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Rector's Blog

New Atheism

StNicholas Goulburn


Psalm 19 & Romans 1:18-25

Atheism. God does not exist. No metaphysical/supernatural.


1/Every age, every culture develops a ‘plausibility structure’ a ‘world view’…

A view of reality that is influential in their reception or rejection of ideas and beliefs.

For example, a contemporary Western person finds the idea of evil spirits implausible, whereas an African tribal person finds them quite plausible.

Plausibility structures and world views are developed and sustained by stories or narratives that a culture tells and retells to itself, usually in an over simplified form because they have to be understandable by everyone, not just the experts. 
These are a cultures ‘myths.
Rainbow serpent.
Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson ( ): differing outback stories that sustain the Aussie male identity myth.

The Christian world view or plausibility structure has been the prevailing western world view for centuries.

This view: Psalm 19 > The one true God has made the universe a moral place and made Human beings to rule the world in his image.
For example, Heb 1Psalm 8.
But human beings have rebelled gone wrong.
Romans 1 reading.

Our western culture since the middle of the 19th century has been undergoing a revolution in the prevailing plausibility structure.
Philosophers and intellectuals have presented to us a world view that is what we call ‘secularism’. >

It holds the view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs and public sphere.

Religion has been relegated to the home & privacy.
But last 20 years increasingly religion is being seen as an evil influence that should be eradicated.

 Advocates modern or new atheists e.g. Richard Dawkins & the late Christopher Hitchens.

(For an amazing contrast see Peter Hitchens)

They share a materialist view of reality or what is sometimes called scientific naturalism: > claims there is nothing beyond the physical and material.

There is no metaphysic, nothing bigger or other than the particles, forces and spaces of the physical world.

This is the mental room they inhabit, what has been called ‘the windowless room!’

Google Conor Cunningham for rebuttal ( ).

SUMUP: Plausibility structures.


2/The New Atheists story/narrative

They have a narrative about the history of Western Culture.
Its more powerful than any particular scientific, philosophical or ethical argument they might mount. 
The plausibility of their case rests on a story / myth that has been around in Western Culture since the 1800’s. 
Called the ‘Age of Reason’ it was a cultural movement.
Read Secularization of the European mind in the 19th century ( - Sample from the book ). Chadwick.

It saw itself as promoting science and intellectual interchange and opposing superstition, intolerance and some abuses by church and state.

The words ‘enlightenment’ & ‘modernity’ are part of the myth. 
This story has created our prevailing Western culture.  

 Word ‘Modern’ > Modernity is marked by the rejection or complete marginalisation of God and Christian faith, is a bold experiment for our culture.

The Christian faith is part of the West’s cultural DNA, so this project is a radical one and goes against the hidden grain of our culture.

To attempt such a radical experiment requires a powerful story or myth to justify and under gird it.

It’s a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale; most people believe it.
Its defect is that it is largely false and a gross oversimplification.

The story goes like this: 

Once upon a time Western people were the naïve children of Mother Church and during this age of faith, education, culture and science stagnated and languished.
Ignorance and superstition held sway and knowledge was stifled by religious dogma.
There was an unholy alliance of Church and State.
The last remnants of classical learning from Greek and Roman antiquity were lost or destroyed by the fires of faith.
The Church opposed scientific enquiry. It was the ‘Dark Ages’.
But then the age of reason and modern science dawned with the Enlightenment and we moved into the age of light and knowledge and progress.
At last humanity had come of age.

Sum up: New atheists story.


3/Critique of the New Atheist narrative

Flawed History.  (read Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart [ Summary of book ]).

Recent studies of lectures from the medieval universities show that the idea that the Earth is a sphere was quite common among scholars- not the shock horror reaction to Copernicus and Galileo that is usually portrayed in the media.
Almost all the scholars, astronomers, mathematicians and philosophers were Christian clergy at this time.
They were, after all, the main educated group in medieval society.

Their Christian faith was a strong motivator in their scholarship.
They believed it was their duty to examine and discover the secrets of the Natural World because it expressed and revealed the Glory of God.
It was this idea that lay behind the progress of Western science.

>The period from 11th to 14th Century in England, the period prior to the so-called ‘Enlightenment’, was actually a very rich time of scientific enquiry and discovery.

Everything I’ve read says serious contemporary historians of the medieval period do not speak in the simplistic terms of the modernist myth whether Christian or Non Christian.

And other aspects of modernity’s myth demand a critique:

  • The idea of continual progress. 
  • A belief in the progress of the human spirit. 
  • The belief that through education, psychological understanding and social improvement, we are delivering a new humanity.
  • the great Enlightenment dream – the creation of Utopia! Beautiful world. >

The high point of modernity – the 20th Century and 21st Century have also brought us the following:

  • The extermination of 8 million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust
  • At least 80, possibly 100 million killed or starved to death in Stalin’s Soviet Republic and Mao’s China.
  • Pol Pot’s Kampuchean experiment with 2 million killed, the country ruined.
  • Political impotence of the UN.
  • If we turn to technology, it’s a mixed blessing.  For example, nuclear power has brought cheap energy but it has also brought us Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl and now Fukushima.
  • We have polluted and ravaged our environment and daily we add to the extinction of species on our precious planet.
  • There is now serious doubt about the viability and sustainability of our economic model of continuous growth and endless consumption as well as doubts about the stability of our financial system.

 NB: This parallel story to the myth of progress, these facts, are what drive the post-modern critique of modernity. The Greens.
**But modernity/atheism doesn’t fight back at post modernity.

It chooses to line up religion as the enemy.
And so a war is constructed, a false dichotomy between
science and faith,
reason and religion,
progress and the Church.

Atheism /modernity says that at all costs we must keep the myth of ‘science’ and ‘reason’s’ triumphs and irresistible progress alive and well.

We must not allow Christianity to return to central importance again in our culture, or halt our progress to Utopia! 

Richard Dawkins describes religion as a ‘virus’ that must be eliminated, and Daniel Dennett says, ‘religion must be caged’ to protect the young.

Sumup. Critique of the new atheism.


4/The real problem: Human Nature.

Modernity’s narrative fails to deal with the real culprit, which is not religion, but human nature, which continually disappoints. SIN!!

At this point the New Atheism seems naïve and overly influenced by Utopian humanism. > great faith in human nature’s ability to overcome its weaknesses unaided, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. 

This is a curious attitude given that the New Atheism is also strongly influenced by neo-Darwinism and evolutionary biology that is purely atheistic. 

One would think that the survival of the fittest and strongest would lead to a more pessimistic view…
one that would reinforce Nietzsche’s bleak prophesy that when God dies for a culture, in the end, all you are left with is his statement:  the only absolute is the will to power,
i.e. no constraints but those we construct ourselves. 

>Dostoevsky: “If God does not exist everything is permitted”.
Nietzsche’s view is reinforced by the great atheist political experiments of the C20:
Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. 

When those in power lack any transcendent moral value/sense of accountability, we are in great danger. 
History shows the State can and does kill with terrible ruthlessness and on a grand scale.
The New atheism does not satisfactorily answer what it means to be fully human;
…our meaning and purpose
…how we overcome the dark side of our natures.
NB.  If we Christians are to focus on human nature, then we must also acknowledge our failures, made worse by our knowledge of God’s grace and goodness.
We cannot claim to be untouched and unaffected by this. 

At our worst and our morally weakest we have created our own atrocities and bowed the knee to Caesar’s seductions or his demands. 

But at our best we have given ourselves up to be redeemed and transformed by the power of God’s love and grace,
We have fought the darkness in ourselves and our societies and changed them.

D Boenhoeffer’s Letters from Prison ( Editor's Introduction to the Book ).  

We don’t have to be giants like Bonhoeffer.
Christians have an explanation and an antidote for the darkness in the human heart
That is what we call The Gospel.
Message of Hope!

Christianity’s great radical moral idea is that we are all made in the image of God and so every person must be treated with dignity and justice and kindness.
Every person is precious whatever their ability or disability, whatever their station in life, whether they are embryos, infants, aged, disabled, prisoners or free, all are precious.

This is the great idea that transformed the brutal ancient pagan world of Rome
… this is what claimed the heart and mind of Europe,
…this is what shaped our collective moral imagination and
…this is what is best in the moral DNA of Western Culture.



In the end New atheism is another form of the refusal to or failure to acknowledge the truth about ourselves and trust the living God. (Rom 1:21).
It leads to the vain effort to establish an independent and secure basis for our lives.

So its another form of idolatry, its another God denying social cultural and intellectual formation.
In the end atheism has no answer to death, no ultimate hope to give.
It’s story will end in the grave.

The resurrection of Jesus opens the door on a bigger story (1Peter 1)
It is for each one of us to decide whether it is true or not.