You would have to have been hitchhiking across Siberia to have missed a striking new phenomenon: The atheists are back. Not just back, mind you, but globally parading in triumph across tv, bookstores, and the Internet. But don't be tongue-tied; an unlikely God Squad (including the flamboyant Al Sharpton) is taking them on.
In the past 12 months, atheist authors, according to The Wall Street Journal, have created a publishing sensation, selling more than 1 million books worldwide. These include: 500,000 hardcover copies of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion (2006); 296,000 in sales for Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007); 185,000 copies of Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation (2006); 64,100 copies of Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006); and 60,000 copies of Victor J. Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007).
The leader of the atheist pack is Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, holder of the Charles Simonyi professorship for the public understanding of science at Oxford University. Simonyi is one of the Microsoft billionaires. An atheist, he insisted that Dawkins be the first holder of his professorship because, as he said, Dawkins would be "Darwin's rottweiler."
Dawkins sets the tone for the new atheist surge, describing the God of the Old Testament as "arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it petty unjust, [an] unforgiving control-freak misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal. "
Meanwhile, ex-Englishman Hitchens (who once provoked left-wing British mp George Galloway into calling him "a drink-sodden, former Trotskyist popinjay") supports Bush on Iraq, opposes abortion, but considers being a Christian comparable to citizenship in North Korea. In God Is Not Great, the provocative and quotable Hitchens says, "Monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents."
Riposting with God-Haters
Why a surge by atheists right now? One explanation could be "faith fatigue" among skeptics and the hard-core Left, who ordinarily make up 15 percent of the American people (and a much higher percentage of the European intelligentsia). After six years of a famously evangelical White House, the secularists have recovered from their repudiation at the polls and have come out swinging.
Another explanation is subtler. American evangelicals, we must admit, have not been immune to triumphal attitudes, arrogance, foolish public statements, and, sometimes, downright hypocrisy in personal behavior. A backlash against evangelicals has been brewing for years.
The good news? First, a bracing frontal assault on faith is actually good for evangelicalism. It compels us to reexamine what we believe and to behavewell, with greater humility.
Second, this backlash has produced a fascinating response among believers. For example, the most effective public debater with Christopher Hitchens to date has been Brooklyn Baptist and verbal flame-thrower the Rev. Al Sharpton.
In a debate, Hitchens disparaged the God-fearing sensibilities of Martin Luther King Jr., angering Sharpton. "In terms of the civil-rights movement," Sharpton responded, "it was absolutely fueled by a belief in God and a belief in right or wrong. Had not there been this belief that there was a right and a wrong, the civil-rights movement that you alluded to and referred to would not have existed."
Third, as I will show in a book currently in preparation, The Delusions of Disbelief (Tyndale, 2008), theists have drawn into the debate highly articulate scientists of fervent Christian faith. In England, Alister McGrath, professor of historical theology at Oxford, has battled Dawkins brilliantly on his home turf of science. McGrath holds a doctorate in molecular biophysics as well as one in theology.
Two other new books put forward important ideas about God's existence, offering magnificent ripostes to the atheists. In The Language of God, Francis Collins, a former atheist and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, refuses to choose between science and God. "Science is not threatened by God," he writes. "[I]t is enhanced." Former Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, in God's Universe, draws a bright line between theists and materialists. He endorses the view that belief in "a final cause, a Creator-God" gives us truthful, coherent understanding about the design of the universe.
Christians have nothing to fear from the new atheist surge. We evangelicals, in our advocacy for the gospel, also have no need for blunt weaponry.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other Christianity Today articles on atheists and religion include:
My Top 5 Books on Atheism | Compiled by John Wilson, Books & Culture editor. (August 24, 2007)
"Is Christianity Good for the World?" | Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson debate. (May 8, 2007)
The New Intolerance | Fear mongering among elite atheists is not a pretty sight. A Christianity Today editorial (January 25, 2007)
The Twilight of Atheism | Why this once exciting and 'liberating' philosophy failed to capture the world's imagination. (March 2005)
Pledging to Fight | Atheist says battle over 'under God' has just begun. (August 1, 2004)
Forced by Logic | It took philosophy and a friend to convince this atheist (June 1, 2003)
Russian Intellectuals Try to Revive Atheism | The Moscow Society of Atheists says its ideology has fallen out of fashion (January 1, 2001)
Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is available from Amazon.com and other retailers.
Douglas Wilson's Blog and Mablog has posts in response to God is Not Great, as well as other topics
NPR interviewed Sam Harris on Letter to A Christian Nation.
David Aikman's "Atheism and Moral Clarity" is available at the Trinity Forum.
"Clockwork Origins", parts 1, 2, and 3 (Books & Culture) discuss Dawkins' books. Books & Culture's other articles about atheists include:
Can You Reason with Christians? | A response to Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation. (May 7, 2007)
Christopher Hitchens Explains It All for You | Move over, Sam Harris; another atheist wants the pulpit. (April 30, 2007)
The Know-Nothing Party | How should Christians respond to ill-informed attacks? (February 5, 2007)
Mr. Wilson's Bookshelf | "Wayfaring Stranger" (November 17, 2006)
Book of the Week: Strange Bedfellows | Christopher Hitchens and Christopher Caldwell collaborate on a collection of political writing. Has the millennium arrived unnoticed? (January 27, 2003)
Uncompromising Positions | Hitchens and Orwell (November 1, 2002)
The Trials of Being Agnostic | A conversation with skeptic Wendy Kaminer. (January 1, 2000)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingAfter Nashville, Moral Numbness Is Our EnemyShootings have become normal to the American public. But as Christians, we know better.
- From the MagazineIs It Time to Quit ‘Quiet Time’?Effective biblical engagement must be about more than one’s personal experience with Scripture.
- RelatedWhy Does Creation Groan?Scripture and science suggest that animal suffering fits into a divine artistic story.
- Editor's PickThis Palm Sunday, Ponder Donkeys, Not BranchesFor his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus picked a symbol of lowliness rather than military might.