One of the most interesting phenomenon of the last decade is the popularity of the so-called New Atheists, led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. The New Atheists are “new” in the sense that they have recycled old arguments against the existence of God but marketed them in a pseudo-scientific package as part of an aggressively antagonistic view towards religion.
I have read books from each of them and there are two significant problems with their arguments. First, they attack a “strawman” view of religion (i.e. a literalistic, fundamentalist, narrow minded view of God). It is hard to engage with this type of argument as the “God” they attack bears no resemblance to the God I believe in. I would not believe in their “God” either. Second, New Atheists couch their philosophical arguments under the guise of scientific methodology. I have discussed before how this is a misleading use of science and does a disservice to both science and philosophy.
I happen to believe that the popularity of the New Atheists create an excellent opportunity for Christianity. As New Atheists are part of western popular culture it presents an opening to discuss religion and philosophy in an otherwise agnostic society. I believe that anyone who closely examines the arguments and vision of the New Atheists will find them to be contrary to reason and human experience. The materialistic, nihilistic vision of the New Atheists do not answer the questions that are deeply embedded in the human consciousness. Authentic Christianity is uniquely positioned to step into this gap, especially for intellectually-minded people in their teens and 20s who are in their formative years.
An outstanding current example of this opportunity is Laura Keynes (pictured above). Keynes is a descendent of Charles Darwin and John Maynard Keynes, famous British intellectuals who were at the forefront of the “enlightened agnosticism”. Dr. Keynes has a very unique story due to her background and education which she wrote about in an excellent article in the fantastic website Strange Notions. I strongly encourage you to read the entire article describing her intellectual and spiritual journey but here is an extended excerpt:
“Are you related to the economist?” people sometimes ask when they see my surname. I explain that, yes, John Maynard Keynes is my great-great-uncle—his brother Geoffrey married Margaret Darwin, my great-grandmother. “So you’re related to Darwin too?” Yes, he’s my great-great-great grandfather. Eyes might fall on the cross around my neck: “And you’re a Christian?” Yes, a Catholic. “How does a Darwin end up Catholic?”
The question genuinely seems to puzzle people. After all, Darwin ushered in a new era of doubt with his theory of evolution, and the Bloomsbury Group, of which Keynes was a part, influenced modern attitudes to feminism and sexuality. How can I be a product of this culture, and yet Catholic? The implication is that simple exposure to my ancestors’ life work should have shaken me out of my backwards error.
I’m a product of what Noel Annan called “the intellectual aristocracy”, the web of kinship uniting British intellectuals over the 18th to 20th centuries. In effect, a few families—united by location, shared values, and shared academic interests—enjoyed each others’ company and found spouses within a network of extended family and friends. That in itself creates a culture, and the culture of the “intellectual aristocracy” reflects its origins in freethinking dissent during the British Enlightenment: rational, scientific, academic, agnostic. Certainly this describes my immediate family circle, numbering several Fellows of the Royal Society, a Nobel Prize-winning physiologist, some notable academics, and one “Distinguished Supporter” of the British Humanist Association.
The BHA likes to play up the intellectual credentials of its supporters: it implies intelligent people reject religion. My family represents, in microcosm, the kind of society we should be heading towards, according to the general narrative of Enlightenment philosophy: as we all become more educated, more enlightened by the power of reason, religion should decline. Among my family members religion is seen as an anachronism at best, a pernicious form of tyranny at worst. So where do I get it from? (emphasis in original)
Keynes goes on to describe her religious background as a child. Her parents’ marriage was annulled shortly after Laura was born and her mother converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Her father was non-religious but not hostile to religion. Laura’s mother had become a Buddhist when Laura was in her teens and her brother rejected organized religion. Laura drifted into agnosticism during this period. Dr. Keynes then discusses how a deep questioning over the meaning of life led her back to Christianity:
“It wasn’t until my mid to late 20s, while studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford University, that life gave me cause to reassess those values. Relationships, feminism, moral relativism, the sanctity and dignity of human life: experience put them all under my scrutiny.
By this point Dawkins had sparked “the God debate” with The God Delusion, and my great-great-great grandfather’s theory of evolution by natural selection was being used to support the New Atheism. Aware that Darwin himself said, “Agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind” and “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and an evolutionist”, I followed the debate carefully. Did evidence for evolution necessarily imply atheism?
I was raised to know the evidence. In my grandparents’ home, scientific books and journals sit alongside fossils and family photos. Darwin scholarship is an ever-present topic of conversation at the dinner table. Visiting scholars point out the physical similarity between various family members and the man himself; one observed that Darwin and I share an identical mole on the upper left side of our noses, the exact same spot. Did this mean I had to be, in the words of Richard Dawkins, “dancing to the music of my DNA”?
I read central texts on both sides of the debate and found more to convince me in the thoughtful and measured responses of Alister McGrath and John Cornwell, among others, than in the impassioned prose of Hitchens et al. New Atheism seemed to harbor a germ of intolerance and contempt for people of faith that could only undermine secular Humanist claims to liberalism. Moreover, it could not adequately account for the problem of morality, discussed by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, without recourse to an inherently contradictory argument.
Conflicts, tensions, irresolutions, contradictions: such inconsistencies can be enormously productive for a philosophical mind seeking to understand how and why arguments are undermined. They lead us to truth. If atheism’s claim to the intellectual high ground is bolstered by my ancestor’s characteristic ability to explore and analyse inconsistencies in the evidence, that same family characteristic led me towards a skeptical assessment of what can and can’t be known absolutely. My doctoral thesis concerned epistemology, a branch of philosophy relating to the nature and scope of knowledge, and empiricism, which emphasizes the role of evidence and experience in the formation of ideas. In its concern with how we “make sense” of things—how abstract reasoning is based in bodily sense experience necessarily shaped by physical laws of nature—I apprehended an echo of the Catholic imagination.” (emphasis in original)
Dr. Keynes’ story highlights the opportunities that Christianity has during the early 21st century. We live in a post-modern era where the naive optimism from the Enlightenment and Modernism faded into the cynicism and relativism of the postmodern era. Cynics may claim that God is dead and that the young are disillusioned with organized religion. The latter may be true but there is a longing deep within each of us that can not be satisfied by a materialistic lifestyle or an individualistic outlook. Christianity has survived 2,000 years, often despite of its institutional manifestations, because it is based upon eternal Truths that address the deep intellectual and spiritual questions that all humans have. I would gladly have an honest skeptic read both Pope Benedict’s “Introduction to Christianity” and Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” as there is no comparison on the intellectual arguments and eternal optimism contained in the former vs. the latter.
Proudly proclaiming these ideals, in the context of an open respectful debate with non-believers and the broader society, presents a tremendous opportunity for Christianity as Dr. Keynes’ example indicates. However, this engagement must be done in a way that speaks to the authentic questions, both intellectual and spiritual, of seekers. As I stated in an earlier article, this consists of four aspects:
1. Have a thorough knowledge of Christian faith.
2. Have a solid knowledge of science that is often a common language of seekers.
3. Respect the legitimate concerns of non-believers.
4. Most importantly, live the Gospel by loving God and neighbor.
In many ways, Dr. Keynes’ journey mirrored my own (OK, other than the famous heritage, Oxford philosophy education, gender and generational differences and that my “reconversion” happened a decade later than hers :-). However, I do not believe our story is unique. There are many other seekers out there that need to be engaged intellectually and spiritually by Christians. Even if they ultimately do not become Christians, the engagement will have a positive effect on decreasing the antagonism in current society and increasing our awareness that we are part of a common human community.
As Dr. Keynes concluded in her article: “My journey back to faith was as much a movement of the heart as a thoroughgoing intellectual inquiry. It had to be both.”