Secularism’s Evangelists

Article ID: JAR2333 | By: James Patrick Holding

This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume33, number03 (2010). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org


Atheists can be the most religious people on earth. In Against All Gods, attorney and pioneer of the intelligent design movement, Philip E. Johnson, teams with Biola University philosophy professor John Mark Reynolds to supply eight essays assessing the impact of the devout doubters known as the New Atheists. It may seem paradoxical to refer to atheists as “religious.” Yet, as Johnson and Reynolds demonstrate, the New Atheists-represented by writers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris-approach their debunking missions with an evangelistic zeal that mirrors that of the most strident spiritual zealots. The essays offer sound and thoughtful critiques of the New Atheism and its methods, but Johnson and Reynolds are also forward-looking in their approach, as they discuss ways in which Christians can take advantage of the New Atheism’s loud, impassioned voice to contribute their own reasoned, yet passionate, sentiments to the public square. Johnson’s first essay offers a brief history of the New Atheism, praising its proponents for asking the right questions even as they reply with the wrong answers. He makes the poignant observation that the New Atheism has put less aggressive atheists into a bind, who are aware that the majority of the American public is still in some sense religious (even if not necessarily Christian), and the New Atheists could easily foment a backlash that ultimately would take atheism further out of public favor. Johnson then offers a chapter profiling a recent case of aggressive New Atheist evangelism. In 2006, Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker published an atheist manifesto in the student newspaper, which led the university to change the focus of a planned class on “the relationship of faith to reason” (p. 27) to a more general emphasis on what it means to be human. Johnson notes how the New Atheists misunderstand the nature of faith, while also paradoxically having a faith of their own in naturalism. Johnson’s third essay then provides a summary and discussion of evidence for Earth’s unique status as a livable habitat in a generally lifeless cosmos, and offers observations on the New Atheism’s concern to discover evidence for life on other planets, thereby verifying, in their view, the supposition that the universe is able to produce life without assistance from a deity. Johnson’s next essay discusses Darwinism as a worldview. For the New Atheists, Johnson shows, Darwinian theory is so fundamental to revamping the world in their image that it becomes, in essence, a religion. They are well aware of the ideological power that can be found in a theory like Darwin’s that serves as a “metanarrative” with “the power to explain everything human” (57). Ironically, whereas in times past Christianity occupied the position of the most respected worldview in academic settings, and Darwinism rose to challenge it as being elite and authoritarian, Johnson notes that it is now Darwinism that occupies the position of a widely respected worldview, and its proponents, especially the New Atheists, have turned out to be no less elite and authoritarian than supposedly were their Christian predecessors. Johnson’s final essay profiles the work of Victor Stenger, who speaks for the New Atheism from his perspective as a physicist and serves as an example of the elite, authoritarian attitude the New Atheists embody. John Mark Reynolds takes up the pen for the final three essays. The first gently admonishes the New Atheists for their superficial treatment of the Bible, and offers recommendations for more nuanced readings of the Scriptures and other “old books.” In this respect, the New Atheists tend to be highly literalist in their approach, reading the Bible with little to no concern for defining social, cultural, and literary contexts. Reynolds’ second essay advocates Christianity as a solid basis for education and virtue, in contrast to skepticism, which inevitably smothers the motivation for discovery under a blanket of doubts. Finally, Reynolds writes of the comparative effects of Christianity and secularism on history, also refuting arguments by New Atheists that perversely attempt to lay the blame for the horrors of atheistic regimes like Stalin’s at the feet of the church. Although the New Atheists would deny that they are religious, Johnson and Reynolds make it clear that the New Atheists are thoroughly religious people. Books such as Dawkins’s The God Delusion are their scriptures; Darwinism is their creed; they look to the glory and beauty of the universe for comfort and sanctuary; and they are possessed of a zealous certainty such that Johnson rightly describes them as “fundamentalists” (19). Against All Gods serves as a timely reminder for Christians to take the New Atheist movement seriously.

-James Patrick Holding

James Patrick Holding is President of Tekton Apologetics Ministries and author of Shattering the Christ Myth.