ReVision

Fighting Our Own Battles

No one outside the camp is going to hold our place in the public square.

It may not seem like it, but the "new atheism" of Richard Dawkins, et al, does not represent the views of all atheists and agnostics.

Of course, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens have been very outspoken, and their outspoken and very public attacks against religion have embolded many bloggers and engendered many websites and organizations dedicated to the end of religion and the reign of "reason."

With a big rally planned for later this month in the nation's capital, one might get the impression that the entire nonbelieving world is aligned with this angry and intolerant crowd.

But that's not the case. Witness a very thoughtful article on the New Statesman website by Brian Appleyard. Mr. Appleyard reports a conversation over dinner among four nonbelievers - two agnostics and two atheists - in which the claims and rants of the "new atheist" crowd were ridiculed and rejected. Thoughtful unbelievers - such as John Gray, Alain de Botton, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Mr. Appleyard (the friends gathered for conversation) - are persuaded that Richard Dawkins and his crowd have it all wrong. There's much that is good in religion, and it's silly, unwise, and, at any rate, futile to think we could ever do away with it entirely.

Mr. Appleyard and his friends consider that the "new atheist" movement is becoming an embarrassment and a thing to be shunned by more considerate unbelievers: "Ultimately, the problem with militant neo-atheism is that it represents a profound category error. Explaining religion - or, indeed, the human experience - in scientific terms is futile. 'It would be as bizarre as to launch a scientific investigation into the truth of Anna Karenina or love,' de Botton says. 'It's a symptom of the misplaced confidence of science . . . It's a kind of category error. It's a fatally wrong question and the more you ask it, the more you come up with bizarre and odd answers.'"

Now I find this reassuring. There must be plenty of thoughtful, non-militant atheists and agnostics out there whom we could engage in substantive conversations about the claims and benefits of faith. If, however, we allow ourselves to become persuaded that the typical unbelieving response to our word of witness is going to be raucous laughter followed by withering scorn, we're not likely to take the risk.

We can expect to encounter such scornful types, of course. But my own experience suggests that if we can approach the topic respectfully, with an open and questioning mind, and willing as much to listen as to speak, we might be able to sustain some rich and fruitful conversations - even friendships - with unbelievers who do not wish to be identified with the "new atheism."

Indeed, we might even hope that thoughtful unbelievers will put the new atheists in their place, thus making sure that our faith receives the respect and place at the table we like to think is our due.

Don't count on it. Even thoughtful unbelievers view religion as the product of fear and ignorance: "Religion is not going to go away. It is a natural and legitimate response to the human condition, to human consciousness and to human ignorance." Religion, in the view of Mr. Appleyard and his friends, still does not rise to the level of "reason" as a legitimate arbiter of truth. There are many ways of knowing, Mr. Appleyard concedes, and religion is one of them. It's just not the final arbiter of truth.

You have to be ignorant and somewhat short on "reason" to be religious, but thoughtful unbelievers are apparently willing to put up with our ignorance in order to gain whatever of benefit might issue from our faith endeavors.

For the thoughtful unbeliever religion is a thing to be plundered, used, borrowed against, but certainly not allowed anything like a defining role in matters of truth or public policy. If the Christian faith is going to make progress in this secular age, we'll have to fight our own battles. No one outside the camp - whether intellectual or politician - is going to hold our place in the public square. We need to engage people and issues that concern them with an open mind, well-considered ideas, winsome and respectful determination, skill and finesse in conversation and argumentation, and a life that shouts the hope of glory from every pore and prospect.

Are you ready for such an engagement with the unbelieving world?

Related texts: 1 Chronicles 12.32; Acts 17.32-34; 2 Corinthians 10.3-5; 2 Timothy 2.24-26; 1 Peter 3.15

A conversation starter: "It's encouraging to know that most thoughtful unbelievers do not embrace the angry atheism of Richard Dawkins and the 'new atheists,' don't you think?"

T. M. Moore, Principal

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T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.