The recent rantings of Dawkins, Hitchins, Harris et al could best be described as tabloid in argumentation, which is probably why they have been effective. However, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s recent The Grand Design has reignited more serious debate over God’s existence.
Many atheists celebrate this book as providing more reasoned grounds for their dismissal of religious belief. The book’s argument is that creation was spontaneously generated from nothing. Never mind the question begging nature of this argument, who am I to argue science with Stephen Hawking. Whilst I welcome serious discussion of matters of faith it has forced me to consider a differing aspect of the debate.
In my experience most atheists at some time argue that those of us with religious belief hold our position because of psychological reasons, usually portrayed as weaknesses. Either we were conditioned into belief by society or upbringing, or we have a need for the security of tradition or external authority.
The atheist on the other hand presents his position as being arrived at after thorough, cool and rational examination of the evidence. But is this true, are we faced with a position where Christians are people who need a psychological prop and atheists are those who are unafraid to face reality without a shield?
The philosopher Thomas Nagel in The Last Word (OUP, 19997) wrote:
“In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself.
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
Is it possible that Christian apologists have been neglecting an avenue of approach in practical apologetics? Perhaps Nagel’s admission of a “fear of religion itself” is actually much more common that atheists would have us believe.
For the Christian apologist the arguments of the New Atheists rarely rise above the level of the tiresome. They are usually little more than regurgitated contentions which have been presented for centuries, and refuted for centuries. Nevertheless, as someone who believes that the Christian faith is a rational faith I usually respond with rational argument. It could be that I as a Christian apologist have been too rational.
Perhaps Christians should think more about the non-rational basis of unbelief. Atheists are after all human beings, they have fears, desires, complexes and neuroses just as much as Christians do. Believers or unbelievers we are more than merely rational beings. Atheists should be challenged with the rational, evidential basis of belief, they should also be challenged concerning the non-rational causes of unbelief.
Scripture presents an argument that the evidence for God is irrefutable, in Paul’s words “God has made it plain… can be clearly seen,” Romans 1:19-20. If God has made it so clear that He exists, then why are there atheists, people who deny that clarity? Paul tells us a verse earlier that men choose to “suppress the truth.”
Why should people be afraid of faith? Is it because they fear giving up their pretend autonomy, or perhaps their upbringing or life experiences have taught them not to trust? Perhaps it is a hidden fear of being unable to live up to the demands of Christ?
As we speak to unbelievers we should appreciate that before us is not just an opponent in argument but a man or woman with just as many hang ups and problems as we have.