If God died in the 1960’s, then someone forgot to tell the English publishing industry. Books about God have been surprising bestsellers for the past decade. Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion which has sold over a million has been joined in the best seller lists by Christopher Hitchin’s God Is Not Great, Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, A.A. Grayling’s Against All Gods, and a host of other books extolling the virtues of atheism and the dangers and follies of religion.
Atheist publications are not new, and for anyone with any knowledge of basic philosophy and religion, the arguments put forward in these books contain nothing new. What is interesting is why they have proved to be so popular. They are clearly tapping into something in the popular zeitgeist in sections of both European and North American society. From a publishing point of view, it is clearly the right place and the right time to launch the New Atheist publishing. Why?
There is no doubt that the books are in general well-written, entertaining, and informative. They are written in a populist style about subjects, which most people would consider important and interesting. Little wonder that they have proved a hit. Yet there are other reasons why they have hit the spot.
The first is fear. People are afraid of religion. After all, as is pointed out ad nauseum by all the atheist writers, atheists don’t fly planes into buildings. Granted, but then neither do they build hospitals or establish schools because of their atheism. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and the others love to warn us that the religious are going to bomb us, take us back to the Dark Ages, and abuse our children.
Prejudices and Generalizations
Another reason for the popularity of these works is that they appeal to the prejudices of their readers. Prejudices such as the idea that all religions are essentially the same and that therefore what can be said about one must apply to the others. The illogicality of that should be obvious — but sadly when it comes to matters of religious belief, logic often seems to be thrown out of the window. Dawkins makes it no secret that he is preaching to the choir. He just rejoices that it is a big choir.
Most people who read these books are delighted with them, not because they challenge pre-existing beliefs, but rather because they reinforce them. The books are read with all the delight of a believer reading Holy Writ. One can almost hear the Amens and Hallelujahs being shouted across atheist living rooms and media outlets.
In addition, whilst making some clear and reasonable criticisms of religion, criticisms which religious people have to face up to and indeed have been doing so for centuries, the New Atheist authors are able to get away with their sweeping generalizations, ad hominem arguments, and simplistic philosophy because they are largely appealing to people’s ignorance.
In a world where, thanks to Google and Wikipedia, everyone has instant “knowledge” to suit their own prejudices, it is easy for the wisdom of previous ages and of those who have studied and thought about these issues for many years, to be dismissed as irrelevant and meaningless. Thus our New Atheist writers are able to dismiss all theology as useless as a chocolate teapot.
They know that we largely live in an ahistorical society where, despite the interest in genealogy, people are rooted in the here and now, and are largely ignorant of the past. This enables the New Atheists to make sweeping historical generalizations which will never be challenged. For instance, Dawkins in The God Delusion can make the incredible claim that the racism of such “liberal” thinkers as HG Wells and Thomas Huxley would now be unacceptable because of “improved education and in particular the increased understanding that each of us shares a common humanity with members of other races and with the other sex — both deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution.”
Only someone with a complete ignorance of the Bible, theology, and the early history of 19th century evolutionary thought could make such a claim. Whereas in the early 19th century, Christians such as Wilberforce were arguing that all human beings were made in the image of God and should be treated equally, liberal evolutionary thinkers such as Huxley argued in 1871, “No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man”!
A “Debate” Without Dialogue
Well-written, polemical, appealing to fear, prejudice, and ignorance, all that needs to be added to the mix is that New Atheist books have been superbly marketed. The God Delusion is a “must have” coffee table book for the liberal chattering classes. Newspapers and media are regularly drip fed interviews, publicity material, and of course many columnists share the presuppositions and thinking of Dawkins et al. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this marketing is the self-portrayal of the books as being new, brave, courageous, and adding to “the debate.”
However the New Atheists generally do not debate. They shout and mock. They know that they are right and that their position is the reasonable and intelligent one. Therefore, everyone who disagrees with them is ipso facto not intelligent enough to debate with. If anyone doubts the crypto–religious nature of the New Atheism, just pay a visit to the Dawkins website, complete with its testimonies and “converts corner.” Try challenging atheist doctrine and you will soon find yourself on the receiving end of abuse normally reserved for heretics by the most extremist religious cults. Attending a Dawkins book event is more like a Billy Graham revivalist meeting, than it is an educational event. There are a lot of needy atheists out there (and recovering religious types) who need this kind of therapy, but it should not be dignified by being called “debate.”
This lack of debate is exacerbated when the other point of view is rarely carried in the secular media. Of course occasional critical columns or comments are offered, but these are usually about style rather than substance. And to some extent the church in the U.S. is to blame for this — divided, defensive, and dumbed down, it has created a ghetto mentality and a Christian market, with the result that any attempt to break out of that is met by defeatism at home and derision abroad.
Atheism and America
The New Atheist movement may be a publishing phenomena but it is also a political movement, and as such carries all the dangers of fundamentalist involvement in politics. Should we be worried? Yes. When fear, prejudice, and ignorance are used to influence politics and stifle debate, then all those who want an open and tolerant society should be warned. Atheist fundamentalism may prove to be just as potent, intolerant, and dangerous a force in U.S. society as any religious fundamentalism.
In my view, the church in America has been caught napping. The assumption has been that America is a Christian nation and will always be so. Far too many churches have proved adept at evangelising their own adherents and seeking to attract those who are already Christians, but rarely reach out to challenge the worldview of nonbelievers and bring them the good news.
Instead, it is now the “world” that has reached out to the nominal Christian demographic, and as a result there has been a remarkable rise in the number of people in the U.S. expressing themselves as “non-religious,” from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014. I regularly do a show on Moody Radio with Janet Parshall, and it is always interesting when we discuss atheism to note how many concerned parents phone in because their children have become atheists.
Is there hope? Yes. But we need to get out of our Christian ghettos and fantasy worlds and get into the real world, without compromising with it. There is a lot of ground to be broken up and sowing to be done before we can reap a harvest. Long-term, church-based, persuasive evangelism is the need of the hour. In a church that far too often reflects the short-term quick-fix culture we live in, there is surely a need for repentance, and for a return to the basics of prayer, the Word of God, and personal holiness. Equipped with the full armour of the Spirit, we may be able to bring light into the darkness, and to the New Atheists.
David Robertson is minister of St. Peter’s Free Church of Scotland in Dundee, director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, and author of Magnificent Obsession: Why Jesus is Great, The Dawkins Letters, and Engaging with Atheists.