I received two letters this week from friends/readers asking for input and advice on relating to atheists in their workplace/families. It brought to mind a number of things I’ve been wanting to say about evangelicals and their take on atheism.
When I was growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, the face of atheism was Madalyn Murray O’Hair. I knew three things about O’Hair: she had taken prayer and the Bible out of our public schools, she was trying to get religious programs off of television and she was a weirdo.
For years, O’Hair provided the face of atheism to America: an angry, ranting, God-hating, bitter old woman who wanted to force her bitterness on the rest of the country. The way to defeat O’Hair was simple: Christians needed to sign a lot of petitions and vote the right way when elections came around.
It was safe to say that few people wanted to be like Mrs. O’Hair, no matter what their case against God and religion happened to be.
In my collection of videos I have another face of atheism. It’s a “debate” between Frank Zinnser, an atheist and geologist from Chicago, and Dr. William Lane Craig and his three Ph.ds. It takes place at Willow Creek Community Church in front of a massive crowd of Christians. Zinnser is awkward and amateurish, raising freshman level objections to the Bible that have nothing to do with the case for atheism. Craig, polished, erudite, prepared and pracitced, mops the floor with Zinnser’s bad toupee and worse presentation. It’s a demolition job that’s hard to watch.
At one point Zinnser notes that there’s a bigger crowd for this debate than the usual attendance at the atheist luncheon. I’m sure.
The message for evangelicals: atheists are clowns. We can defeat them in any arena. We need not fear them because our team can eat their lunch.
I have a shelf of books responding to atheism. Ravi Zacharias. William Lane Craig. Tim Keller. No one can accuse evangelicals of ignoring the subject. Many of these books are written in response to the publishing onslaught of the new atheists: Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and many others.
One way the game has changed is that when you proclaim yourself an atheist today, you aren’t signing up with O’Hair and Zinnser and the atheist luncheon in the Chihuahua Room at the Peoria Super 8. Now you are identifying with respected scientists and journalists. Whether you agree with the new atheists rantings about the threat of religion to the world or not, it’s a lot easier to be an atheist. When John Lennox debated Richard Dawkins in the Birmingham Civic Center, Dawkins was cheered like a rock star by a very young crowd.
But I’m convinced the game is not primarily about arguments any more. As grateful as I am for Tim Keller’s great book The Reason For God and his two hour presentations on You Tube, and as happy as I am that David Bentley Hart and others have convincingly demonstrated the fallacies of the new atheist arguments, the truth is that the contemporary atheist doesn’t plan to play a game of 21 with our NBA All Stars. No, he/she is going to sound more like Ricky Gravais in the video above.
Atheism is just….easier. Occam’s Razor. Theism is too much trouble. It starts to sound like someone is trying to sell you something sight unseen. Isn’t your best move just to hang up the phone and ignore the call?
Douglas Wilson may be witty and William Lane Craig may be brilliant. John Lennox may teach at Oxford and Ravi Zacharias may be able to quote a dozen philosophers, but most atheist young people today are like Brad Pitt. Pitt was a kid walking the aisles in Baptist revivals, trying to find God in that mess when he met a Methodist preacher’s daughter who told him it was OK to just say no to it all. He didn’t have to live like that. He could call the torture sessions off and just be himself.
That’s what’s going on, my friends. I’m not zeroing out the big gunners, but I think it’s time to stop running from your kid’s professor and start thinking more about his friend who recently left his youth group and stop believing anything except the joys of rock climbing.
One of my letters this week stated that a 17 year old raised in an evangelical family was now an avid atheist, with many of the hijinks of evangelicalism as evidence of manipulation and control. He couldn’t mean take off your shoes and spin your socks over your head while singing “Jesus mess me up?” Why would that bother anyone?
Write this down: When the coming evangelical collapse happens, and especially when thousands of our young people bolt for non-believer status, a lot of it will be COMPLETELY DESERVED.
We addressed atheism with the wrong arguments. We didn’t ask ourselves how it looks to a young atheist. We never stopped to notice that if you are a 17 year old with serious questions about evil, miracles, prayer and the Bible you’ve got small chances of getting any help from most of evangelicalism. We’re having too much fun squalling at the President and feeling good about ourselves . By the time you find that book, talk, ministry, etc. that might help, you’re already beginning to suspect that this is the emergency room where doubters are taken for emergency injections of how powerful anti-atheism drugs and then sent back to the “Bless Us Real Good” Game.
Even traditions with deep and serious reflection on the issues that erode faith often keep those resources tucked safely away in a closet on the fourth floor of the house of faith where you have to ask permission to see them. Senior Youth Group: Visit atheists for a conversation or play Goofy Golf? Duh.
Our team looks good to us. Trust me, they don’t look that good to atheists. If you applaud the point-scoring at debates, you’re missing the point entirely. The fact that someone like Dan Barker (and there are dozens more) is out there at all, making it plain that the Christian journey has brought a crowd of people just like YOU to the point where atheism looked far, far better than what you were hearing in church and trying to live is all the ammunition that’s needed for thousands of people.
You see, evangelicals have made such outrageous assumptions and promises about happiness, healing, everything working out, knowing God, answered prayer, loving one another and so on that proving us to be liars isn’t even a real job. It’s just a matter of tuning in to an increasing number of voices who say “It’s OK to not believe. Give yourself a break. Stop tormenting yourself trying to believe. Stop propping up your belief with more and more complex arguments. Just let go of God.”
You can send an army against an army. What do you send against a group saying “None of this has any point. Give it up and go have a coke.”
Don’t think I am avoiding the case the new atheists are making. I take it very seriously. My students learn the Dawkins and Hitchens arguments by heart. They are deserving of the best responses we can put forward and we need to know what they are saying.
But I don’t believe the new atheists are making converts because they have a better argument. I think they are making converts because the fruit is ripe to fall from the tree, and we have little or no idea it’s happening. We’re setting up for the great ideological debate and the kids have found that it’s just more fun to have a drink with the non-religious crew.
Keller is still great. C.S.Lewis is still helpful. Craig is still impressive. But I’m not sure their arguments are on the right channel. Vast numbers of people aren’t asking for philosophy. They are asking what will let them live a life uncomplicated by lies, manipulation and constant calls to prefer ignorance to what seems obvious.
What we’ve said and written is fine. What we’ve lived in our homes, private lives, churches, workplaces and friendships has spoken louder.
We are the ones who appear to not believe in the God we say is real. We are the ones who seem to be forcing ourselves to believe with bigger shows, bigger celebrities and bigger methods of manipulation.
You can’t understand why some people just say atheism has about it the beauty of simplicity? You don’t see why Occam’s Razor is so powerful, even among students who have no idea what it means?
Pay closer attention. The game has changed.