Thanks for your comments on last week's atheism post, and I'm struck by many of your comments, including anti-dogmatism comments and the distinguishing between not needing to "defeat atheism" but nonetheless caring that everyone have access to life in Jesus. I'm with you.
Brent made his usual provocative comments, in this case distinguishing between the shallowness of the new atheists as compared to the more substantial old atheism. Some of you asked for more from Brent, and we'll eagerly wait for his post. In the meantime, here are some thoughts from me on at least a related point, excerpted from Not the Religious Type (151-154).
...we are in a golden age of atheists going public. (Not the first such golden age, by the way, but the first in quite a while.) A few years ago, one prominent yay-for-atheism book was on the market (Sam Harris’s The End of Faith). Today, a quick scan of my local bookstore picks up maybe a dozen such books. We might wonder if the religious tone of the George W. Bush administration [editor's note: NTRT came out in 2008] and our conflict with factions of Islam have contributed to this.
Atheists who publish have a leg up on those of us now writing from the God point of view: They’re all seriously smart. They tend to have PhDs. But as someone who cut my teeth on great atheists, I can wonder if, for all the brainpower represented among these writers, we’ve yet found our Denis Diderot or David Hume or our even our Bertrand Russell or Karl Marx.
Instead, I wonder if we’ve found our Ann Coulters, Rush Limbaughs, and Al Frankens: provocateurs who are unafraid to play dirty, aren’t so good at listening, and take delight in provocative but unhelpful accusations
Despite the recent popularity of these books, many presumably sympathetic people are starting to voice similar concerns. (As per, for one, Harper’s Magazine’s review of Richard Dawkins’ megaseller The God Delusion, which they call “hysterical scientism.” 10)
But this hasn’t always been so. When I was growing up, my North Star atheist was George Bernard Shaw, and he seems instructive in this current conversation. For one, he actually knew and did his best to care for poor and suffering people. Not for a few years when he was young, but as a lifetime pursuit. These folks weren’t just concepts to him, but actual people with faces.
Shaw was also a great artist, which seems wonderful and noteworthy, since wonder itself—the mainspring of most great art—isn’t on the table for many atheists. Somehow Shaw got past that (though one might ask if, in the end, he overrelied on polemics and underrelied on emotion, another occupational hazard of atheism, but still). And maybe most astoundingly, Shaw was close friends with and a resolute supporter of his main theistic antagonist, G. K. Chesterton. It seems unthinkable that our current combatants on either side could befriend, listen to, and respect someone with an antithetical point of view.
So in this world where the conversation between secularism and faith is such an important one (read, for instance, the first chapter of The End of Faith—Harris says what, at that point at least, no one had said so directly, and good for him), I say three cheers for thoughtful atheism, which did such a service during the Louis XIV era in moving us past theocratic bigotry, warfare, and suppression of thought (hip, hip, hooray for Baruch Spinoza and Ben Franklin and Gotthold Lessing and Voltaire!) and brought us such profoundly helpful things as modern scientific advancement and made a few key contributions to, say, the U.S. Constitution. I like those things! (Whatever the downsides of modern atheism.)
I wonder if Peck’s stage theory has anything useful to say here. Perhaps these atheist writers—old and new—are fulfilling the function of stage 3, the “rebellious” stage that presses people in “rules-bound” stage 2 to justify themselves rather than unthinkingly following and promoting pointless, unjustified, and often damaging “rules.”
This seems powerful as we consider, say, the French Enlightenment. By all accounts, Louis XIV was a stage 1 (“criminal”) thug who did some things remarkably well for his purposes. Most notably, he entirely co-opted France’s stage 2 religious leaders. He presented himself as their chief supporter and he proved his point by persecuting their religious enemies.
So the great majority of people of faith who might otherwise have been Louis’ most-intractable opponents were neutralized. And what rose up in their place were stage 3 dissidents doing their most central task of unrelentingly shouting that the emperor had no clothes, of using all their “rebellious” energy to—at great personal cost, in that case—dismantle the unholy corruption of stage 2 by stage 1. They had to rise up. This was their moment. And the Western world has benefited ever since.
You could argue that something similar happened in Hitler’s Germany, except in that case the most-noteworthy dissidents came from stage 4 (the “mystical” stage)—Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller, to name two.
From my point of view, this all was God-ordained, whether it came from atheists or not. Again, these moments had to happen or all was lost, at least for the people and nations in question. And maybe something equally-needed will prove to be what’s happening here, for all my occasional annoyance with the writers of the moment.
But it seems to me that, as crucial as this is, there’s a yearning in the heart of all folks who are resolutely in stage 3 to the effect that there has to be more to life than mocking, taunting and arguing against the abuses of stage 2. There has to be more than knowing what we’re against. For all the rush of this sort of defiance (fair or unfair, worthy or slimy), it historically produces a lot of misery among its proponents. There has to be a stage 4.
Thoughts? Am I giving the old atheists too much credit? If not, are you comfortable living in a world which owes a debt to people who argue against God? Why or why not?