The New Theism

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In his Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris attempts to persuade his fellow Americans that their belief in God is both irrational and dangerous. He sees his book as the product of failure, however, lamenting ‘the failure of the many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand’.[1] Harris is firmly convinced that there is no God and believes that if people had been more rational the very idea of God would have died out a long time ago. His hope is that one day humans will overcome their delusions and ‘look back upon this period in human history with horror and amazement’ and wonder ‘how could it have been possible for people to believe such things in the twenty-first century?’[2] And yet he is forced to admit that ‘the prospects for eradicating religion in our time do not seem good’.[3]

Harris’s fellow new atheists, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, express similar sentiments. In particular, they also think that even if belief in God was plausible in the past, this is no longer the case. In his book God is Not Great, Hitchens claims that ‘religion has run out of justifications’ and that ‘thanks to the telescope and microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important’.[4] Similarly, in The God Delusion, Dawkins states that ‘historically, religion aspired to explain our own existence and the nature of the universe’, but goes on to say that ‘in this role it is now completely superseded by science’.[5] And it comes as no surprise that they have no time for specifically Christian beliefs about Jesus based on the Gospels. Comparing the Gospels to a novel by Dan Brown, Dawkins claims that ‘the only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction’.[6] Hitchens declares the New Testament to be ‘a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events’[7] and points to the error of thinking the four Gospels are ‘in any sense a historical record’.[8]

Some people will think that Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens provide an easy target since they are so extreme in their condemnation of belief in God. This is a fair point and indeed many books have pointed out the failings in their arguments.[9] However, there are many people who are not so extreme, but who nevertheless accept some of the central claims of the new atheists. In particular, they accept a common story, which goes something like this. Up until about the seventeenth century, almost everyone believed in God and there seemed to be good reasons for such belief. After that, everything changed. During a period known as the Enlightenment, various thinkers showed that the reasons for believing in God turned out to be flawed. At the same time, the progress of science meant that there was less for God to explain and so he became redundant. People also began to subject the Gospels to scrutiny and found that they did not give an accurate account of what actually happened. As time has passed, the case for God and the Gospels has become progressively weaker until now, in the twenty-first century, no rational person could take it seriously.

Here I want to argue that this story is a modern myth. Admittedly, it is a myth that might have seemed much more plausible fifty years ago. But a lot has happened in the last fifty years to shatter this myth, yet Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens seem completely oblivious to this fact. Their surprise that belief in God lingers on might have been understandable in the 1950s or 60s, but it is inexcusable in the early twenty-first century. To make my case, I want to turn to three areas of scholarship that have changed dramatically in this period: philosophy, science and biblical studies.

Reason and Belief in God

Philosophers have long debated the question of God’s existence. Often the reasons given in support of God’s existence have been based on commonsense intuitions shared by many people. For example, arguably the most fundamental question humans have asked is ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ Why, in other words, does the physical universe exist? We can explain the existence of certain things within the universe, but surely the universe itself requires explanation. Such an explanation must be something (or someone) that is not part of the physical universe and yet has the power to bring the universe into existence. This provided one reason for belief in God. Another reason is based on the fact that when we see a beautiful painting or a complex watch, we know that intelligence must have been involved. How much more, it was argued, must the order, beauty and complexity we see around us in the natural world also be the result of intelligence.

These kinds of arguments came in for serious criticism during the 18th and 19th centuries. Whatever the merits of these criticisms, the dominant position amongst philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century was that the case for God’s existence was very weak. In fact, many went further and claimed that the very concept of God was meaningless. The idea was that for something to be meaningful it had to capable of being verified in terms of the five senses. Since God’s existence could not be verified in this way, God (and theology more generally) were designated as nonsense. It was difficult to see how the case for God could get any worse!

But then things changed. The claim that the concept of God was meaningless was rejected. After all, the idea that ‘for something to be meaningful it had to be capable of being verified’ was not itself capable of being verified. In the late 1960s and 1970s Christian philosophers showed that many of the reasons given for rejecting belief in God weren’t nearly as persuasive as many atheists had assumed. Some, such as Alvin Plantinga, argued that just because God’s existence could not be proved logically to the satisfaction of atheists, this did not mean it was irrational to believe in God.[10] At the same time, however, many of the traditional arguments for God’s existence started to make a comeback through the work of people like Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig. Often the approach adopted has not been to try to prove with 100% certainty that God exists, but instead to show that on the basis of a whole range of features of the universe the cumulative case for God is very strong.[11]

This is not to say that the majority of philosophers believe in God, but belief in God and the central claims of Christianity (such as the resurrection of Jesus) are not at all uncommon and are regularly defended in philosophical circles today. There are few who would have predicted such a transformation fifty years ago. Interestingly, a significant factor in this change came from a most unexpected source: science. We’ll now turn to that topic.

Science Discovers Evidence for God

In 1965, two scientists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were working on a satellite communications project and were puzzled by a signal that was affecting their equipment. They tried various measures to remove the signal, even speculating that it might be due to pigeon droppings, but to no avail. In fact, it turned out to be persistent radiation coming from all directions in space. Subsequently they received the Nobel prize for having discovered what is known as the background microwave radiation. Their discovery was taken as confirming the big bang theory of the origin of the universe. The radiation they discovered was a remnant of the hot, dense initial state of the universe and has been referred to as the ‘afterglow of creation’.

Has science really shown that the universe had a beginning? By far the dominant view of scientists is that the answer is ‘yes’. Many atheists have resisted this conclusion, however. If the entire physical universe had a beginning as confirmed by the work of Penzias and Wilson, wouldn’t this be scientific confirmation of creation? As the famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking remarked, ‘Many people do not like the idea that time had a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention.’[12] Indeed, Hawking himself attempted to avoid the need for a beginning, but the evidence for a beginning is such that it is very much the dominant scientific view. The problem for atheism is that if the universe had a beginning, how did it come into existence? It surely cannot have simply popped into existence uncaused out of absolutely nothing. It seems much more plausible to believe that it was brought into existence out of nothing by a Creator, which is just what Christians have always believed.[13]

Over the last forty years or so other scientific findings have provided independent lines of support for belief in God. The most obvious example of this is known as the fine-tuning of the universe. Fine-tuning is something we are familiar with in the case of a radio: you won’t be able to listen to your favourite station unless your radio has been tuned in so that the frequency is just right. In a similar way, scientists have discovered that a whole range of features of the universe are tuned so that they have just the right values for life to exist. For example, if the force of gravity or the nuclear forces within atoms were increased or decreased even slightly, then life as we know it would be impossible. What makes these discoveries so amazing is the extent to which the universe is finely tuned. Take the gravitational constant as an example. How finely tuned does it have to be? To one part in a million (106) perhaps? Or one part in a billion (109)? No. In fact, the required accuracy is 1 part in 1040 (that’s a one with 40 zeros after it!). And remember, that’s just for one feature of the universe! It is not just Christians who find this evidence persuasive. Cosmologist Paul Davies claims that ‘the impression of design is overwhelming’.[14]

In Search of Jesus

If the last fifty years have seen renewed reasons for belief in God, backed up in part by scientific discoveries, some of the central claims of Christianity have received support from another surprising source: the field of biblical studies. It may come as a surprise to many readers that in the first half of the twentieth century the dominant view in the field of biblical studies was that the four Gospels found in the New Testament were little more than ancient myths that contained little historical information about Jesus of Nazareth or any of the events they describe. In fact, it was claimed that virtually nothing could be known about the historical character of Jesus, his life, teaching, deeds, death, and certainly not his resurrection. To believe in the Jesus of orthodox Christianity was to believe in a myth that had no basis in historical reality.

Once again, however, the position has changed dramatically. Many scholars began to realise that the attitude adopted towards the Gospels was overly sceptical. By simply studying the Gospels in the same way as other ancient documents and without assuming that they were inspired by God, it became clear that they provided much more reliable historical information than had previously been thought. In the 1970s, a number of scholars approached the Gospels by focussing on the Jewish background to them and the events that were known from other sources to have been taking place around the time of Jesus. When they did this, they found that much of the material in the Gospels made good historical sense and so could not be dismissed easily. At the very least, a rough outline of the life of Jesus, central themes to his teaching, his crucifixion by the Romans and that his disciples claimed to have seen him alive after his death are now all considered to be well-established facts.

A leading scholar in this field of study, Richard Bauckham, has argued at length that the Gospels, far from being late documents that were not based on actual events, are in fact based on the eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ first followers.[15] He shows that older theories, which claimed that the Gospels had been corrupted in a lengthy process of transmission of earlier traditions, are no longer tenable.[16] One of the most prominent contributors to these debates has been NT Wright who has produced several volumes which provide detailed historical arguments for a view of Jesus that is in keeping with orthodox Christianity. This culminated in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God in which he argues that the events following the crucifixion of Jesus are much better explained by the resurrection than any of the other scenarios that have been proposed.[17]

Needless to say, not all scholars working in this area agree with the conclusions reached by Wright, Bauckham and others, just as not all philosophers or scientists believe in God. But the point is that there is a very serious case to be made for an orthodox Christian view of Jesus and the Gospels on historical grounds, just as there is a very serious case to be made for the existence of God.


I have tried to show that in three separate fields of study, which are often considered to have demolished the case for belief in God and the central claims of Christianity, there has been a dramatic change in the last fifty years or so and that this change has been based to a large extent on solid scientific and historical evidence. I’m certainly not claiming that all scholars (or even the majority) in these fields believe in God or are Christians, just that such views are mainstream and supported by good evidence. Of course, Christian faith is about much more than weighing up the evidence, but anyone wishing to find the truth in these matters ought to consider Christianity seriously. Contrary to the wishful thinking of Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens, the case for Christianity is now stronger than it has ever been. Not only is God not dead, he is alive and well and is to be found in areas of scholarship from which he was once banished.[18]

[1] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation: A Challenge to Faith, London, Bantam Press, 2007, p. 91.

[2] Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 88.

[3] Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 87.

[4] Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: the Case Against Religion, London, Atlantic Books, 2007, p. 282.

[5] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, London, Bantam Press, 2006, p. 347.

[6] The God Delusion, p. 97.

[7] God is Not Great, p. 110.

[8] God is Not Great, p. 111.

[9] See for example William Lane Craig and Chad Meister (eds.), God is Great, God is Good: Why Believing in God is Reasonable and Responsible, Downers Grove IL, IVP, 2009; Keith Ward, Why There Almost Certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins, Oxford, Lion, 2008.

[10] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000.

[11] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004; J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, Downers Grove IL, IVP, 2003.

[12] Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time, London, Bantam Press, 1988, p. 46.

[13] For more on this topic, see for example Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 2nd ed., New York, Norton, 1992.

[14] Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1988, p. 203.

[15] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 2006.

[16] On this point, see also James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 2003.

[17] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Minneapolis MN, Fortress Press, 2003.

[18] See William Lane Craig, ‘God is Not Dead Yet’, Christianity Today, July, 2008.

This entry was posted in Existence of God and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.