The New Atheists: Do you know what you’re talking about?

Adam here.

Lately I’ve been catching up a bit on the New Atheists. I haven’t had time to read any of their books but I have been listening to some Richard Dawkin’s debates and just the other day I read a Playboy interview with Christopher Hitchens. As a religious person, I’m instinctively skeptical about the intellectual firepower of the New Atheists, and the agnostic philosopher-biologist Michael Ruse among other has has only reinforced this skepticism (apparently an agnostic can be down on his kissing cousin atheists).

So, what I’m going to try to do here is write up a series of posts addressing some of the New Atheists’ arguments as I encounter them during my research. Less I stumble into misrepresenting the opposition (something that would be hypocritical considering the title of this first post) I will address specific accusations of specific New Atheists. Let it also be noted that while I disagree with the New Atheists and find their tone and rhetoric noxious at times, I also have atheist friends who are exemplars of civility and I appreciate a great deal for their candidness on religious topics.

Who knows, maybe I’ll turn into an atheist by the time I’m done.

My initial objection is basically this: Christopher Dawkins (see, I’m dealing with a specific New Atheist!) doesn’t know the basic historical facts pertaining to Christianity. If debate is premised on a genuine clash of ideas, Dawkins misses his opponents by a mile– a debilitating fact for any serious discussion.

From an interview of Richard Dawkins by Playboy.

Playboy: What is your view of Jesus?

Richard Dawkins: The evidence he existed is surprisingly shaky. The earliest books in the New Testament to be written were the Epistles, not the Gospels. It’s almost as though Saint Paul and others who wrote the Epistles weren’t that interested in whether Jesus was real. Even if he’s fictional, whoever wrote his lines was ahead of his time in terms of moral philosophy.

This comment shocked me. Simply put, Jesus is THE ONLY thing that matters to the apostle Paul. Further, no serious scholar doubts the historicity of Christ. As Michael Ruse points out, “If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant.” The Playboy excerpt is admittedly short, but it demonstrates that Dawkins has a fundamental misunderstanding about the core of his Christian opponents’ position. Quite frankly, I genuinely expected more from a man who has built his reputation on the refutation of God. This ignorance is even more galling when Atheists cite studies that demonstrate that they are better versed in the teachings of religion than believers. But this is empty pride when one of their grandmasters casually “refutes” the foundation of Christianity with confoundedly inaccurate facts.

As it stands, Dawkins’ confusion over his opposition’s most basic beliefs starts the discussion off on the wrong foot and makes future dialogue cockeyed.

Dawkins’ errors aside, this brings up an interesting point about Western culture: it seems somewhat odd that Dawkins’ work would be so popular; after all, few people outside of Creationist circles would take seriously a book on science written by a theologian, but many people will read theology (Dawkin’s The God Delusion) written by a scientist. If anything this just goes to show the intellectual capital science and the scientific method have in our culture. Unfortunately this means that while we may have first rate science, we accept too easily second rate theology.

This is not to say that a scientist by training has no business thinking about theology or that a theologian ought to ignore the findings of science, but one ought to be careful to avoid the folly of refuting that which one has failed to understand. And for the love of God, if you’re going to go to battle with someone at least understand their position, which is a point both theist anti-evolutionists and atheist evolutionists would do well to heed.

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