Questions & Answers: The Next Generation of Atheists

I received this letter from a reader of my article “Ye of Brittle Faith” in this month’s issue of First Things:

Letter to Larry Alex Taunton regarding “Ye of Brittle Faith”

I read with interest the article by Larry Alex Taunton entitled “Ye of Brittle Faith” (February). Although I am a follower of Jesus Christ I also have been a member of the Denver atheist society in order to listen to their arguments and try to understand why they have chosen the ontological naturalist position.

As lamented by Larry Taunton, most atheists are fundamentalists in their zeal to propagate their faith. In fact I have encountered four types of atheists:

  1. Atheists whose beliefs develop out of protest,who are angry with what is wrong with the world. Ivan Karamazov, from The Brothers Karamazov, is an example. “He carried around a notebook in which he copied down every instance of innocent suffering that he heard of….The accumulated anecdotes served up an unanswerable indictment against the existence of God: because this is the way [he said] the world is, there cannot be a God.”
  1. Atheists who are intellectually honest.It usually begins with an idea of God that is formed from bits of reading, misinformation, movies, talk shows and perhaps professors with certain agendas. So an intellectually discriminating atheist can be accepted as an ally in skeptically rejecting all the popular, half-baked stupidities named ‘god’ that abound in our time and invited into conversations that explore what the best minds thought, and think, about God. Failure of Christians to live out Jesus’s ideal contribute greatly to the prevalence of this type of atheist.
  1. Atheists who live as if there is no god. These are people that may even appear religious, go to church occasionally, participate in ritual, etc. But they live their lives centered on self: independent, autonomous, lord of all reality, manipulating people to achieve their desires, power hungry. A subset of this category would be atheists who can be classified as people of acedia: those with spiritual apathy, who do not care if God exists or not.
  1. Atheists who have chosen to deny God because of a moral issue.Often the issue is a secret habit or addiction. Rather than acknowledge one’s sin and confess, it is easier to block the source of morality: the God who has given a universal moral standard by which to judge ourselves. Another reason for their atheism could be the absence of a good father in their formative years, as was the case for Bertrand Russell. Often these people become militant, as if shouting and posturing will soothe their conscience—which it often does. It is more appropriate to call such atheists, anti-theists, or god haters. (Such would be Dawkins and Harris). To such people my comeback is, “why do you hate someone that does not exist?”

Kenell J. Touryan,

Denver, Colorado

My response:

Dear Mr. Touryan,

You are correct to point out that atheists are not monolithic. The famous historian M.R.D. Foot, a man who was something of a mentor to me and a great encouragement in my writing, self-identified as an atheist; but this seems to have been an afterthought, not a defining characteristic of the man. Such was the atheism of my grandparents. They belonged to no atheist groups, read no atheist screeds, and maintained a life and moral code that was, for all appearances, remarkably Christian. God just didn’t figure into their thinking.

The so-called “New Atheists” are a different category. They are shrewd marketers of their faith. Even so, of those that I have engaged—Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Michael Shermer, and Peter Singer—only Singer seems willing to live out the logical implications of his atheism.  We may thank God that the others are heavily influenced by a Judeo-Christian worldview that serves to inform—and restrain—their moral and intellectual sensibilities, although they would certainly deny this assertion.

It is their successors that frighten me.  Where Dawkins and Hitchens inhaled deeply of the Christian air that permeated the culture into which they were born and both received a modicum of Christian theological instruction in their youth, Christianity’s influence in the West wanes with every passing decade.  The consequences?  Possibly generations of atheists whose atheism is less restrained and a great deal more dangerous.

We have work to do.

Larry Alex Taunton

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