They’re increasing in number, writing books at an increasing pace, gaining political influence both in the United States and abroad. They’re appearing more and more on television, gearing up their followers, and telling us that if we would only follow what they say, the world would be a better place. Yet, to doubt them or critique them only brings about harm. While they preach that their beliefs are completely rational – in fact, to be rational is to agree with them – they don’t use any reason to back up their claims, only rhetoric. Ultimately, the movement is anti-intellectual in that it doesn’t encourage critical thinking, but instead blind adherence to what is being taught.
Am I talking about the New Atheists or the Old Evangelicals (80s and 90s)? The answer is disturbingly “yes.”
Those who grew up in evangelical circles, especially in the 1980s and 90s, are very familiar with the tactics and culture surrounding the New Atheists. The reason is because while the content between the two is drastically different, the overall “zeitgeist” is the same. Both insult opponents rather than engage them in civil dialogue. Both point out the evils of those who disagree with them and show how one particular group is out to destroy the world. The reason evangelical Christians and new atheists don’t get along extends beyond fundamental differences of belief; they don’t like each other because they’re using the same tactics.
The reality is that Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others are just a few art classes away from producing an atheist-style Jack Chick tract. Whereas the 1980s and 90s had Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson and others promoting the Gospel, ridiculing those who disagreed, and trying to make us a “Christian nation” once again, we now have Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others promoting “secularism,” ridiculing those who disagree, and trying to make us a “Secular nation” once again.
The Old Evangelicals relied heavily on rhetoric, fear, demonization, and manipulation to increase the masses and move towards what they believed to be the solution. The New Atheists, however, are doing the exact same thing. Their rhetoric challenges Christianity without allowing for a response; try to prove to them that belief in God is rational (even if not true) and you don’t get an educated response. All you get is an ad hominem reply or a series of arguments chock full of question begging. They point out how Christians want to take over America, they do this to induce fear. They move on to demonize anyone who believes in God, with Dawkins going so far in his “documentary” “The Root of All Evil?” to say that parents who raise their children to believe in God are guilty of abuse. All of this is based on manipulation of the facts or by focusing on one element of Christianity to brand all other Christians. These tactics aren’t new, however; they’re stolen from the Old Evangelicals (Religious Right) and are now being used against them.
Both the Old Evangelicals and the New Atheists are, of course, wrong. The reality is that one can approach the realm of faith or unfaith in a rational way. While I would argue that only one way is ultimately rational, it is possible to be a rational atheist, just as it is possible to be a rational Christian. Sadly, there hasn’t been any civil dialogue because neither side is interested in civility; they’re only interested in being right, they’re only interested in winning. In this, and in many ways, the Old Evangelicals and the New Atheists are the same tune, just different lyrics. Adherents to Christianity and those who engage in atheism should shake off these old ways and instead embrace civil dialogue. Or, to put it more bluntly and in a less civil way, they should grow up.