The Irony of Atheism
Editors' Note: On Saturday, March 24, leading atheists plan to hold a "Reason Rally" on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. They will raise up Reason as their banner, claiming that it will lead thinking persons away from belief in God.
In a pre-emptive response, Patheos Press has published an ebook featuring chapters by William Lane Craig, Sean McDowell, and 11 other Christian scholars. The following is a excerpt from True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism.
One of the great ironies of the contemporary atheistic movement comes from its ubiquitous use of rhetoric, branding, and emotional triggers to advocate for reason. The leading atheists trumpet their devotion to reason in all their public communications, typically featuring the word in bold type across the names of their books, websites, organizations, and events. For instance, Sam Harris, co-founder and chairman of Project Reason, has said, "The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love." Christopher Hitchens told us in God Is Not Great: "We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake." In the BBC (Channel 4) documentary The Enemies of Reason, Richard Dawkins, founder of The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, claims, "Reason has built the modern world." Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Michael Shermer have gone so far as to argue that atheists should really be called "brights," in light of their insistence on a reasoned approach to all knowledge. Throughout their books, talks, and websites, the New Atheists consistently promote their allegiance to the glory of reason.
This is not a novel development; the "new" atheists are hardly the first atheists to claim the brand of reason for themselves. In Aristophanes's play The Knights, written in 424 B.C., Demosthenes asks Nicias, "Do you then believe there are gods? . . . What proof have you?" There is a well-established tradition that connects the skepticism of religion with a love for reason. But some of these connections are more dubious than others. For instance, during the French Revolution, a "Cult of Reason" ransacked churches for their silver and gold and "converted" these churches into Temples of Reason. In the government-sanctioned "Festival of Reason" that accompanied this movement, a young woman was presented as the Goddess of Reason.
At other times the connection has been presented hyperbolically, without reference to serious historical or sociological research. To provide just two examples, Nietzsche once wrote that "all founders of religions and their likes . . . feel a thirst for things which are contrary to reason and do not put too many difficulties in the way of satisfying it" (emphasis added). More recently, H. L. Mencken said, "Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration---courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth."
How Atheists Unwittingly Honor God
For the New Atheists, as for some of the old, ardent love for reason apparently motivates visceral disgust of religion. As Harris has said, "Religious faith is the one species of human ignorance that will not admit of even the possibility of correction." Dawkins has even gone so far as to say that molesting children "may be less harmful in the long run" than giving children a religious education.
Despite such attacks, as Christians we are delighted that those who consider themselves our opponents are such ardent appreciators of reason. After all, Jesus famously proclaimed that the most important commandment includes loving God "with all of your mind" (Mk. 12:30). So, ironically, we believe that atheists honor God unawares when they reason well. Because we desire to honor God, we want to demonstrate why Christianity provides the most reasonable framework for the existence and use of reason.
The contrasts are clear: atheists claim that religion is the main barrier to reason. Christians believe our capacity to reason comes from being created in the image of an all-knowing God, and the active use of reason is an important way to honor him. Atheists brand themselves as a community united by reason. Christians marvel at how this group rallies together even as their most prominent leader, Richard Dawkins, argues that evolution favors the selfish gene, not the reasonable group. Atheists work hard to eradicate religion for the sake of a brighter future. Christians are amazed that atheists so blissfully ignore the scientific fact that, if religion is a false consolation, the future always ends in death.
Atheism Is a Thought Stopper
Leading atheist Sam Harris says "faith is a conversation stopper." Christians reply that Harris has also said that none of us is "the author of your thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose." The reductionistic, deterministic, and materialistic worldview of many atheists seems, to reasonable Christians, to exclude the existence of transcendent, immaterial things like propositions, the rules of logic, and, most important of all, the very existence of minds.
These aren't straw men, but rather, a description of how many atheists see the stakes as well. Consider the famous Madalyn Murray O'Hair's speech on atheism from 1962:
We must look to materialistic philosophy which alone enables men to understand reality and to know how to deal with it . . . Atheism is based upon a materialist philosophy, which holds that nothing exists but natural phenomena. There are no supernatural forces or entities, nor can there be any. Nature simply exists. But there are those who deny this, who assert that only mind or idea or spirit is primary. This question of the relation of the human mind to material being is one of the fundamental questions dealt with by all philosophers, however satisfactorily. The Atheist must slice through all obfuscation to bedrock, to the basic idea that those who regard nature as primary and thought as a property (or function) of matter belong to the camp of materialism, and that those who maintain that spirit or idea or mind existed before nature or created nature or uphold nature belong to the camp of idealism. All conventional religions are based on idealism.
That is the question: do we have minds, or are we neurological processors akin to robots? And which worldview can better account for the existence and use of reason?
In short, [True Reason] directly challenges the goals of organized atheist communities. Our hope is their fear: a revitalization of faith and thinking Christianity. Their identity as reasoning individuals depends upon the truth of our worldview. Their communal ideals of honesty, freedom, love, and justice are borrowed from the Bible. The very existence of reasoning Christians responding to atheist rhetoric undermines their fallacious, straw man depiction of religious people.