, quote, a faith-based initiative. He said, If you look around the world, why are people fighting? The Shia and the Sunni in Iraq? They’re fighting over religion, the Israelis and the Palestinians, they’re fighting over religion. What about in Northern Ireland? They’re fighting over religion. How about the Hindus and the Muslims, they’re fighting over religion. Religion appears to be the reason why people are at each other’s throats in today’s world. And then he said, if you look at history, it’s the same story, the crusades, the Inquisition, the religious wars, the Salem witch trials, he says any rational person has to conclude that God is a menace in the world. If we could get rid of God, and have a secular society, not only would it be more scientific, more rational, it would also be more peaceful, a more decent society.
So this is the voice of the new atheism. The new atheists have also gotten very cunning about corralling our young people, and pushing them off, if you will, against the wall. Say Christian, you know you call yourself a Christian. But have you done a comparative survey of all the religions of the world? No. Well, how do you know that your religion is true? And everybody else’s is false? What is the reason that you are a Christian? Isn’t it that your parents are Christian, so you’re a Christian, because you were born in San Diego, or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Had you been born in Afghanistan, you’d be a Muslim. If you are born in Thailand, you’d most likely be a Buddhist. So your Christianity is not the result of a quest for truth. It’s the result of the accident of geography.
I was in a debate not long ago with a prominent atheist. He said to me there have been a lot of gods that have been advanced in the great sweep of human history. You don’t believe in most of them, do you? He said, Do you believe in Krishna? I said, No. Do you believe in Allah? No. Do you believe in Thor or or Poseidon? Or Diana or Jupiter? No, no, no, no. He said, Well, that when it comes to 99%, of all the gods, you’re an atheist. He goes, the only difference between me and you is I take your God and add him to this long list.
Now, how are we as Christians to tackle thee new atheism? I want to begin by saying a word about science. Partly because I think that the new atheism today marches behind the banner of science. The new atheists essentially say, look, science is a better way of knowing than Christianity. Why? Because Science is based on reason. Christianity is based on faith. And as the atheists describe it, Sciences is advancing. And religion is retreating. Why? Because the atheists say that from the dawn of mankind, when people were ignorant, and didn’t know what caused things, they would attribute it to God. So ancient man looks out of his cave window, he sees lightning. He doesn’t know what caused it. He goes, well, that must be the lightning God. Well, you hear thunder doesn’t know what that came from that must be the thunder god. So as the atheist say, but today, we know that lightning is an electrical discharge, you don’t need God to explain it. Science has explained it. And in the atheist narrative, what happened is that the Christians are always being proven wrong and science is being proved right. So they’ll say 4000 years ago, the medieval Christians believed the earth is flat, then the brilliant scientists showed up, and they revealed that the earth is round. And the Christians used to believe that the earth is the center of the universe, Sun goes around the Earth. But Copernicus and Galileo showed up and said, No, it’s really the other way around. Earth goes around the sun. And then Darwin, who has become sort of the patron saint of modern atheism, Darwin came along to show that you don’t need God, you can use chance and natural selection to try to explain the presence and the diversity of life on the planet. And this atheist notion of science is creeping its way into our textbooks. I’ve got a teenage daughter and if I peek into her science books, you begin to see a little bit of this narrative beginning to make itself present. So what can we say about it?
First thing is that this narrative of scientific advance and Christian retreat is based on three crucial examples. And when you begin to look at those examples more closely, you see that they are actually quite fragile, in fact, largely bogus.
I’ll give you a simple illustration of this. I did a little bit of historical investigation into the so-called Flat Earth Theory. And I realized that educated people throughout the Middle Ages knew perfectly well that the earth is round. In fact, educated people at the time of Christ knew that the earth is round. In fact, the ancient Greeks who lived 500 years before Christ knew perfectly well that the earth is round. Why? Because actually, you don’t need Galileo’s telescopes to figure it out. All you have to do is watch an eclipse. Here’s the sun. Here’s the earth. Here’s the moon, you can see the shadow of the earth on the moon. Hey, fellas, it’s round. Aristotle knew that the earth is round. The point I’m making is that the flat earth story is a complete legend. It’s a complete myth.
The other point I want to make is that this whole notion of scientific advance, and Christian retreat is a story that kind of happily goes along. But you’ll notice it comes to a screeching halt at 1859, when Darwin published the origin of species. You might say, well, that’s odd. hasn’t there been any science since then? There’s actually been a lot. But interestingly, the science of the last 150 years, far from undermining Christianity supports it in important and interesting ways. And this is why we never hear about it. I’d like to give you just a couple of brief examples, very eye-opening examples of what I mean.
Several 100 years ago, somebody posed a question to the church father, Augustine who wrote Augustine’s Confessions. And the question goes sort of like this. If you think about time, time goes back. But really, no matter how far back you go, you can always go further back, can’t you? If somebody says 2000 years ago, well before that 2001 years ago, 1 million years ago, well before that was 1,000,001 years ago. So time seems to stretch in a kind of elastic, indefinite way, both into the past and into the future. And so the question that was posed to Augustine was, when did God make the universe? Did God create the universe? And if he did, what was he doing before that? In other words, how did God occupy his time, which he evidently had a lot of prior to creating the universe?
Now, Augustine gave a reply that is actually one of the most astounding replies ever given in the history of thought. Based on meditating on the book of Genesis, he said, God created time, along with the universe. In other words, before the universe, there was no time. Once upon a time, time did not exist.
Now, this is a little bit of a mind bender. And really, for many centuries, if you said it, it would be hard to explain what you mean, that time had a beginning. But interestingly, today, if you send your son or daughter right down the road, and do a physics 101 course at UC Irvine, or UC Berkeley, they will find out in the first three months, that as a direct consequence of the so-called Big Bang, not only did the universe have a beginning, which is to say not only did all matter, have a beginning, but very interestingly, space and time also had a beginning. In other words, space and time are properties of our universe, outside our universe, no space, no time.
Now, the reason this is very interesting is that for 2000 years, Christians have been saying two things. Number one, God is eternal, eternal in the sense of outside of time. And this concept of eternity, which seemed, from a scientific point of view, incoherent, now makes complete sense if God is outside the universe, he’s outside of time.
Second, the ancient Hebrew said that first there was nothing. And then there was the universe. Now, by the way, this is very different than what any other religion says, in many other religions, you have god or gods that, in a sense fashion, the universe, but they don’t make it out of nothing. They take some other preexisting stuff, and they basically sculpt the universe. But the ancient Hebrews said, No, there was nothing. And then we got a universe. And by the way, the ancient Hebrews, as far as I know, conducted no experiments. How did they find out, they basically said, God told us. And 2000 years later, their description of what happened is pretty much right on. So this is an interesting way in which science is corroborating some very ancient claims that most of us have believed on faith.
But faith is now being buttressed, you might say by reason. I’ll give a second example that’s worth thinking about. And this example has only come up in the last 30 or 40 years. Some leading scientists have looked at our universe. And they’ve noticed that it has a whole bunch of numerical values. If you think about it, if I were to take this bottle of water and drop it, it will accelerate to the ground at a known rate, gravity. So in our universe, there are all these constants and forces, the electromagnetic force, the speed of light, strong nuclear force, there’s something called the electroweak force. So there are all these numbers. One physicist named Lee Smolin says, it’s sort of like God is sitting at a big desk. And on the desk, he has 100 different dials. Every dial is calibrated to a very specific number. And here’s the question that the scientists are asking, What if we sneak into the room? And when God isn’t looking we fool with the dials. We just change them around a little bit. What would happen? And the scientists look at this question, say, what would happen is if you touch one of the dials, and you move it, not 10%, not 1%. But one part in 100,000 million million, you would have no universe, you would have no life. This, by the way, is a topic that is described by the physicist Stephen Hawking in his book A Brief History of time. If you look in there, you’ll find the example I just gave, the whole idea is that the entire universe appears to be a kind of gigantic plot to make possible, well, us.
Now, this idea, which is sometimes called the anthropic principle, or in a more colloquial way to fine tune the universe, has put modern atheism totally on the defensive. Why? First of all, it’s an argument utterly immune the Darwinian attack. We’re not talking about whether the dog and the wolf had a common ancestor. We’re talking about how we got a universe in the first place,
I was in a debate some months ago against a physicist. And he was clearly very shaken by this idea of the fine tuned universe. But he said, I think I can account for it. And I said, how he goes, Well, maybe there are multiple universes. I said, Really? How many? He goes, Well, he goes, frankly, I don’t know. But he goes, I think there probably are an infinity of universes out there. And if there are an infinity of universes, it’s not that surprising that one of them unlikely though it may seem, happens to be suited for life And I said to him, this is really a far out fantastic and kind of a thrilling idea that you’ve got all these universes. I said, What is the scientific or empirical evidence for it? He goes, Well, there is none. And I thought, well, that’s okay. But you’re at the frontiers of scientific research. Do you expect that evidence will be coming in in the next 20 or 50 or maybe 100 years that gives some empirical support for this really exciting theory. He goes, Oh, no, not only is there no evidence there never will be. And this time genuinely curious, I said, Well, why not? And he said, Well, because if there are other universes, they would operate according to other laws. In other words, they would be permanently cut off from our universe, we could never find out about them. And I said to him, Wow! I would like to believe that. But I just don’t think I have that much faith. In other words, you have very intelligent people, no doubt, to get around the idea of God, they are now forced to posit things like an infinity of universes to abolish one invisible God. They’ve got to manufacture an infinity of invisible universes.
All of this tells me that as Christians, this is not a science that we should be afraid of. We should be heading down the road of science with our magnifying glasses, because there’s a lot of good stuff to be found.
I need to fast forward a little bit and talk about morality. I want to address head on the question I raised earlier. Namely, is it true that Christianity is responsible for violence, terrorism, war, conflict? This is one of the magic bullets in the holster of modern atheism. And it’s very important that we be able to meet it head on.
Like a lot of arguments that are in the end bogus, the argument does contain a molecule of truth. Often when I speak on the campus, I tell students, when you hear an argument that sounds fishy, always ask what is the grain of truth in it? Because if it didn’t have a grain of truth, no one would believe it. So, what’s the grain of truth here? Well, the grain of truth is that the Islamic radicals do do some bad things in the name of God. That’s true. But the point is, there is really nothing equivalent in any other religion. In fact, where are the Buddhist suicide bombers? I’m still waiting for them to show up. Where’s the Christian Bin Ladin? Where’s the Christian Hamas? Hezbollah? What is the Christian country today that’s run along the lines of post Khomeini, Iran? It really doesn’t exist. In a sense, what the atheists are trying to do is take Islamic radicalism and use that to smear God in general.
If you if you take a backward glance at history, and ask how many people were killed in the Salem Witch Trials? I would have said, I don’t know. But it’s a big blot on American history, I’d say hundreds maybe 1000s. Okay, how many people were killed in the Inquisition? Well, it was a biggie. The Spanish Inquisition lasted for 350 years. I don’t know hundreds of 1000s, maybe millions. Well, today, there’s a very interesting body of knowledge about all this. And if you look at it, you’re in for a little bit of a surprise. As a multivolume study of the Inquisition by a historian named Henry Kaman. He points out that the Spanish Inquisition which was the worst over a period of almost four centuries, killed approximately 2000 people. 2000 people, 400 years, works out to about five guys a year, which is not normally considered a world historical crime. Or if you go look at the Salem Witch Trials, and you look at number of people killed in the Salem witch trials 19. That’s right, there were 19 people killed in the Salem Witch Trials. Now is that 19 too many Yeah, or 2019 too many, of course. But here’s the point I want to make. While the atheists are crying major inconsolable crocodile tears over the crimes of Christianity, crimes often committed 200 or 500, or in the case of the Crusades 1000 years ago, they are often ignoring and downplaying the much greater crimes of atheism, which are not ancient, but have occurred recently, in our lifetime in the last century, and are still going on today. And people say, you’re talking about, like Stalin in Russia or Mao in China or the Nazi regime. And I say, well, yeah, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s true that those regimes alone, those three, in the space of about seven decades, managed to kill close to 100 million people. That’s true. But that doesn’t even count a procession of dictators beginning with Lenin, and continuing through Brezhnev and Andropov and Chernenko, it doesn’t count Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, Pol Pot. You take a junior league atheist like Pol Pot, most people don’t even name him. And yet in Indochina following the Vietnam War, his comer Rouge regime, in the space of about three years, killed about 2 million people. 2 million, even Bin Ladin in his wildest dreams doesn’t even come close.
So who should parachute into the discussion at this moment, but Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, who cries out wait a minute, we have to make a critical distinction. The Christians killed in the name of Christianity, you might have had some tyrants who happen to be atheist, but they didn’t kill in the name of atheism. Now Dawkins is actually a noted biologist. And here, I think you’ll see the problem when the biologist is allowed to leave the lab. Why? Because evidently, the poor man knows no history. You don’t have to be an historian, you just have to crack open the collected works of Karl Marx. And you’ll find out that the atheism is not accidental. It’s absolutely central to the whole communist scheme. Marx says that religion is the opium, the opiate of the people, a kind of drug that blinds you to social injustice, and you need to get rid of it before you can create the new man and the new utopia, freed from the shackles of God and religion. So, my conclusion is that it is atheism and not religion, that is responsible for the mass murders of history.
Now, I want to turn to my third and final theme, and I want to explore for a moment the motives of the new atheism and what we as Christians can do about it. Now, this is an interesting subject, because if you ask the atheist about his motive or her motive, you get a very lofty answer. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, many years ago, he had written a book, Why I am Not a Christian. And somebody asked him if you die and find yourself right in front of God, what would you say to Him? And Russell said, I would say to him, sir, you have failed to provide me with adequate evidence. And this is kind of the mentality of modern atheism. I am a champion of reason, following the pathways of knowledge. If I don’t believe it’s because I just don’t see any proof.
Now, I’d like to suggest to you why, to me, this is not a very believable explanation for the new atheism. See, normally if you don’t believe in something because there’s no proof of it, what do you do? You ignore it. You go about your everyday life as if the something you don’t believe in for which you have no evidence does not exist. Case in point. I don’t believe in unicorns. But you’ll notice I have not written any books, the unicorn delusion. The end of unicorns, unicorns are not great. You won’t see me debating the issue of unicorns. I just kind of go about life as if there aren’t any unicorns. So, something more is going on. And I want to leave you with my thought about what that is.
You know, if you think about life, it’s, well, it’s a little unfair. We don’t want it to be, we believe in justice.
We’d like to believe that what goes around comes around. I’d like it to be true. But it isn’t. Many times the bad guy comes out on top. Many times the good guy comes to grief. Now, it is the shared premise of all the religions of the world, certainly all the major ones, that even though there isn’t terrestrial justice, or justice in this life, there is what could be called cosmic justice. Meaning in the final accounting, yeah, what goes around does come around. Consider Hinduism. You are a jerk in this life. We’re going to be seeing you as a cockroach in the next one. Cosmic justice.
Now, in Christianity, it’s the last judgement. And the last judgement is the idea that your actions in life, even your thoughts, and even the things you do in private, are noted. Perhaps they are in some sense recorded. Kind of an unnerving idea. Not only for the atheist, I mean, even for the Christian, I think of a Augustine in The Confessions says, I kept postponing my conversion to Christianity. I kept praying to God, Lord, make me chaste. but not yet. Even Augustine is, in a way nervous about putting himself into this unremitting shadow of moral accountability and unending scrutiny.
Today’s atheists have found a beautiful solution to this problem. How do you get out from the shadow of moral judgment? It’s simple. abolish the judge. If you can get rid of God, the commandments, the edicts, the laws, the rules, morality becomes optional. And so, what I’m trying to suggest is that the new atheism of today is not just marching behind the banner of reason. It is also promising young people, you might say moral liberation, liberation from those strict rules of Christianity.
So where does that leave us? Well, I must say, as Christians, we need to be prepared to defend our faith. Apologetics, which is the defense of the faith, has become a practical necessity in our time. And I think that as Christians, in some senses, we can turn the challenge of the new atheism into a into an opportunity for evangelism. The atheists have put the issue on the public agenda. The only question now is, are we going to let them monopolize it? Or are we going to in our own way, in our own context, step into the arena, maybe one step at a time, and equip ourselves with not just what I believe, but why I believe it. We should be able to answer these questions. And if we do, then I think we’re going to unnerve modern atheism, we’re going to see a kind of Christianity that is on the offense, not always up against the wall, not always backing off. One that ultimately is not only going to endure, but I think with Christ help, will also prevail.