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A New, New Atheism?

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, December 8, 2009

By now, we’re quite familiar with the so-called “new atheism” and its primary preachers: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and company. These men have in common a deep digust for religion and a barbed tongue. Their approach to converting people majors in anger and attack, though, strangely enough, it claims to be exemplary in its love of reason. I’ve often thought that the communication styles of the new atheists might turn more people away from their cause than to it. But perhaps these atheists don’t feel obliged to treat people with kindness and charity.

Now, however, a new, new atheism has emerged, a kinder, gentler atheism, if you will. I had been vaguely aware of this new movement when an article in USA Today heightened my awareness. Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and an astute commentator on things religious, recently penned “Atheists need a different voice.” He highlights the emergence of the United Coalition of Reason, who are preaching the gospel of “Good Without God.” This also happens to be the title of a new book by Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at my dear alma mater. The stated mission of United CoR is:

The mission of the United Coalition of Reason is to raise the visibility and sense of unity among local groups in the community of reason, to create a national dialogue on the role of nontheists in American society, and to improve the way that nontheists are perceived by average Americans.

Notice, these folks are not, at least on the surface, trying to turning irrantional religionists into reasonable atheists. Stephen Prothero, who attended a recent meeting of the Boston Area Coalition of Reason, found that some of the rhetoric at the event reminded him of Hitchens and his gang. But he heard another kind of argument as well: “From this perspective, atheism is just another point of view, deserving of constitutional protection and a fair hearing. Its goal is not a world without religion but a world in which believers and nonbelievers coexist peaceably, and atheists are respected, or at least tolerated.”

Now that is a different from the old new atheist creed, hence my title “A New, New Atheism.” Another difference, according to Prothero, is the involvement and up-front leadership of women in the new, new atheism. He describes what happened at the Boston event:

There was one female speaker, however, and she spoke in a different voice. Amanda Gulledge is a self-described “Alabama mom” who got on her first plane and took her first subway ride in order to attend this event. Although Gulledge stood up on behalf of logic and reason, she spoke from the heart. Instead of arguing, she told stories of the “natural goodness” of her two sons who somehow manage to be moral without believing in God or everlasting punishment. But the key turn in her talk, and in the event itself, came when Gulledge mentioned, in passing, how some neighborhood children refuse to play with her sons because they have not accepted Jesus as their personal savior.

I find two things fascinating in Gulledge’s essay. First, though she was speaking at an event of the Coalition of Reason, her essay (PDF download here) is basically a powerful emotional defense of a life without religion. It ends, no lie, with a big “Group Hug!” as Amanda and her three sons embrace. Not exactly cold, hard reason here. As a rhetorical strategy, Amanda’s effort might very well win more converts than Dawkins’ acerbic “reason.”

The second thing that struck me in Gulledge’s essay was this line, referred to by Prothero in his article: “Three cousins and two neighborhood friends were not allowed to play with my children because we do not attend church or accept Jesus Christ as our savior.” Now that’s a great strategy to reach out to unbelievers, don’t you think? Not! Unbelievers will not listen to the good news of God’s love in Christ unless they experience that love through us.

As a Christian, I believe that we were created in the image of a good God, and that image remains, however tarnished by our sin. Thus people can be good without acknowledging God, even though their goodness actually derives from God. Saying that we can be “good without God” is rather like my daughter claiming that she can be a good actress without my help. Indeed, she is a fine actress, and I have not been her acting coach or director. But, then, there is the tiny little matter of her genetic inheritance . . . .

As a Christian, I also believe that our sin limits our expressions of goodness. Thus, we will only flourish in goodness when our lives are being transformed by God. This comes in the context of a relationship with him based on trust in Jesus Christ and lived in the presence and power of his Spirit. Those who do not know Christ will not be inclined to believe anything I just said unless they see in me a different quality of living.

I will close this post by quoting from Jesus:

 “You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. (Matthew 5:13-16)

Topics: New Atheism |

7 Responses to “A New, New Atheism?”

  1. Thomas Buck Says:
    December 8th, 2009 at 3:51 am

    It is tempting to promote an answering ad campaign with signs that say only, “Are they?”

    The treatment by some Christians of non-believers and even those in other denominations is sometimes appalling.

    May the Lord forgive us for the stumbling blocks we place in others’ ways.


  2. Evan Says:
    December 8th, 2009 at 7:57 am

    I am reminded of your “debate” with Christopher Hitchens on Hugh Hewitt’s program. As I noted then, Hitchens is a superior “knife-fighter,” especially since a pithy pronouncement in a British accent makes for a better sound bite. Tossing out “There isn’t a shred of credible evidence that Jesus ever existed” takes two seconds; explaining Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Emperor Trajan not only takes a while, it isn’t delicious, slashing rhetoric.

    The current trend in the national media is to divide between “Faith-based” and “Fact-based.” Indeed, this current group of atheists is the “Coalition of Reason.” The inference that Faith is divorced entirely from facts and reason is deliberately intended to be insulting. There usually comes up some variation of “You cannot demonstrate the existence of God using the scientific method, ergo you have silly Faith.”

    But have an atheist explain the origin of the universe, and you will get some variation of the Big Bang, which happened randomly and by chance. But what went “bang”? The answer is usually Hydrogen. And where did it come from? The answer is usually some variation of “It was just there,” which of course is just as non-provable by the scientific method as the notion that God was “always there.” In short, both camps have to fall back on Faith, either in “eternally present Hydrogen” or an “eternally present God.” I am not even suggesting that their Faith may be unreasonable according to their own processes of logic, but let’s not have any of this business that they solely use “facts” whereas the Christians abhor facts and leap blindly by a Faith that has no underpinnings in facts, logic or reason. Personally, a Creator who stamped us with a conscience bound by the metric of Good vs. Evil makes more sense to me than the origin of morality being Random Chance over Billions and Billions of years, but that is just my take on it.

  3. jjoe Says:
    December 8th, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    The idea that mankind can be good without acknowledging God is very subversive to many Christians, especially those who see all morality as being based on religion rather than an innate sense of right and wrong.

    I think the new atheists have found a pressure point, because if we think about it, we can all find examples of people who love their neighbors and, indeed, act Christ-like as a human can be, but who do not attend church.

  4. Fred Edwords Says:
    December 8th, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    In your post of December 8 you respond to Amanda Gulledge’s statement about how some children weren’t allowed to play with her children because her family isn’t Christian. You say, “Now that’s a great strategy to reach out to unbelievers, don’t you think? Not!” And I agree with your sarcasm. Yet I think your comment would be viewed by some Christians as missing the point.

    You see, for many it isn’t a simple choice between deciding to reach out or deciding not to. It’s about fear: fear that their children, carefully raised, will be exposed to alien ideas that may corrupt them. Also, many parents worry about similar consequences associated with sending their youth to secular colleges and universities. And some adults fear this for themselves, not wishing to be exposed to people who might lead them to question their beliefs.

    In sum, they aren’t necessarily being mean-spirited, or even poor witnesses for the faith. They may simply be making an effort to insulate, guard, and protect that which is considered valuable but vulnerable.

    Now this isn’t to suggest that all Christians feel so defensive. It is only to say that those who do are trying hard to keep the faith while living in what they see as a sinful world riddled with temptations.

    Such is my understanding of some motivations of some believers who may be leery of humanists like me. So I offer this consideration in case it might broaden a little the scope of your analysis.

    – Fred

    Fred Edwords
    National Director
    United Coalition of Reason

  5. Bonnie Says:
    December 10th, 2009 at 3:57 am


    I left a comment quite awhile back, after your debate with Christopher Hitchens on the Hewitt show. At the time, I wavered between atheism & agnosticism, but I was embarking on a personal, educational quest for the truth about many things, including history, science, and religion.

    While I had always been of the sarcastic, cynical type myself, I was impressed with your graciousness, rather than Hitchen’s “wit”. I actually became quite ashamed of myself for I saw, in Hitchens, a rather unflattering reflection of my personality. I started gravitating more to what you are currently calling the “new, new atheism”, as a somewhat “kinder, gentler” atheism. It allowed me a more flattering picture of myself, while maintaining my “reason”. Eventually, however, I felt I was just covering my old arrogance in a new wrapper.

    Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on one’s point of view, God wasn’t finished with me yet. After several years of study (including, “Can We Trust The Gospels?”), my “reason” forced me to conclude, against all that was comfortable for me, that Christianity is, indeed, true. I have been blessed by the Lord in having my eyes forced open.

    Of course, I am still very much a work in progress (conceit & arrogance are hard habits to break), but, I guess, the point of my posting this is to thank you, Mark, for your example in being willing to engage those of all viewpoints with an open heart. Also, I encourage all those whose “reason” prevents them from hearing God’s word to try, earnestly, to study with an open mind.

  6. Amanda Gulledge Says:
    December 10th, 2009 at 7:15 am

    Hi there!

    This is the “mama” from your article ;)

    I like the positive message in your article. Although we may be on different sides of the “belief” issue, we are together on the side of a more peaceful world.


    ~Amanda Gulledge

  7. Brian Current Says:
    December 11th, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    I don’t think it’s a kinder gentler atheism. Rather, it’s a kinder gentler person. For me, this is where I see where worldviews and human behavior collide. Our humanity, both our sin nature and our being created in God’s image, explains to me how a person can suppress the truth and deny God, even while they behave, in many ways, as if they do believe in God – by doing good deeds, wanting peace and truly loving their neighbor. I would say that they are not doing good just because it benefits society, it’s in our nature because we were created in His image. We know it’s objectively right to treat each other a certain way, if we are honest. I know there are books about the subject, and I’m probably not saying right, but I’m wondering if the “new new atheist” sees his or her behavior, grounded in objective truth, as conflicting with the naturalistic, atheistic worldview they claim to hold? And, isn’t it the job of the Christian to show that contradiction to our non-believing friends?


Thanks for your willingness to make a comment. Note: I do not moderate comments before they are posted, though they are automatically screened for profanities, spam, etc., and sometimes the screening program holds comments for moderation even though they're not offensive. I encourage open dialogue and serious disagreement, and am always willing to learn from my mistakes. I will not delete comments unless they are extraordinarily rude or irrelevant to the topic at hand. You do need to login in order to make a comment, because this cuts down on spam. You are free to use a nickname if you wish. Finally, I will eventually read all comments, but I don't have the time to respond to them on a consistent basis because I've got a few other demands on my time, like my "day job," my family, sleep, etc.

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