February 21, 2011

Why atheism is winning-4: The new and decisive shift by the new atheists

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous posts, I said that it is the firm knowledge that almost everything in religious texts like the Bible and the Koran are fiction that will destroy religion. But right now that knowledge largely exists amongst a small group of theologians and philosophers of religion and does not percolate out to influence ordinary religious believers who do not read their works. The clergy who deal on a daily basis with ordinary believers have some awareness of this knowledge but also realize that to disseminate it to their flock would cause an uproar and destroy their careers and so they keep it to themselves or discreetly share it with a very few of their colleagues and parishioners. As a result of this, beliefs that religious texts are mostly true have remained largely unscathed.

It is the new atheists who have upset the status quo. The new atheists are well aware of the power of this knowledge in undermining religion and have been using it in their attacks on religion, repeatedly pointing out that there is no evidence to supports its strong claims and that the religious texts are largely fictional and contradicted by science.

Doubts about the plausibility of god are not new. Many philosophers going back to the ancient Greeks argued persuasively that the idea of god made no sense and created all manner of logical contradictions. What those philosophers did not have were the insights provided by modern science. The rapid advancement of science that began with physics in the 16th century and joined in the late nineteenth century by dramatic advances in biology and geology resulted in deepening our understanding that the world works perfectly well without the need for divine intervention at any stage. The archeological findings in the late twentieth century that have shed light on human history have been combined with these other scientific findings to discredit the factual claims of religion.

The decisive new development is that we now know that not only is god unnecessary as an explanatory concept for anything, but that the Bible itself is false in almost all its historical details and that its main characters are fictional. What is new about the new atheism is that it is the new atheists who are taking this knowledge out of academia and intellectual circles and broadcasting it to ordinary people, to the believers in the churches and mosques and temples, using popular books, newspaper articles, radio, TV, films, the internet, in short any and all forms of accessible media.

I think that the new atheists are on the right track in thinking that the best way of fighting religious extremism is by attacking it at its foundations, the literal truth of religious texts, and taking that message directly to the general public. But it is undoubtedly true that this will result in moderate religion suffering irreparable collateral damage because they too depend, even if to a lesser extent, on believing in the truth of those texts. Even if I were sympathetic to the accommodationist idea of preserving moderate religion, I frankly do not see any way out of this.

As long as doubts about the existence of god and the truth of the Bible stayed within elite circles, it did not cause serious damage. I think that it is clear that the leadership of mainstream religions is well aware of the danger that this knowledge presents if it became widely known. This is why there has been such a strong reaction to the new atheists amongst the religious hierarchy. They cannot, of course, argue that the new atheists are wrong on the facts because they realize we are right. They want to avoid at all costs a debate on the historical truth of the religious texts because that would only give more publicity the fact that is false. Instead they attempt diversionary tactics.

One such tactic is to attack the 'tone' taken by new atheists and argue that we are not 'tolerant'. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom one could label as a religious moderate, has called upon his clergy to fight back against the new atheist message.

Clergy are to be urged to be more vocal in countering the arguments put forward by a more hard-line group of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have campaigned for a less tolerant attitude towards religion.

A report endorsed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warns that the Church faces a battle to prevent faith being seen as "a social problem" and says the next five years are set to be a period of "exceptional challenge".

Pope Ratzinger has also decided to come out swinging against what he calls "atheist extremism", an undefined quantity. What would he consider non-extreme atheism, I wonder? His top aide Cardinal Walter Kasper also stoked fears about the danger of the atheist message taking hold amongst the general population.

I am actually heartened by the responses of Williams and Ratzinger. It shows that the new atheists are having a major impact on the minds of ordinary believers.

Next: The battle for hearts and minds.


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I hold the same views, but...... when are family is sick and death is upon them, we wish/prey that a its doesnt happen, my point is we all have this feeling of a greater force - because we are weaked and looking for something magical to happen, its a belife some say god, I say because I think there is something more - which I cant explain, but I will not believe in a god, Jesus was a politian

Posted by on February 21, 2011 02:13 PM

as long as athiest extremism is in the form of books and mockery

it's not comparable to religious extremism of violence and murder

it's past time to put away childish magical thinking and pick up an actually good book.

Posted by nina on February 21, 2011 03:45 PM

No mainstream Christian denomination regards Scripture as literally true, and the biblical scholarship to which you refer is widely disseminated from the pulpit and in adult-education groups. Such groups regularly study such writers as Marcus Borg, Thomas Merton, John Shelby Spong, and Joan Chittister. The mass of Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians...and so not think of the Bible as a work of history.

Posted by Kathy on February 21, 2011 11:07 PM

Kathy, it is disingenuous, not to use a stronger word, to suggest that more than a very small minority of churchgoers are aware of, let along approve, the writings of eg. Spong. The vast, vast majority would be horrified by them if they were aware of them. And you know that as well as I do.

Posted by Steve LaBonne on February 22, 2011 08:27 AM


Have you personally ever heard your pastor say from the pulpit that the stories of Abraham, Moses, the captivity in Egypt, the exodus, David, Solomon, etc. have little or no evidentiary basis (and in fact that many of its 'facts' are actually contrary to evidence) whatsoever and are most likely fictional?

When you say that "No mainstream Christian denomination regards Scripture as literally true", what that means is that they are publicly willing to discount just those things that are obviously absurd (like the parting of the Red Sea) while letting people continue to think that stories like the exodus story are true in its broad outlines.

In private conversations with study groups and the like, the clergy may be willing to go a little further but as Steve says, the average person in the pew has no clue about all this.

Posted by Mano Singham on February 22, 2011 08:55 AM

Yes, I have heard my pastor say such things in homilies. And study groups and adult education discussions are not private conversations. It's true that most people aren't very aware of scholarly Scripture study (just as "most people" don't know history or geography very well). That doesn't mean that anyone's keeping this stuff a secret. It's public knowledge.

Posted by on February 22, 2011 09:35 AM


Your pastor is to be congratulated as a brave and unusual person. In all my decades of being a member of mainstream churches with very liberal clergy, I have never heard such things from the pulpit. And the Dennett-LaScola study suggests that most clergy would not dare to do so.

Posted by Mano Singham on February 22, 2011 10:15 AM

The pastors in that study are self-identified non-believers. More importantly, there are five of them. Inferring anything about "most clergy" based on five ministers is questionable.

My pastor is not an unbeliever, just like many, many people who understand the non-literal nature of Scripture. Also, it should be noted that believers are doing and promulgating most of the biblical scholarship undergirding your argument.

Posted by Kathy on February 22, 2011 05:01 PM


Could you give me the name and church of your pastor? He or she is so unusual in speaking openly about the lack of historicity of the Bible to parishioners that I would like to talk to him/her about the reaction of the congregation and colleagues and superiors.

The scholarship s done by both believers and unbelievers but that is irrelevant. As I said, believing theologians have defined god that is impervious to any counter-evidence so the existence of biblical scholars who are believers is not surprising.

Posted by Mano Singham on February 24, 2011 08:45 AM


when you say "no mainstream church" it is getting dramatically close to "no true Scotsman"! The Southern Baptists hold that the Bible is divinely inspired, and true in its entirety,. That's a church of 16 million. Is that mainstream enough? And although the Catholic church forbids the direct interpretation of scripture, how many priests to date have denied the process of trans-substantiation? In my experience, it is the black non-Catholic churches and a few others such as the Episcopals, United Church of Christ, and Methodists who are these days propounding non-literalist interpretations. But these non-literalist churches come in for derision. F'instance fundamentalists dub the UCC "Unitarians Considering Christianity".

Whatever be your church, Kathy, I wish you, and your fellow congregants, well, and hope there churches such as yours become the norm in the years to come.

Posted by Marichi on February 25, 2011 10:04 AM

" is the new atheists who are taking this knowledge out of academia and intellectual circles and broadcasting it to ordinary people, to the believers in the churches and mosques and temples." This is what I was refuting. Many believers are researching, writing, and publishing these books. They're in Borders and Barnes and Noble. No secrets.

Posted by on March 3, 2011 12:06 PM

I'm an atheist deeply in my heart, but I've done some studies. The fact is we as a group need to be more mature than religious folk and stay away from any attacks or undermining of church authorities; we should focus on calm discussion and pure reason to become out biggest "weapons".

Posted by Ondrej on July 14, 2011 04:53 PM