What I like about the new atheism
by Brian Trapp
Here is a continuing rumination on a conversation I had the other day with the erudite John Fraiser about the new atheism. For the most part, I abhor the new atheism. I think it is a cheap, irrational, and culturally unhealthy movement marked by the ironic combination of poor argumentation and philosophical triumphalism. The new atheists pair terrible arguments with preening braggadocio and hateful rhetoric, spawning legions of internet fanboys who mimic their poisonous style. If I want my faith challenged, I’d much rather read Hume or Ayer or Mackie. They actually force me into serious reflection on my faith, and I don’t have to suffer continual Dawkinsian-style insults. The new atheist movement is not a good one, and I think it’s a shame that they’ve been able to wield such cultural influence.
Nevertheless, there are things I like about the movement. Or perhaps I should say that the new atheism may have unintended consequences that I like. Here is a review for a new book that apparently makes the argument that at least one way Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al serve Christendom is by holding believers’ feet to the fire in regard to intellectual honesty. This is true and valuable, because I think many Christians tend to be intellectually lazy. From their perspective, they’re already in possession of “truth with a capital T”, and therefore they don’t think they need to think very much about their faith. When the new atheists point out that religious believers don’t have a solid intellectual foundation for their faith, they are partially correct.
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There are unfortunately very many Christians who are utterly incapable of giving a coherent reason for why they believe in Christianity (a fact that has no bearing on whether Christianity is true or rationally acceptable, however, a point I made to Uncle Skeptic on my old blog).
When an intellectually shallow Christian encounters the arguments of the new atheists, he must either (1) reevaluate the epistemic foundations of his faith and think critically about Christianity in a way he hasn’t done before, (2) stick his head in the sand and ignore their arguments, or (3) accept their arguments, leading to a crisis of faith and possibly unbelief. The new atheists want the results of their efforts to be (3), but I think they miscalculate that many Christians will take option (1). New atheist arguments, febrile as I find them to be, can have a strengthening effect on the church by driving individual Christians to a stronger and more rational intellectual position…
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