Saturday, June 15, 2013

Jason Pratt's interview, Part II: The New Atheism

Part II: The New Atheism

Of course Dan Dennett's the one to drink white wine.
Here's the second part of Jason Pratt's interview with me, after The Truth Behind the New Atheism: Responding to the Emerging Chellenges to God and Christianity.  came out.  None of the issues seem to have died down, so I can't say any of this is old news.  It was interesting to find John Loftus (whom I did not know then, I don't think) commenting in the comments section, saying no, he was not a "New Atheist."   

JP: Where did the term "New Atheism" come from anyway? Do the usual suspects gladly make use of it themselves? And if so, what do they see this as positively meaning in their favor?

DM: Some "New Atheists" seem to think the term is derogatory, and foisted on them by a cabal at Wheaton College or somewhere. Such is the way of things: Christians were named by some of our first enemies, "Mohammedans" had no say over that title, the Chinese are still referred to by the name of their most ruthless emperor, and the Makah Indians (as I recall) are called "those guys over there" or something like that, which was the answer a member of the next tribe gave when the first white man asked who they were.

I invented the term "New Atheism", then found everyone already using it before my book came to press. Someone bugged my office, I guess.  (Readers will I hope recognize the joke; I think the term was coined for the Wired article about the meeting between the four men pictured above.) 

JP: So, why would they be called the "New Atheists"? What are they doing new? Or does the term even make any sense applied to them?

DM: This new cohort of atheist writers tends to have several things in common. They are trying generally to apply the theory of evolution in new ways to social science, including religion and morality. (Drawing on people like Pascal Boyer and some other new theorists, even Dawkins' meme theory, along with earlier writers.) Secondly, they draw on new "Jesus spin" -- what I call neo-Gnosticism, along with the Jesus Seminar stuff and some even more hoary "Jesus was a mirage" theories. Third, the New Atheism arises in a new context -- after 9/11, when many skeptics want to see a symmetry between radical Islam and home-grown "Christian fundamentalism." Some people did this during the Cold War, too, trying to make out that Christianity was "just as dangerous" as communism.  

JP: People, even among other atheists, have been criticizing the NA group for overstating claims about the American political system and American society being ready to topple into a Talibanesque oppressive theocracy or even being already in such a state already. How accurate are those critiques? Are the NAs really saying such things, or are they just speculating cautiously, or do they not even care about the topic?

DM: Richard Dawkins calls American Christians "the American Taliban." Other critics have written books with titles like "American Theocracy" and "Kingdom Coming," painting American Christianity in equally apocalyptic tones. It is certainly a major part of Dawkins' argument, and of many who agree with him, to make American Christians appear fools, lunatics, proto-terrorists (the serious ones, anyway) and an imminent threat to the republic.

I argue to the contrary. While we Christians often criticize ourselves, and no one denies that the Church is less than it ought to be, the Gospel does, I show, do a great deal of good for America, and through America for the world. The New Atheist case against Christianity is like a snap shot from a satellite. But serious, systematic, long-term, and ground-level study of what Christians are doing for others in America, shows that it's quite a bit. And far from despising democracy, serious Christians of all political stripes tend to be zealous and proprietary about it. Rightfully so -- as many historians recognize, Western freedom was a child of two parents, Greek and Hebrew traditions, nurtured and taught by the Gospel over centuries of slow maturation.

JP: On Richard Dawkins' official website ( the subtitle or motto is "A Clear-Thinking Oasis", and a prominent link will bring the reader to "The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science". At the popular long-running Secular Web (, which frequently markets and promotes NA work, the subtitle or motto is "A Drop of Reason in a Pool of Confusion". This sort of thing can be commonly found among all atheistic promoters. And not unreasonably so!--everyone wants reason to be on their side.

The question here is, how consistent are they about this? I mean in principle--do they always affirm the importance and reality of human reason in reaching conclusions? Or do you find them ever denying the reality and importance of human reasoning in principle when explaining what they believe?

DM: I don't recall them doing that. Perhaps they do, and I missed it.

I make the case that their definition of "reason" is too narrow, and that they deny their own definition in practice. A lot of their statements veer towards positivism. But positivism is a couple strong steps -- or perhaps a giant leap -- on the path to solipsism and an inability to say with epistemological integrity, "I ate eggs for breakfast this morning," or "this is my wife." Most talk about "science" in a reified sense tends to pull us in that direction. My argument is that the Gospel, by contrast, liberates us to find knowledge and truth in a more fully human mode, making use of all our faculties -- including rational dependence on human testimony, as scientists do anyway -- to understand the world around us. Christian "faith," then, is not only a rational act, it is an exercise that sets reason free to really take in the world.

JP: Does it seem a usual procedure of the NAs to make ethical appeals about what people ought and ought not to do? If not, is this consistent behavior on their part (and what do they substitute instead)? If so, how consistent are they in principle about affirming the importance and reality of human moral judgment?

DM: It's natural for all human beings to make ethical appeals. The more loudly we denounce them, the more we tend to assume them implicitly. Marx was a moralist who denied morality. Even the loudest proponents of egoism and the Superman, like Nietzche and Ayn Rand, show in their lives they don't consistently believe their own arguments. Dawkins seems confused on this topic. Hitchens and Harris are smart (perhaps) enough not even to try to justify their moral opinions theoretically, as far as I recall.  (Note: this was before Harris' book on the subject.) 

The New Atheism in general does tend to be conflicted about morality. On the one hand, they want to say it derives from evolution and you can't derive an ought from an evolutionary is, "except with a negative sign," as Dawkins puts it. Then they turn around and try to do just that -- find evolutionary rationale for their own pet moral projects, to the sounds of pots clanging and glass breaking.

JP: You've spent some time studying, traveling in, and dealing with mainland China, over the years. It can said with some safety, I think, that China is currently the world's largest example of an overtly atheistic government. How does China as a government compare, in its own approaches to the subject, with the NAs?

DM: The more interesting question is how the Chinese compare.

Someone recently got mad at my off-hand comment in this book that most modern atheists have been Marxist. In the broad sense of "Marxist," though, this is clearly true: a huge percent of Chinese (as well as Soviets and so on) have seen themselves as atheists, denying the existence of God. If America has twenty million atheists, China probably has three to four hundred million, maybe more. Only a minority are members of the communist party, true, but their atheism at least derives from Marxist teachings.

The difference is, many Chinese (and Eastern Europeans) were brought up as "cultural atheists," educated in the non-existence God in school. Now many are questioning those assumptions. If you say, "I believe in God," and they respond (as they often do) "why?" or "how do you know?" you get the curious impression that they're really listening to the reply. This is why the number of atheists in China seems to be steadily decreasing, and intellectual Chinese -- even here in Oxford, where I'm answering these questions from -- are coming to God in significant numbers.

But Marx himself was, in his time, very much a "new atheist." He went off to school a pious young Hebrew Lutheran, and lost his faith under the influence of what Daniel Dennett called "godless professors" and a "scientific" view of the origin of human society. 

JP: When the NAs are busy excoriating the socio-political threat of the "American Taliban" and President Bush's "theocracy", how does this compare to the reality of China and other known definite atheist states in the past hundred years or so?

DM: Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris want us to think atheism has nothing to do with that reality. As a scholar of Marxism who has lived in both Soviet and Chinese societies, I say "poppycock." One can hardly blame them for wishing, though; what Christian wouldn't want to wish the Inquisition away?

JP: Thank you for your answers so far, David. JD Walters, one of our contributors here on the Cadre Journal, asks: “One often hears that apologetics only 'preaches to the choir' and that it is very ineffective in actually changing someone's mind or bringing them closer to the gospel. What has your experience been in this area? Do you believe that your apologetics books have changed people's minds concerning the issues you deal with?”

DM: The best answer is, perhaps, that apologetics truly does no good at all -- if it is divorced from the life of integrity that the Gospel calls us to. "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels... If I have all knowledge... but have not love, it profits me nothing."

This is why apologetics must be a part of a whole-istic outreach. Paul said "Speak the truth in love." Sometimes I am disappointed by the rude and presumptuous way we Christians respond to our skeptical neighbors. Sometimes I have also let the temptation to be witty trump the call to love, and respond without really caring about the other person.

What effect do my books have in the hands of skeptics? It would be presumptuous of me to generalize. But they are written from my own passionate love of truth, a love of the best in human thought, and a touch of humor. The first step to win a soul is to win a friend; and I do think my books can be a step in establishing a friendly and cheerful conversation about important issues.

JP: As a group of apologists, we're naturally interested in hearing of practical applications of these studies in the lives and witnesses of Christians; for instance, such as the Chinese responses you mentioned encountering in your travels. Can you build a bit on your advice from your previous answer, and discuss the integration of apologetics in a holistic outreach? Also, you seem to indicate that there are important parallels between this holistic outreach and a Christian's own self-discipline of faith. Can you comment on this a little more?

DM: Yesterday I prayed with an Asian woman who goes into the streets and helps drug addicts here in Oxford, and helps homeless people in Africa. She's winning people to Jesus; she's reading my book, and asking me questions, because she feels a need to understand what she believes more deeply. I meet people like that almost every day; and you probably know quite a few in your own church. My standard offer to Richard Dawkins is that he guide me around this town, and introduce me to Oxford's pubs; in return, I'll take him on a tour of the city's churches, and see what the Gospel is accomplishing under his (upturned) nose. My estimate is that he knows about as much about Christianity as I do about English beer.

Chesterton used to say that he could start his argument from anything; from a taxi meter, for example. Jesus was even more flexible and inventive: he could change lives beginning with anything, with mud in the eye, with a tax collector in a tree, with a madman on the beach, with a wild woman at a watering hole on the other side of the railroad tracks. "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," he said (according to his best friend John). We apologists (at least I know I do) tend to concentrate on one aspect of that, "the Truth;" the fraction is even smaller if we look at Jesus' "Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength." There's nothing wrong with specializing; but it is the whole person who wins souls, and becomes a complete one herself.

I've just been reading the biographies of two "evangelists" I admire: Matteo Ricci, and James Legge, the two smartest missionaries to China ever. They won souls by their thoughtful apologetics, but even more by kindness and courage. They were very bookish, but also lived crazy lives: jumping into rivers to save women in a flood, punching an imperial soldier to save a little girl, winning respect for the Gospel in all kinds of ways. They had enemies, and opponents, and they responded robustly. But what ultimately won them respect was their character.

My life has been mild by comparison, so far. But Jesus said, "Whoever gives a cup of water in my name will not lose his reward." I firmly believe that the strongest argument for the Christian faith will always be the integrity of what we say and do.

In the end, we follow a person--not a theory.


Jason Pratt said...

Hard to believe it has already been over five years since that interview already!


(I noticed a couple of compositional/editing blips in my questions.)


Jason Pratt said...

I forgot to ask in my previous comment, does J'oftus regard himself as a New Atheist now, or does he still think not meeting one or two of the criteria in your book (instead of a majority of the criteria combined) disqualifies him?


David B Marshall said...

Hi, Jason. I don't know what John says about that, now.

Want a review copy of Faith Seeking Understanding? I think you'd enjoy it.

Jason Pratt said...

Sure!--email me directly I guess about where to send it, unless you still have that address somewhere. (Or you can gift it to me on the Kindle if that's an option.)

I'm busy being a Wheel of Time fanboy this year (and a season), since the series finally ended, but I'm trying to work (starting next month) on finishing a book every 20 days so that I'll have 10 days a month to read something else. {g}