When Atheism Went Viral

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 An excerpt from “New Atheism: A Survival Guide” 

Available in Paperback and  Kindle (UK) and Kindle (US) 

Educators are beginning to realize that the information age might not be the friend of thought. We have created a culture in which students expect to fi nd the answers to life’s deepest questions on ‘Google’. Meanwhile, school curricula are strong on teaching technical skills and personal values, but say nothing about wisdom and virtue. As a result students do not engage in, and do not see the need for, rational discourse. They become dogmatists, who can only assert their fundamental beliefs, and who never take the time to convince anyone of anything. They can only attempt to intimidate or browbeat assent into the minds of the unconverted. This mentality is not the preserve of the religious; in fact, it is most clearly epitomized by the ignorant screeds of New Atheism. To illustrate, Richard Dawkins has suggested that his fellow New Atheists should

‘…go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt…I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are—irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.’[i]

This typifies a fundamentalist attitude. There is no attempt to engage with serious critiques of atheism. Dawkins simply assumes that unbelief is infinitely superior to Christian superstition, and demands that his audience share his blind faith. This should lead us to ask how a prominent academic can make a public virtue out of his own invincible ignorance. Perhaps this is the oddest feature of New Atheism: its tendency to be shaped by the forces it so implacably opposes. New Atheist literature found a wide readership in the wake of 9/11 because it offered a radical response to the violence of fundamentalist Islamism. However, in a panicked response to the dangers of religious violence, New Atheism forced false dichotomies on the reader. You can either have religion or rationality; you can either be devout, or you can be tolerant. But the simple fact is that our liberties grew out of Christian morality. Philosophers and historians have noted the importance of Christian thought for the very concept of human rights. Christian theologians like Tertullian and Chrysostom were arguing for religious tolerance centuries before the Enlightenment. Lactantius, for example, argued:

‘…if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free-will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist.’

Furthermore, Christianity does not depend on blind faith. The Apostle Paul presented rational critiques of paganism in Lystra, Athens, and in his letter to the Romans. Philosophers from Anselm and Aquinas to Plantinga and Swinburne have presented robust arguments for the Christian faith. Even preachers, like Edwards, Wesley and Chalmers, wrote detailed defenses of their beliefs. Christians have always sought to give a reasoned answer for the hope that is within them. The New Atheist is welcome to disagree with centuries of Christian scholarship; but only a blind, prejudiced dogmatism could pretend that it does not exist!

Sound-bite Scepticism Yet few consumers are interested in mature thought and calm refl ection. Media savvy atheists have learned to target their message at a younger, more cynical, market. Their aim is to sell consumers a sense of intellectual superiority for a low intellectual price. The New Atheists have proven that such scepticism sells. Their books require no knowledge of, or interest in, history or philosophy, or even science. Anecdotal evidence and quips replace sound arguments. These products are easy to read, easy to quote and easy to retail. In Britain, Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ was endorsed on the dust jacket by Phillip Pullman (a children’s author) and Derren Brown (an illusionist). Celebrity endorsements were preferred to favourable academic reviews. This tells us something about the merchandise and its market. Given that the ‘New Atheists’ have contributed less substance than style. Meanwhile, online communities have provided many atheists with a new sense of identity and purpose. Until recently sceptics had no alternative to the Church.

The internet has changed all that; an impressive number of blogs and forums have filled the Church shaped hole in the young atheist’s life. Forums and chat-rooms are oddly addictive, and drag people back daily to exchange ideas and comments. Thanks to sites like ‘The Richard Dawkins Forum’ the individual atheist no longer feels isolated; he is part of a vibrant, well-educated and technologically literate community. The 2010 controversy over the future of the Richard Dawkins Forum illustrates the power of online communities. In March 2010 Richard Dawkins decided to restructure the discussion boards at the Richard Dawkins’ Forum. For reasons that will remain unclear to outsiders this was a deeply unpopular decision, and it provoked extremely angry, sometimes vulgar, comments on several message boards. Dawkins attempted to put a lid on the row by temporarily locking down his board. But if Dawkins fought the net, then the net won. He simply underestimated the sense of identity that young atheists gain by interacting with each other on his forum. Online the reaction to his comments was furious, and Dawkins was eventually forced to apologise:

The RDF forum was an envigorating and intellectually stimulating experience for me, a home away from home where I could be with like-minded folks in a warmly welcoming, receptive, and cordial atmosphere. Its membership formed a great community, one that shared the joys of new friendships and marriages and the pangs of deaths and losses, while providing a place where atheists stuck in the closet in some religious wilderness could feel safe and welcome. Thousands of members were of this kind.

To Prof. R. Dawkins: please imagine that YOU, as an obscure person who does not make lots of money from book deals and speaking engagements, put many hours of work and one’s heart and soul into building and maintaining something because you believed in it with all your heart.

If you have a real community on your board, including many activists helping to advance your cause, do not treat them like chattels or serfs…[ii]

Other blogs, like PZ Myer’s ‘Pharyngula’ or Jerry Coyne’s ‘Why Evolution is True’, are beautifully tailored for a large audience. To maintain a blog you must constantly post new comments. Little refl ection is needed as there is no editorial process. In any case the more time a blogger spends in preparation, the lower his output will be. The most popular comments are brief, snappy and witty. The most outrageous posts gain the most attention. There are honourable exceptions—but, in the main, blogs are intellectual junk foods. They’re fun and addictive, but they provide little for the mind to chew on. You will not find informed critiques of Christianity on these blogs; you will find that New Atheism can be dumbed-down even further. Clichés, caricatures, and witticisms dominate proceedings. For example, ‘Pharyngula’ is a clumsy and ignorant attack on religion; indeed, that is the whole point of this blog. It takes a great deal of intelligence and effort to be so ill-informed. To Myers, religious belief is only worthy of contempt, so he will not study it seriously. His aim is to debase and sully Christianity. Why carefully research the grounds and justification for religious belief when you can steal and desecrate consecrated wafers from a Roman Catholic Mass? As propaganda New Atheist websites are exceptionally effective. To some extent, this is merely an effect of the modern cult of expertise. Coyne, Myers and Dawkins are obviously very intelligent men, and experts in their fields. Their readers make the lazy assumption that this expertise gives these writers authority to pronounce on religion, philosophy and ethics.

However, an expert loses his right to make such judgments when he makes no effort to integrate his knowledge with other fields of learning. New atheists refuse to make the effort, or to acquire the humility, to achieve such understanding and wisdom. This is a book for readers who are tired of eating junk food. You might be an atheist who suspects that there is more to Christian thought than the gurus of the New Atheism admit. More likely, you are a Christian who has been unsettled by the sneers you receive from atheist acquaintances; perhaps you are looking for something to say in reply. Is there a Christian response to Dawkins, Coyne and Myers? There certainly is: Christians have an embarrassment of academic riches to explain and defend their faith. As a High School teacher, I have no time for intellectualism. But I can still ask for some careful thought. While I’ve kept this book as readable as I can, it summarises substantial arguments that the academic world takes very seriously. I ask the deepest questions a human being can ask. Why is there a universe? Who are we? Why are we here? What is wrong with the world? And I contend that a proper understanding of Christianity is essential to answering these questions. There is no shortcut for finding answers to ‘the big questions’. These questions cannot be answered by scanning a blog. We need open minds, but we also need minds that are prepared to do some work. We will also need stout hearts on our journey. For a strange and insidious creature stalks the internet, seeking to confound and baffle the dull witted. Take your courage in both hands, as we turn the page to face the menace that is The Flying Spaghetti Monster.

[i] Richard Dawkins open-minded comments can be read richarddawkins.net/ articles/3767-truckling-to-the-faithful-a-spoonful-of-jesus-helps-darwin- go-down/comments?page=1#comment_351636 (retrieved July 21 2012).

[ii] 4 The responses from his fans were retrieved from rationalia.com/forum/ viewtopic.php?f=75&t=9279&start=45 (retrieved 30th Dec 2011) and heathen-hub.com/blog.php?b=242 (retrieved 30th Dec 2011).


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