The irony of new atheism

Christopher Hitchens is  persuaded that Christianity and religion generally have done no good for the world and he has been campaigning, along with Richard Dawkins and other “new atheists” to make his case.

It makes for entertaining reading, though, of course, religious people cannot help but be concerned about the effect they might be having on those they persuade.

One thing I find ironic about their approach is that they are using “evangelistic” techniques that seem to be borrowed directly from the Christians. So at least that one good thing has been added to the world by religious people.

I find it doubly ironic that the techniques they are using are precisely those Christians should never have dabbled with.

So I end up being on Hitchens side against Hitchens in this matter.

13 Responses

  1. The new atheists are hardly presenting an argument. They are mere fundamentalists and deserve the treatment that all fundamentalism begs. There is a place for contempt in this world. Hart is not uncivil he simply exposes their incompetence for what it is. He is also one of only a handful of writes who can pull off what he does. He lands blow after blow but with wit and good humor. Chesterton could do the same.

    There are plenty of atheistic and agnostic and skeptical positions that deserve respect and honest engagement. But as Hart remarks at least these enemies “held the amiable belief that they should make some effort to acquaint themselves with the object of their critique.”

    Don’t worry he really doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing directly with them, he sweeps them off the field and then proceeds with the real business of the book, which is really about the Christian Revolution.

    Did you ever read his First Things article on Daniel Dennett? You will not be disappointed.

    If you want to see him engage modernism with pure precision and objectivity then I would suggest The Beauty of the Infinite. But it is mostly beyond me.

    Read Atheist Delusions and I think you will agree. It is a very quick read and he is the best writer in the field.

    • Idler,

      Thank you. This is very helpful. I’ll have to take a look at it. I’d be keenly interested in knowing what some of the “new atheists” think of it. Any of you there?

      I’ve been quite amazed lately how often I read school kids write things on blogs or Youtube or whatever about how they don’t believe in God because “there is no evidence” for his existence.

      Historically and sensibly, that is such a very strange thought.

      Why do people, especially children, seek for empirical evidence for that which is declared to be, a priori, not reducible to evidential proof? It would seem that there minds have been undercut and manipulated.

      • If you’re going to read Hart on the New Atheism, you should probably start with his piece on Dennet in First Things (

        This piece is more philosophical; his book deals primarily with the historical claim that Christianity has generally a violent force in history.

        He does have a very argumentative style, and he’s often harsh, but in a humorous way. He also happens to be one of the greatest living theologians (his brilliant but very difficult book “The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth” largely determined the course of my undergraduate education in philosophy).

        That’s my plug for Hart.

    • Idler,

      The Beauty of the Infinite is an amazing book, but it took (at least for me) years of studying continental philosophy in detail to understand it. One of my favorite things about that book is the demands it placed on me: it intrigued me with the combined effect of its elegant writing and its density, and inspired me to study other sources so I could understand it.

      If you feel that it’s beyond you, don’t give up. Despite the fact that some parts of the book seem impossible at first, it is doable if you become acquainted with the figures he criticizes (especially Heidegger). Despite the fact that the book is critical of modern continental philosophy, it also brings out what is good in it; and doing background reading to understand the book is rewarding in itself.

      • Thomas,

        Thanks for the encouragement. I hope to be able to read Infinite someday. I am still trying to work my way through the Fathers and the history and development of philosophy.

        I love Hart’s style. I love that he is not only a great theologian but is learned in other areas as well. Balthasar is like that. I have been working my way throught his opus for a few years.

        Hart does remain somewhat of an enigma to me. at this point. Infinite is his one great work, where will he go from there, what will be his purpose over the next decade? It will be interesting to see. Orthodoxy doesn’t quite know what to do with him. Then again no one knew what to do with Aquinas eh?

        Hart reminds me of Chesterton and Belloc in some ways. Belloc could give Hart a run in blistering scorn when necessary. Agree or disagree with Belloc but he is pure delight to read. And could you imagine Chesterton debating say, all of the New Atheists, he would have the audience begging for more and the Atheists would slink off the stage in shame at being exposed for the dolts that they are.

        I wonder if Hart is as good on his feet as he is writing.

      • I just finished Balthasar’s book on Saint Gregory of Nyssa. Both of them have a stunningly wide range of expertise. Hart is more entertaining, Balthasar often is more rigorous (at least it seems to me).

        If you’re working your way through the Fathers, that obviously is more rewarding. The continental style of philosophy requires a familiarity with the prior history of Western philosophy, so it’s better to get a good grip on that first.

        However, I think you’ll find that once you’ve gone through the Fathers and the history of philosophy, you’ll find that continental philosophy, despite its flaws (which Hart tears into) allows you to rethink what you’ve already learned in even more depth. Hart himself does this with the Cappodician fathers.

        The reason Hart is controversial with Orthodoxy is that he is so willing to find points of agreement between Eastern and Western tradition, though he has to do a little reading between the surface to accomplish this. Orthodoxy in recent times has unfortunately attempted to define itself in opposition to the West, and so Hart’s project is not welcome in many circles.

      • Thomas,

        I see many parallels between Balthasar and Hart, would you agree?

      • Yes. Hart is heavily influenced by Balthasar. Additionally, from what little I know of him, Balthasar has some very Eastern tendencies (for example, his suggestion that all might be saved).

        In terms of his style, he seems very different. Hart is pretty Heideggarian in the way he reasons; Balthasar seems more… Hegelian maybe. He’s harder to place.

  2. I’m looking forward to the ‘Collision’ movie with Hitchens and Doug Wilson. Should be out in Oct.

  3. Have you read David Hart’s new book? He treats them with the blistering contempt and incisive polemic they deserve. Hart sometimes makes one despair of ever writing a word.


    • I haven’t and I need to, but I don’t like when any side of an argument treats the other with “blistering contempt.”

      If they are religious hypocrites, then yes, they should be publicly scolded if they assume public leadership.

      But this seems to me to be a problem of perception. Respect would seem to go farther and, more importantly, be more appropriate.

      Though, as I said, I have not read the book yet.

  4. “One thing I find ironic about their approach is that they are using “evangelistic” techniques that seem to be borrowed directly from the Christians.”

    The act of evangelizing is neither good nor bad, it is the message evangelized that makes it so.

    • I agree with you, if we mean actual evangelizing when we use the word.

      Literally, the act of evangelizing is always good (“evangelize” is literally “to bring good news”), but what is never good is to undercut the dignity of the person you are evangelizing through psychological manipulation, aggressive disrespect, or contempt for the person you disagree with.

      And building a sophisticated mass market approach to building a following and then creating a quasi-grass roots movement (I know, the normal mode of persuasion in this mass produced culture) is, in my view, very harmful to the human race, and therefore bad.

      So I don’t think either the contemporary evangelical (church growth, megachurch types) or the new atheists are doing something good, because I think they are both disrespectful to their audience and to their opponents.

      I would also add that the way you communicate will qualify what you communicate, and that is rather crucial.

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