Welcome to the era of militant and missional-atheism. The vanguard of this movement includes Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Greg Graffin, and Daniel Dennett. Hitchens is a British-born American journalist and his book God Is Not Great, interestingly precipitated a written response by his brother Peter Hitchens, author and member of the Church of England, titled The Rage Against God. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford where C.S. Lewis once taught and he wrote The God Delusion. His book was well written but not well argued and in many respects is little more than an emotional rant against all supernaturalism. The theologian in need of a challenge should instead look to Letter to a Christian Nation, written by the Neuroscientist Harris. Dennet is a philosopher and professor at Tufts University and author of Breaking the Spell. Graffin founded the punk bad Bad Religion in 1980 and they have put out 20 albums. They are considered pre-eminent in the punk-rock community. More interesting is the fact that Graffin is also a scientist and in 2003 he earned his PhD in zoology from Cornell University.
They are all members of the new bread of atheist that are no longer content with pontificating in the classroom or engaging inn urological debate in the halls of academia. Instead, they are engaging in missionary activities and are calling for atheists to come out of the closet, “I think we’re in the same position the gay movement was in a few decades ago. There was a need for people to come out…I think that’s the case with atheists.”[i] Gone are the traditional alliances between agnostics, liberal-believers, and atheists. Those that hold to even a hint of supernaturalism who would normally be considered moderate or even left give a base for conservatives, fundamentalists, and extremists to stand upon by giving them voice and tolerating their views;
“The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there’s no excuse for shirking.”[ii]
In the eyes and minds of the new atheists the belief in God and religion is not only delusion, but dangerous as well; one need only look at the results of 09-11, which led to a War On Terror, war in Afghanistan, and war in Iraq. One could also look to the issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians as further proof of the destructive power of religion and belief in God. Supernaturalism and the belief in God are like viruses that spread from brain to brain (Dawkins referred to this as a meme, a term he coined, which he defined as a cultural replicator that spreads like a virus). Atheists can no longer stand by and allow this meme to continue to spread unchecked to each new generation, Dawkins believes that something should be done to prevent children from being infected by their parents with this particular meme, “It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in?”[iii]
All those who hold any type of religious belief or supernaturalism—which includes Christians to the left, right, and center of the ideological spectrum face an incredible challenge in the new atheism. As the Church we will no longer be reaching out to who that have a nascent understanding of Christianity or spirituality; rather, we will be faced by those who vehemently oppose us ideologically on the basis of fact, reason, and the need to prevent the spread of the disease of religion, which they will view as responsible for the deaths of millions throughout the centuries. This challenge cannot be understated.
We need men like Gary Gutting, Ted Peters, Archbishop Cranmer, Rod Dreher, Francis Collins, and so many others, to continue to respond to this challenge as they have. However, faith in a divine other is so much more than merely the sum or a few reasoned parts. In fact, the cross is one of the most unreasonable events in the history of the world. Why would God wrap himself in human flesh and choose to live as one of us, sweating, sneezing, wandering around on aching feet, smelling the stench of feces only to end up being murdered at the hands of mob? What’s reasonable about that? Embrace the divine mystery that is the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of God.
[i] Gary Wolf. “The Church Of Unbelievers.” Wired Magazine V. 11, no. 14 (November 2006).