Thank God for the New Atheists

Much has been written about the decline of religion and rise of secularism in America and the rest of the developed world. Prospects for a turnaround reside, paradoxically, with the New Atheists.

Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and colleagues ridicule scriptural passages that depict a vengeful, terrorist God and that sanction misogyny, homophobia, and child abuse. In so doing, they goad religious people and institutions to update our maps of reality.

The New Atheists may not be reaching literalists. Moderates and liberals, however, and those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” cannot so easily ignore their attacks. I certainly couldn’t.

The End of Faith by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins made me squirm. I am, after all, a preacher. My wife and I have addressed more than a thousand audiences as we’ve crisscrossed North America these past eight years evangelizing evolution. We initially steered clear of questioning the widespread practice of seeking guidance and inspiration in ancient texts. Now, however, we see the absurdity of revering unchanging holy books while modern discoveries take a backseat or have no seat at all.

And so my Sunday sermons now begin, “Today’s scripture reading is from cosmologist Carl Sagan.” (Pause for laughter.) “Science is, at least in part, informed worship.”

Lately, I’ve been getting even bolder. “The New Atheists are God’s prophets,” I proclaim in pulpits, podcasts, and blogposts. It took a diagnosis of cancer last September to propel me to this point. Graced with remission, this is still my core message.

The New Atheists, I suggest, are not enemies of religion; they are modern-day prophets. Prophets traditionally were those who chastised their people for having fallen out of sync with their time, with ‘God’s ways.’ “Come into right relationship with Reality,” they warned, “or perish!”

Today’s science-oriented atheists call us into right relationship with our time, and that means using all of our best information and cross-cultural experience.

Ours is a time of space telescopes, electron microscopes, supercomputers, and the worldwide web. It is also a time of smart bombs, collapsing economies, and exploding oil platforms. This is not a time for parsing the lessons given to a few goatherds, tentmakers, and camel drivers.

So let today’s collective intelligence revitalize our faith traditions! Let us rejoice in the discovery that the atoms of our bodies were forged inside supernovas, and let us celebrate this natural process as divine.

Let the story of evolution be told in ways that engender familial love and gratitude that we are related to everything—not just monkeys, but jellyfish and zucchini too. Let us marvel at how rapidly our species has learned to care and cooperate in ever-widening circles: from family groups and tribes all the way to nation-states, and now globally.

An evolutionary God can be as vast, as real, and as all embracing as our creative Cosmos and no more inclined than the Universe to take sides in matters of war, weather, or geological upheaval.

There will come a time when religious leaders derive guidance and inspiration from our common creation story and teach and preach the discoveries of science as ‘God’s word’. When that day arrives, our faith traditions will thrive and perhaps a few of us will look back and exclaim, “Thank God for the New Atheists!”

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  1. Human Ape said:

    “My wife and I have addressed more than a thousand audiences as we’ve crisscrossed North America these past eight years evangelizing evolution.” Please correct me if I’m wrong, but if I remember correctly, your wife is an atheist. If true, isn’t that interesting? “An evolutionary God can be as vast, as real, and as all embracing as our creative Cosmos and no more inclined than the Universe to take sides in matters of war, weather, or geological upheaval.” Your pro-science god fairy has a serious problem. It never had anything to do. Darwin showed that the worthless god hypothesis isn’t necessary to explain the diversity of life. So what was it good for? Obviously nothing, therefore your magic god fairy doesn’t exist. Scientific literacy is important, but eradicating the religious insanity that’s destroying this world is equally important. You, sir, are part of the problem. http://darwin-killed-god.blogspot.com/

    July 16, 2010
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  2. said:

    Darwin didn’t kill God. To the contrary, he and Alfred Russel Wallace offered the first glimpse of the real creator behind and beyond the world’s myriad mythic portrayals of the divine. I am neither a theist, nor an atheist; I’m an evidentialist, an emergentist – a religious naturalist. The concepts of theism and atheism came into use long before we had an evidential understanding of how the world, in fact, came into being, and before we learned that the Universe itself is creative. Given what we now know about big history, the 14-billion-year epic of evolution, the theist-atheist dichotomy no longer makes sense. Both presuppose a trivial, unnatural God and a Cosmos that is not itself divinely creative. Neither theism nor atheism are evidence-based approaches; they are belief-based. Theists say “We believe in God.” Atheists, “We don’t believe in God.” An evidential approach starts with the FACT that our brains are hardwired for relationships. We attribute agency to non-animate, non-conscious realities all the time. (Think of Tom Hanks and Wilson, the soccer ball, in the movie “Castaway”.) It’s what our brains do naturally, instinctually. People in every culture have relationalized or personified their world — especially those aspects of reality that were obviously more powerful than they were. We know of no culture in the world that has not personified reality as a whole or some significant aspects of reality. “God” is a personification, not a person. If we miss this, we miss everything. Evidence from a wide range of disciplines, from cognitive neuroscience to anthropology to cross-cultural study of the world’s myths and religions all support the notion that God is a divine personification, not a person. Indeed, there is no counter evidence. (This fact alone makes sense of the hundreds of competing stories around the world with respect to what God supposedly said or did.) “God” is a mythic name for “reality in all it’s sublime fullness”. Any so-called God that is imagined as less than this (it’s impossible to be more than this) is hardly worthy of our devotion, and deserves to be mocked. See here: http://thankgodforevolution.com/node/2010 and here: http://www.thegreatstory.org/god-reality.pdf and here: http://thankgodforevolution.com/node/2024 Whenever any story, any culture, or any scriptural passage claims “God said this” or “God did that,” what follows is always, necessarily, an interpretation. It’s an interpretation of what some person or group of people thought or felt or sensed or wished reality was saying or doing, and almost always as justification after the fact or to make a theological point. Such subjectively meaningful claims are never objective, measurable truth. In other words, had CNN or ABC News been there to record the moment of “divine revelation,” there would have been nothing out of the ordinary (nothing miraculous) to report on the evening news — nothing other than what was coming out of someone’s mouth, or pen, or whatever folks wrote with back then. If we fail to grasp this we will Our most dependable guidance are facts interpreted meaningfully. Historical, scientific, and cross-cultural evidence is the main way that reality (God) is communicating to humanity today. Recognizing and celebrating this will  transform religion and culture. Failing to do so will lead to our demise. So let’s roll up our sleeves and pool our efforts. There’s lots of good work to be done.

    July 17, 2010
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  3. Amit Parasar said:

    I just read this post recently and felt compelled to respond to it. “The End of Faith by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins made me squirm.” – I haven’t read Harris’s work yet, but let’s not give Dawkins too much credit. The God Delusion had moments of intelligence which should be expected from an intellectual like Richard Dawkins, however it was full of ranting and raving that oftentimes made it tiresome to read and proved that Dawkins can be just as irrational as the religious people he denigrates. I found myself thinking “get to the point” fairly often. He mocks theology such as writings by St. Gregory the Miracle Worker claiming that Gregory lacked lucidity, but then writes for pages about his memology and meme theory as if it sounds any better. “And so my Sunday sermons now begin, “Today’s scripture reading is from cosmologist Carl Sagan.” (Pause for laughter.) “Science is, at least in part, informed worship.”” – Science may inspire some to worship, but it isn’t worship in and of itself. Science is observation of the natural world and theoretical explanations based on those observations. Also Carl Sagan’s writings are not Scripture…period. “The New Atheists are God’s prophets” – Prophets preached for people to come into right relationship with God. It’s impossible for an atheist to be a prophet. “Ours is a time of space telescopes, electron microscopes, supercomputers, and the worldwide web. It is also a time of smart bombs, collapsing economies, and exploding oil platforms. This is not a time for parsing the lessons given to a few goatherds, tentmakers, and camel drivers.” – This is what C.S. Lewis referred to as chronological snobbery. Scripture’s lessons given to these people (who were not only goatherds, tentmakers and camel drivers, but kings, warriors, wise men and women of their time) absolutely have value for the modern world. That’s why these lessons have lasted millennia. They deserve a little more respect than what you’re giving them. Besides, what are you implying about goatherds, tentmakers and camel drivers here? Paul was a tentmaker and his writings have been venerated more and longer than yours. A person’s occupation does not necessarily make them less intelligent. Just because we are more technologically advanced than these people doesn’t mean they are irrelevant or unworthy of consideration and respect today. “An evolutionary God can be as vast, as real, and as all embracing as our creative Cosmos and no more inclined than the Universe to take sides in matters of war, weather, or geological upheaval.” – The Bible has demonstrated that God has been inclined to take sides. You seem to be talking about an impersonal, Pantheistic god. “There will come a time when religious leaders…preach the discoveries of science as ‘God’s word’.” – Since you say that you want “today’s collective intelligence to revitalize our faith” I’m going to assume that you aren’t totally throwing out the wisdom of the past (Scripture) since you use the term ‘revitalize’ rather than ‘found’, ‘establish’ or ‘produce’. However, I find your treatment of Scripture problematic. Science is the study of God’s work. It isn’t God’s word. In response to The Human Ape’s comment: “Your pro-science god fairy has a serious problem. It never had anything to do.” – Evolution explains the diversity of life. It doesn’t explain the origin, the very beginning, other than with unverifiable conjecture (this is the exact same criticism that science makes of religious explanations, but unfortunately it does go both ways). You forget that evolution is a theory however good a theory it is. As a theory, it requires a certain amount of belief or faith. I believe in evolution, but to say it explains away God or suggests that God has played no role in natural/human history is your presumption. In the Origin of Species, Darwin was arguing against the “creation after their kinds” paradigm as an explanation for the origin and diversity of life on Earth because it was a competing explanation for life on Earth with his. He was not arguing against the existence of God, but even if he was, he didn’t prove there is no God. Even Richard Dawkins puts himself at a 6 out of 7 on his atheism scale and will only say that “God almost certainly does not exist”. – I pulled this quote from my cousin’s grade nine biology textbook. It’s a perspective that both the religious and non-religious would be wise to adopt (note: when the quote refers to knowledge, it refers to scientific knowledge, when it refers to rational behavior, it means the scientific method): “…we must use all of the knowledge we are able to gain for our common benefit. Only then can we come to understand ourselves and our potentials better. In no way should such rational behaviour be interpreted as the denial of the existence of a Supreme Being: It should rather be considered by those who do have religious faith as a sign that they are using their God-given gifts to reason and to understand.” [Johnson; George B.; Raven, Peter H. Undertstanding Biology: Third Edition Wm. C. Brown Publishers, Toronto copyright 1995, p. 303 “Scientific literacy is important, but eradicating the religious insanity that’s destroying this world is equally important.” – Really? Is it religious insanity that’s destroying this world? I would sooner say irresponsible management of natural resources resulting in pollution and major environmental damage is destroying this world. I would say the greed that results in mass poverty and consequent suffering afflicting the majority of people on the planet is a far more destructive force than religion. Considering that most religions preach against such greed demonstrates to me that the morality offered by religion is more of a constructive than destructive force. I would say war is destroying this world. I’m sure you would blame war and violence on religion. Atheists like you love to blame religion for all of the world’s problems, conveniently forgetting the immense bloodshed that your fellow atheists like Stalin, Mao, Hitler and many others are responsible for. What kind of insanity would you label theirs? Certainly not religious. The truth is that people will fight with people that are different from them because they want what the other has and need an excuse to take it. Religion has been used as a differentiating factor for such ends, but it isn’t the only factor that people will exploit to kill each other. Race, political ideology, economic class, nationality, these are just a few differences that people have used to commit atrocious evils against one another. Even if religion was eradicated, people will find a way to destroy each other and this world. You, of course, are referring to the minority of religious people that can be labeled fundamentalists or extremists, but fundamentalism and extremism is not limited only to religion (see “The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine” by Alistair McGrath). This minority of people in every large group are hardly responsible for the destruction of the Earth. – It’s possible that you were only referring to religious extremists, but since you speak of God as a fairy, it seems as though you believe any spiritual belief to be insanity. I think it’s safe to assume you’re making an all-encompassing claim about the insanity of all religious people who may believe in the “god fairy” (very Richard Dawkins). In that case, to say that religious insanity is destroying the world is even more ridiculous. People may misuse religion for destructive ends, but I know many good Christians that devote their lives to caring for the poor. Moreover, it’s in their hearts to serve others in the name of Christ. Christians have been doing this since the beginning of Christianity. Failing to take this fact into account when you claim that “religious insanity is destroying this world” is not only disrespectful, but also makes you come off as the ignorant one. As for Michael’s claim that the “new atheists are not enemies of religion”, I think The Human Ape is a perfect example to the contrary. I value atheist critics of religion for opinions and thoughts that are completely foreign to me and occasionally make me seriously contemplate my faith, but to call them God’s prophets and hail their words as equivalent to Scripture is preposterous, especially since they would likely take offense to such comparisons.

    August 8, 2010
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