The early 21st century has introduced puzzling cultural cross currents for the traditional Christian. On the one hand, many postmodern young adults are unabashed in their yearning for spirituality, a quest reflected in much popular music, from the ethereal rock of Iceland’s Sigur Rós on albums like ( ) (2002) and Takk (2005) to the richly textured anthems of Arcade Fire on Neon Bible (2006). Films like Fight Club (1999), Garden State (2004), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and The Golden Compass (2007) explicitly raise searching questions on perennial issues: the meaning of being human, the problem of evil, the need for significance, and the possibility of transcendence. At the same time and seemingly in sharp contrast, an impressive number of assertive—some would say aggressive or militant—voices are arguing that unbelief is the only possible option for thinking people today.
“A band of intellectual brothers,” Wired noted in a cover story on the phenomenon, “is mounting a crusade against belief in God.” In widely-selling, much-discussed books including The End of Faith (2004) & Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) by Sam Harris; The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins; God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) & The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (2007) by Christopher Hitchens; Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (2007) by Lewis Wolpert; God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist (2007) by Victor Stenger; and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2007) by Daniel Dennett, these self-professed atheists have advanced strongly worded arguments against belief in God. “The New Atheists,” Wolf notes, “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.” Though Wolf seems not to have had the church in mind when he penned that last sentence, the people of God would be wise to take his advice.
The “new” in “new atheists”
The new atheists are not “new” because they advance novel philosophical arguments against theism. In There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, a book of thoughtful, philosophical reflection seemingly belied by its spectacular subtitle, Roy Abraham Varghese asks how “these works and authors fit into the larger philosophical discussion on God of the last several decades? The answer is they don’t… It would be fair to say that the ‘new atheism’ is nothing less than a regression to the logical positivist philosophy that was renounced by even its most ardent proponents.”
Varghese details his case in “The ‘New Atheism’: A Critical Appraisal of Dawkins, Dennett, Wolpert, Harris and Stenger”—helpfully included in There is a God as an appendix. The new atheists, he concludes, “not only fail to make a case for this belief [atheism], but ignore the very phenomena that are particularly relevant to the question of whether God exists.” Though Varghese’s case is compelling—especially paired with Anthony Flew’s rigorous and scholarly explanation of the reasons that convinced him there is a God—this brief essay is unlikely to have as great an impact in the marketplace as the new atheists have garnered. Sadly, relatively few may learn that one of the foremost 20th century philosophers of atheism has not only found their work wanting, but has determined that the primary evidence they point to in science for making belief in God unnecessary actually provides a compelling philosophical case for theism.
The new atheists are “new” primarily because, as some of their book subtitles indicate, they share in common the conviction that the latest advances of scientific discovery and thought make belief in God unnecessary. There is a simpler and more reasonable explanation for life, one that is rooted in science not faith. “Religion has run out of justifications,” Hitchens says. “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.” Thus, though they acknowledge that they share atheism with previous generations of unbelievers, the primary foundation of and essential reasons for their atheism—namely, the conclusions of evolutionary biology—were unavailable to previous generations, having been recently developed (and developing, providing ever greater explanatory power and scope against the necessity of God).
There is one other way in which the new atheists represent something new. Although believers living under Marxism were confronted by militant atheism, believers in the West have been more used to living in societies where belief rather than unbelief tended to be a dominant cultural force and memory. The pressures of secularization and pluralization are transforming the cultural landscape in the West, however, and as this process unfolds the new atheists represent a significant challenge to Christian faith. They are persuasive, adept at getting their message out. They are erudite, highly educated thinkers. And they intend to issue a direct, powerful challenge to Christian theists. Early in his book, Dawkins responds to readers who are tempted to dismiss his arguments.
“The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either.”… I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented. This challenge is not occurring in obscure academic circles, but in the marketplace of ideas. It is a conversation the church must not miss.
An essential part of this conversation involves significant ethical considerations. As might be expected, as a corollary to their argument that God, as Dawkins puts it, “almost certainly does not exist,” the new atheists argue forcefully that ethics and morality do not require belief in God, revelation, or religion. As Hitchens puts it:
We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better towards each other and not worse. We know with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true—that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.
Hitchens’ rhetoric in the final sentence just quoted is representative of his book. He expresses moral outrage not just for the violence and evil perpetrated in the name of God and religion, but religious ideas and values which he views as ignorant and superstitious—and if his reader has difficulty thinking of examples, he is eager to remind us of numerous details. God is Not Great and The Portable Atheist are nothing if not extended exercises in moral outrage. This suggests a second, related ethical issue for the Christian, namely developing the morally acceptable way to respond in a pluralistic world to this challenge, especially since many will find the arguments and the rhetoric offensive. In the hope of bringing some light to this conversation, I will seek to identify the basic ethical position and reasoning Christopher Hitchens presents, and go on to propose a biblically ethical response. (Obviously, given his topic, a thoughtful Christian response is required for more than the ethical dimensions of Hitchens’ argument—but I will limit my reflections here.) In the process I will reflect on two issues. I will respond to Hitchens’ basis for ethics. (Hitchens’ position on ethics is not dissimilar to that of the other new atheists, which is not surprising given their common reliance on evolutionary biology—another topic beyond the scope of this paper. This is not intended to suggest that the various new atheists do not have their own unique contributions to bring to the conversation.) And I will respond to a series of ethical issues and questions that arise when Christians engage sharply polemical works which seek to discredit a primary doctrine of biblical belief, in this case, belief in God.
Hitchens’ basis for morality and ethics
In a paragraph so revealing as to be worth quoting full in the Introduction of The Portable Atheist, Hitchens summarizes his position on morality and ethics. He asks his reader to imagine a conversation with a theist.
To be charitable, one may admit that the religious often seem unaware of how insulting their main proposition actually is. Exchange views with a believer even for a short time, and let us make the assumption that this is a mild and decent believer who does not open the bidding by telling you that your unbelief will endanger your soul and condemn you to hell. It will not be long until you are politely asked how you can possibly know right from wrong. Without holy awe, what is to prevent you from resorting to theft, murder, rape, and perjury? It will sometimes be conceded that non-believers have led ethical lives, and it will also be conceded (as it had better be) that many believers have been responsible for terrible crimes. Nonetheless, the working assumption is that we should have no moral compass if we were not somehow in thrall to an unalterable and unchallengeable celestial dictatorship. What a repulsive idea! As well as taking the axe to the root of everything that we have learned about evolutionary biology (societies that tolerate murder and theft and perjury will not last long, and those that violate the taboos on incest and cannibalism do in fact simply die out), it constitutes a radical attack on the very concept of human self-respect. It does so by suggesting that one could not do a right action or avoid a wrong one, except for the hope of a divine reward or the fear of divine retribution. Many of us, even the less unselfish, might hope to do better than that on our own. When I give blood, for example (something that several religions forbid), I do not lose a pint, but someone else gains one. There is something about this that appeals to me, and I derive other satisfactions as well from being of assistance to a fellow creature. Furthermore, I have a very rare blood type and I hope very much that when I am in need of a transfusion someone else will have thought and acted in precisely the same way that I have. Indeed, I can almost count on it. Nobody had to teach me any of this, let alone reinforce the teaching with sinister fairy-tales about appearances by the Archangel Gabriel. The so-called Golden Rule is innate in us.
Hitchens argues that a moral sense, a basic knowledge of right and wrong is simply part of our humanness. Rather than come from an external source, it arises from an internal source. As such it is something all human beings share, a condition prior to or more foundational than the conscious acceptance of religious belief or disbelief. This ethical sense is, he claims, innate—at least to the extent knowing the Golden Rule. Failing to recognize this truth is deeply offensive. His example of giving blood is particularly interesting in this regard since it represents an instance of reciprocal altruism between strangers.
Our first response must be to see that rather than constituting an attack on Christianity, or positing a position contrary to biblical revelation, we must acknowledge his position as a point of agreement. “In the Reformed tradition,” David Jones writes, “‘natural law’ refers to the moral law of which all human beings have some awareness, including a basic sense of justice, by virtue of their being created in the image of God.” This notion of natural law is firmly grounded in Scripture, St. Paul teaching it explicitly in Romans 2:14-15:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.
Following the biblical teaching, the Westminster divines spoke of those made in God’s image as “having the law of God written on their hearts.” Interestingly, Hitchens’ appeal to the Golden Rule echoes a specific line of reasoning that has roots deep in Christian history. As Jones notes:
Augustine had recognized an innate knowledge of the moral law, of which the fundamental precept is the golden rule in its negative form: Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you. Calvin, following Augustine’s lead, identified the basic rule of natural law with the principle of equity: Do as you would be done by. The Westminster standards continue this line of thought, teaching that God revealed the moral law to man at creation as the rule of his obedience. This law after the fall continues to be a perfect rule of righteousness, forever binding on all mankind.
The biblical teaching of natural law thus is part of the definition of what it means to be created in God’s image, to be human.
This means that the Christian must also agree with Hitchens’ sense of violation or offense at theists who insist that without belief in God no moral sense is possible. This is not simply a denial of biblical teaching, but a demeaning of the person made in God’s image. Hitchen’s finding this “insulting” and even “repulsive” is, in this light, a reflection of his humanness.
It will be noted that Hitchens comes to his position not just on the basis of personal experience and historical precedent, but also as a conclusion he draws from his belief in the development of evolutionary biology. To this extent, the Christian might contend that since his foundation is (at least partially) mistaken, we must be careful not to identify this as a point of agreement. This is, at root, an ethical issue: Is it right for a believer to agree with an atheist about something that is true, but that the atheist claims is taught by an evolutionary theory that leaves no room for God?
Several things must be said in response. First, incorrect reasons for drawing a correct conclusion do not falsify the truthfulness of the conclusion. Suppose someone believes that Christ truly was raised from the dead because they find this to be the only satisfying ending to the story. This is, clearly, an insufficient reason to believe in Christ’s resurrection, especially given the weight of evidence, but they remain correct that Christ is raised from the dead. To refuse to agree with someone about something true until we are satisfied that all their reasons are equally true may give the appearance of an insistence on holiness, but in reality is a position of astonishing hubris. Second, Paul’s teaching on natural law is not qualified but applies to all who are made in God’s image. When he refers to those “who do not have the law” (2:14) he is referring to those (Gentiles) who, separated from the covenant people of God, have no access to or even knowledge of the special revelation of God. We can expect them, therefore, to have an innate sense of God’s moral standards without expecting them to give or have good reasons for their moral convictions. They may even produce wrong reasons for correct moral notions, or, as in this case, wrong reasons for their innate sense of basic right and wrong.
It is therefore morally right for the Christian to agree with Hitchens; it is morally wrong to withhold agreement because we find either his reasons or his cause wanting. In his discussion on legalism, Jones’ makes an important point that speaks directly to the tendency of Christians who remain aloof from sinners in the hope of remaining holy: “rules are not righteous for being rigorous; it is not good to be more strict than God.” Insufficient reasons for believing the truth are, according to Jesus, better than disbelieving (John 10:38).
C. S. Lewis argues that natural law “is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected.” God’s act to write his law in his creatures is an act of creative grace, and it is wrong for Christians to demean, despise, or hesitate to acknowledge and honor it. This is true even when—as it always is—it is evident in a broken, fallen person. The fact that someone like Hitchens has not encountered Christians who agree with him at the point of natural law/innate values should grieve theologically serious believers. If this aspect of biblical theology is not being taught sufficiently, ordinary Christians will not be able to identify an important aspect of created reality. Not agreeing with someone like Hitchens on a point like this is to (inadvertent though it may be) place an unnecessary stumbling block between him and the gospel. And that is always wrong.
Hitchens’ prose is so sharp and unrelenting than it will probably be deeply offensive to a large number of believers who read his books. To cite a few examples: C. S. Lewis’ reasoning “is so pathetic as to defy description,” John Calvin was “a sadist and torturer and killer,” and the Old Testament present “an ill-tempered and implacable and bloody and provincial god, who was probably more frightening when he was in a good mood (the classic attribute of the dictator).” Reviewing the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the genocide in Rwanda, ongoing violence in Darfur, and other horrors Hitchens concludes that belief in God actually makes ethical behavior less rather than more likely.
At a minimum, this makes it impossible to argue that religion causes people to behave more kindly or in a civilized manner. The worse the offender, the more devout he turns out to be. It can be added that some of the most dedicated relief workers are also believers (though as it happens the best ones I have met are secularists who were not trying to proselytize for any faith). But the chance that a person committing the crimes was “faith-based” was almost 100 percent, while the chances that a person of faith was on the side of humanity and decency were about as good as the odds of a coin flip.
These claims may be worth discussing, but even strong rhetoric, unreasonable statements, and unfair conclusions do not mean we cannot—or should not—gladly acknowledge the truth that basic moral notions are innate. Hitchen’s moral outrage is, in fact, proof that God’s law is written on his heart, even if some of his outrage is mistaken and misplaced.
A further objection might be raised by conscientious Christians. Agreeing with Hitchens’ that human beings have an innate sense of right and wrong, they claim is wrong because it is to agree with a tiny point, asserted in only a few sentences in the book dedicated to convincing readers that God does not exist and that belief in God is not simply mistaken but poisonous. In reply it should be noted that though infrequently mentioned, it is not a tiny point. First, it is not insignificant to Hitchens. Rather, it is foundational to his argument and essential to his world and life view. His conviction is not insignificant but true. True, that is, to the word of God and to the nature of created reality. Further, finding points of agreement with implacable foes of Christian faith must be seen for what they are: as acts of love. Even if someone does not treat our beliefs with respect, we are bound as Christians to treat them as if they are created in God’s image and persons for whom Christ gave his life. Finally, this is not the only point with which Christians can and should agree with Hitchens. As he unfolds his case against theism, for example, he reviews many of the tragic stories which bring disrepute to Christians in history. He mentions, among other things, the Crusades where not just Muslim soldiers but whole communities of Jews and “heretical” Christians were massacred, the sad legacy of Christian support for Southern slavery, and some of the outrageous public statements made by evangelical pundits after 9/11. We must not be slow to agree. These are abominations which call for repentance, not for defense or debate (at least initially) over details of the historical record.
Engaging Hitchens in the public square
Christians must be prepared to accept blows against the faith since our Lord promised the world would hate us as it hated him. It is wrong to be defensive facing the challenge raised by Hitches and the other new atheists. We need, instead, to demonstrate a quiet confidence in the gospel. Even as we repent when the evils and mistakes of the past are thrown in our face, we can know this is not the end of the story. As Roy Abraham Varghese correctly notes:
If they want to discourage belief in God, the popularizers must furnish arguments in support of their own atheistic views. Today’s atheist evangelists hardly even try to argue their case in this regard. Instead, they train their guns on well-known abuses in the history of the major world religions. But the excesses and atrocities of organized religion have no bearing whatsoever on the existence of God, just as the threat of nuclear proliferation has no bearing on the question of whether E = mc2.
However, the question as to whether it is ethical with agree with Hitchens becomes more difficult yet. His moral outrage extends to the Christian doctrine of the vicarious atonement in Christ’s death on the cross, what he calls a “refinement” of an “ancient superstition.” Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans. Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life.
The Christian may argue that this has now crossed a line, a line of blasphemy. Hitchens’ sense of right and wrong is so mistaken that to suggest agreement with him is to cause the believer to share in his sin.
Though we must regret Hitchens’ misunderstanding of such a precious truth, it is wrong for the Christian to judge him therefore beyond the pale for agreement. The example of Christ is surely important here. His compassion for and lament over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37-39 is remarkable in light of the fact that he knew the people of the city would shortly not just ridicule him but reject and crucify him. Just as Christ refused to judge the world, so must we, and just as he loved those who were lost, so must we.
Dawkins notes that “the nastiest of all” correspondents he has encountered since he began arguing for atheism are believers. In Psalm 27 when David writes of the violence threatening his confidence in God he speaks of two kinds. The first is physical violence, the threat of armies mustered against him (verses 2-3, 6). The second involves as deadly a threat, but a different one. “Give me not up to the will of my adversaries,” he writes (verse 12), “for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.” The metaphor is stunning: words that breathe out violence. To meet the challenge Hitchens and the other new atheists has raised is crucial. To see their prose as words that breathe out violence may be appropriate. To answer in kind, on the other hand, is morally wrong for the Christian.
According to the 6th commandment, respect for human life means we must treat all our fellow human beings with identical care and compassion. Specifically, we must treat them as is proper for creatures created in God’s image regardless of what they are like, how they speak, what they believe, or how they act. “Apparently it makes no difference,” J. Douma writes in his exposition of the Decalogue, “whether someone is behaving as the image of God.” Although we find ourselves in the midst of a culture war, we do not need to wage one. Our calling is to witness to the Kingdom, which provides an entirely different perspective.
It is a grace mistake to imagine the challenge posed by the new atheists to be only a philosophical or theological issue. Certainly there are philosophical and theological issues involved, but these hardly exhaust the case. Explicitly and implicitly their challenge raises vital ethical issues that must be met with equal seriousness. Christopher Wright correctly notes that “[W]e either adorn the gospel or we are a disgrace to it. Our ethics (or lack of ethics) support (or undermine) our mission.”
The Christian must not shirk the challenge of the new atheists. Nor must we hesitate to agree when our opponents believe the truth. The motivation for all of this, from beginning to end must be love of God, in deep gratitude for his grace towards us in Christ. The standard of that love is breathtaking, possible only in the power of God’s Spirit. “Love for our neighbor,” Jones writes—and the new atheists are most definitely our neighbors—“is beneficent affection for persons like ourselves.” This must define every aspect of our response. And given the position and rhetoric of the new atheists, this will constitute a challenge to Christian faithfulness.
Source“The Church of the Non-Believers” by Gary Wolf in Wired (November 2006) p. 182, 184 (italics in original)
There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind by Anthony Flew and Roy Abraham Varghese (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007) p. xvii, xviii, xxiv, 161-183
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything</i. by Christopher Hitchens (New York, NY: Twelve, 2007) p. 6-7, 23, 32, 120, 175, 178, 192, 209, 233, 282
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006) p. 36, 158, 211
The Portable Atheist edited by Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2007) p. xvi-xvii
Biblical Christian Ethics by David Clyde Jones, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994) p. 81-82, 124
The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1944, 1947, 1971, 1974) p. 43
Westminster Confession of Faith 4:2
The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life by J. Douma (Phillipsburg, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1996) p. 50, 211 (italics in original)
The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher H. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006) p. 388.