In recent years, atheist critics of religion have been quite aggressive in working to get their message out. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and a host of others have published popular books attacking theistic belief, and they’ve done a nice job promoting their work via television interviews, public debates, lecture tours, and the like. Generally speaking, the arguments of the “New Atheists,” as they are often called, are not so new at all. Indeed, anyone who encounters the thinkers mentioned above after having read deeply in nineteenth and twentieth century atheist thought will see many of the old arguments represented, often as though for the first time, and typically with less sophistication.
Even the most absurd recent trend, atheist mega-churches, is not so new as one might think. Auguste Comte, an early nineteenth century French philosopher and inventor of the term “sociology,” produced a highly detailed plan to create atheist churches all over France. In Comte’s plan these churches would come under the authority of a hierarchy of atheist priests who would catechize, administer atheist sacraments, shape humanity through the rhythms of an atheistic liturgical calendar, etc. Comte, like many of his generation, was a thoroughgoing moralist and believed that an atheistic “positive religion” was necessary to properly direct the affections of human beings, forming them in love and ushering in a utopia. Of course, Comte’s vision seems far more interesting than the happy-clappy atmosphere of the new atheist mega-churches. It should not surprise us that an era as morally and intellectually impoverished as our own would produce such a shallow version of atheism. Karl Marx called for the abolishing of illusory happiness created by religion, “even if by hand-to-hand combat,” and communist revolutions ensued. Nietzsche sought a revaluation of all values and became an inspiration to Adolph Hitler. The “New Atheists” write sophomoric books caricaturing religious belief, and their fans gather before atheist self-help preachers and employ a rocking band to set the mood. David Bentley Hart believes that the new atheism fits very well with the spirit of our shallow, consumer civilization. “Such a society is already implicitly atheist… It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice” (313). Turning one of Marx’s most famous criticisms of Christianity on its head, Hart suggests that the new atheism is “the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys…. the triviality of the movement is its chief virtue” (313).
Though not hoping for a return to more militant forms of atheism, David Hart would like to move the current debate beyond caricature, if at all possible. His recent book, Experiencing God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is a very good start. He suggests that his “intention is simply to offer a definition of the word ‘God’… and to do so in fairly slavish obedience to the classical definitions of the divine found in the theological and philosophical schools of most of the major religious traditions” (1). This task is necessary because those arguing that belief in God is untenable seem to have no idea what the word God actually refers to and no idea what it might mean for a religious adherent to experience God.
When the new atheists rail on religious belief, they are rarely if ever speaking of any God affirmed in any version of classical theism. If you find this argument intriguing then you should have a look at the book mentioned above. My own more complete review of Hart’s book came out in the summer of 2014 edition of the Christian Scholar’s Review. You can find the complete review here.