Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Atheism Popularity is Atheist Panic?

I ran across this interesting Associated Press article that attempts to put the recent popularity of books by the No-God Squad (Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al) into a context of atheist panic.

Cited in the article is Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, who suggests that "it's almost like they all had a meeting and said, 'Let's counterattack.'"

In some ways this characterization is apt- the escalation of terrorism conducted by Muslim extremists directly motivated Sam Harris, and has been used extensively by the rest of the squad to point out the dangers associated with uncritical superstitious thought. But these arguments have been around for as long as atheism- is there any explanation for their new popularity?

According to Christopher Hitchens, "There are a lot of people, in this country in particular, who are fed up with endless lectures by bogus clerics and endless bullying."

But Douglas Wilson, a theological fellow at St. Andrews College, says that the books reflect a "secular panic," in which "nonbelievers are finally realizing that, contrary to what they were taught in college, faith is not dead."

I wonder which college course that was taught in... "Blowing Smoke 101?" Any objective observer of American culture doesn't need Wilson's chuckling reassurance that faith is alive and well. Although Wilson's claim that the continued influence of creationism and religious opposition to stem cell research are a source of dismay to nonbelievers, these are also nothing new.

Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame, offers that "there is this general sense that evangelicals have really gained a lot of power in the United States, and the Bush administration seems to represent that in some significant ways."

But again, evangelicals have been exercising political power in this country for decades- ever since Jerry Falwell's now-defunct Moral Majority first organized.

Richard Mouw suggests that some of the blame for the supposed backlash should be laid at Christians' feet: "We have done a terrible job of presenting our perspective as a plausible worldview that has implications for public life and for education, presenting that in a way that is sensitive to the concerns of people who may disagree. Whatever may be wrong with Christopher Hitchens' attacks on religious leaders, we have certainly already matched it in our attacks."

This is unintentionally insulting - the implication is that if only the Christian message was articulated better, atheists wouldn't have a problem with it. Or interpreted another way, atheists are just too stupid to recognize that Christianity is beneficial unless it's dumbed down enough for us to understand. Save the effort, guys - most of us know more about Christianity than you do. It's not the packaging that turns us off - we've actually tried what's in the box.

So, apparently, the best Christians can offer for the growing popularity of atheism is 1) misplaced fear of terrorism, 2) the discovery of religious influence in politics, 3) atheists have misunderstood the Christian message. Ironically, a reasonable explanation can be found at the end of the article, with the observation that interest in religiously-themed books has been growing over the past 15 years, and thus atheism-themed books are bound to enjoy some increased attention as well. To that, I would add that the waning influence of religious institutions in this country has resulted in a large number of people who are either sympathetic to atheism, or disenchanted enough with religion to find such books a worthwhile read.

Rather than being prompted by a "secular panic," I would argue that these herald the beginning of a religious panic, as evidenced by the reactionary publications of Douglas Wilson's "Letter From a Christian Citizen" and Alister McGrath's "The Dawkins Delusion?"

Post a Comment


At 7/04/2007 6:36 PM, Blogger John declaimed...

I don't think it is the case that Mouw is saying that were our worldview articulated better then we wouldn't be seeing these attacks. What I think he is saying, and something I have been saying recently, is that these attacks are well deserved and long overdue.

Personally, I think we as Christians have said and done some seriously stupid things. I'll be honest here: I hate the 'religious right' idea; I hate the unjustified republicanism; I hate the fear of gays and atheists and scientists; I hate the teaching of creationism as science in private Christian schools; and I hate the peddling of stupid ideas that we subject what we think is Christ to in the public square.

This is what I think he means in a lot of ways. Am I any better? Probably not. But I don't go around saying the Tsunamis were God's wrath or that atheists have no reason to be moral. I'm glad we're getting some backlash. I hope it will lead to more humility and less desire to see America as some giant church to legislate with.

There's a rant for you. And again, I still can't distance myself from my brothers and sisters, no matter how dumb some of the things they can say are.


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