23 December 2007

Why I like the "New Atheists"

Recently I made a few comments on Greg Laden's Blog over at ScienceBlogs, in which I expressed some, um, concern regarding an aroma of ugly anti-Christian thuggery. The context was a silly (and banal) article on the "War on Christmas," which is some idiotic dustup in the so-called Culture Wars.

I've bashed Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion repeatedly on this blog. I'll probably do it again. And I dissed another crappy blog at ScienceBlogs because it consists of far more "atheist chest-beating" than science or scientific commentary.

All this might give the impression that I don't like atheists, or that I object when they get loud and feisty, or that a prominent aim of this blog is the debunking of atheist claims or the engagement of atheist polemics. Let me be clear: none of the above is true.

My primary audience -- the group of people for whom I intend to write -- is Christian, and especially evangelical. This doesn't mean that I assume that only Christians will read or appreciate the blog, but it does mean that I nearly always write with thinking Christians in mind. I am working to discredit the anti-evolution folk science of Reasons To Believe because I want evangelicals to abandon apologetics that damage the reputation of Christ and the church, and so I'm writing about their elementary errors for the sake of Christian integrity. Debunking nonsense and disarming attacks of various kinds are major goals of mine, but the targets aren't atheists -- they're Christians.

But still, you might wonder what I think of the New Atheists. In short: I think they're a welcome addition to the public square. Here are a few of my reasons.

1. Christianity (perhaps I should say Christendom) needs opposition.

For one thing, such opposition is a bit like peer review. The New Atheists aren't merely announcing their unbelief. They're saying, "we think your belief is idiotic." And they're saying, "we think your belief is harmful." I say we think of those challenges as negative comments from a manuscript reviewer. In science, when you get a nasty review of a manuscript, you either revise the manuscript or you explain to the editor why the reviewer is mistaken. (Or both. Usually both.) Even if the reviewer is a butthead, her/his critique must be effectively dealt with if the editor is to be convinced that the paper is worthy of publication. As I've mentioned before, peer review often makes the original article much better.

Moreover, active opposition can expose weaknesses that the church is otherwise unable to see or unwilling to acknowledge. These flaws might be noted by the critics, or they might be revealed in the ways Christians respond to the attack.

2. Unbelievers should be represented in the public square, in the same way that various faiths are (or ought to be).

The Christian Right has its culture warriors, other faiths have their well-known organizations and representatives. Right-wing Christians can applaud James Dobson, and thereby contribute to the cultural conversation; others of us can oppose him, and similarly stake a claim. How can it be unhealthy or inappropriate for atheist voices to speak similarly on behalf of like-minded persons?

3. The New Atheists are providing atheists an opportunity to clarify their various cultural positions, individually and collectively.

I suspect that many atheists don't care to be identified with an "atheist community" at all, but to whatever extent they do, they can use the New Atheists as a starting point for identifying areas of specific interest in public discourse. The New Atheists are speaking loudly in the public square, and some of them have staked out positions that may not represent anything remotely resembling a generalized "atheist" position.

I am eager to know, for example, whether most atheists would find Francis Collins' description of his conversion to represent a religious attack on science. Sam Harris apparently does. Is this a typical position for an atheist? For an atheist scientist? I would prefer to work with unbelievers who reject such warmongering, just as I would prefer to work with Christians who denounce and disavow just about everything Pat Robertson has ever said. The New Atheists, if nothing else, have created new topics for discussion, and given everyone new opportunities to weigh in on those questions.

4. The attack of the New Atheists has encouraged me as a Christian.

Wait...huh? I'm dead serious. I've read most of Dennett's Breaking the Spell, as well as his Darwin's Dangerous Idea and much of Consciousness Explained. (I really enjoy his writing and his arguments.) I haven't read any of Sam Harris other than that sickening letter to Nature, nor have I read Hitchens (outside my ravenous consumption of everything he writes in the Atlantic Monthly). But I've read almost everything Dawkins has ever written, including The God Delusion, and I've seen the hilariously sycophantic pleading on his behalf by Dennett and Michael Shermer. And this is my response:

That's it?! That's all you got?!
Now don't get me wrong. I don't think the New Atheists are stupid for doubting, or even for considering Christianity to be rubbish. I just don't find anything in their writing that is a threat to my belief.

So...here's to the New Atheists. May God richly bless them.

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