Atheist philosopher Quentin Smith once complained:
If each naturalist who does not specialize in the philosophy of religion (i.e., over ninety-nine percent of naturalists) were locked in a room with theists who do specialize in the philosophy of religion, and if the ensuing debates were refereed by a naturalist who had a specialization in the philosophy of religion, the naturalist referee could at most hope the outcome would be that “no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith,” although I expect the most probable outcome is that the naturalist, wanting to be a fair and objective referee, would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate.
Smith went on to argue that theism demanded a rigorous academic critique. Compare his honest appraisal of the academic scene with the aphorism: ‘There’s nothing wrong with God that a dose of reality won’t cure’. This soundbite was entered into a competition organised on ‘Blasphemy Day’ to write the slogan most likely to ‘challenge’ religious believers. On the same day young sceptics were encouraged to take up ‘The Blasphemy Challenge’ by uploading comments to YouTube.
Here’s a typical recording according to USA Today: ‘Hi, my name is Ray and I deny the Holy Spirit. [Ray pauses] No lightning. Maybe next time’. Journalist Barabara Hegarty noted that Blasphemy Day was ‘about the future of the atheist movement’. It was part of an attempt by younger atheists to adopt a new approach — ‘a more aggressive, often belittling posture toward religious believers’. Now that this ‘younger, aggressive posture’ has become the public face of atheism, its worth taking a moment to consider why it has become so popular and how the Church should respond.
Catching the Net
In the late 1990s, several commentators noticed a disturbing trend in evangelicalism. Managerial and promotional techniques were rapidly replacing mature preaching and theological depth. Chuck Colson called the result ‘McChurch’ . The Christian message was sliced down to easily digestible portions. The nutritional value of the church’s message was neglected in favour of more appetising nuggets with mass appeal.
Evangelicalism remains both stubbornly popular and politically powerful in American society. A younger generation of atheists regarded this success with envious eyes. They were more evangelistic than their predecessors, and they were prepared to mimic the tactics of Church marketeers (indeed, many ‘ex-Christians’ and ‘ex-apologists’ brought insider’s knowledge.) The atheist movement has become more media savvy, and has learned how to market its message to a younger, more cynical market. We call this ‘dumbing down’ for mass appeal ‘McAtheism’.
Note that McAtheism predates the publishing phenomenon known as the ‘New Atheism’. Prior to the internet, Humanist Societies did exist, but were relatively small in number and influence. They could not match churches for weekly attendance. The internet has changed all that; it has long allowed strangers separated by geography to meet and exchange thoughts. Blogs and chat-rooms are oddly addictive and can draw people back daily to exchange ideas and comments. Thanks to sites like ‘Infidels.org’ and ‘Dawkins.net’, the individual atheist need no longer feel isolated and swimming against the tide.
Atheist blogs and forums provided an untapped market for atheist tracts; they explain the astounding success of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett had already discovered a profitable audience for similar works. Soon other writers capitalised on the trend: Christopher Hitchens gave us God is Not Great; philosopher A.C. Grayling wrote Against All Gods and The God Argument, and scientist Lewis Wolpert delivered Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Physicists Lawrence Krauss and Steven Weinberg voiced their support in articles and reviews.
Of course, other factors help explain the mass appetite for accessible texts which pillory religious belief. In the wake of 9/11, and the public’s increasing unease with the “War on Terror”, many hoped for a simple solution to the West’s problems. New Atheism sold the idea that religion could end terrorism by politely agreeing to quietly disappear. Scepticism became a way of rebelling against the conservatism of the Bush administration. Yet 9/11 alone does not explain the success of New Atheism; Dawkins’ natural market had already grown and developed online.
When all else fails, hit the panic buttton
The strident tone of the core New Atheist texts can be attributed to a moral panic in secularism. According to the core secular narrative, intellectual progress leads to unbelief. As knowledge and expertise accumulated in the Western academy God should have been forced into exile . However, things didn’t go to plan. Quentin Smith notes that Alvin Plantinga’s work in the late sixties and early seventies:
made it manifest that a realist theist was writing at the highest qualitative level of analytic philosophy, on the same playing field as Carnap, Russell, Moore, Grünbaum, and other naturalists…Quickly, naturalists found themselves a mere bare majority, with many of the leading thinkers in the various disciplines of philosophy, ranging from philosophy of science (e.g., Van Fraassen) to epistemology (e.g., Moser), being theists…God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.
Analytic philosophy is about clarifying and defending ideas; it is a notoriously rigorous discipline. If theism can survive and thrive there, it demands intellectual respect. But, contra Smith, Christian theism’s intellectual revival was not confined to the philosophy department. Outside conservative seminaries, many New Testament scholars began to place more confidence in the Gospels as historical sources; physicists discovered that our universe is ”finely-tuned” for life. Historians discredited the myth that science and faith were perpetually at war; indeed, Christian ideas played an important role in the birth of science. Theism not only refused to die; it was reinvigorated by new arguments, ideas and evidence.
The Society of Humanist Philosophers calmly responded to this intellectual revolution with the journal Philo, seeking to scrutinise theistic arguments with rigorous scholarship. The New Atheist response was a little more frantic, desperately seeking to rid scholarship of these turbulent theists through ridicule. If God would not give way to argument and research, perhaps theists would give way to insults and screeds. Hence the populist bluster of New Atheism; a bluster which has caused more thoughtful atheists considerable embarrassment.
Send in the clowns…
But thoughtful responses to theism cannot compete with McAtheism. Large online communities provide a ready market for the crude, mass marketed tracts of New Atheist writers. It is little surprise, then, that satirists have also exploited this opportunity. The humorist Bill Maher starred in the documentary Religulous, in which the politically incorrect Maher mocked rather eccentric theists for being rather eccentric. He then concluded that theism is an instance of insanity.
Maher was incredibly ill informed — his film inexplicably stated that there is no historical evidence for Jesus, and that the main themes of Christianity are all derived from other ancient religions. Incredibly, Maher’s documentary left viewers stupider for having watched it. But he never intended to investigate, analyse and inform. The point of Religulous was that religion can no longer be considered worthy of respect in a secular world. Religion is now the legitimate target for the bluntest and crudest form of satire.
P.Z. Myers’s blog ‘Pharyngula’ is another clumsy and ill-informed attack on religion; indeed, it probably takes a great deal of intelligence and effort appear so ill informed. There is no need to carefully research the grounds and justification for religious belief when you can steal and desecrate consecrated wafers from a Catholic mass, or promote a poster that depicts Jesus involved in lewd activity. For Myers, religious sensitivities are only worthy of contempt. His aim is to debase and sully Christian belief.
If we can’t beat them?
The merging of these three movements — online atheistic communities, the literature of ‘New Atheism’ and iconoclastic satirists — lead to ‘McAtheism’. McAtheism makes unbelief marketable and fashionable. It has no time for complexities, for once careful thought enters the equation the product ceases to be fun. McAtheism seeks to create certitude in the atheist without requiring the appropriate mental or emotional effort. Feelings are central to McAtheism; arguments are peripheral.
When next you are subjected to an argument against your faith that feels like it’s strayed from a South Park script, remember that you are dealing with a McAtheist. There is little point in confronting these puerile arguments directly. Our advice is to question why the sceptic feels the need to confront you with satire. Point out that well-informed atheists are rarely so dismissive. What is it about your faith that offends them so very much? What merits such ill-considered ridicule? The answers may generate a more productive discussion.
McAtheism is unlikely to disappear any time soon, despite the accusations of its cultured detractors. The phenomenon of the McChurch has taught us that lack of depth is a powerful selling point in Western culture. Indeed, McAtheism so resembles the shallower side of evangelicalism we feel almost hypocritical in judging it. But this should give a clue to the church’s best response to McAtheism. We should not answer in kind, with marketing campaigns and sound-bites of our own.
We need to leave the shallows of our faith to immerse ourselves in the depths of its wisdom. Or, to put that another way, we need to grow up. Evangelicals have remarkable strengths: we excel at communication and activism; we demand good pastoral advice and encouragement in our sermons. The challenge is to build on these strengths without neglecting them; to avoid intellectualism, yet to demand depth and breadth in Church teaching.
Recent scholarship has provided the Church with an embarrassment of riches, yet this rarely makes its way into pulpits, Sunday Schools or youth ministries. Above all, we need more biblical theology and then a greater engagement with the great theologians of the past. Only then can the wisdom of Scripture challenge the emptiness of the World. We also need to realise that we live in an age of pathological cynicism; our young people cannot stand (never mind advance) unless they can give tough answers to tough questions.
Apologetics, evangelism, theology, personal holiness and pastoral care must be woven together into a seamless whole. McAtheism answers mankind’s deepest questions with witticisms and clichés; its arguments can be condensed into 140 characters for a Twitter feed. We must show that we are better than that; we must abandon the McChurch. If we can have the courage to quietly speak God’s answers to anyone who will listen, God’s kingdom will continue to grow; and the gates of Pharyngula will not stand against it.