- Thursday, July 31, 2008
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Atheism Remix by Albert Mohler (Crossway).
Chapter One: The New Atheism and the Endgame of Secularism
Several years ago, I attended a lecture in which I seized upon a thought that has never left me. The lecturer was Doctor Heiko Obermann, the great and now late historian of the late Medieval and early Reformation eras. In the midst of his lecture, he looked out at the audience, paused, reflected, and then said, and I paraphrase, “I can see that you do not understand what I am saying to you. What I am saying to you is that you do not live life as Martin Luther lived life. You do not wake up in the morning as he did, nor do you go to bed at night as he did. You need to understand something about changed conditions of belief. Do you not understand that in the time of Martin Luther, almost every single human being in European civilization woke up afraid that he would die before nightfall? Eternal destiny was a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute thought. Every night, as the late Medieval or early Reformation human being closed his eyes, he feared that he would wake up either in heaven or in hell. You do not live with that fear. And that means that your understanding of these things is very different from Martin Luther’s. That’s why he threw ink pots at the Devil, and you close your notebook and sleep well at night.”
This whole idea of “changed conditions of belief” takes on new importance when we consider the movement that we now call the New Atheism. Something has happened in our culture, and it is now impossible to miss. Something has changed, and that change can be easily measured by the sales of books. The sales figures of books written by the New Atheists—the most notable being Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—are simply astounding. Their books are selling by the millions, and three of these authors have produced books that remained on the New York Times’ best-seller list for a matter of months, not weeks. In the history of books about atheism nothing like this has ever happened. Atheism has long had a niche audience, but it has now become a mass phenomenon in terms of publishing and media attention.
Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a network news anchor in which he made the off-hand comment, “If I were you, I would give these fellows a great deal of attention.” When a network news anchor is advising theologians to give attention to a cultural movement, it is indeed probably time to start paying attention. The prominence of the New Atheists in the media, multiplied by their influence among the academic and intellectual elites, means that the New Atheism presents a significant challenge to Christian theology—a challenge that demands our closest attention.
* * *
One of the key questions to ask about the New Atheism is, “What makes the New Atheism new?” Before launching too far into our interaction with this new challenge, we should recognize something from the very outset: atheism is not new. David said in the psalms, “The fool says in his heart, there is no God,” (Ps. 14:1). Even that statement, however, assumes something different from what faces us today. In the ancient world and throughout most of human history, the question was never whether or not there is a God, but which god is God? Thus, in the Old Testament, one of God’s most insistent purposes is to make clear that he is the only God, and that he will tolerate no other. That is a very different question from what is being asked today.
The word atheism did not appear in the English language until the sixteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary documents the first use of the word to 1568, when it was coined (or borrowed from another language) by Miles Coverdale. In a fairly short time, the word made its way into more common usage. Even then, it was used to describe a phenomenon that was thought to be very new—the denial of belief in God. The outward, straightforward, public rejection of belief in theism was so new at that time that it required a new word. It’s interesting to note that this happened in the wake of what is now known as the Elizabethan Settlement. Elizabeth I of Great Britain decided to settle the strife of the Reformation struggles by declaring a sort of religious toleration. “I do not intend to make windows into men’s souls,” she famously said. As a result, there was loosed within English society a degree of religious pluralism that had not existed before, including some on the periphery of society—mostly limited to the intellectual elite and some cultural cranks—who denied belief in any God. These people were considered dangerous and worthy of ostracism. In fact, they were considered worthy of a new word: atheists. Yet even after the emergence of the word in the English language there were very few people who actually denied belief in God.
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