New atheists embody the very things they hate

Contributing columnistJune 12, 2010 

Atheists have gone on the offensive.

We've seen a spate of popular books demeaning any form of belief in God, from Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion to Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great.

In 2008, comedian Bill Maher got a ton of attention for his anti-faith film Religulous.

I'm equally intrigued by the online comments that follow every news story online about religion; the responses seem to come disproportionately from readers who jeer at all references to God or piety.

There's an increase in the number of atheists and of open doubters in the United States. A study of religious identification by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., found that 15 percent of us now claim no religion, almost twice the percentage found in 1990.

Most of these "nones," as they're called in the Trinity report, aren't atheists per se, but rather agnostics, deists and others of similar views.

Only 2 percent of U.S. adults are atheists, the Trinity study found. Still, by another estimate I saw, that's three times the percentage of avowed atheists 20 years ago.

Atheists remain a tiny minority, but they're far more vocal and combative than they used to be, an approach advocated by Dawkins and others. They have every right to state their views.

The irony is that this current brand of aggressive atheism is just another form of fundamentalism. These particular atheists are zealots on the subject of faith who see no shadings of gray, only black and white. They're dead-set against religion but weirdly obsessed with it.

The "new atheism," as it's called by its adherents, is itself a kind of church. An anti-church church, granted, but a form of lockstep belief nonetheless. It reminds me of Hazel Motes' Church Without Christ in Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood.

This might surprise you, but I have nothing against atheists. And I have a great deal of empathy with agnostics, those who say they just don't know whether there is a God.

If you weigh the circumstantial evidence for and against the existence of God, there's about as much evidence on one side as the other. Ultimately, people can find reasons to believe and reasons not to, and various people will arrive at varying conclusions.

Even as a longtime Christian minister, I still have days when I wonder whether this whole God thing is a figment of my imagination. I can't denigrate those who don't believe at all. That's between them and their maker — or, if they might prefer, them and their rational senses or their artistic sensibilities.

My objection to the new atheists isn't that they're atheists.

It's that they strike me as hypocrites, which is the charge they unfailingly level, with mixed justification, against the religious. In opposing religion in the manner they do, they betray themselves as possessing the traits they profess to loathe.

They're smug, dogmatic and mean-spirited. They trot out tired, half-truthful stereotypes, and they cherry-pick historical examples of religious wrongdoing while ignoring the innumerable instances in which the faithful have performed great acts of decency and charity.

They pretend that all Christians are bigots prone to violence. They claim that Christians are by definition illogical bumpkins who mindlessly accept fairy tales.

They act as if Thomas Merton and Bob Jones were of one cloth.

It's absurd, and it's especially grating because it comes from people who flaunt what they consider to be their own relentless logic, superior intellect and brave candor.

Dawkins, for instance, is a retired Oxford University science professor. Hitchens, a prominent journalist, attended Oxford.

No one who presumes to possess grandiose mental gifts should stoop to lumping all believers of all faiths, or for that matter all Christians, or even all Baptists or Catholics, into a single mindless blob.

I wish these atheists would venture, say, into a seminary library. They'd find tens of thousands of volumes written by thinkers great and obscure across two millennia.

They'd find works by scholars who take every word of the Bible literally and works by others who argue that most of the Scripture is made up and that Jesus said almost nothing attributed to him. They'd find every gradation between those extremes.

They'd find the musings of Christians who are pompous, exclusionary and delusional. They'd find Christians who are tolerant and humble and pillars of common sense.

They'd learn that Christians were the driving force behind the establishment of public schools and the abolition of slavery, just as, regrettably, other Christians launched the Crusades.

Christianity is a big, organic, complex system of beliefs with a long, diverse history. It's not just one thing.

I haven't even mentioned the varying theologies, contradictions and contributions of Judaism, Islam or Hinduism.

If the new atheists are as bright as they claim, they ought not imitate the worst traits of the very people they consider their inferiors.

Paul Prather, pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, has a new book, A Memory of Firelight: Selected Columns From the Lexington Herald-Leader. E-mail him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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