Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The New Anti-theist Atheism

Addressing the New Anti-theist Atheism
Dr. Kevin Shrum
Romans 1:18ff.

A new breed of atheist is on the scene. Smart intellectually, angry emotionally and vitriolic in their speech, these media savvy non-god gurus have invaded the airwaves, internet and print mediums with their message of anti-theism. Their starting line-up reads like an NFL All-Pro Team: Daniel C. Bennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; Sam Harris, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation; Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything; Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast; Victor Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos; and, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.

It is more accurate to refer to this new wave of atheists as anti-theists. Why? Because unlike previous generations of atheists and atheistic dialogue with theists where the issues of atheism and theism were debated mostly in the academic arena with a degree of tolerance and respect, Hitchens and company are not only self-avowed atheists, they are vehement anti-god crusaders. They are not satisfied with being theological and philosophical contrarians; they are like fundamentalist evangelists for their cause, using any criticism, medium and means to bury religion in general, Christianity in particular.

And if you don’t think they are being effective, think again. Due to the main-stream media’s love for all things that make religion look bad, these crusaders have been given countless hours of free time and space on radio, TV and in the print media, often lauded as courageous heroes for those who would think differently about human existence, science and God. Their books are best-sellers and are being widely read by people from all walks of life, of all different ages. This has caused the most basic questions concerning God’s existence to be raised both at the coffee shops and in the pew without benefit of counter-argument or balance. The minister unaware of this recent phenomenon will find himself speaking past his people and not to his people about the most basic of all truths: the existence of God.

The deficiency of this most recent wave of anti-god crusaders is that they raise no new issues, but loudly shout out the old, often discredited philosophical, theological atheistic concepts, as if they are unaware that many of their objections have not been addressed by the likes of J.P. Moreland, Paul Davies, Alister McGrath, etc. If, however, the minister and the average church member is unaware and unprepared for the aggressive nature of the new anti-god crusaders it could give the appearance that the ‘god-is-dead’ era of Ayers and Altizer is alive and well.

Three Friends
How does the communicator of biblical truth address this new wave of anti-theism? Let me introduce you to what I have come to call three old friends. I use the term friends because when I first read Dawkins’, The God Delusion, a cold, icy chill filled my soul as if I had been abandoned by that which was familiar and true. And though a philosophy major in college, I had to dig deep to think through these old issues in new and fresh ways.

Alister McGrath’s Laser-like Logic
The first friend is Alister McGrath’s and his little book, The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (IVP, 2007). McGrath has advanced degrees in both science (molecular biology) and theology and is a highly respected Oxford professor and scholar. Most importantly, McGrath was a one-time atheist who has embraced Christianity. This little book was so refreshing and clear in its argument that it helped me cut through the vitriol of Dawkins, Hitchens and company to the arguments themselves, arguments that I at once recognized as having been greatly discredited by sound philosophical inquiry, lucid reason and biblical exegesis. McGrath has reminded me that the volume of what is being communicated is not equal to the truth being communicated. That is, the louder one speaks does not make what is being said more true. In fact, McGrath expresses disappointment in Dawkins’ book because it doesn’t raise any new anti-god arguments, but simply recounts the old anti-god arguments in a new package of language and mediums, with the volume turned all the way up.

Antony Flew’s Mae Culpa
The second friend is Antony Flew’s (with Roy Abraham Varghese) new book, ‘There is NO A God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind,’ (Harper Collins, 2007). Though Flew has yet to embrace Christianity as a whole, he has become a convinced theist. Flew is the same man who presented his landmark paper, ‘Theology and Falsification,’ in 1950 at the Oxford University Socratic Club, chaired by C.S. Lewis himself. How Flew experienced this conversion was helpful to me.

Flew acknowledges the three questions that relentlessly penetrated his anti-god stance that he couldn’t ignore. In Flew’s own words, “I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source. Why do I believe this, given I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science. Science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature.”[1]

The first question is the question of order verses chaos, the laws of nature. What Flew couldn’t deny was that nature operates by laws that both the theist and atheist depend on in order to conduct scientific experiments and, then, to speak intelligently about these processes. These laws were not assigned to nature, but came out of nature itself, as if they were intentionally built-in to the processes of nature. The questions like, ‘Who wrote these laws?’ and ‘Who encoded them into the natural processes?’ have always been a mystery to the atheistic scientist? Flew could no longer deny that the laws of nature were not by-products of natural selection but the result of the intentional act of a ‘Law-giver.’

The second question that confronted Flew was the teleological question. That is, why is there purpose to creation, in particular the emergence of ordered, well-structured, intentional, purposeful life? What Flew acknowledges is that his weak, anti-god arguments for explaining the derivation and direction of life simply couldn’t hold up under the weight of the evidence that pointed to a ‘Life-giver.’ Recent developments in DNA research became the ‘tipping point’ for Flew. So, add to Flews’ conclusion of ‘Law-giver’ the truth of ‘Life-giver’ or ‘Life-producer.’

The third, most devastating question to Flews’ atheistic posture was the very existence of nature itself, or the ontological question, the question of being. In brief, why is there something instead of nothing? Why is there anything at all? Again, the atheistic arguments for the existence of either an eternal universe or the Big Bang theory didn’t remove the many questions as to why things exist at all. Flew argued that even if the universe was eternal, how did this come to be? And, even if a person accepts the Big Bang theory, who or what created the conditions for this event? Flews’ conclusion is that God creates life. So, add to ‘Law-giver,’ Life-giver,’ the truth of ‘World/Universe-Creator.’

Biblical Exegesis (Romans 1:18ff.)
The third friend is scripture itself. This is where the communicator of biblical truth must trust the efficiency and sufficiency of the text. While McGrath and Flew are helpful, it is God’s Word that will win the day. Biblical fidelity reminds us that time and truth and text and truth are good companions. We must be patient in standing by the arguments for God’s existence that scripture itself offers. This was Paul’s source of confidence in Athens enabling him to say (Acts 17:23), “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Either Paul is delusional or he knows something that is true.

If we take Flews’ three questions as a starting point, we find a response to these questions in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. To the question of the laws of nature we can respond from Romans 1:19-20, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” The order we see in nature is reflective of the order we come to see in God. The laws of nature, then, are not the by-product of a natural order frantic to survive, but the intentional and deliberate laws that govern all natural processes.

Ravi Zacharis’ image of God as the ‘Grand Weaver,’ taken from his most recent book by the same title, is most helpful at this point. As the master tapestry-maker, God uses, so to speak, weaving techniques to weave together a creation with purpose and definition. The laws of the weaver are not a by-product of a pile of disassembled threads, but the deliberate weaving laws of a purposeful weaver. These laws allow the weaver to tie together disparate threads into a cohesive whole.

To Flews’ second question (teleological) – the question of organized, purpose-driven life – we can answer from Romans 1:20, as well, where the Apostle Paul notes that God’s existence has been known since creation. That is, the order we see in nature’s laws push us to acknowledge that not only does God exist but that life is not the accidental by-product of random selection, but the willful act of an all-powerful, purpose-giving, intelligent, organized God. Creation was created for a purpose. Psalm 19:1 states, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.” The handiwork of God is indicative not only of order, but of purpose. If God is the Grand Weaver, we would say that He uses different weaving techniques (the laws of weaving) in order to make a tapestry that reflects a purposeful image (order and organization).

Finally, to Flews’ third question (ontological) – the question of why anything exists at all – we can answer with the similar words of Romans 1:20 ‘creation’ and 1:25 ‘Creator.’ Things exist because God wills or causes them to exist. Theologians use terms like ‘creatio ex nihilo,’ or ‘creation by divine fiat.’ The tapestry exists because the Grand Weaver, out of the overflow of His own power and glory (see Jonathan Edwards at this point in ‘The End for Which God Created the World’), creates for His own purposes and glory. Creation exists because God willed it to exist. He alone sustains it, governs it and rules it for His purposes. To suggest that creation produces an ill-logical concept of a god as a default position that explains creation is, as Paul would write in Romans 1:21, foolishness.

A Word to the Wise
The communicator of biblical truth cannot ignore the recent anti-theist phenomenon. These philosophical debates are no longer quarantined to academic environs, but have been popularized by media savvy anti-theists. Yet, the minister of God’s Word can trust the truth of scripture, aided by redeemed reason. The communicator of biblical truth must remember that time and truth and time and text go well together. The steady, relentless, well-reasoned, scripturally-based presentation of the truth of God’s Word will never return void, even in the face of such emboldened anti-theist atheism.

[1] Flew, Antony, There is A God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, (Harper Collins: New York, 2007), pp. 88-89.