Saturday, October 23, 2010

What I Learned From the New Atheists

I have been reading books by atheists for months. I have been reading the so-called New Atheists – men like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. I have been rereading some of the “old atheists” like Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud. I read the Harvard humanist Greg Epstein and the atheist turned theist Antony Flew.

The most interesting book I read was “Why I Became an Atheist” by former evangelical pastor, John Loftus. The most disturbing was “Bible Stories Your Parents Never Taught You” by Mike Earl. If you want your understanding of Scripture challenged, listen to this free audiobook

Why have I delved into atheism so thoroughly? I did not do it to gather apologetic ammunition for use against atheists. I did not do it to assure myself that I was right and they were wrong. I did it for the sake of truth – to see if perhaps I had been wrong after all.

My doctor insists I get a complete physical examination every year. But I had not undergone a complete spiritual examination in decades. This was a complete examination, including the spiritual equivalents of a prostate exam and colonoscopy, and it was just as pleasant.

At sixty I am not the same man – physically or spiritually – as I was when I became a Christian at age 22. It was time to make sure that the faith I embraced as a young man still rang true to the older man I had become. If God were really nothing more than an imaginary friend, I did not want to waste any more time with the fantasy.

I wanted to find out if the atheists were right, if I had indeed believed an illusion (as Freud calls religion) or a delusion (as Richard Dawkins calls theism.) I wanted to examine my beliefs as critically as possible and see if they passed the test. I wanted to challenge my faith in the light of science, history, and reason as honestly and thoroughly as possible.

In the process I had to come face to face with the terrible things that Christians have done and taught in the name of Christ. I also had to confront the pervasive violence in the Bible done by God’s people at the command of God. I had to look carefully at the doctrine of hell and the question of theodicy. (Why is there suffering and evil in the world?)

I reasoned through the philosophical arguments for God’s existence. I reevaluated the Christian doctrine of creation in light of modern science. I revisited the issues of miracles and prayer. In short, I examined every aspect of Christianity from the perspective of skepticism.

This spiritual exam was painful. It was humbling. In a sermon entitled “Thank God for the New Atheists” Michael Dowd argues that the New Atheists are playing the role of prophets to the Church, much like the Hebrew prophets did for Israel. I think he might be onto something. God may be using those outside the church to speak hard truth to the church. At least they spoke hard truth to me.

I have come through my spiritual self-examination as a changed man, but a stronger Christian. I know that was not the intent of the atheists. They are trying to convince their readers that there is no evidence for belief in God, much less faith in Jesus Christ.

What I learned from the atheists was that unexamined faith is not worth living (to reword Socrates’ famous quote.) Christians can to do better than wear cultural and intellectual blinders and mindlessly parrot the pronouncements of religious authorities. If the gospel is to be taken seriously by thinking people, then we Christians need to do some serious thinking ourselves.

The reason the American church is so theologically, spiritually and morally weak is because we have an uncritical faith. We believe before we think, and often do not think at all. What is needed is an intelligent faith that has thought through the serious questions being asked today. 

What did I learn from atheists? I learned how important it is to question my assumptions, and to doubt everything I hear or read. I learned to sift fact from fantasy. In the end I know that God is real, Jesus is Lord, and that the Christianity is a reasonable faith … for those who use reason faithfully.
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Image includes New Atheists, from left to right: Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Polly Toynbee, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Martin Amis

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