Against All Gods: An Open Invitation to ‘The New Atheism’

Anyone seeking a witticized slam of ‘The New Atheism’ should stay away from Against All Gods.  The new release by Dr. Phillip Johnson and Dr. John Mark Reynolds refuses to wade into mind-numbingly circular surface arguments with writers of the new atheism. Instead, Johnson and Reynolds focus on “breaking down…communication barriers” between the new atheists and those of religious faith, particularly within the university.

Johnson and Reynolds are not setting out to grind new atheism into dust, but to establish space for rigorous, candid conversation. Johnson writes:

We will make certain critical points about what the atheists are writing. However, our desire is not to shut down the discussion with a resounding rebuttal but rather to encourage careful examination of the issues both inside the university classroom and outside. We believe that the truth can only benefit from…uninhibited discussion… For this reason we welcome the surge that the new atheism represents…

Both Reynolds and Johnson are clear that they ‘welcome’ the new atheism for one main reason: they ask the right questions. Despite “ill-founded” conclusions, declarations such as ‘God does not exist’ or “humans are primates, [and their] mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes” necessarily raise important questions. Does God exist? Are humans more than animals with physiological capacities? The 21st century Western world, chock full of superficial distractions, can only benefit from reminders that these questions exist and should be taken seriously.

The new atheism, which depends upon ‘scientific naturalism’, asserts that science—Darwinism in particular—is both absolutely indubitable and absolutely atheistic. Because of the sharp division between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’, the new atheists conclude that religion is an anti-scholastic delusion, and religious studies don’t belong in general education curricula.

In the first half of Against All Gods, Johnson focuses on responding to this dichotomy of faith and reason. New atheists like Steven Pinker define faith as a “euphemism for religious belief and as meaning believing something (such as that God exists) without good reasons to do so.” Johnson rejects this equating of ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ and offers his own definition of faith as “retaining confidence in what you have good reason to believe when you are in danger of being confused and losing your bearings.” Faith is the grounding for reason, Johnson writes, not the lack of it.

Johnson’s next point naturally rises from his re-definition: every individual has a faith. New atheists’ faith in science is as much faith as religious faith. What’s more, Johnson presses, faith in science is less reasonable than religious faith, as it cannot satisfy certain physical phenomena (e.g. ‘Where did the first cell come from?’) as adequately as religious, metaphysical hypotheses.

Perhaps Johnson presses the topic a little too far in this section when he equates ‘religion’ with ‘metaphysics’. There are intelligent Christian philosophers, such as non-reductive physicalists, who avoid being metaphysical reductionists. Still, the meat of Johnson’s point remains: religious alternatives are as-or-more reasonable than Darwinism, especially Darwinism as interpreted by scientific naturalism. The case is not closed, Johnson says to the atheists, so stop trying to shut the door.

The finals chapters, written by Dr. John Mark Reynolds, are largely a response to the new atheists’ conclusion that religious studies, particularly in the university, are delusional and anti-scholastic. Reynolds begins at the source—traditional texts. He does not object to the new atheists disliking, or even loathing the Bible, but Reynolds does take issue with poor reading of Biblical texts, especially because the resulting misunderstandings destroy open communication.

In his chapter “The Obstacle of Old Books,” Reynolds connects how new atheists are reading Scripture to their hasty conclusions about Christianity. After outlining what I would term a useful and enlightening ‘idiot’s guide to hermeneutics’, Reynolds contends that new atheists refuse—or don’t know how—to employ the basic guidelines of charitable reading. For example, when atheist scholars (Dawkins in particular) ignore historical information like early Israel’s tribal and warlike world, it leads to unfair judgments about the brutality seen in the Old Testament.

Poor readers refuse to imagine the world of a text, and so close themselves off to the mere possibility of its truth. “Imagination,” Reynolds writes, “is a wonderful tool that allows me to consider the possibility that any religious, philosophical or scientific idea might be true.”

According to Reynolds, such critical consideration is based in wonder, not cynical, unrestrained doubt, and as such, it has every place in the university. Whereas unleashed cycnicism paralyzes academic discovery, belief in truth grants motivation and purpose to intellectual study.

Religion, says Reynolds, sustains the university. Learning is a journey that includes discovery of truth and cultivation of virtue via personal and artistic mentors. Without religion, education becomes vacuous intellectual hedonism. Contrary to what new atheists say, education is not “constricted” by exposure to religion; it is fueled by it. Reynolds concludes Against All Gods with a historical defense of orthodoxy in light of this assertion: new atheists claim that, historically, religion has been the oppressor of academic pursuits, but Reynolds argues that it has been the impetus of intellectual progress.

The existence of Johnson and Reynolds’s book demonstrates Reynolds’s final point. It is a piece of well-crafted analysis filled with sound arguments that sticks its foot in the door new atheism is trying to slam shut. This dialogue is far from over, Johnson and Reynolds protest. New atheism and religion have much to discuss, and both sides have every reason to embrace the conversation and see where it leads. ‘

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Robin Dembroff

Robin Dembroff is a student at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, pursuing degrees in Philosophy and English Literature. Her writing has been recognized by the Visalia Times Delta, Ayn Rand Institute, Michael L. Roston Creative Writing Contest, Torn Curtain – The Zine, Biola English Guild’s St. John the Apostle Paper Conference, and the Biola History/Gov’t/Social Science Department’s J.O. Henry Award.