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.’
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.
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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
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.