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Faith under Fire: Strategies of a New Crusade

Faith under Fire: Strategies of a New Crusade

“Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.” (Carolyn Porco, astronomer)

After four centuries of growing tension, the battle lines between secularism and religion have sharpened, owing in large measure to the efforts of Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. Determined to reduce religion to the ash heap of Dark Age superstition, the crusading troika delivered four flaming arrows this year.

In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett set out to defang religion with statements like this: "Everything we value — from sugar and sex and money to music and love and religion — we value for reasons. Lying behind, and distinct from, our reasons are evolutionary reasons, free-floating rationales that have been endorsed by natural selection."

By presenting religion as an outcome of evolutionary development, rather than as a framework about ultimate reality, Dennett hopes to “break the spell” of our religious enchantment. Come to think of it — since Dennett’s beliefs about religion are, likewise, the products of evolution, maybe he’ll disabuse us of those as well — but I wouldn’t count on it.

In October, Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation became a New York Times bestseller. Harris, who after September 11 authored The End of Faith — a jeremiad against religion — discussed his latest work with NPR, insisting that religion was irrational and dangerous, and that faith had no place in a country founded on reason (The last time this writer checked, the founding document of our country mentioned something about rights that are endowed by a Creator).

Early this year Richard Dawkins produced The Root of All Evil — a film that places all the world’s horrors squarely on the doorsteps of the church, synagogue, and temple. Presumably, Mr. Dawkins skipped class the week they covered the social consequences of Stalin, Khrushchev, Mao Tse-tung, and Pol Pot — all anti-religious regimes, by the way.

Most recently, Dawkins issued a clarion call to arms with his book, The God Delusion. Convinced that there are far more atheists out there than meets the eye, Dawkins aims to embolden the silent throng with nothing less than atheist pride: “You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled... Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind.”

Independence? Sure. Healthy? Only if you consider the greater incidence of suicide among atheists as healthy. But perhaps Dawkins’ most quixotic hope is that “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” Now that’s what I call a passion for proselytizing.

Clearly Dennett, Harris, and Dawkins are unsettled that three centuries of enlightenment have failed to rout religion from the cultural landscape. Their concerns are well founded. For today, two hundred years after the goddess of Reason was enthroned in Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, there are over 5.5 billion religious adherents in a world whose populace is less than 3 percent atheist.

While the three firebrands of militant naturalism are trying to convert the masses through a take-no-prisoners stratagem, others are suggesting an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach — well, sort of.

Research scientist and astronomer Carolyn Porco recommends that instead of denying humankind’s yearning for transcendence, science should capitalize on it. Acknowledging that religion fulfills an essential human need — otherwise, it wouldn’t have passed through the evolutionary sieve — Porco suggests that it is a need that can be satisfied in scientific inquiry.

Scientific discovery engenders awe and wonder by exposing us to the grandeur of the universe. Plumbing the hidden mysteries of nature, we gain a sense of meaning and immortality as we become aware of our part in the greater whole. This, says Porco, is the “greatest story ever told” — a story that needs its own “church.”

The church that Dr. Porco has is mind is a “Church of Latter Day Scientists” replete with ceremonies, communal worship, rituals (including baptism!), missionaries, apostles, and even its own sacred sites: research labs, particle accelerators, and observatories. There would be worship centers (museums, planetaria and lecture halls). It would use the media to spread the “word” — extolling the genius of Darwin and showcasing the elegance of evolution.

What would a church service look like? Dr. Porco gushes, “Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way... can't you just hear the hymns sung to the antiquity of the universe, its abiding laws, and the heaven above that 'we' will all one day inhabit, together, commingled, spread out like a nebula against a diamond sky?... ‘Hallelujah!’ they will sing. ‘May the force be with you!’"

Imagine, indeed — the Doxology replaced by the Obi Wan slogan? “Hallelujah” is not the reaction that struck me.

Although the anti-religiensa are sure to dismiss her ideas for “bad form,” Carolyn Porco unwittingly reveals a deep truth about their secular and materialistic ideology — it is, at its core, religious.

In a recent debate with a U.K. philosopher, I argued that his atheistic beliefs were just as religious as my Christian ones. Although my arguments focused on the faith necessary for the materialistic foundation of his secular humanism, I could have pointed to the themes in common with the biblical account.

Guided by the goddess of Reason, modern humanists crafted their own narrative, beginning with a Creation account called, “Cosmogenesis.” It goes something like this: In the distant past, a seed of quantum dimensions materialized and, then, exploded out of the pre-cosmic void. After a few quick phase transitions, and billions of years of nucleosynthesis and stellar genesis, a “just-right” planet formed containing a pre-biotic swill with all the ingredients necessary for life. In time, chemical evolution led to single-celled organisms which, after millions of years of natural selection, complexified and diversified into everything from the simple bacterium to the human mind.

After millennia of human and cultural progress, the fall of man came in the fifth century with the fall of Rome. As the light of Greco-Roman civilization faded, it created a black-out of literature, education, and scientific achievement leaving the Church as the sole centralized institution. Driven by its imperialistic vision, the Magisterium held the masses captive in the darkness of superstition and religious doctrine.

It would take over a thousand years for man to experience salvation. In quick succession, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton announced their startling discoveries about the universe — each, a flame that Descartes, Hume, and Kant fanned with their philosophies of rationalism, skepticism and empiricism. And as the light spread by the invention of Gutenberg, man discovered the Way to freedom and independence.

In the “now,” there is hope in a coming eschaton, when man’s perfection, and that of the social order, will be realized through our unswerving commitment to reason and the unfettered exercise of science. The unlimited potential of human ingenuity, once liberated from the morality of revealed religion, will free man from evolutionary object to evolutionary master.

Through the wonders of genetic engineering, cloning, nanotechnology, and cybernetics, we will advance from Homo sapiens to techno sapiens, overcoming the plagues of birth defects, disease and even mortality. With the power of our collective minds, and our perfected bodies, we will put an end to poverty, ignorance, and war.

It is a winsome account among freethinkers devoted to reason. Which makes it all the more curious that their favored narrative is one suspended by numerous articles of faith—things like materialism, cosmic inflation, macro-evolution, common descent, emergence, self-organization, unlimited progress, and reason as the sole source of knowledge—things that are non-falsifiable, but essential to the story line, and whose empirical evidence is scant to non-existent.

Then there are the religious trappings. In common with all religions, humanism has its patron saints: Voltaire, Charles Darwin, and Carl Sagan; its founding text: The Origin of Species; its creed: The Humanist Manifesto; its martyrs: Galileo and Daniel Dennett (!), who fancies himself as such because, as he puts it, he “risks getting poked in the nose or worse” for voicing his beliefs; its holy day: Darwin Day in celebration of evolution and its founder; and its evangelists: Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris who have all become quite the media darlings as of late. And — I almost forgot — its religious symbol: the Darwin fish plaque, available in assorted styles and colors.

Lastly, there are ceremonies. As advertised on the Humanist Society webpage, “In communities all over, individuals certified to our unique ministry stand ready to provide ceremonial observances of the significant occasions of life” (emphasis added). Among the ceremonies provided are: weddings, same-sex commitments, memorials, and “baby welcoming.”

By now it will come as no surprise that the American Humanist Association holds a 501(c)(3) exemption from federal taxes.

In the nineteenth century, Lord John Morley of England had a dream: “The next great task of Science is the building of a new religion.” Inspired by Morley’s vision, Sir Julian Huxley later remarked, “I was fired by sharing his conviction that science would of necessity play an essential part in framing any religion of the future worthy of name.” Huxley would emerge as a leading figure of humanism calling it, “a religion without revelation.”

So Messrs. Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett — which spell - delusion, or religion - should we dispense with? All, or all but yours?

Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a Centurion of the Wilberforce Forum. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at:

For Further Reading and Information

Read the preface to The God Delusion. (PDF)

Carolyn Porco, "The Greatest Story Ever Told," The Edge World Question Center.

Richard Shweder, "Atheists Agonistes," New York Times, 27 November 2006.

George Johnson, "A Free-for-All on Science and Religion," New York Times, 21 November 2006.

"A Cultural Cold Front: Bashing Religion," BreakPoint Commentary, 29 November 2006.

Regis Nicoll, "The Science of Design," BreakPoint Online, 15 September 2006.

Travis McSherley, "Religion, Believe It or Not: Breaking the Spell," BreakPoint Online, 12 June 2006.

T.M. Moore, "True and Rational," The Point, 15 November 2006.

Catherina Hurlburt, "Easterbrook on Dawkins," The Point, 14 November 2006.

Travis McSherley, "The Season for the Reason," The Point, 13 November 2006.

"Censoring Science: The Kansas Controversy," BreakPoint Commentary, 7 August 2006.

Read articles and BreakPoint commentaries on intelligent design.