Understanding atheism March 8, 2011


Atheism was already around 3000 years ago when David wrote; ‘The fool had said in his heart, “There is no God”’ (Psalm 14:1). However, periodically throughout history, it has become resurgent, as Alister McGrath recounts in his perhaps over-optimistic book The twilight of atheism (Doubleday, 2004). The Western world is currently experiencing  just such a revival under the banner of ‘the new atheism’. So what is ‘new’ about it and how should Bible-believing Christians respond?

The wider context

Let’s put this resurgent atheism in the wider context. Although militant  atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have sold millions of copies of their books, and enjoy the implicit and sometimes explicit backing of the mass media, atheists remain a minority. The greatest threat to biblical faith comes not from atheism but from false religion — whether non-Christian or nominally ‘Christian’. After all, Jesus Christ wasn’t crucified by atheists.

However, we cannot dismiss today’s high-profile atheism as a minority belief-system that can safely be ignored. Why not? Because it provides the seed-bed for rampant agnosticism. Unlike atheists, agnostics (from the Greek for ‘I don’t know’) allow that God might exist but nevertheless simply ignore Him. Of course, agnostics are really closet atheist because they live as if God did not exist — God simply has no place in their thinking.

    Most of our non-religious friends and neighbours fall into this category. Their agnosticism draws its intellectual strength from atheism, and this has effectively secularised Western society. If we are to defend the faith and connect evangelistically with the person-in-the-street we must therefore demonstrate that a biblical worldview trumps the barren landscape of atheism and demands a response.

    One complicating factor is that many theistic writers who oppose the new atheists are themselves opposed to biblicism, which they dismiss as Christian ‘fundamentalism’. Academic theologians and philosophers who write, often brilliantly, in defence of theism often mock the idea that the Bible, as originally given, is the inerrant Word of God. Bible-believers are thus under attack from ‘friend’ and foe alike.

    Simply to ignore ‘the battle for the mind’ that rages around us is no solution. We must take the battle to the enemy, praying that God would ‘grant to [His] servants that with all boldness they may speak [His] word’ (Acts 4:29).

The new atheism

How does the ‘new’ atheism differ from the ‘old’? Firstly, whereas the old atheism recognised itself as a philosophy of absurdity or despair, the new atheism rides a wave of scientific optimism. Philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was more honest than most when he wrote:

    ‘ That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; … all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only … on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built’. Russell reduces our hopes, fears, loves and beliefs — all our mental experiences, in fact — to accidental atomic interactions. The logical result is ‘unyielding despair’.

    Today’s atheism is different. It has mounted the bandwagon of scientific progress — in space exploration, medicine, molecular genetics, psychology and so on. The 19th century vision of a brave new world, fostered by scientific and technological advances, was abruptly shattered by two world wars in the 20th century but is again in fashion. As a result the new atheism is both arrogant and powerful. Arrogant because science is promoted as the universal and value-independent wisdom of the age, and powerful because the explanatory triumphs of science seem to have banished God from the day-to-day universe. He is no longer needed as its creator and sustainer, and lingers on (if at all) as a ‘God-of-the -gaps’ whose redundancy notice is in the post. His influence is increasingly confined within men’s minds.    

Atheism, evolution and naturalism

The new atheism is based squarely on the theory of macro-evolution, which traces all living things back to an unknown primordial organism. From this organism (they tell us) all life-form have developed by ‘common descent’ through the purely natural processes of genetic mutation and natural selection. Although technically the origin of life itself is not part of evolutionary theory, most evolutionists insists that it also occurred by chance — involving natural processes that will one day be discovered by science.

    That much is, I think, generally known. What is less evident is the philosophical pre-supposition on which these beliefs are based. This is called ‘naturalism’ and claims that everything that happens in the physical universe must occur by natural process and can involve no spiritual dimension whatever. This assumption leads directly to the idea that science (defined as the study of the natural world) must ultimately be able to explain everything — including not only physical phenomena but also our thoughts, feelings, and even our religious perceptions.

    Attempts have been made in recent years to extend naturalism to the origin of the physical universe itself. In a recent co-authored book The Grand Design, cosmologist Stephen Hawking claims that the laws of nature first created themselves and then created the universe — all without the involvement of any non-material creator. The book’s self-contradictions and fallacies have been widely exposed by philosophers and fellow-scientists but that hasn’t stopped it becoming a best-seller.

Theistic evolution (TE)

One manifestation of naturalism is the view that Christians are safe to embrace macro-evolution as the means by which God created life and mankind. There is, therefore, no need to reject either naturalism or evolutionism. Theistic evolutionists also normally subscribe to ‘complementarity’ which maintains that science and religion offer separate, non-overlapping and thus non-conflicting accounts of existence. For a full critique of these ideas I recommend a recent book entitled Should Christians embrace Evolution? edited by Norman Nevin (IVP, 2009) but briefly the ‘escape route’ of theistic evolution poses enormous problems for Bible-believing Christians.

    Firstly, contrary to the New Testament, TE requires us to treat Genesis chapters 1-11 as mythology rather than history. Human death could not be a result of the Fall of man because our first parents (if they existed at all) were simply animals into whom God injected spiritual awareness. Consequently, if there was a Fall into sin it occurred only in the minds of Adam and Eve and could not have consigned the natural world to futility, pain and corruption — as taught in Genesis 3:16-19 and Romans 8:18-23.

    Again, TE must attribute to God the evolutionary imperative, namely, the survival of the fittest, with all the waste and cruelty involved. I once debated creation and evolution with TV botanist David Bellamy. His repeated argument was ‘if God created the world why did he make such a mess of it?’ The Bible’s answer is that corruption in nature is the consequence of the Fall but theistic evolution simply has no answer.

    Finally, the naturalism implicit in theistic evolution prohibits miracles, so that the resurrection of Jesus Christ presents insuperable problems. Some theistic evolutionists claim that this was the great exception but if so they cannot logically reject the miraculous origin of life, man or the universe itself.

Confronting atheism

The most effective response to the new atheism is to show to your friends and neighbours that genuine science is actually more consistent with the biblical world-view of an all-wise God ‘who made the world and everything in it … [and] gives to all life and breath and all things’ (Acts 17:24-25) than with naturalistic philosophy masquerading as science.

    I wrote my recent book Who made God? (EP Books, 2009) to demonstrate the intellectual poverty of the new atheism. Its 300 pages cover in depth the matters raised in this article and is aimed evangelistically at the uncommitted person-in-the-street who has been exposed to evolutionary atheism via the mass media. Although dealing with deep scientific and philosophical issues it is designed to be read and enjoyed by the non-expert.

    Above all it presents a biblical world-view over against the atheistic world-view and invites the reader to judge which best accounts for human experience. it should both strengthen the believer’s own faith and provide an evangelistic resource with which to engage others.