Is Aggressive Atheism Ascending?
BY MARK A. KELLNER, Adventist Review News Editor
sudden rise in anti-religious bestselling books is a direct challenge to Seventh-day Adventist’s core beliefs in a creator God and the Bible Sabbath, seen as the capstone of creation week.
In the past 18 months, books such as "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation," by Sam Harris, British scientist Richard Dawkins’ "The God Delusion" and "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” by Daniel Dennett, have racked up impressive bookstore sales and gained wide media exposure, in part because the various authors issued harsh challenges to religious belief. Anglo-American journalist and author Christopher Hitchens is the latest to join the fray with a salvo titled: “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” The Hitchens book has occasioned a fresh round of debate and talk-show appearances for the author, who previously penned a screed attacking Mother Theresa, the Albanian-born Roman Catholic nun who died caring for the poor in India.
The militant stance that religion is, essentially, evil has drawn criticism not only from Christians, but also from “humanists,” non-theists who want to better their societies. Although the two can overlap, atheism represents a statement about the absence of belief and is thus defined by what it is not. Humanism, meanwhile, seeks to provide a positive, secular framework for leading ethical lives and contributing to the greater good. The term "humanist" emerged with the "Humanist Manifesto" of 1933, a nonbinding document summarizing the movement's principles, Religion News Service reports.
Some humanist leaders accuse militant atheists of the same “fundamentalism” authors such as Hitchens charge religious believers with practicing.
|ATHEIST AUTHOR: Christopher Hitchens, author of "God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," is the latest in a series of book authors to aggressively promote atheism, earning brickbats from some secular humanists. [Photo: Christian Witkin/Courtesy Twelve Books Publishers]
"We're not a unified group," Hitchens told Religion News Service in May. "But we're of one mind on this: The only thing that counts is free inquiry, science, research, the testing of evidence, the uses of reason, irony, humor, and literature, things of this kind. Just because we hold these convictions rather strongly does not mean this attitude can be classified as fundamentalist."
Biologist E.O. Wilson, however, wants to draw a distinction: Even as he complimented the "military wing of secularism" for combating the intrusion of dogma into political and private life, Wilson told a conference audience at Harvard audience that religious people "are more likely to pay attention to that hand of friendship offered to them ... than to have suggested to them, let us say, Richard Dawkins' `The God Delusion,' which sets out to carpet-bomb all religion.”
In his book, Dawkins likens philosopher Michael Ruse, a Florida State University philosophy professor who has worked on the creationism/evolution debate in public schools, to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister best known for his appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany.
Ruse, in turn, accuses "militant atheism" of not extending the same professional and academic courtesy to religion that it demands from others. Atheism's new dogmatic streak is not that different from the religious extremists it calls to task, Ruse said.
How should Seventh-day Adventists respond to the continuing debate, if, for example, a co-worker or (public) schoolteacher or university professor brings it up? Engagement may be part of the strategy, one theologian says, but first, worldviews have to be defined.
“If you say you believe in God, you are saying you believe in the supernatural,” said Kwabena Donkor, associate director of the Adventist church’s Biblical Research Institute. “[Dawkins] is saying the supernatural is not appropriate; this is where we have to approach [atheists].”
Donkor suggested that aggressive atheism carries forward the worldview found in the eighteenth-century “Age of Englightenment,” in which rationalism was supposed to trump other philosophies.
“Their worldview precludes the supernatural, our worldview includes it,” Donkor said. Aggressive atheism ultimately suggests a creation without purpose, and people need to consider the “practical implications” of such a viewpoint, such as the lack of a rational basis on which to judge good and evil, if there is no purpose to life, he added.
However, “a rational person can come to the conclusion that we are here for a purpose.”
According to Clifford Goldstein, an Adventist pastor and editor of the church’s Adult Bible Study Guide, latter-day politics are influencing people such as Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens.
“This is more of a response to Christians in the political arena more than anything else,” said Goldstein, who addresses some of Dawkins’ arguments in his Hope Channel television show. “It’s a backlash to what we’ve been seeing with Islamic fundamentalism, and [athiests’] perceived threat of the Christian right in America. It has been said for a long time that religion would just fade away, and yet if anything in the twenty-first century, religion is as strong as it’s ever been.”
Jack Anders, a Seventh-day Adventist who abandoned atheism decades ago, is a psychiatric social worker in Silver Spring, Maryland. His therapeutic background suggested a perspective on the rise of militant atheism: “The only way they can get away with it is to make a lot of noise,” Anders said of people such as Hitchens.
“I deal with families in conflict all the time; when there’s a difference of opinion, the voices get more and more strident and do everything in their power to win an argument.”
And while scripture instructs believers to “be ready with an answer” to those who ask about their faith, Goldstein notes that the argument is ultimately about faith, and not facts.
“There are apologetics out there in defense of God. It wouldn’t be too hard to get online and read them,” he says. “The arguments for the existence of God are good, as far as they go. If they were absolutely definitive, we wouldn’t need faith.”
—With reporting from Benedicta Cipolla/Religion News Service