Rev. Samuel Krouse, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Colusa, California, has written a revealing article (link expired) on the “new atheism.” In it, he acknowledges several pivotal points long denied by most religious leaders and apologists:
- Atheism is far more predominant among the intellectual elite than the general population.
- New atheism represents a serious and ongoing challenge to Christianity that cannot be ignored.
- Atheists can have hope. In his words, they are “ambitious in hope.”
- Atheists are well aware of what they have rejected.
- There is no substantive philosophical position between biblical literalism and atheism.
Let’s discuss. These are simply stunning concessions from a Baptist pastor. Of course he sees the “new atheism” as a call-to-arms, but it’s not at all clear that he thinks it’s a battle that can be won. I can’t possibly read his mind. But reading between the lines of his editorial, it seems questionable to me that he intellectually believes in God. As Daniel Dennett has pointed out, professions of God-belief are not the same as belief itself. As a philosophy major (with a Ph.D.), Krouse knows he has a problem. As a pastor, he has to stick to his profession. I find his situation extremely intriguing, and I’d enjoy talking with him about it.
Point 1: Krouse reports atheists as a tiny minority of the population. While he correctly asserts that more intellectuals are atheists, he stops short of admitting the corollary that rational arguments lead to atheism. He also ignores the modern continuum of disbelief which includes the “spiritual but not religious” (updated link) category. Roughly, it goes like this: Theism > Deism > Agnosticism > Atheism. Adding up all the deists, agnostics, ignostics (people who don’t think the question is relevant to their lives), and atheists, it’s likely that the group of questioners or non-believers approaches 30 to 40 percent. This is the target audience for the authors of the “new atheism,” and this is why their books remain best-sellers. Books catering to the single-digit percentages (in America, at least) of hardcore atheists would not make such an impact.
Point 2: Many editorials written by pastors and religious philosophers are dismissive of atheism. They do not engage the arguments, and they fall back on typical tap-dancing apologetics. Krouse’ philosophy background makes him realize atheism is not so easily defeated. What’s interesting is that in spite of his larger philosophical concessions, he still tries to stick to the party line:
…the task is to articulate, communicate, and defend the Christian faith with intellectual integrity and evangelistic urgency. We should not assume that this task will be easy, and we must also refuse to withdraw from public debate and private conversation in light of this challenge.
It’s not really fair to fault the man for not laying out his strategy in a short editorial. But I’ve yet to hear any “defense” of the Christian faith which did not involve self-referential and circular scriptural citations, arguments from social consequence, or personal interior-subjective narrative. If he’s got a new angle, let’s hear it!
Point 3: Intellectually dishonest apologist writers (a few names come to mind, like Vox Day or Dinesh D’Souza) often try to maintain that atheists do not have hope. It’s a small scrap I know, but Krouse actually uses the words “hope” and “atheist” in the same sentence. The exact quote is “The New Atheists are, in their own way, evangelistic in intent and ambitious in hope.” He’s talking about atheists “hope” for progress of their non-theistic world view of course. But that’s still something to be hopeful about, and I thank the good reverend for mentioning it.
Point 4: The flimsiest of all the rhetorical devices used by religious writers is the accusation that atheists lack scholarship on religion. That they supposedly “don’t even understand what they have rejected.” This dismissive attitude is repeated ad nauseam in the popular media. While it’s true that few atheists have doctor-of-divinity degrees, it’s completely false that they therefore can’t understand theology. Two facts come to mind: 1) Rank-and-file atheists are far more facile with scripture than rank-and-file Christians, many of whom don’t even read their bibles. 2) Atheist scientists study religion from the perspective of social or brain-based phenomena. Dawkins, Pinker, Dennett and Harris fall into this category, and there are countless others. To understand them well enough to study them, such scientists must get deeply into the belief systems they are investigating. Still, the religious pull out their faithful old saw. They are used to religion being immune to outside criticism or evaluation. You can’t comment on the activities of their club unless you’re in it, and you can’t get in unless you have a favorable opinion.
In the final analysis, the New Atheism presents the Christian church with a great moment of clarification. The New Atheists do, in the end, understand what they are rejecting. When Sam Harris defines true religion as that “where participants’ avowed belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought,” he understands what many mired in confusion do not. In the end, the existence of the supernatural, self-existent, and self-revealing God is the only starting point for Christian theology. God possesses all of the perfections revealed in Scripture, or there is no coherent theology presented in the Bible. The New Atheists are certainly right about one very important thing—it’s atheism or biblical theism. There is nothing in between.
Point 5: It’s really rich to see a Baptist pastor admitting what Sam Harris said in The End of Faith. There is no tenable philosophical position between literalism and atheism. Of course from a social standpoint, we can all hope that religions will moderate their literalism and extremism. Certainly the world would be a better place. But Harris’ point, which hasn’t been successfully challenged, is that moderates of all stripes make the world safe for extremists. They lend an air of legitimacy to belief as a state of mind. As Bill Maher is so fond of repeating on his show, “Once you believe in the talking snake, all bets are off,” or words to that effect. What Krouse is acknowledging is similar: that once you subject the premises of scripture (which are all based on presuppositions of divine inspiration) to scrutiny, you will eventually wind up being forced to make a leap of blind faith. Failing to make that leap leaves a religious person unable to prove or support their belief system. If all scriptures of all religions are equally unprovable (which they are), the unavoidable implication is that it’s a simple choice: either scripture or atheism. I think Krouse is perfectly accurate on this point. All the waffling ends up being simply an exercise in hedging and cognitive dissonance.