John Stackhouse: Thank God for ‘new atheists’

By John Stackhouse

Christians like me are supposed to fear/loathe/mock/hate the so-called New Atheists, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the like. But I thank God for them instead.

To be sure, there are elements in what the New Atheists say that a Christian might be tempted to fear: they ask some hard questions that can knock easy belief off its stride. And I’m not saying that there aren’t elements to loathe: These guys seem often to be bad-tempered, off-target, even wildly wrong. They can also be mocked for pretty basic mistakes in logic, epistemology, history, politics, rhetoric, and more. (Being an expert in one field certainly doesn’t qualify you as an expert in another, and the New Atheists prove that time and again.)

But Christians are not allowed to hate anyone. We’re supposed to love even our enemies. And I’ll do better than that: I’ll be grateful for them. Why? Here are my top four reasons why:

1. They raise good questions. The New Atheists are not particularly new. Most of their questions and objections regarding the Christian faith have been on the table for quite some time. But many of us haven’t read David Hume or Charles Darwin or Friedrich Nietzsche or Sigmund Freud, so we haven’t come across these arguments before. Some of these arguments remain good ones, even as good answers have also been offered to them, so they are still worth our while to consider.

2. They aren’t polite. Courtesy is a lovely thing, sure, but too many of us tread so lightly around issues of religion that we never confront serious matters directly. The New Atheists barge into our nice, little tea parties and make us think about life, death, religion, morality, science, philosophy—Big Stuff worth thinking about.

3. They make it okay to talk about God. One of the delicious ironies about the New Atheism is that it lets the Old Theism have its say, too. Mainstream media normally don’t give much space to arguments about, say, creation and evolution; or the historicity of the life and death (and resurrection) of Jesus; or the credibility of miracle stories; or the likelihood that we will survive our deaths. But with the New Atheists making all this fuss, fair-minded people will want to hear the other side, and as someone on the other side, I’m grateful for the fuss.

4. They show that atheism has its problems, too. By writing whole books, they have to offer more than a few clever insults and sharply posed objections. And when one gets into their actual arguments, the more it becomes clear that their position has its difficulties, too. For instance, Dawkins tries hard to explain how altruism—self-sacrifice on behalf of another—makes sense on his atheistic evolutionary terms. But all can conclude is that altruism isn’t really altruism, it’s just selfishness in disguise. That’s a sad conclusion to come to, and good grounds to question the adequacy of atheism to explain the world.

Indeed, it might make one look beyond atheism to some other explanation—which is exactly what I want people to do.

So carry on, Chris, Dick, and Sam. This Christian salutes you!

Prof. John Stackhouse teaches at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada, and will be speaking at Trinity Baptist Church, Cordova, at the following times: Friday, 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-

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