In recent years, the New Atheism has made waves in attacking Christian theism. Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explored this movement, its roots, and its impact on current culture in a lecture titled “The Disappearance of God” on Saturday afternoon at our 2010 regional conference in Washington D.C.
The Current State of Affairs
It is hard to be a faithful Christian in a post-Christian culture. Some would wonder if we have touch with reality when we claim the culture is post-Christian. Secularists are adamant that this is not a post-Christian culture. There are enclaves, of course, where it might not seem that this is not a post-Christian culture. But if one has any discernment, then our society is by any definition a post-Christian culture, especially considering its leading figures and their ways of thinking.
For many, the problem of a post-Christian culture is not urgent. If you are a young American between 18 and 30, however, this state of affairs is normal. It is a world that university campuses have seen coming for a long time. It is the world of the cultural elite. It is the world of many on the east and west coasts of America.
The April 4, 2009, issue of Newsweek looked at some recent statistical analyses in its cover story on America as a post-Christian nation. The American Religious Identification Survey, put together by reputable centers of research, asked how people identified themselves. It was a question about who do you think you are. Between 1990 and about 2005 or so, the number of those who self-identify as Christians declined by about ten percent. In the world of demographics and statistics about populations, that decline is massive and breathtaking.
Other surveys indicate that the number of those identifying themselves as atheists or agnostics is growing at about the same rate. There is also a tremendous growth in the number of those who do not identify any view of religion at all as being their own. These nones are the fasting growing component in terms of American religious self-identification.
Some secularists protested that the Newsweek cover story on the end of the Christian America was overblown because of the number of churchgoers in America. Many Christians said it was just secular Newsweek jumping on the grave of Christianity. But the article was not really about either of these. The end of Christian America has to do with the fact that the Christian worldview is no longer the standard frame of intellectual reference for many Americans — for the fastest growing number of Americans. Even more than this, it is the new normal for certain Americans in certain social placements.
The culture is shaped not in small town America, nor are our young people being educated there. It is being shaped and taught where culture is shaped and where young people live.
For the first time in American history, the northeast part of the country is more secularized than the Pacific Northwest. Historically, there was no evangelical witness in the northwest in any large measure. It has been the least churched part of America. But the northeast was an evangelized and churched area. It is where our national consciousness was born. It is where Christian passions were focused. It is the bed of American self-consciousness.
We are living in a culture very different from the one into which we were born. If such changes happened between 1990 and 2009, what does the future hold? We are looking at an unprecedented rate of change for our culture in the future.
The Four Horsemen of Modernity
We cannot talk about these changes without pointing to the four horsemen of modernity: Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud.
Marx explicitly rejected the Christian worldview and its message of sin, redemption, eschatology, and more. He replaced every major Christian doctrine with a Marxist alternative. It is tempting to think that the fall of the Soviet Union and capitalism in China ended Marxism, but its intellectual changes are still with us. They are still situated in the minds of the elites, in the intellectual life in America, especially on college and university campuses.
Darwin introduced a worldview, like Marx did, that provided an alternative to every Christian truth claim. It redefines humanity and origins. The chief thrust of Darwinism has now grown into a denial of any special status for humanity. Natural selection, evolutionary progression, and so on replaced providence, the fall, and much more. Darwinism was the final cement authorizing scientism as a worldview. Liberation of humanity in this view comes by autonomous science.
Nietzsche said there is no truth, only power. There is no good and no evil. He saw that Christianity represents the chief opposition to his views. He said modernists lacked the courage of their convictions. All that is left in his worldview is power. Nietzsche said all claims to truth are disguised claims to power. When they promote truth, they are trying to reinforce their own power. Truth is merely that which will enable its adherents to attain and hold onto power. This view is dominant on the university campus, except of course when teachers who promote their own truths as absolute are doing the talking!
Freud authorized the assumption that all our problems have been inflicted on us. He not only removed humans from the biblical story of creation but also from moral accountability, making us all victims. After Freud, the problem is outside of us and the answer is inside us, which is the exact opposite of the Christian worldview. Americans now know that they are sick, not fallen. As an example of the pervasiveness of all this, there is such a debate over the Diagnostic Manual for Psychiatrists because every potential human problem is being reduced to something that can be medicalized. It is becoming harder to determine what is and what is not an illness. Sin is a disorder caused by something else, not our own fallen nature. Society is more and more medicalizing sin and then, once a condition is deemed not an illness, it is made normal.
Driving the disappearance of God is secularization — the transformation of a reality from one that had a supernatural reference or framework to one that has no binding supernatural referent, authority, or framework. In the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, many elite thinkers thought we were on an inevitable course of secularization wherein a wholly secular society would be created.
As science advances and things become more known — as ignorance gives way to knowledge — it was thought, room for the supernatural would disappear. Undergirding this was the assumption that theism was at one time necessary and was passed on as an inherited idea only, not as something that people would choose when presented with other alternatives. It was also assumed that religion could be reduced to a social function alone. In other words, religion leads to social cohesion. But, these proponents of secularization said, we will evolve to a point that we do not need it for this purpose any longer.
These thinkers looked for a shift from belief to unbelief, not disbelief. Disbelief represents a self-conscious rejection of the supernatural. Unbelief is a lack of commitment to the supernatural or a lack of belief in it. It is far easier to shift to unbelief than active disbelief. It was believed that unbelief would become ascendant and that everything would be secularized — marriage, time, work, and all else. Did this happen? The answer is yes. But not as they foresaw.
It does explain Western Europe and what has happened there, as well as those parts of the world that are European without being in Europe (for example, Canada). Less than ten percent of people in Western Europe believe in God if the term God has any theistic content.
But how do you explain America, where even today seventy-six percent of Americans claim to be Christians. Churchgoing rates are larger here than Europe. More Americans attend church than attend all sporting events put together. The opposite is true in Europe in the extreme.
Yet there are enclaves in America that are more European than other parts of the country. The closer you get to the coast in this country, the greater the increase in secularization. The Midwest and interior are different.
The distribution of secularization is more uneven socially in America. In Europe, it is not the case that the farmer will be less secularized than the university professor. In America, this is almost uniformly the case. American college and university campuses are the most secularized spaces in the country. Second to these schools in terms of secularization are the culture-shaping places of the country. Cultural creatives like businessmen, actors, writers, and so on are highly secularized. And these spaces and people have far more influence on the culture than the non-secularized regions and persons in society.
Peter Berger is one of the most influential religious sociologists in America today. Once he was sure of the secularization hypothesis, but now he is sure that the theory was off in its assumption of seclarization’s universal impact. He notes that America is a nation of religious people ruled over by a group of secularists. This is indeed the case. The ruling class is thoroughly secularized, but not the “common people.”
The New Atheism represents one of the footholds of secularization in America. There have been self-conscious atheists for centuries, but they were atheists of a specific kind who did not believe in the Christian religion or the Jewish religion. These atheists also were generally indifferent toward religion.
New Atheists are different and hostile toward all religions. Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s most influential evolutionary biologists, Sam Harris, formerly of Stanford University, Christopher Hitchens, the British literary figure, and Daniel Dennett, professor of psychology at Tufts University, are the major writers in the movement of New Atheism.
Seven reasons why New Atheism is new:
1. An unprecedented new boldness. Their books are bestsellers that spawn bestsellers. They state their claims boldly and are proud of being atheists.
2. Clear and specific rejection of the God of the Bible. New Atheists have said the biblical God is the only one worth denying because He is the only one with relevance in the west. Based on science, reason, and morality, this God should be rejected. They say the biblical God is immoral.
3. Clear rejection of Jesus Christ. Older atheists ignored Jesus or acknowledged Him as a great moral teacher. New atheists point out how intolerant Jesus is in the book of Revelation, and they deny Him any status in their worldview.
4. Clear claim to scientific argument. Especially Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris, these men say belief in God is unthinkable because to acknowledge Him is to reject the knowledge given by modern science.
5. A refusal to accept moderate forms of belief. Secularists in the 20th century were convinced that liberal theologians were their friends. They realized that liberal theology is just a way of moving into atheism without acknowledging what you are doing. New Atheists refer to them as the cultural enablers of the real believers.
6. An assault on religious toleration. New Atheists say religious liberty is something that we cannot afford. 7. The identification of the catechizing of children as a form of child abuse. Richard Dawkins is trying to pass a law in Great Britain against teaching the faith to one’s kids.
Are the New Atheists winning? In one sense the answer is no, for we who are theists have more numbers than they do. But that is not how we should evaluate their influence. Dawkins does not care about what we think. Sam Harris does not want to turn the PCA into an atheist denomination. They think we will die out. They want our children. They figure that our children will become atheists when they watch Hollywood’s products, go to the university, or move to the city. Their strategy is to make theism unthinkable among the cultural elites and those who aspire to join their ranks — like our children.
The greatest analysis of the trajectory all this is in the work of Canadian thinker Charles Taylor. He identifies three different sets of conditions of belief:
- Impossible not to believe. For most of the history of the West there was no other explanation for why things exist and for why things rise and fall other than that God created, rules over, and shows Himself in the world. Most of our ancestors did not see the non-existence of God a possible belief prior to the Enlightenment.
2. Possible not to believe. You may choose to believe in God or not. You can be a believing theist with a doctrine of creation and so forth, but you can also have an atheist understanding. The Enlightenment provided an alternative reality allowing you to operate in society without affirming God and His reign. From the Enlightenment to the end of the 20th century this was the case for most of Western culture.
3. Impossible to believe. This is not true of all places everywhere, but it is true where the intellectual elites and cultural creatives gather. This is the future. Theism is now unthinkable among the elites. This is what the New Atheists want.
Berger said the biggest problem for most American Christians is not atheism but cognitive contamination. Our worldview is being contaminated by radically un-Christian principles without our knowing it. We are being secularized unawares as we take university courses, watch movies, and so on.
Christian Smith wrote Soul Searchers in 2005 about those who were between 13 and 18 at the time, and he is producing successive volumes on these people as they age. His diagnosis is that most young people are unified under the view of moralistic therapeutic deism. Most believe there is a God who wants us to be good and behave, wants us to feel good about ourselves and be healthy, and who isn’t involved in our lives until we need Him in an emergency. Unfortunately, young people in evangelical churches are not necessarily affirming anything different from this. They are picking up moralistic therapeutic deism from our pulpits and Sunday School classes. We have met the enemy and it is ourselves in far too many cases. This should be a bigger concern to us than the New Atheists. It is about moving into atheism while still feeling like and believing that we are Christians.
I fear that in a few years another analysis will tell us that the engine of secularization is not only be the secularists but also many who claim to be Christians even as they preach, teach, and lead by example and precept in a way that allows cognitive contamination to move people slowly and imperceptibly out of Christianity and into what can only be called atheism. Most of our neighbors live as if God does not. If the church of Jesus Christ does not live so obviously by the fact that we believe that He does live, then secularization is our fault.