Answering the ‘new atheists’
Lael Weinberger talks to Doug Wilson, author of Letter from a Christian Citizen
Bestseller lists have recently included a sequence of books written by a small cadre of articulate atheist writers. The youngest of these ‘new atheists’ is Sam Harris, a 40-year-old graduate student who exploded onto the scene with two bestsellers in quick succession.
One articulate Christian apologist who has been keeping tabs on the ‘new atheists’—and providing answers—is Doug Wilson (pictured left), a pastor and Fellow in Theology at New St Andrews College. He first saw Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation sitting on a colleague’s desk when it was fresh off the presses.1 ‘The title caught my attention, and I ordered a copy.’ Harris’s slim, unobtrusive Letter distilled the essence of the atheists’ case into an easy-to-read format which caught the attention of the general public in the US particularly. In a matter of months, Doug Wilson’s rebuttal—just a little longer than Harris’s—was rolling off the presses.
I asked Doug why the atheists are suddenly so active, and getting so much attention.
‘For many years, atheism has been patronizing to Christian theists—they would pat us on the head and say, you can be allowed your silly little superstition. But it’s beginning to dawn on them that they might lose, and they’ve panicked. They’re worried at the resurgence of conservative Christianity in the United States.’
by showing up for the debate, the atheist has already conceded
Doug mentioned the political aspect: ‘They are afraid of the political “Christian right” which they see as a looming theocracy.’ Ignoring, of course, the atheocracy of the media, schools and courts today. But perhaps even more important, Doug points out, ‘Another big factor is the resurgence of Intelligent Design (ID).’ The ID movement has brought new opponents to Darwinism from a totally unexpected source (far outside the stereotyped ‘fundamentalist’ camp), and this has shaken the leading atheist figures.2 Beyond ID, atheists are worried because they really are facing opposition from everywhere: ‘The secularists have had control of the accrediting agencies, colleges, and government schools for decades, and yet most Americans still believe in creation. It’s heartening to me that although Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, and the secularists and evolutionists have had most of the education establishment since then, people still don’t believe it.’
Hume vs Harris
Harris and friends like to portray atheism as the rational worldview—the intelligent, scientific alternative to religion. But as Doug Wilson points out, the atheists, with their naturalistic evolutionary premises, are actually without a foundation for claiming a meaningful worldview.
‘It’s very clear reading the writings of the new atheists—Harris, along with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens—that these men are firm believers in scientism. Science is their final arbiter of truth, their functional deity. The problem is that this involves some very unscientific handwaving. The philosopher David Hume (himself a sceptic) showed, several centuries ago, that there is no real way to get from “is” to “ought”. How do I get from a description of the way things are (the rate of acceleration when something’s falling, or the way an animal reproduces) to the way they ought to be? There is no bridge across that gap. Should a human mother care for her children like a mother deer, or eat them like some spiders do? Science doesn’t give us ethical information. These atheists are whipping science to provide them with a worldview complete with ethical stability, but it can’t perform that task.’
It is a tad ironic that atheists, who enjoy slandering creationists as bad scientists, actually build their worldview by making illegitimate extrapolations from science. They are pretending that, based on a naturalistic scientific view of ‘truth,’ we can arrive at satisfactory morality.
Letter from a Christian CitizenDouglas Wilson’s stunning response to atheist Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation is a delight to read and savour, whether or not one has read Harris’s diatribe. Clear and powerful, it gives point-by-point engaging and compelling responses to these common atheistic arguments.
Available from web bookstore
Granted, atheists are often moral people. Sam Harris points to this fact and claims that it shows we don’t need religion. He then turns around to criticize the Bible as immoral (for example, making the shallow argument that the Bible condones chattel slavery3). But, as Doug points out, Harris isn’t being upfront (or is ignorant) about the source of his ethics: ‘One of the common features of these atheists is a very high level of moral indignation. But given the premises of their worldview, they have no basis for their indignation. If there is no God, and everything is really just atoms banging around, why should it matter which way the atoms bang? Actually, all of these atheists surreptitiously borrow many of the standards of Christianity in order to assail Christian belief.’
They must assume the existence of moral standards (for instance, ‘truth’ is an inherent good), borrowed from Christianity, before they can attack the Christian faith (if truth wasn’t inherently good, why would it matter to Sam Harris that I believe in a God he doesn’t think exists?). ‘The atheists love to bring up “scary” passages from the Old Testament, and Christians often get bogged down trying to defend those passages to the atheist. But what I like to do, as the first step, is ask the sceptic what his basis is for making the moral judgment.’
Atheism, the irrational faith
Naturalism (the philosophy that underpins evolution, namely that matter and energy are all there is) cannot provide ethics; it simply is not capable of providing meaning. This problem runs deep, undercutting even the basis of rationality itself.4 In the atheist’s naturalistic worldview, thoughts and reasoning are just the results of chemical reactions in the brain. ‘A debate and a couple of soda bottles in the front of a room fizzing are just different types of chemical reactions. The atheist cannot put forward, within his own framework, a justification for why reasoning is trustworthy, or even worthwhile. Of course, as a Christian, I believe we can reason as human beings created in the image of God. But the atheist can’t account for reason if there is no God. On naturalistic principles, there’s no explanation for why a debate is more important than the two soda bottles fizzing. So you could say that, by showing up for the debate, the atheist has already conceded.’5
Defending the faith
By ignoring the atheists, Christians may be missing out on an opportunity.
How well prepared is the church to answer the ‘new atheists?’ ‘It’s a mixed bag,’ Doug said. ‘Christians aren’t in danger from the atheists, which is good, but the flipside is that they’re often not in danger for the wrong reason. I imagine that if you got an average atheist and had him debate an average Christian from the pews, the atheist would fare better, because atheists usually know why they believe what they do. I wish Christians were more on the ball in this area. So what I’m trying to say to Christians is that there really are better ways to answer the atheists than what the church by and large has been using.’
By ignoring the atheists, Christians may be missing out on an opportunity. Doug Wilson is one of the Christians seizing the opportunity: ‘When atheist books are shooting to the top of the New York Times bestseller lists, our culture is listening to the discussion about the existence of God, and to the creation-evolution debate which the atheists always invoke to bolster their case. I wrote my response to Harris because Christians really have a great opportunity to capitalize on this interest, to be ready to give answers (1 Peter 3:15) and present the other side of the debate to our culture.’
References and notes
- See also the rebuttal by Holding, J.P., Letter to a Maladjusted Misotheist, <www.tektonics.org>. Return to text.
- For more on ID and how it relates to young earth creationism, see Wieland, C., CMI’s views on the Intelligent Design Movement, <creation.com/idm>, 30 August 2002. Return to text.
- See 1) Stark, R., For the Glory of God, Princeton University Press, Princeton, chapter 4, 2003, and the review by Williams, A., The biblical origins of science, Journal of Creation 18(2):49–52, 2004, <creation.com/stark>; 2) Hardaway, B. and Sarfati, J., Countering Christophobia: A review of Christianity on Trial by Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Journal of Creation 18(3):28–30, 2004; <creation.com/trial>; 3) Sarfati, J, Anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce: Christian hero, <creation.com/wilberforce>. Return to text.
- For further analysis, see Sarfati, J., Presuppositionalism vs evidentialism, and is the human genome simple? <creation.com/presupp> and Correcting a severe misconception about the creation model, <creation.com/scien>. Return to text.
- Atheists, to their discredit, have never appreciated the rigorousness of the reductio ad absurdum critique of atheistic naturalism which Doug Wilson summarized here. For a detailed, scholarly presentation, see Plantinga, A., Warrant and Proper Function, Oxford University Press, chapter 12, 1993. Return to text.
This is an interesting article. I think you are on the right track when you suggest that modern atheists are worried at the resurgence of conservative Christianity in the United States. Frankly, it concerns me that so many politicians have anti-abortion views with which I strongly disagree. Part of my moral beliefs value limited rights of women to choose the fate of their unfertilized eggs, embryos and their own bodies. Similarly, I understand that Christians have legitimate reason to be concerned that unbelievers will influence a policy or social climate that permits the destruction of actual or potential human organisms. The stakes are high so it should be no surprise that the voices of atheism rise to compete with the voices of religion.
I also agree with the author, and with Hume, that one cannot infer what ought to be, in a normative sense, from what is, was or will be the case. In this way, it is reasonable to say that naturalism or “scientism” cannot suggest a specific theory or morality. However, that does not mean that morality is not compatible with materialism, naturalism or atheism. It only means that morality must come from philosophy (ethics) rather than from theology. There is no reason why an atheist cannot have a more sophisticated “sense” or theory of morality than someone who bases their beliefs of right and wrong conduct(or thoughts) on the teachings of a formal religion. My own beliefs are more consistent with a general sense of basic “fairness,” than obedience to the demands of a deity.
Lastly, I don’t understand the basis of a statement such as “The atheist cannot put forward, within his own framework, a justification for why reasoning is trustworthy, or even worthwhile,” or “the atheist can’t account for reason if there is no God.” These are philosophical questions that do not seem to be contingent on the existence of a God. Is reasoning trustworthy? Meaningful? Those are matters of epistemology, not theology. Moreover, I think it is far from obvious that neither life, nor anything else for that matter, can have meaning unless one believes in God. God may give your life meaning, but that does not mean that nothing can provide meaning for an atheist’s life. I can imagine an atheist saying her daughter, for example, gives her life meaning. Would you call her a liar?
Tim W.: This is an interesting article.
Dr Jonathan Sarfati replies:Thanks.
TW: I think you are on the right track when you suggest that modern atheists are worried at the resurgence of conservative Christianity in the United States.
JS: What is really striking is how many modern atheists have become such delicate little flowers. They are hurt and offended by plastic baby Jesuses at Nativity scenes and are in danger of having a stroke if they hear a student-led prayer at a football game. (But of course, anyone objecting to obscenity or porn should just look the other way or change channels.) Even leading atheist Richard Dawkins is not such a wimp; he joins in Christmas celebrations. What a contrast the modern activists are with the far more robust atheists of yesteryear who vigorously debated the formidable G.K. Chesterton, and remained good friends even after finishing second.
TW: Frankly, it concerns me that so many politicians have anti-abortion views with which I strongly disagree.
JS: It would concern me if we didn’t have that many. Once we dehumanize one class of humanity, there is no limit. See for example Unborn babies may “be planning their future”: What now for the abortion lobby?
TW: Part of my moral beliefs value limited rights of women to choose the fate of their unfertilized eggs, embryos and their own bodies.
JS: Well, there’s the problem: the unborn is not part of a woman’s body. A reductio ad absurdum I’ve explained is: this would entail that a mother carrying a son must have a penis.
TW: Similarly, I understand that Christians have legitimate reason to be concerned that unbelievers will influence a policy or social climate that permits the destruction of actual or potential human organisms.
JS: Yes, that’s exactly the issue. Without the protection of life, no other right, real or assumed, has any meaning. ‘Rights’ to private property, housing, employment, medical care, or anything else, mean nothing if one is not alive to exercise them.
TW: The stakes are high so it should be no surprise that the voices of atheism rise to compete with the voices of religion.
JS: The problem arise when voices of atheism try to silence the voices of Christianity. This includes university ‘speech codes’, ‘hate speech’, the persecution of Christians in atheistic communist regimes, and the attacks of the homosexual lobby on the Church and family. See Gay marriage, politicians, and the rights of Christians.
TW: I also agree with the author, and with Hume, that one cannot infer what ought to be, in a normative sense, from what is, was or will be the case.
JS: A key point.
TW: In this way, it is reasonable to say that naturalism or “scientism” cannot suggest a specific theory or morality. However, that does not mean that morality is not compatible with materialism, naturalism or atheism. It only means that morality must come from philosophy (ethics) rather than from theology.
JS: It certainly can’t come from the axiom “God does not exist.”
TW: There is no reason why an atheist cannot have a more sophisticated “sense” or theory of morality than someone who bases their beliefs of right and wrong conduct(or thoughts) on the teachings of a formal religion. My own beliefs are more consistent with a general sense of basic “fairness”, than obedience to the demands of a deity.
JS: But where does the notion of “fairness” come from in an evolutionary world? Surely it’s just a delusion caused by certain neurochemical activity that happened to be useful for our ancestors to survive. Just like rape was useful to spread our genes, as two evolutionists seriously argued in a book (look how one squirmed to justify why rape should be considered ‘wrong’). Similarly, the article Bomb-building vs. the biblical foundation documents how leading atheistic philosopher/logician Bertrand Russell could not explain why right vs. wrong was any different from choosing one’s favourite colours.
Think of consistent evolutionist and atheistic philosopher Peter Singer, who justifies infanticide, euthanasia, and bestiality. It’s also notable that some critics of my article Abortion ‘after birth’? Medical ‘ethicists’ promote infanticide claimed that Singer was an anomaly among atheists. Yet I showed that his pro-infanticide views shared by the the Journal of Medical Ethics and the vocal antitheist P.Z. Myers. See also Blurring the line between abortion and infanticide?. He also wrote the major Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Ethics (1992), and earlier this year, the Australian Government gave him Australia’s highest honour, Companion of the Order of Australia.
TW: Lastly, I don’t understand the basis of a statement such as “The atheist cannot put forward, within his own framework, a justification for why reasoning is trustworthy, or even worthwhile,” or “the atheist can’t account for reason if there is no God.” These are philosophical questions that do not seem to be contingent on the existence of a God.
JS: But they are. Natural selection explains only survival value, not truth and logic. In Canada, one atheistic philosophy professor argued that these things would have selective value. I responded that this is not necessarily so under his belief system. After all, he must regard theistic religion as one thing that evolved for survival value, yet he would regard this as false and illogical. Thus survival, under his perspective, can be enhanced by the false as well as the true.
TW: Is reasoning trustworthy? Meaningful? Those are matters of epistemology, not theology. Moreover, I think it is far from obvious that neither life, nor anything else for that matter, can have meaning unless one believes in God. God may give your life meaning, but that does not mean that nothing can provide meaning for an atheist’s life.
JS: One of my colleagues wrote in Answering life’s big questions: Only the Bible provides the answers:
Today we are effectively told, in the evolutionary story, that life is a fluke, a cosmic accident. In this case our existence lacks any purpose, so life is a farce. And where are we going, in this view? Fertilizer! In short, life is: Fluke … farce … fertilizer.
Evolutionist Richard Dawkins said that we live in a universe that has “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference”. The evolutionists’ universe has no purpose because it is an accident; a cosmic accident. With evolution so widely taught in schools and universities, is it any wonder that so many lack any purpose or meaning to their lives?
As Susan Blackmore, psychologist and disciple of Richard Dawkins said, “If you really think about evolution and why we human beings are here, you have to come to the conclusion that we are here for absolutely no reason at all.”
TW: I can imagine an atheist saying her daughter, for example, gives her life meaning.
JS: But hardly ultimate meaning, since both mother’s and daughter’s entire lives are just a blink of an eye in the uniformitarian cosmic scheme. Bertrand Russell said in his anti-Christian book Religion and Science:
Man, as a curious accident in a backwater, is intelligible: his mixtures of virtues and vices is such as might be expected to result from fortuitous origin.
TW:Would you call her a liar?
JS: Not at all. A lie implies intentional deception, not just falsehood. As you could see from searching our site, we are very sparing with accusations of ‘lying’, as opposed to having a faulty interpretive framework. (However, we won’t deny that this prior adoption of this faulty framework is culpable according to Romans 1:20 and 2 Peter 3:3–7 and foolish (Psalm 14:1). But the point remains that a valid deduction from a faulty framework is no a lie.)
Let me first say that I am impressed by the scholarship and sophistication evident in the articles and comments of Dr Sarfati. I think if more creationists displayed anything remotely comparable to this level of sophistication, Dawkins would be more willing to engage creationists in formal debates. I also praise your objective to educate those who would defend your view against common arguments of atheists. It's a waste of everyone's time when people advance weak or false "arguments" in support of their positions, or use distracting rhetoric, fallacies or other offenses to critical thinking and discourse.
I also appreciate the links provided in your response to my comments. They allow me to save space here by discussing some issues in a more appropriate context.
Just read Dawkins analogy of humans are just machines, and I find it hard to comprehend how this guy can be serious. If we are just machienes, like cars, education is a complete waste of time, would you educate a car? He talks about fixing or replacing, but can a car fix a car? Can a car even know if another car is broken? Where is the mechanic? if we are nothing but cars, all you get is a bunch of rusting metal heaps going nowhere, doing nothing. I find his so called logical argument to be completely absurd. Thankfully us Christians have the Great Cheif Engineer who made us, loves us, maintains us and can ultimately fix us.