Rebutting the Neo-Atheists

As the recent atheist diatribes get more shrill and more dogmatic, the paucity of their arguments become more apparent. Even though their missionary tracts are now pouring forth from the presses at a growing rate, mere volume of output does not determine either truthfulness or quality of argument.

The onslaught of the atheist evangelists has not gone unchecked however. Many capable intellects have challenged the sloppy reasoning and specious arguments of the neo-atheists. Several recent rebuttals are worth examining.

British writer Theodore Dalrymple had a very good piece on the neo-atheists in the Autumn 2007 City Journal. I here offer a few brief extracts from it. Consider his comments on Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. He notes that of the recent batch of atheist tomes, this is the least “bad-tempered … but it is deeply condescending to all religious people. Dennett argues that religion is explicable in evolutionary terms – for example, by our inborn human propensity, at one time valuable for our survival on the African savannahs, to attribute animate agency to threatening events.” But is this a successful approach?

“For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations – and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.”

If the Dennett volume is on the more pleasant end of the scale, the opposite end would be taken up by Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith. It is a nasty piece of work in which “sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple, with the assumption of certainty where there is none, combined with adolescent shrillness and intolerance, reach an apogee”.

He examines other leading atheists, and concludes: “The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.”

Another rational challenge to the new atheism comes from Oxford academic Alister McGrath who was recently in Australia. While here he actually managed to get a fairly decent hearing on ABC radio. In a 24 October, 2007 interview, McGrath was given a fair amount of time to discuss atheist Richard Dawkins and his bestselling book, The God Delusion. Some of this discussion is worth repeating here.

The interviewer, Stephen Crittenden, in fact asked some good questions. Consider this one: “Interesting if 9/11 is such a catalyst, that Dawkins makes so little of Islam, even when he’s writing about religious violence. He’s really focusing much of this book on Christianity, isn’t he?” To which McGrath replied,

“Well he is, and I think that in many ways Dawkins finds that he can’t criticise Islam directly because that would be politically really quite dangerous, and therefore he prefers to concentrate on soft targets, and there’s no softer target than Christianity, so he and these other writers seem to be focusing on Christianity as being the easy target. It’s really been very well received in certain parts of the public, because there is this very deep sense of alienation from what the Christian church has been saying. So I think his ideas have fallen on fertile ground, even though I’d want to say his ideas really need to be challenged, because they are in many ways I think very inadequate.”

Another good question was this: “Indeed, is that one of the biggest weaknesses in Dawkins’ book, that he doesn’t acknowledge the role of the churches and religious believers in the history of science: the Jesuits in astronomy and seismology, and medicine, for instance…”

Answers McGrath, “Well that’s right. I mean Dawkins has this very simplistic idea that science and religion have always been at war with each other, and he says only one can win, and let’s face it, it’s going to be science. But the history just doesn’t take us into that place. The history suggests that at times there has been conflict, but at times there has been great synergy between science and religion and many would say that at this moment, there are some very exciting things happening in the dialogue between science and religion. What Dawkins is offering is a very simplistic, slick spin on a very complex phenomenon. It’s one that clearly he expects to appeal to his readers, but the reality is simply not like that at all.”

Or consider this exchange: “It’s interesting that in Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene from the mid-1970s which is the book where he coins the term ‘meme’, we get Dawkins the social Darwinist, who suggests that selfishness and violence comes from our biology, and yet here he is in this book blaming it all on religion. It seems like an interesting contradiction.” McGrath replies,

“Well it’s an intriguing transition and certainly in the book The Selfish Gene he seems to say all these things are genetically programmed. But then right at the end of the book he says, ‘Well somehow we can rise above this’. But I’d want to challenge him at this point I think and say Look, I have no doubt that some people who are religious, have done some very bad things, but I’d want to make a counterpoint very forcibly. And that is, this is not typical of religion. This is the fringes being presented as though they’re the mainstream. And we saw that in his television program, ‘The Root of All Evil’, which many of your listeners may have seen, where he presented some extremists as if they were mainliners, and I think that’s a very serious misrepresentation. I want to make it clear, I have no doubt there are some very weird religious people who might well be dangerous, but those of us who believe in God, know that, and we’re doing all we can to try and minimise their influence. The centre needs to be reaffirmed, and Dawkins does not help us do that at all.”

Both articles are well worth reading. It is a pleasant surprise indeed to find the favourable ABC interview with a Christian and critic of Dawkins. And the piece by Dalrymple is just one of many taking on the new atheist challenge. Indeed, a number of book-length rebuttals have already appeared, with more on the way. As such, the battle over theism looks to continue for quite some time. And whatever the new atheists dish out will be ably countered by capable and intelligent theists.

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18 Replies to “Rebutting the Neo-Atheists”

  1. Good on you Bill. Without Christians our society would fall apart, thinking “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die”. Where would our country be if everyone thought like that? If there’s no life after death, then we may as well life it up now and live life to the full and do everything for our own selfish interests. At least I reckon that’s how I’d be if I wasn’t a Christian.
    Matthew Mulvaney

  2. Hi Bill,
    This query is more in respect to Matthew’s comment above, but I’d like your opinion too. I have often noticed that anti-atheists argue that atheists are just motivated by their selfish desires because, as Matthew above suggests, without belief in God and an afterlife, they “may as well life it up now and live life to the full”. However, what do you make of the charge that Christians too can be argued to operate via their own selfish motivation – to eventually reap the rewards of heaven.
    Matt Page

  3. Isn’t it ironic that athiesm is seen to be the high point of the evolution of the human mind and psyche, yet of all things, it is atheism that requires absolutely nothing of the intellect or of the soul.
    Damien Carson

  4. Thanks Matt

    Yes, a fair question, and believers can indeed operate out of bad, selfish motives, unfortunately. While coming to Christ in repentance means we get right with God, have sins forgiven, and the promise of eternal life with God, it is just the start of the journey. We do not all of a sudden become perfect. It then is a day by day walk as we seek to more and more say no to sin and self, and yes to the Lordship of Christ in every area of our lives.

    So yes we can do things for the wrong reasons – for selfish reasons, and so on. And yes some can come to faith just as a kind of life insurance policy – the hopes of eternal life when they die. But that is the wrong motivation to come. The only motivation is to recognise we have all blown it big time, we are not the centre of the universe, and the one true God deserves our worship and obedience, and longs to have relationship with us.

    When believers do anything that is unChrist-like it is always lamentable. Selfishness is really the core of our sin that alienates us from God, and when we come to him, we need to – with his help – work to leave it behind.

    And the truth is folk come to faith for all sorts of reasons – some better than others. God knows our hearts and will judge us accordingly. My story is one of hitting a dead end as an unbeliever: depressed, suicidal and messed up. When I heard a clear presentation of the gospel, I decided it was true and that God deserved my all, given that he gave his all for me in the form of his son, Jesus.

    Now I want to let everyone know about the truth of Christianity and the loving relationship we can have with God through Christ. While it will be great to live with him forever (what we call heaven), that is not my main motivation or concern. Ultimately the Christian story is a love story. God madly loves us, we have rejected him, and now he is seeking to woo us back to himself.

    God, like a forsaken lover, has won back my heart, and now I have a relationship with him in which I am quite pleased to serve, obey and enjoy his company, and let others know about it. I have plenty of faults that I am slowly working through, but with the grace of God I am making some headway.

    Sorry for the ramble, but hopefully that helps a bit. Let me know, thanks.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Thanks Bill. I enjoyed reading what you call a ‘ramble’. It’s interesting to read a bit about your life story. It is interesting to note that Moses and Paul each cared more about the eternal futures of their fellow Israelites than being allowed to live in heaven themselves. I think it is extraordinarily selfless attitude. God certainly did a mighty work in those men and he is doing a mighty in us Christians today, even if we don’t feel like he is.
    Matthew Mulvaney

  6. And then of course there is the indiputable fact that over the last 100 years Scientiftc Aetheism holds the worst record for human behaviour:
    Lenin & Stalin > 20m dead
    Mao Tse Tung about 70m dead according to the recent book
    Pol Pot about 1/3 (2m) of the Kmer populuation dead in the Killing Fields
    Stephen White

  7. Hey Bill
    Thanks for your ‘ramble’ – it made perfect sense. And thanks for letting your guard down and revealing a bit of your life story, which has me intrigued about you even more.
    Matt Page

  8. The anti-Christian bigotry of the neo-misotheists is well illustrated by Christopher Hitchens. As evidence for the harm of Christianity, he adduces fanatical Muslims and the atrocities of atheistic communism!
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  9. Stephen White – What nonsense are you talking about? You are making a giant leap by trying to connect a lack of belief in any god’s to killing millions of people. I think the killings had more to do with these people being tyrants and quite insane people rather than any lack of belief in some deity.

    Matthew – Another shoot from the hip statement. I have lived in Japan which is not a Christian country. Teen girls can walk late at night without fear of being attacked. There is next to no graffiti to be seen. Vending machines in the streets are not vandalized. The list goes on…. Claiming that Christianity is the glue that holds societies together is just unfounded. Societies are more complicated than that.

    To the theists – I pose a question. Why is it you do not believe in Mithra? Mithra was part of a Holy Trinity. He was conceived of Holy seed and born on December 25th into human form of an immaculate virgin mother – Anahita, once worshiped as a fertility goddess. He was born as the divine representation of Ahura-Mazda on earth, to protect his righteous followers from the evil powers of Ahriman, and guide them into Paradise.

    Ben Green

  10. Thanks Ben

    Mithra of course was simply a mythical figure. Mithraism was essentially a military cult, and the alleged similarities to Christianity are highly tenuous. For example, Mithra was not born of a virgin, but out of a rock. We do not know when Jesus was born exactly, so the December 25 date means little. Mithra did not sacrifice himself, but instead killed a bull. Numerous other differences could be cited about the Mithra legend.

    And many Mithraic elements that do resemble Christianity developed after the time of Christ, not before. Historical dating indicates that Mithraism borrowed heavily from Christianity, not the other way around.

    The case of Jesus is light-years apart. Jesus was a real historical figure who walked planet earth 2000 years ago. His life, teachings, death and post-death appearances are all empirically demonstrable, with first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses. The evidence can be examined by anyone willing to follow it. As one who relishes rationality over mythology, the question is, will you investigate the evidence with an open mind, or have you already closed your mind, having a pre-commitment to philosophical naturalism, which itself is not a scientific position but a faith commitment?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the reply. There are many variations of Mithraism. It seems it had its origins start in Persia (There is still some question about that) and slowly spread to different regions and cultures and was often transformed to suite the culture and beliefs of the day. From what I have read, Mithraisms base was in Persia but by the time Alexander the Great came marching in to Persia it had all but died and a new center was formed at Tarsus. This is where it is believed the Romans picked up on it and again transformed it to suite their needs. It was popular among the soldiers of the time. I will not go into the many variations but the parallels are interesting between Mithaisms and Christianity. I am sure Paul of Tarsus would have been quite familiar with a Persian version of Mithra and maybe this had an influence in his writings?? So the questions is who borrowed from whom? To be honest I do not know and have not really read anything that convinces me one way or the other. All we know is that The Roman version and Christianity formed around the same time. They were in essence competing religions for a couple of centuries until Christianity won out. I see both stories as folk law and they most likely borrowed from each other as well as past beliefs.

    The Christians claim their story is the truth because Jesus was a living person and there are eye witness accounts. I can find no real evidence outside the bible to support this. For example, Paul never met Jesus and only wrote about Jesus after some abortion and a couple of so called chats to some apostles. Some of Paul’s writings look so similar to other descriptions of gods at the time how can we know what is the truth? We do not believe in the plethora of other gods that existed at the time so why pick the Christian story?

    What I also find strange is that Jesus was meant to have preached to thousands of people and performed many miracles in front of hundreds yet no one in these crowds thought to depict a picture or write it down. All we have is a couple of one line references that may refer to someone called Jesus. If Jesus was as popular and as powerful as depicted I am quite sure there would be more documented evidence around. The Romans were quire anal in writing things down and the Greeks and Egyptians were also quite good at it. We have many references to important people at that time yet nothing on Jesus. Does this mean because there is not real evidence outside the bible Jesus did not really exist? No, it is quite possible that Jesus did exist and no one really thought that much of him. They did not see him as important. He may have been just one of many people telling the version of Judaism at the time. Or, he did not exist at all! Now the apostles, the eyewitnesses, there is even less known about them outside the bible.

    As a person that does not take folk law literally, I always try and maintain an open mind.

    Ben Green

  12. Thanks Ben

    While Mithraism originally emerged from Persia several centuries before Christ, its spread and flowering throughout the Roman Empire was mainly due to the Roman army, and occurred much later. But as I already said, most scholars agree that historical and chronological evidence makes it quite clear that it borrowed from early Christianity, not the other way around.

    As to the historical Jesus, we probably have better historical evidence for him than any other figure in ancient history. We certainly have more historical reliability for the existence of Jesus than any other major religious leader.

    And you are quite wrong about writing things down. While few if any would “depict a picture” as you put in first century Palestine, there were plenty of writings about the words and life of Jesus. Indeed we have four major historical, biographical accounts of Jesus. They are known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They supply a wealth of information and historical evidence about Jesus, and the reliability of the Gospel accounts is well-attested. For example, we have a couple thousand manuscripts which contain part or all of the Gospels. This is more than 20 times the number of extant manuscripts of other comparable writings. And that does not include versions in Latin, Syriac and other languages.

    No other historical figure of antiquity has such good manuscript evidence. Indeed, we have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts (entire or partial) of the New Testament, with some as old as 100 AD. Consider histories penned by Livy, who lived close to the time of Jesus (59BC- 17AD). We have only 20 surviving manuscripts of his, and the earliest dates back to the fourth century.

    And we actually have a number of non-biblical sources for the historicity of Jesus. These include ancient historians, rulers and enemies of Christianity. Try Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Celsus for starters. Many secondary sources can be mentioned here: try Robert Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament (2000) as but one good volume. A more recent work would be the 500plus page book by University of St. Andrews scholar Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006). Then there is the magisterial 6-volume work by English scholar NT Wright on Christian Origins and the Question of God, 3 volumes of which (comprising over 2000 pages) are now available.

    If you really do have an open mind as you claim, you will chase up some of these volumes and pursue the evidence for yourself.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  13. Ben,

    You wrote: “The Christians claim their story is the truth because Jesus was a living person and there are eye witness accounts. I can find no real evidence outside the bible to support this.”

    Christian historian and exegete, Dr. Paul Barnett, acknowledges that “‘secular’ sources make little reference to something as unimportant as the beginnings of Christianity . . . World history barely notices the ‘birth’ of what was destined to become a great world religion” (Barnett 2005, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years, Eerdmans, p. 28).

    However, it is not unusual for there to be “gaps” in historical accounts. For example, in Tacitus’s Annals, books 7-10 cover the principate of Caligula and books 17-28 deal with Nero’s fall. But the principate of Augustus in Claudius’s history is missing – a gap!

    Nevertheless, there are small hints of Jesus outside of the Bible – some of which are controversial. Both Josephus and Tacitus refer to a movement in their own day that was begun in Jesus’ day.

    Tacitus states that after Pilate’s execution of Jesus the “pernicious superstition broke out afresh in Judea” (Annals 15:44).

    Josephus’s Jewish history does not have the balance required of modern historical studies. A read of Jewish War sounds much like propaganda. His Antiquities of the Jews and Against Apion have been described as “romantic apologetics for Judaism” (Barnett, p. 12) and there seems to be considerable self-interest in his writings.

    Even in the midst of his idiosyncrasies and scholars expressing doubt about the authenticity of Josephus’s writings about Jesus in Antiquities 18:63-64 and about James, the brother of Jesus, in Antiquities 20:200-201, we are able to discern fragments of early information about Jesus.

    This caused New Testament scholar, Craig Evans, to conclude: “When carefully compared and when allowance is made for what Josephus wished to withhold and what the New Testament Evangelists wished to emphasize, the accounts found in Josephus and in the New Testament Gospels complement one another” (Fabricating Jesus 2007, IVP, p. 163).

    One of the basic principles of historiography is to use the earliest and best sources and to exercise caution with these remote texts. Your desire to find evidence outside of the Bible is commendable, but the best historical investigation follows another line.

    The Pauline epistle of 1 Thessalonians, by broad scholarly agreement, is the earliest surviving document of Christianity, written ca. A.D. 50, which is less than 2 decades after Jesus. Following fundamentals of historiography, this is the place for historians to begin with investigation of Christianity.

    Spencer Gear, Hervey Bay, Qld.

  14. Hi Bill and Spencer,

    Thanks for your thoughts! My interest in Mithraism is not so much in who copied from whom but the evolution (for want of a better word) of the idea. I am quite sure the Mithra of Persia is similar but not the same as th Mithra of Rome. It is interesting to see how we as people take an idea and make it fit into our current environment. Do you think the Christianity of today is the same as that of 2000 years ago?

    I am familiar with the external sources that are often used in support of Jesus outside the bible. I could write a page about it here but I feel the people at the “World Wide Church of God” have produced an admirable summary. If you would like to take a look at this link

    I understand that there are many manuscripts in various forms but we have to put this in perspective. How many were written at or close to the supposed time of Jesus? How many are just re-written interpretations? How do we know there was not some form of industry producing these documents much like fiction writers of today?

    As far as we know Paul was the first to put anything down at all and that was some 20 years past. For such an important figure I would have thought someone else would have done something earlier. Maybe there is and it has been lost??

    As you know, I have an interest in finding a witness to Jesus outside the bible but I am also verifying the ones inside as well. If we take the five main contributers to the NT ie Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John only two candidates are possible. Matthew and John. If Matthew was an eye witness you would expect that his stories would be full of detail and one would think quite different to the other gospels. What we find is that there is a high degree of similarity with that of Mark. A person that was not a witness to Jesus. I know there are other theories around that put Matthew ahead of Mark in terms of the time line but their evidence and argument is unconvincing. For a good explanation as to why please read here

    There are a few contradictions in what John writes that would indicate that the person who wrote John was not John or an eyewitness. I am still reading about this one. The following is a good summary

    Anyway, I will endeavor to go to the library and get the books you have mentioned and have a read.

    Bill, I hope you do not find what I write to be antagonistic. That is not my intention. I am truly interested in separating the truth from the the myth.

    I would be interested in your thoughts on the theory of the Q document. Does it hold any merit in your view?

    Ben Green

  15. Thanks Ben

    Good questions, but ones that cannot be properly answered here in just a few words. But let me make a few points. As I suggested earlier, one way of judging whether an historical event in fact occurred is to examine the manuscript evidence for any testimonies about it. The obvious rule of thumb would be the closer the manuscripts are to the actual events, and the more of these manuscripts, the greater the chance of it having happened, and happened according the manuscript accounts. There is no other person in ancient history that has such good manuscript evidence.

    You seem worried about a 20 year gap between Jesus and Paul. So what? No other figure in antiquity has such a minuscule time gap. Twenty years is a remarkably short period of time, meaning plenty of eyewitnesses were still around to refute Paul or the Gospel writers if what they said was wrong.

    While we cannot be certain of the exact dates of the four Gospels, most scholars agree that they were written down and circulated within the first generation, i.e., during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. There just was not enough time between these two events (Jesus and the documents) for legends to have crept in.

    The Q source is too big of a question to fully explore here. This hypothetical document may or may not even have existed. Certainly a collection of sayings was drawn upon, but by whom and how much and in what order is all a bit speculative still. The question of oral traditions is itself important, and I already mentioned Bauckham’s 2006 volume for hard-core detail. One could also consult Larry Hurtado’s 2006 volume, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. If you are really serious about all this, these are some of the top notch New Testament scholars worth consulting, along with people such as N.T. Wright.

    For more info, see these four quite recent introductory-level titles:
    Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker, 2007.
    Mark Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?. Crossway, 2007.
    Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus. Zondervan, 2007.
    David Marshall, The Truth about Jesus and the “Lost Gospels”. Harvest House, 2007

    Again, before going too much further with your scepticism, I really would recommend you start reading a few of these titles first. All can be picked up on and other places. Happy reading!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. Ben,

    You are seeking for evidence for Jesus outside of the Bible and it is scarce because this “insignificant” Jew lived in a very small part of the world without mass media coverage and it was an oral culture.

    However, fundamental principles of historiography require that we examine the written documents that are closest to the event. Therefore the four Gospels, by historiographical standards are close to Christ’s time and I Thessalonians, as the earliest document,” provide ample evidence for Jesus Christ.

    If we examine this earliest of documents, 1 Thess. 1:9-10 and 5:9-10, it tells us this:
    • God is Father;
    • Jesus is “Son [of God]”, the “Lord,” and the “Christ.”
    • The church is in “the Lord Jesus Christ.”
    • In the past, Jesus died for us.
    • In the future, deliverance from wrath and obtaining salvation is through him [Jesus].

    In addition to reading Richard Bauckham’s magisterial, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, I’d recommend Paul Barnett’s, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (which gives a radically different perspective to John D. Crossan’s postmodern Jesus in his, The Birth of Christianity). See also Barnett’s earlier works, Jesus and the Logic of History (1997), and Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity (1999). Samuel Byrskog’s, Story as History—History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History, also provides helpful evidence.

    You state: “Now the apostles, the eyewitnesses, there is even less known about them outside the bible.” I believe you are looking for evidence that is not following a fundamental principle of historiography – get to the evidence from the earliest sources.

    Since you “always try and maintain an open mind,” for which I commend you, why don’t you examine the evidence above and include a writer Bill has suggested, N. T. Wright, (1) The New Testament and the People of God (535pp), (2) Jesus and the Victory of God (741pp), and (3) The Resurrection of the Son of God (817pp)?

    You are a person who “does not take folk law literally.” Neither do I. I have found the recent book by Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd to be helpful, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition” (Baker Academic 2007) in refuting mythical, legendary views of Jesus. See also Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus (IVP 2007).

    Spencer Gear, Hervey Bay, Qld.

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