FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — The latest edition of the Southwestern Journal of Theology scrutinizes the “New Atheism,” which continues to work its way into popular thought through Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” Christopher Hitchens’ “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” and other books and documentaries.
The journal offers pastoral and intellectual advice for combating the new atheism, but it opens with words from the new atheists themselves. Dawkins, for example, derides God as “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a … capriciously malevolent bully.”
According to Malcolm Yarnell, managing editor of the journal, such antipathy toward God is “as old as man’s rebellion against God.”
“The new atheism is ‘new’ only in the sense of its cantankerous desire to defeat belief in God in the public square,” Yarnell, associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern, writes. “Atheism is not new and neither is its result: divine judgment on such foolishness.”
This edition of the Southwestern Journal of Theology, Yarnell writes, reinforces the Christian task of apologetics, which should “come alongside the preacher, the evangelist, and the missionary in offering a reason to those outside the community why the Christian faith is believable and preferable.”
In the first of his two essays in the journal, professor John D. Laing introduces the new atheism and the Christian’s apologetic task.
“It still appears that in the last decade or so, atheism has gained a wider audience and its adherents have become more vocal and confrontational,” writes Laing, associate professor of systematic theology and philosophy at Southwestern’s J. Dalton Havard School for Theological Studies in Houston. The attacks of the new atheists, however, have not gone without reply. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who among others has “helped make Christian philosophy respectable” in academic circles, has formulated numerous rebuttals to atheism.
In his second essay, Laing offers three lessons for evangelicals as they confront the new atheism: First, he calls Christian apologists to leave the “ivory tower.” They must not only answer, with scholarly excellence, the intellectual objections to God’s existence, but they must also recognize the rhetorical and emotional force an argument may have on those who have not been theologically or philosophically trained. Second, Laing suggests that Christians “must take care when using illustrations, analogies, or apologetic arguments to communicate or defend truths of the faith to unbelievers,” lest these arguments turn people away from God rather than drawing them to the Gospel. Finally, he reminds Christians that, as they debate the new atheists, “spiritual forces are at work.” Therefore, believers should approach the apologetic task with prayer and with the right motives.
“If my engagement with (an atheist) is driven by my desire to see him come to Christ, then it is rightly focused,” Laing writes. “I am then obliged to choose my approach based on what will be most effective to that end. However, if my goal is simply to win the argument under the guise of evangelism, then I ought to rethink my use of apologetics.”
In a third essay, professor John Howell critiques Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Because of the widespread reference to Dawkins’ work in popular culture, Howell writes, “It behooves Christians and pastors in particular to be aware of the arguments found in the book, … as well as to have some idea how to respond.”
“One of the reasons that Dawkins’ attempted assassination of religious belief and Christianity in particular should not be successful is his complete lack of understanding of religious belief,” writes Howell, assistant professor of philosophy at Southwestern. According to Howell, Dawkins also misrepresents the classical arguments for God’s existence, such as Anselm’s Ontological Argument, Pascal’s Wager, and any support from Scripture.
Howell exposes weaknesses in Dawkins’ argument and, in conclusion, questions Dawkins’ assumptions about knowledge and truth. Dawkins promotes naturalistic evolution and claims that religion is merely its byproduct, and Howell finds a weakness in this claim.
“Alvin Plantinga,” he writes, “has famously argued that naturalistic evolution is epistemologically self-defeating: that is, if naturalistic evolution is true, then we have good reason to doubt the reliability of our cognitive faculties generally, and thus good reason to doubt our ability to produce true beliefs, including our belief in the truth of naturalistic evolution.”
In a fourth essay, John Wilsey — assistant professor of history and Christian apologetics on Southwestern’s Houston campus — reviews and analyzes “There is a God,” a book that recounts well-known philosopher Antony Flew’s progression from atheism to belief in God. A leading proponent of atheism for half a century, Flew described religious language as meaningless and argued that atheists carry no burden of proof in the debate about God’s existence. Although he notes the importance of Flew’s conversion to a tenuous theism, Wilsey warns believers not to view this as “the intellectual triumph of Christianity.”
“A triumph of Christianity in Flew’s life would have resulted in his coming to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” Wilsey writes. He thus reminds readers that the end of apologetics is belief in the Gospel.
On the other hand, Wilsey says, Flew’s experience shows the value of “honestly asking and answering the right questions on the appropriate basis.” According to Wilsey, Flew became a theist because he abandoned naturalism — that is, the assumption that only the natural and material world exists — and looked outside the physical universe to answer his questions about God’s existence.
In a final essay, William Dembski questions the existence of any true atheist.
“The more virulent atheists might better be called ‘anti-theists,'” writes Dembski, research professor of philosophy at Southwestern. “They not only deny that God exists but also hate Him. Yet whence this hatred of a nonexistent entity? ‘There is no God and I hate Him’ seems a strange position to take.”
More common than the “anti-theist” is the “Christian atheist,” who admits that God exists but lives as if He does not. Whatever the form of atheism at hand, Dembski notes, the “challenge in confronting atheism is … to bring those who deny God to repentance and faith, thereby closing the moral gap between them and God. In the end such moral transformation will always be the work of the Holy Spirit, … (but) every act of divine grace presupposes the means of grace by which God makes that grace real to us.”
“Christian apologetics, in which we not only defend Christianity from atheism but also challenge atheism with evidence of God’s existence, is one such means of grace,” Dembski adds. He ends his essay by praying that, by God’s grace and the power of His Word, Christians may lead atheists to “encounter not only the wisdom of God but also the love of God.”
Alongside these essays on the new atheism, this edition of the Southwestern Journal of Theology contains nearly 50 pages of book reviews, covering recent publications in biblical studies, theology, church history, philosophy, ethics and pastoral ministry.
The Southwestern Journal of Theology is a publication of Southwestern Seminary. To order a copy (the fall edition), contact the editorial assistant at P.O. Box 22608, Fort Worth, Texas 76122, or by email at [email protected]. The editorial and one essay from this edition of the journal may be viewed on www.baptisttheology.org, a website of Southwestern’s Center for Theological Research.
Benjamin Hawkins is senior news writer for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (www.swbts.edu/campusnews).