My son and I have had many conversations on the “new atheism”, whose main proponents are Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Many aspects of the new atheism are alarming, chief being how rapidly it has spread and how widely and uncritically it appears to be accepted, at least among the 20- and 30-somethings.
The problems with the new atheism: where to begin? Dawkins and Hitchens state that religion keeps people miserable and is the source of every ill imaginable. The weakness of their argument is that they refuse to acknowledge any good that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, may have done for mankind. For example, the abolition of slavery in England and America; the end of the exposure of infants to wild beasts and the elements in the Roman Empire; the establishment of hospitals and orphanages and hosts of other charitable institutions; the recognition that all human beings have inalienable rights; sponsorship and inspiration for the greatest music, art, literature, and architecture of the last (at least) 1500 years: all are the legacy of Christianity.
In a recent debate with his wiser, Christian brother, Christopher Hitchens made the mad statement that the horrors of Stalin’s regime were due to the influence of the Orthodox Church! – that is, the influence of Orthodox clergy whom Stalin murdered wholesale, whose churches he ransacked and destroyed. He and Dawkins insist that atheists are inherently “nicer” than Christians, and that the social order that atheists would set up would also be “nicer”.
I’m not saying that there are no nice atheists, of course – but those who are “nice” are clearly so despite their atheism. That is, they either haven’t thought through the implications of their atheism – that without God, there are no moral absolutes, no basis for right and wrong, and so (as Dostoevsky wrote) “everything is permitted”. Or they have thought it through but find it distasteful to act on their conclusions. Even Sartre, worshipper of absolute freedom, eventually realized that a social order based on his brand of atheism could not possibly work. He even joined with a group of other intellectuals and activists to condemn Hitler and Nazism – while believing that with no objective basis for morality, no action, freely chosen, can ever be condemned.
The atheistic regimes that have risen and fallen, or that still endure, have been spectacularly “not nice”: the USSR under Stalin; Germany under Hitler; China under Mao Tse Tung (with human rights abuses still rampant there); North Korea; Cuba; the brutality of the Calles regime in Mexico in the 1920s; the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution. How the New Atheists cannot connect the dots – that no God means no morality, so that Godless regimes will act without any moral constraints whatsoever – defies explanation. I can only think that “hope springs eternal” (like the saying, “A third marriage is the triumph of hope over experience”): yes, there’s been Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, etc., etc., but maybe this time the promised Utopia will come to be.
Of course, the atheist will argue that Christian regimes have also done horrible things. True. But a closer look at those horrible things tends to reveal that they were doing no worse than the surrounding culture (e.g., when slavery was a universal institution), or that the perpetrators were nominal Christians operating not from Christian principles (how does a committed Christian get around “love your enemies”?) but from greed or a desire for power. Those professing Christianity must inevitably run up against the Sermon on the Mount – forcing them either to repent or to rationalize. An atheist doesn’t have this problem – there is nothing in a thoroughly atheistic account of the world to stop him/her from any crime, however heinous; or lead him/her to regret the crimes, once done. There is no One to say that it’s wrong. Stalin, Mao, and their ilk were being completely consistent with their belief system; Christians who performed similar acts have not been.
Besides the bloodbaths that giving control of nations and worlds to atheists have routinely led to, the other most telling argument against the New Atheism has to do with its complete inability to address the deepest desires of the human heart. But that’s for another day – stay tuned!