July 13, 2024

Q. More and more people I know seem to be questioning God’s existence. There even seems to be a growth in the number of people who don’t even believe in God. Can you help me understand this and how I can respond?

This is an important question, as it addresses a real cultural trend, so we’re going to take this month and the next few months to address it.

It’s certainly the case that there have always been people who deny the existence of the supernatural, even within Judeo-Christian cultures and civilizations. Over the past 20 years, though, we’ve seen this view become a kind of cultural phenomenon. 

In the mid-to-late 2000s, there were several books promoting atheism, or perhaps more precisely, books attacking religion and religious belief, if not religious believers as a group. Some of them sold millions of copies and generated all sorts of discussion, to the point that this phenomenon earned itself a name: “The New Atheism” (TNA). And while TNA has subsided as a cultural phenomenon, we continue to see growth in the number of people who either deny or at least question the reality of God’s existence.

Before we look at what TNA is and how to reply to it, it’s worth asking this question: why bother? Sensation sells, and in a country where the vast majority of people at least believe in God, it’s natural to expect that a small troop of belligerent atheists—as we’ll see, these atheists are particularly belligerent—and their books will get people’s attention. But there are lots of fads out there, including religious fads, so why bother focusing attention on TNA?

When it comes down to it, TNA is worth addressing simply because of the attention it has gotten, plain and simple. If this were an insignificant blip on the fad screen, it wouldn’t be worth addressing. But these writers and their books continue to get attention, and like it or not, we need to reply to them. Why? Because while they haven’t won large numbers of converts to TNA, they are attacking our faith—loudly. And even if people aren’t becoming atheists, they are nonetheless listening, as seen in part by the growth in the “nones” (those who have no formal religion).

So, what is TNA? What differentiates this form of atheism from other forms of atheism? A few things come to mind. 

First, TNA isn’t as focused on philosophical argumentation as other atheisms. These other atheisms often sought to provide rigorous philosophical arguments both in defense of their own perspectives and in critique of opposing perspectives. That’s not as much the case with TNA. While there is some attempt at philosophical argumentation, it generally isn’t the focus of the efforts of the new atheists, and frankly, they don’t do it very well at all—but more on that later. 

For that matter, the most famous TNAs aren’t philosophers in the formal sense themselves, which is another thing that distinguishes them from other atheists. TNA seems to have a smaller percentage of trained philosophers among their numbers than do other forms of atheism.

TNA also seems more focused on going on the offensive than on playing defense. TNAs prefer to focus their attention on what they perceive as wrong and/or evil about religion rather than on what is right about atheism. Their arguments are more against religion than they are in favor of atheism. 

Dr. Chris Burgwald holds a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

And that leads us to another distinguishing characteristic of TNA: its polemical tone. TNAs have a very aggressive, often arrogant tone. It’s hard to read any TNA literature and not conclude that they think religious believers are stupid and/or mindless, or at least that religion as such is stupid, mindless and evil.

Relatedly, TNA differentiates itself from other brands of atheism in that it sees absolutely nothing good about religion or religious belief whatsoever. As far as TNAs are concerned, the world would be a far better place without religion. Just look at the title of Christopher Hitchens’ contribution to this fad: “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” No doubt about where he stands on the matter, is there? 

Or take the title of the book “The God Delusion,” by perhaps the most well-known proponent of TNA, biologist Richard Dawkins. What do you suppose he thinks about the notion of religious belief?

Next month we’ll look at a final characteristic of TNA and begin to look at how we can respond to it.