Faith and Science: Are the New Atheists Right?

May 2014

by Michael De Robertis

Why did I write these pages?

There is a growing perception within universities that atheism is a core requirement for an intellectually responsible worldview. Science students who value their faith are understandably distressed by the emerging dogma that one has to be an atheist to be a “good scientist,” a position reinforced by some of their professors and colleagues, not to mention much of popular culture. (The situation is little better in the humanities and the social sciences.)

Equally troubling is the fact that most students appear not to have the critical-thinking skills required to assess the most important truth claim of all, whether there is a God. Not that this claim receives serious attention in the contemporary university. “Religion” has been safely relegated to the margins, perceived as a “private matter”; helpful for diversity statistics, but of limited academic value.

These pages are loosely based on a talk of the same title given on November 15, 2012 at York University[1] in which I responded to some of the most frequently used arguments by the New Atheists to dismiss religion and discussed serious problems inherent to atheism. Students need to be aware that there is a great deal of compelling evidence in favour of theism and that evidence in support of atheism is far from convincing, despite the growing attention it receives.

What are my credentials?

I am a professor of physics and astronomy at York University in Toronto, one of the largest universities in Canada. Though I am not a leader in any of the fields represented in these pages, one doesn’t have to be a ranking scholar in any or all relevant disciplines to apprehend the evidence for theism or to acknowledge the serious challenges faced by atheism.


These pages may be read through sequentially, or topics may be selected individually using the following links.

What is atheist? [What is a theist? What is an agnostic? Who or what are the nones”?]

An atheist is anyone who denies the existence of a God or gods, who denies the existence of the supernatural, defined as that which is beyond space and time. Many atheists prefer the designation “a-theist” or “anti-theist,” to emphasize that their primary opposition is to theism rather than to affirm the non-existence of a God or gods. This distinction is not important in the current context.

A “theist” is someone who admits the existence of a God or gods.

An agnostic is someone who believes that the existence of God (or gods) is (are) unknowable. There are agnostics who believe this in principle, while others simply see this as a temporary “parking spot” for their beliefs. Many regard such fence-sitting as the least defensible of all three positions. After all, one is called upon to make so many other decisions in life, why isn’t it possible to reach a position on the most important issue of all?

There has been some discussion recently about the “nones,” those who do not identify with any religion on surveys. They are the fastest rising religious category in North America. “Nones” appear to represent about one-in-four adults in Canada (2011 National Household Survey) and about one-in-five adults in the USA (Pew Research Center). Only a minority of “nones” are “atheists or agnostics,” however. In the USA, atheists comprise about 2.5% of the population and agnostics 3.5%. Canada has a similar proportion of “atheists or agnostics.” The largest religious category in the USA is Christianity at 73%, while just over two-thirds of Canadians identify, at least nominally, as Christian.

How does one become an atheist?

Technically, one can become an atheist simply by refusing to believe in the supernatural. This isn’t the default position, however, at least in nations where the majority identifies as “religious.” In the west, atheists are made, not born.[2] Recent surveys[3] have shown that most atheists, including those who are members of Secular or Freethought societies at colleges and universities, turn toward atheism as adolescents and young adults because of unsatisfying experiences with religion.  Neither atheists nor theists attribute their (un)belief in God primarily to purely intellectual arguments.  It is important in a university context, however, that (un)belief be rationally defensible.

What are the different types of atheists?

We must distinguish among “principled atheists,” “village atheists,” and the “New Atheists.”

What are "Principled Atheists"?

The term “atheism” is only a few centuries old.  The belief that there is no god (or gods), however, has had a very long – some would say, distinguished – history. When one normally thinks of atheism, what might be called “principled atheism,” people such as Democritus, Nietzsche, Russell, Sartre or Camus might come to mind.  Such great thinkers often grappled with difficult questions before rejecting the existence of God, a rejection that they acknowledged could have profound consequences.  One might conclude, for example, from the “Problem of Evil” – that an all-good and all-loving God would not permit suffering or evil – and thus, because there is suffering and evil, there cannot be a God who is all good.  Or that an infinitely just God logically cannot also be infinitely merciful.  Though one might not agree with these conclusions, one can certainly respect the intellectual positions from which they are drawn. Principled atheists normally show respect for opposing views.

What are "Village Atheists"?

In contrast to the principled atheists, there have always been “village atheists,” those whose arguments against the legitimacy of faith are based on cynicism or on a simplistic rather than scholarly understanding of religion.  “Village atheists” are certainly well represented everywhere - from street corners to the internet - and are noted for their “sound-bite” arguments.

Who are the "New Atheists"?

In the past decade or so, a group of best-selling atheists – called the “New Atheists” – has arisen. They are noted for their aggressive approach towards religion and have garnered a large community of enthusiastic supporters as evidenced by their best-selling books and substantial media attention. The dean of the New Atheists is Dr. Richard Dawkins from the University of Oxford; fellow charter members included neuroscientist Dr. Sam Harris, philosopher Dr. Daniel Dennett, and the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens[4].

A defining moment for New Atheism was 9/11.  Most of the New Atheists agree that this event signalled to them that all religions are dangerous.  Not only did 9/11 provide evidence of what erroneous thinking could lead to.  Erroneous thinking would lead to such behaviour.

Sadly, the “New Atheists” are more similar to “village atheists” than “principled atheists.” Leaders of the new atheism betray a supreme confidence in science and a callous disregard for their opposition, frequently dismissing theists and their arguments as unenlightened and simplistic without sufficient evidence.

What has been the reaction to the New Atheists?

Reception to the New Atheists has been mixed. Negative reaction by many theists goes without saying; but even some atheists themselves have also expressed serious reservations; that the “New Atheism” isn’t really so new and that some of their arguments are intellectually shallow. They are also dismayed by their sheer arrogance on occasions[5].

From an intellectual perspective, what is highly distressing about the New Atheists is the utter contempt they show for the theist’s position[6].  When debating an opponent in an academic context it is understood that one should provide a fair reflection of the position of one’s opponent before presenting what one thinks is compelling evidence for one’s own.  The former requires that one take the trouble to understand an opponent’s position, but there is scant evidence from the popular media, including books, websites and on-line videos, that the New Atheists understand basic theism or at least that they’re prepared to represent this position fairly in public.  

What is religion?

“Religion” is a difficult term to define. The majority of scholars, however, acknowledge that along with a set of beliefs and practices, religion is an attempt by humans to apprehend their ultimate purpose, origins and the meaning of life, to reflect upon and connect with a transcendent reality, as well as to ground a moral system. A core element of most religions is a belief in a supernatural entity (or entities), i.e., a God (or gods).

Though of finite intelligence, humans can, through reason, discern (albeit imperfectly) aspects of God’s nature and of their relationship with God. This understanding will contain subjective influences, including things like culture, language, maturity of revelation, etc.  But these differences, though occasionally radical and even contradictory, do not necessarily allow the a priori rejection of the supernatural, of the divine.  The story of the six blind men who describe their encounter with an elephant provides an apt allegory for some of the differences among religions[7]:

"Hey, the elephant is a pillar," said the first man who touched his leg.
"Oh, no! it is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.     
"Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree," said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.
"It is like a big hand fan" said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.
"It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.
"It is like a solid pipe," said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and every one of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, "What is the matter?" They said, "We cannot agree to what the elephant is like." Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant.”

Based only on the six testimonies, it would be tempting to dismiss the possibility that these men encountered the same underlying reality, i.e., an elephant.  But this would clearly be wrong.  In fact, each testimony reveals an important aspect of the outward nature of “elephant” and when considered collectively, would permit a deeper understanding of “elephant” in a world of blind men.

Humans are able, through reason alone, to discern the existence of God and aspects of God’s nature. Theology, after all, is the rational study of God. But the monotheistic religions also depend critically on revelation; i.e., of God revealing to humankind aspects of His nature as well as humankind’s relationship to God that could not be gained through reason alone.  Here, a distinction must be made among Judaism, Christianity and Islam since each makes core revelation claims that are unsustainable by the other two. Henceforth, it will be assumed that Christianity provides the most complete representation of the nature of God of all religions. Despite serious doctrinal differences, however, one must take care not dismiss both Judaism and Islam as “untrue” or claim that Christianity alone is “true.” Religions are not mathematical propositions after all.  Each contains representations of the divine, of profound thoughts regarding the purpose, meaning and origins of humankind as well as the nature of God.  

How do the New Atheists regard religion?

Atheists have always regarded science as perhaps the best example of the triumph of human reason. The New Atheists make it clear, however, that they perceive religion and religious thinking to be antithetical to science and scientific thinking. They attack religion using science as a cudgel. For example, a core focus of Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion is to repudiate arguments from design as support for God's existence. Just as random mutations and natural selection are sufficient to produce the complex world of biology without the need for a designer, according to Dawkins, there is no need to appeal to a designer for the universe as a whole. Physics simply awaits its Darwin[8]. And even if there were a designer, Dawkins suggests, we are within our rights to ask, who designed the designer?

In the end, religion is so toxic according to the New Atheists, that any tolerance or accommodation of religion is unequivocally dangerous as 9/11 attests.  No amount of unenlightened, “dressed up superstition” is acceptable.  For them, “faith” is always blind, belief without evidence, the product of a weak intellect, an abuse of reason, and irrational.

What of the observation that a majority of scientists from the 16th century to the present believed in “God” or “a higher power?” The New Atheists respond that belief in God is always delusional. “Theistic scientist” is an oxymoron.  Scientists who subscribe to a religious faith suffer from a “cognitive dissonance”; their science may be solid, but their thinking on religion is erroneous. (The clear implication is that their science could be even better if they would only jettison their theistic superstitions.) The New Atheists are understandably buoyed by the observation that the proportion of scientists who believe in God is less than in the general population, and that only a small minority of the most influential scientists today profess a belief in God (though there are prominent scientists who are also theists). This is exactly how things should unfold in their worldview.

On the other hand, it has been nearly 80 years since the “Humanist Manifesto” appeared which, among other things, predicted the demise of religion.  (One might reasonably argue that this prediction has been with us since The Enlightenment, well over two centuries ago.) Many humanists are frustrated that the advance of secularism has been so slow, that religion has not been swept entirely to the margins of our culture by now.  The degree to which religion continues to thrive in the world, particularly in the USA, is perhaps a major reason why the New Atheists are so palpably angry all the time. Just why religion has stood the “test of time,” even as humankind has “grown up,” is an important question that atheism must come to terms with.

The New Atheists also conveniently ignore the obvious fact that, by almost any measure, religion has also been a force for great good in the world. For example, universities emerged from the Christian tradition, and hospitals were founded in the west by religious orders, as were other facilities to serve the poor and sick. Christians have been and continue to be prime movers of social justice throughout the world, particularly within totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.

What is faith?

Faith is used in a number of contexts in the Christian tradition.  “Faith in God” generally means a complete and unconditional trust in and reliance on God.  One does not put complete trust in anyone without at least some good evidence.  You aren’t likely to give a hundred dollars to a complete stranger on the street if he asks for it.  You may, however, give a hundred dollars to your best friend when she asks for it because you are familiar with her character as an honest person who has never betrayed your trust.

Faith is neither purely subjective nor unreasonable. Faith requires natural reason in order to be able to apprehend divine truths, truths that have been revealed.  Faith may transcend reason, but is not opposed by reason. (Christianity therefore rejects fideism, the position that faith is independent of reason, or that faith is opposed to reason.)

Faith has its objective elements. For example, St. Paul wrote, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain."  While this may not exactly be a scientific hypothesis, it is certainly capable of being objectively tested.

It should be clear that core Christian claims, like the most critical areas of human experience, are not amenable to testing by the scientific method.  This does make them untrue a priori; only that theological claims, like moral and aesthetic claims, require a different means of assessment. In fact, the most important decisions we make as human beings are decisions based on values. Though they may be made in part on reason and logic, they clearly do not – cannot – rely solely on the scientific method. This is not because most of us have insufficient time to engage the scientific method to test the hypothesis whether we should open that door for the older person just ahead of us, for example. It is because such a decision is not amenable to scientific testing, period.

Is religion mere superstition?

For the New Atheists, all religion is mere superstition, and dangerous superstition at that. Superstition and Christianity, however, represent radically different worldviews. “Superstition” comes from the Latin, “to stand in terror of the deity.” In a world that is “out to get us,” people need to do whatever it takes to survive. In order to survive, let alone thrive, in such a world, people need to take every precaution to appease or trick God and to ward off bad luck through performing rituals or wearing talismans. In the Christian worldview, God is all-good and loves each of us unconditionally. Humans are to revere God, holding God in a sense of awe and respect rather than terror. There is no need for humans to perform acts to avoid life’s challenges or to periodically appease a threatening God. God always desires our happiness, a happiness that we can freely choose to embrace or reject. So no, Christianity is not mere superstition.

Is theism unenlightened? Are theists unenlightened?

The university as such emerged from within the Christian tradition. While it is true that many cultures had “higher schools,” universities first evolved from cathedral and monastic schools of the Catholic Church in the late 11th century. The word “university” originally referred to a collection of scholars whose mandate included “seeking truth”. The first university was perhaps the University of Bologna which was founded in the late 11th century.  A significant number of universities were founded in the 12th century, including the University of Oxford, the first university in the English-speaking world.

Some contemporary scholars consider the university as Europe’s greatest invention. With due respect, it would be more accurate to suggest that the university was one of Christianity’s greatest inventions.

How did modern science arise?

The curricula in some of the earliest universities, like universities to this day, included the study of the Natural Sciences.  “Science” is derived from the Latin word for “knowledge” and refers to the systematic rational study of the natural world through observation and experimentation, often expressed through the language of mathematics.  The engine of the scientific enterprise, the scientific method, was largely developed by Scholastic theologians in the 12th and 13th centuries, centuries before the “Scientific Revolution.” Many of the key players of the Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries, including Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, were all professing theists.  

It is important to note that the Medieval worldview from which the scientific method emerged differed radically in a number of ways from that of the Renaissance (and modernity), including the relationship between God and Nature. Medieval Christianity held that while God – He Who Is – is transcendent or beyond Nature, God was also inseparable from Nature, from all being. By the time of the Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries, God’s (necessary) existence was perceived as separate from and bound by Nature’s (contingent) existence[9]. It was just a matter of time before God was excluded from explanations of natural phenomena and became an “unnecessary hypothesis.”[10]

Why did science arise only in the West?  It is true that a type of “functional science” can be found in virtually all cultures, past and present, and that science today is a pan-cultural enterprise.  But it was only in the West that the spark of higher curiosity in the natural world that originated in ancient Greece caught fire.  (Applied science is a relatively recent phenomenon and was not a factor in the Church’s support for science in the university environment.) Some scholars have suggested this was because God is perceived as the Law Giver in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Since Nature is God’s creation, then Nature itself might also obey laws, laws which, if discovered, could allow humans to better apprehend both Nature’s Creator as well as their own nature.

How do the New Atheists explain religion?

The New Atheists concede that religion as such is “natural”; that is, appears to play a fundamental role in all societies of which we are aware, past and present. For them, religion then must have a purely naturalistic or reductionist explanation, a presumption that has led to the scientific study of religion.  Most theologians welcome this approach since God necessarily works through the natural world, but there will always be limitations to the scientific study of religion.  Psychological and sociological explanations normally are concerned with the origin of religious beliefs without examining whether these beliefs are true. The latter, however, is of critical importance for religion.

For the New Atheist, religion must necessarily be explained by an appeal to natural causes.   For the theist, God can only be known through faith and hope with the full support of human reason, with “fides et ratio” (or through “Jerusalem and Athens”). Religion is concerned with meaning, purpose and values, things that are beyond the scope of science, and yet critical to understanding who we are as human beings.

Atheists regard humankind’s most fundamental yearnings for meaning and purpose to be counterfeit, examples of category errors. By this they mean that asking questions regarding the purpose or meaning of life is like asking what yellow smells like. Purpose and meaning are, well, meaningless in a universe governed solely by physical laws and random processes[11]. Humankind’s innate urge for the transcendent, for seeking that which is beyond ourselves, is either classified as a bogus temptation to be resisted, or to be satisfied by the beauty and mystery of nature revealed by science rather than by Beauty and Mystery itself, i.e., God.

What are the limitations of science?

Most scientists are surprisingly unaware of the nature and limitations of the scientific method, the “engine” of the scientific enterprise even though they are extremely knowledgeable within their narrow area of specialization. Many people, including some scientists, believe that one doesn’t “do science” so much as “science does itself.” Science, however, is not a dispassionate, completely objective activity in which “data” are fed into the scientific method and “empirical truth” pops out the other side.

In the first place, philosophers of science cannot all agree on a definition of the “scientific method.” And even if they could agree, determining which data are “fed in” and which “truths” emerge depend on a number of variables, including intangibles such as the beliefs and experiences of the researcher, current paradigms in the field, as well as aesthetic categories such as “beauty,” “simplicity,” or “comprehensiveness.” Moreover, one must be careful what one means by “truth” in the scientific context: the scientific method operates on models for nature which emerge from the human mind. Even though these models are, or at least should be, grounded on empirical observations, their interpretation must necessarily be… model-dependent. One might legitimately ask then whether any scientific statement should be considered true, i.e., an accurate reflection of reality. Perhaps it is best to suggest that science, like religion, aspires to truth.

Still, there is no doubt that science has proven to be the most successful method for identifying truths about the natural world, defined as the collection of things within space and time.

Is atheism assumption-free?

In dialogues with atheists, one often encounters the claim that atheism, by rejecting the supernatural, is the only unbiased worldview in this context, free of any underlying assumptions; an intellectual clean slate[12]. This is, of course, far from the truth. In order for humans to make sense of any “input,” whether from the senses or from the mind, they must already have some sort of cognitive infrastructure already in place.  This infrastructure includes the capacity to reason, as well as to think rationally and logically.  

In any logical system, certain assumptions or axioms must be in place before the truth of any statement can be assessed.  The truth of these assumptions cannot be demonstrated within the system itself.  One is forced to appeal to a higher-order system which itself has its own axioms, and so forth and so on. It is clear then that a belief that rejects the supernatural is not necessarily “unbiased” or “purer” a priori than a belief in the supernatural.

There are other ways of assessing which, if any, belief is more likely to be true than another. If naturalism[13] is capable of explaining the entire universe, including the complete human person (including our capacity to love and reason, consciousness, our commitment to truth and appreciation for beauty, etc.), without the need for the supernatural, then it would be plausible to reject the supernatural[14]. In a similar manner, it is important to consider the degree of explanatory power each provides. If theism is consistent with the workings of the natural world and yet provides a more comprehensive explanation for the human person, then there would be a good reason to embrace theism over atheism.[15]

How do science and religion differ fundamentally?

Because both science and religion are concerned with truth, one might anticipate that they would be reconcilable at some deep level. Yet theists and atheists reach radically different conclusions though they are exposed to the same “data” as Michael Novak reminds us. If one believes the headlines, science and religion are at war with one another. Moreover, they have always been at war. The New Atheists make it abundantly clear that this is a war that science must ultimately win if society is to be liberated from the shackles of superstition and if we are to enjoy the fruits of reason and autonomy[16].  As the dean of the New Atheists continually reminds us, belief in God is always delusional, leading to a host of social and cognitive pathologies whose necessary culmination is violence and war.

This is not merely hyperbole.  This follows from their adoption of an extreme epistemological model called “scientism”; the scientific method alone is capable of deciding truth.[17]

This is clearly preposterous.  Scientism would severely restrict what can be known to those disciplines which invoke the scientific method.  We could learn no truths, for example, from historians, philosophers or poets.  There could be no objective moral truth.  And technically, it would be difficult even to accept mathematical truths in such an epistemological context. Anything that cannot be tested empirically must be an article of faith.  Except of course, the statement that “anything that cannot be tested empirically must be an article of faith”!  From this unprovable assumption, God is a hypothesis that logically cannot be entertained, and all faith is rendered irrational.

Most atheists embrace an epistemology called philosophical naturalism. There are two flavours of naturalism, metaphysical and methodological naturalism.  Metaphysical naturalism holds that nothing exists beyond the natural world and, by extension, physical events have only physical causes.  Miracles are ruled out by definition according to this view.  Metaphysical naturalism[18] is an assumption which is justified by its apparent simplicity and consistency; at least among its adherents.  But science does not require metaphysical naturalism.  It requires methodological naturalism; the scientific method considers only physical causes for physical events.  It is important to note that methodological naturalism is “non-theistic” in that it properly does not consider supernatural causes for physical events. Yet the New Atheists and so many prominent scientists erroneously believe that “theistic science” must necessarily – either implicitly or explicitly – involve non-naturalistic hypotheses, a position well captured by the S. Harris cartoon: “Then a Miracle Occurs.”[19] This childish caricature does justice to no one; it grossly misrepresents theism and is a major reason why the New Atheists are largely ignored by serious academics.

Tensions between science and religion would be considerably eased if practitioners of science, among others, learned to appreciate the difference between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism (not to mention scientism), as well as the limitations of each. There will always be skirmishes at the margins of course, but that’s the sign of healthy scholarship.[20]

What are the New Atheists’ most popular “sound-bite” arguments?

The New Atheists, including Richard Dawkins, seem to imagine that theism, with its long and distinguished history involving some of history’s greatest minds, may be dispatched with simple arguments in the form of sound bites.

One of the most popular sound bites is, “If God made everything, then who made God?” In a similar manner, but with a touch of condescension, "I gave up believing in God just like I gave up believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy." And perhaps the most entertaining of this genre, “Atheists and theists are very much alike. None of us believes in Zeus or Wotan or Isis; we are all atheists when it comes to these deities.  We atheists simply believe in one fewer god than you.”

In each case, the atheist wilfully misrepresents the essential nature of the monotheist’s God.  First of all, all polytheistic gods are products of human invention; that is, “gods made in man’s image.”  They are, strictly speaking, idols. This is not to dismiss or deprecate in any way the innate urge each of us feels for the transcendent, but rather to assert that a deification of nature, while understandable in an earlier age, should be resisted.

According to monotheism, the one true God made us in God’s image.  This makes the monotheist’s God radically different ontologically[21] from Pele or Ra or any other polytheistic god or fantasy figure such as the Tooth Fairy.[22]  God exists necessarily while we – indeed all things in creation – exist contingently; i.e., owe their existence to God.

Now an atheist may reject arguments for God’s existence for a variety of reasons.  But unless the atheist actually engages the theist’s God, then the atheist’s arguments against God's existence are specious and intellectually irresponsible.

It should be said that most of the New Atheists’ arguments against the existence of God are flawed in a similar way; a “straw god” is first erected and then “knocked down” by appealing to science, or common sense, etc.  It is a mystery how arguments based on such flawed caricatures of the theist’s position continue to gain so much traction, particularly at colleges and universities. My suspicion is that each of us can be at times highly selective with the evidence we accept and reject to support our most deeply held beliefs.  One might have thought, however, that if there is any place where our most cherished beliefs can be examined critically and dispassionately, it would be the university. Such does not seem to be the case with what is arguably the most important question of all; whether or not there is a God.

What are the principal objections to theism?

Atheists have many deeper objections to theism, many of which are considered in these pages. It is a favourite tactic of the New Atheists, however, to regard all religions as ontologically equivalent and therefore to dismiss all religions as untrue because there are disagreements among religions, including on foundational points, or because they find the practices of one religion or another particularly distasteful.[23]

The New Atheists understandably focus most of their attention on Christianity, the religious tradition upon which their culture and society were built and which poses the strongest opposition to their worldview. To this end, the New Atheists are fond of raising the usual litany of crimes attributed to the Judeo-Christian tradition while conspicuously ignoring the incoherencies associated with atheism. The “sins” of religion include selected Old Testament Biblical verses,[24] the Crusades and the Inquisition, reaction to and treatment of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin, as well as religiously motivated violence and the sex-abuse scandal.

I will discuss only some of these particular challenges in detail since the others have been dealt with elsewhere by experts.

Must religion lead to violence? Must atheism lead to violence?

Violence in the name of religion is always reprehensible and wrong. Then why have Christians put so many to the sword over the better part of two millennia, why did Mezo-American cultures prescribe human sacrifice centuries ago and Islamists fly planes into the World Trade Center just over a decade ago? Why have cultures of different – and even the same – religion made war on one another throughout history?

From an historical perspective, it is tempting to be critical of ethical standards in the past from our current vantage point, particularly of Old Testament societies dating back a few thousand years. To be fair, however, one should compare the standards of the Israelites with neighbouring societies of the time. In this case, the Israelites’ standards often represented significant ethical progress.[25]

The nature of human conflict is complex and not amenable to “sound-bite” format, the preferred mode of discourse in today’s public square. While religion can sometimes contribute to an “us versus them” mentality, social, political, economic and other strategic issues are often more important factors in contributing to war and sustaining violence. It should also be noted that many wars and conflicts have no discernible connection with religion and that some of the most brutal and inhumane acts in human history have been perpetrated by officially atheistic regimes.

A distinction must be made between religion as such and its flawed (that is, sinful) adherents. The New Atheists are quick to make this distinction in the case of atheism, particularly since the evidence suggests atheism exhibits a far greater propensity toward violence. State-sponsored atheism from the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror to the officially atheistic states of the 20th century has been associated with unparalleled levels of violence and brutality.  Tens of millions of people were killed outside of wartime by the Soviets and Chinese alone.  Was this just a statistical aberration?  Perhaps. More likely, however, is that religion acts to mitigate at least somewhat a person’s worst impulses.  Remove these constraints, however tenuous, and anything becomes possible.[26]

Are religion and science inherently incompatible?

A common tactic the New Atheists use to dismiss religion is to identify explicit points of contention between contemporary science and religion, particularly with respect to understanding the natural world, followed by the observation that religion has always found itself on the losing side.[27] Most text books erroneously cast Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin as martyrs for science with Christianity playing the villain. Dawkins delights in debunking Young Earth Creationism,[28] taking care never to admit that “fundamentalists” or “Biblical literalists” represent a tiny minority of Christianity – less than 5% – that the majority of Christians subscribe to a universe that is billions of years old and that humans evolved from simpler life forms (though with one major caveat that is discussed elsewhere in these pages).

It is certainly the case that religions have employed narratives about the origins of the universe and humankind (e.g., the first two chapters of Genesis) that do not bear the scrutiny of modern cosmology and evolutionary biology. These narratives, in answering core “how” and “why” questions, nonetheless reveal critical truths.[29] For the person of faith, while the author of Genesis may have borrowed freely from the Babylonian cosmology of the day, Genesis nevertheless contains profound theological truths sometimes related allegorically; for example, God made all things out of nothing but perhaps not in several literal days.  There assuredly remain challenges to understanding what these truths mean at deeper and deeper levels, but by no means are they necessarily irrational, incoherent or inconsistent with modern science.

By failing to embrace important “paradigm changes” in the history of science brought on by Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin, among others, it is alleged that Christianity has consigned itself to irrelevancy. The inference that religion revealed itself as an enemy of science in each of these instances is largely false. What is fascinating is how frequently these incidents have been misrepresented, not only in science textbooks, but by a majority of scholars since the 17th century.

What about Copernicus?

It is frequently alleged that the “Copernican Revolution” – the acceptance of the model that the Sun, rather than Earth, occupied the centre of the universe – injected a much-needed dose of humility into western culture (i.e., through religion) by dethroning Earth (and therefore humankind) from its position of privilege at the centre. The fact is that the holistic medieval worldview which drew upon Scripture and Aristotle’s physics, clearly distinguished between geocentrism and anthropocentrism. Humankind’s importance was not linked to Earth’s location in the universe prior to Copernicus. In fact, the geographical centre was perceived as the basest and most corruptible of positions. Situating the Sun at the centre of the solar system and Earth as the third planet was not a demotion for Earth, but a promotion, contradicting what has become the dominant narrative since the 17th century.[30] Why was this misconception introduced and why has it been sustained over the centuries? Almost certainly, to drive a wedge between science and religion by discrediting religion.

What about Galileo?

The Galileo Affair was more about a clash of egos and a struggle to identify the appropriate method for distinguishing empirical truth than a war between religion and science. Galileo was a supporter of Copernicus’s Sun-centred model. Even though convincing observational evidence to support this position would not become available until the late 18th and 19th centuries, Galileo mounted a compelling case for heliocentricity. It was the manner in which he published his arguments (without the Pope’s permission that he promised to seek, and portraying the Pope as a fool in his book, Dialogo), his reliance upon induction to describe the physical universe (rather than the traditional medieval approach of using Scripture to shape interpretation), and some errors in reasoning that led to his well-publicized troubles.[31] Though the Church’s unfortunate position in the Galileo Affair led to a consolidation of scientific inquiry in Protestant nations immediately afterward, its position did not betray a fundamental inconsistency between science and Catholicism or Christianity.

What about Darwin? How does religion regard evolution? How does atheism regard evolution?

The issue that generates the most “heat” on most atheist websites is evolution, the idea first put forward by Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century that all life descended from a common ancestor and that species change over time, a result of mutation and natural selection. Contrary to what the New Atheists (and their websites) suggest, a majority of theologically informed Christians subscribe to the naturalistic evolutionary explanation for human origins, at least as the physical body is concerned.  Theism and evolution are not mutually exclusive. But evolution alone is insufficient to account for the total human person according to Christianity; a naturalistic origin for the spirit, that part of the person that renders her most in the image and likeness of God, is not possible and must be endowed by God.  Just when and how the first Homo sapiens received this spirit (or even if this is a meaningful statement) is a matter of considerable discussion.  But there can be no doubt that naturalistic evolution is accepted by a majority of Christians as far as it goes.

The New Atheists conveniently ignore this fact. They much prefer drawing attention in their publications to mid-west preachers who reject evolution rather than, say, the President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. By disingenuously portraying contemporary Christianity as if it dogmatically embraced creationism, the New Atheists energize their base and contribute to the growing tensions between science and religion, particularly among science students.

There remain important unanswered questions with respect to human evolution; for example, how did the first self-replicating organisms come to be? Or, how did intelligence arise? It may well be that questions like these will be answered by resorting to purely naturalistic explanations, including that the evolution of intelligence appears to confer some survivability advantages. But surely the ability to compose a symphony or to derive the General Theory of Relativity is so far beyond what is required for “survivability” that it must make even atheists wonder whether there is indeed something more at work here than meets the eye, particularly when evolution is anti-teleological; that is, is not goal-directed. Intelligence need not have emerged after 4.6 billion years on Earth any more than pink unicorns.

Another interesting question relates to the reasons for differences between Homo sapiens and our nearest primate relations with whom we share DNA genetic coding sequences at the 98-99% level. It stretches the bounds of credulity to imagine that this 1-2% is capable of explaining the profound difference between the highest technological accomplishments of chimpanzees – fishing for termites with a stick – compared with those of humankind – formulating string theory or launching an interplanetary probe.

How does atheism regard truth? How does theism regard truth?

Had one not been familiar with the popular media and much contemporary scholarly literature, one might imagine that science and religion would be allies rather than antagonists.  After all, both religion and science claim to be concerned about truth, i.e., make truth claims about the ultimate nature of reality.  Before looking at this situation more closely, it is important to reflect upon the obvious: human beings have a passion for truth.[32]

“Truth” is arguably society’s most important commodity. Mothers and fathers in all cultures teach their children to tell the truth.  The core currency of our legal system is truth.  Historians, philosophers, and poets, seek to apprehend reality as dearly as natural scientists… or theologians. Though no discipline expects to uncover “ultimate reality,” the important task is surely the journey itself.

We are then led to ask, why do humans have a passion for truth, and are there truths beyond the natural world?  The Christian claims that there most certainly are and that our hunger for truth is itself a gift from God, part of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God.[33] Searching for truth is like looking for signposts along the path to eternity whose destination or fulfillment is the source of all truth, God.

The New Atheists reckon that our passion for truth may be accounted for in purely reductionist terms, through evolutionary psychology, for example.  Evolutionary psychology holds that much of human behaviour can be explained by appealing to internal psychological mechanisms which are products of natural selection.  But humans are susceptible to a wide range of cognitive biases and misperceptions whose origins are understood most plausibly because they enhance survivability.[34]

A critical element of contemporary science is to identify and correct for biases associated with observations made or interpreted by human beings. We have to work hard, as Carl Sagan used to remind us, to avoid these errors; university students certainly know all too well that humans are far from reliable “truth machines.”  But since evolution is not goal-oriented, how can our passion for “truth” be explained in a purely reductionist way? Even if there is not a clear reductionist explanation at this point, New Atheists are always prepared to play their trump card, “though science may not be able to explain X now, one day, science will demonstrate that X is explainable in purely reductionist terms.”  Now that’s faith!

How do atheists regard morality? How do theists regard morality?

The issue that elicits the most indignation among New Atheists in debate with theists revolves around being good: can one be good without God?  For some atheists, a purely secular morality is not only possible, it is preferable. Sam Harris is convinced that he has provided a purely naturalistic explanation for an objective morality.[35] Critics identify a number of weaknesses in Harris’s arguments. Chief among these is that objective moral values require the existence of God. A moral system not grounded in God must necessarily be subjective or relative; for example, social contract theory or utilitarianism.

If naturalism is true, then there can be neither objective moral values – that which is good, nor objective moral duties – our responsibilities or obligations. Science is necessarily morally neutral and so cannot discover moral values in any objective sense. Displays of altruism among animals are simply accidental behaviours that enhance survival of the individual or a kinship group. Such behaviours are certainly not objective. Moreover, creatures do not have responsibilities or obligations to one another, so why shouldHomo sapiens?

Ethical theories not grounded in God have other challenges: What is our motivation for being good? Why not lie or steal if doing so enhances my survivability given this is the only life I have? What is meant by “being good”? To whose “good” are we referring and what exactly does “good” mean? While we all claim to abhor the killing of another human being, can it be permitted for the “greater good” as in the cases of euthanasia or abortion, for example?  

In the Christian context, morality is objective in the sense that it emerges from the premise that the “worth” of each and every human being – no matter how young or old, how short or tall, how intelligent or unintelligent – derives from being made in God’s image. God loves each of us, saint and sinner, equally and unconditionally. Lying and stealing are wrong because God says they are wrong, but God says they’re wrong because God loves us and sinning harms our relationship with God (and our neighbour) in this life and our prospects for eternal happiness in the life to come.

I find it amusing that atheists are challenged by “goodness” at all.  If in fact the world can be completely explained in a naturalistic way, then human beings cannot have free will; our actions must be determined, albeit in a probabilistic way according to quantum mechanics.[36] We are, after all, simply a collection of matter (and energy) in motion, subject to the universe’s underlying laws and physical constants. Words like “good” and “evil” presume that humans have free will; if we don’t have free will, then why use the words? Why pretend we have free will? And it goes much further than this; nothing that we think or that we do can be attributed to us. Rather, praise or blame the universe.

Ignoring this logical dilemma, it is of course possible for anyone, atheist or theist not to do bad things or even to do good things. Atheists can donate to charities or be kind to furry kittens just as theists can defraud a neighbour.  We all have a conscience. We all have a sense of what is good and what isn’t.   Christians (and some non-Christians) attribute this to “natural reason.” For the Christian, the conscience and natural reason are part of what it means to being made in God’s likeness.  At any rate, the point for a Christian is not simply to be good, but rather to “become good” which differs radically from simply behaving well.

How do atheists regard prayer? How do theists regard prayer?

Atheists of all stripes cite as evidence to support their unbelief that God clearly does not answer prayers as advertised in the Bible. That you didn’t win a lottery after praying to God is not good evidence that God doesn’t answer prayer, however. God is hardly a cosmic vending machine. Prayer can take on many different forms, including worship, thanksgiving, petition, intercession, etc. Prayer is above all a conversation with God.  Petitionary prayer is a type of prayer in which we ask God for something.  Not what we want, but what we need to be able to draw closer to God in this life in preparation for living in union with God and eternal happiness in the next life.  

What about the person who loses her faith in God because her prayer to spare her child after a serious accident wasn’t answered? And why does God permit suffering and evil in this world? These are among the most difficult issues theists must wrestle with. There are no entirely satisfactory answers to these questions for most people. The answering of prayer and the problem of evil do not by themselves constitute evidence that an all-loving, omnipotent and omniscient God does not exist. Nevertheless, these arguments which are primarily emotional in nature have been used effectively by atheists as evidence against the existence of a benevolent God.

The Bible makes it clear in a number of places that God answers prayer. God answers prayer for our own good. The challenge, with our finite capacities, is that we can be incapable of recognizing the answers to our prayers.  If our “wish list” isn’t fulfilled immediately and in the manner in which we expect, then we reckon that God hasn’t answered our prayer. From a “God’s-eye” perspective, sincere prayer is always answered. Consider the following example; suppose you were ill prepared to write a test at school and prayed that God would help you do well. When the test was returned and you received a failing grade, you might have argued that this is clear evidence that God does not answer prayer. But if the failure caused you to re-examine your study habits and renew your commitment to higher education leading to a successful career, then perhaps God did answer your prayer.

The atheist could ask the question, “under these circumstances, how could anyone determine whether prayer is efficacious, whether God really answer prayers?”

While there may not be scientific evidence that prayers are answered, the Christian has faith that they are. Not a “blind faith,” but a living faith, faith in a God who has demonstrated His unconditional love for each and every one of us by sending His only Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer and die that we might have eternal life. If God is able and willing to do this for humankind, then should we not be fully prepared to trust the same God who promises to answer prayers from a sincere heart?[37]

How do atheists regard the Problem of Evil? How do theists regard the Problem of Evil?

How can a good God allow suffering and evil in the world? Revelation has provided insufficient insight to address this challenge completely. In order for the existence of suffering and evil to provide a compelling argument against God’s existence, atheists must show that suffering and evil and an all-loving God are mutually exclusive. They are not. But this doesn’t reduce the emotional appeal of this line of argumentation.

There are two types of evil to consider: natural evil, e.g., an earthquake, and moral evil, e.g., murder. Natural evil refers to an “evil” whose cause is not a free moral agent; for example, a natural disaster or terminal disease.[38] Why would God create a world in which there are natural disasters in which thousands of people perish, or even a world in which a single person is injured or killed simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time? For that matter, why should there be old age and death at all?

Though there may not be entirely satisfying answers here, this does not mean that there are no answers. (Many have observed that both pain and suffering bring out what is most deeply human about us.) Christians emphasize the distinction between the life to come and our current life on Earth.[39] The life to come, we are promised, is eternal happiness with God. Our current (finite) Earthly life is bitter sweet with its travails and its happiness, with its tears and its joys. Some people appear to experience more of the former than the latter (for example Lazarus in the parable of the rich man). If this life were all there were, our sense of fairness should make us feel uneasy by the apparent injustices we see all around us in this context. But if there is eternal happiness in the life to come, then any temporary “unfairness” loses at least some of its sting (though this should not diminish our commitment in this life to social justice).

From the Christian perspective, the primary goal is not to maximize happiness in this life, but rather to grow closer to God with the expectation that this will maximize happiness for eternity. None of us sees as God sees. Not only does God exist in the “eternal present” (thereby apprehending our entire lives at once), but God is both infinitely just and infinitely merciful. In the end, God could not be unfair to anyone.

In the context of “natural evil,” some have drawn attention to the fact that natural disasters are sometimes driven by natural processes without which complex life would not be possible on Earth. For example, the carbon cycle is key to regulating surface temperatures on Earth which permits, among other things, complex life to evolve and flourish. Tectonic activity, including earthquakes, is an essential stage of the carbon cycle. Perhaps earthquakes are necessary to permit complex life on Earth.

Moral evil requires a free moral agent. Our free moral agency is of great importance to God. It allows us to do good as well as to do evil. In creating us, God did not desire a world of robots, but rather of beings who would freely choose Him. But to be able to freely choose, we have to have the ability to reject God and to do evil.

But would an all-loving God really permit the Holocaust? God did not cause the Holocaust; that was the work of men who perpetrated this unspeakable evil. They could do so because they had free will. Then why couldn't God have simply removed Hitler’s and his henchmen’s free will temporarily, thereby saving the lives of potentially millions of Jews and others? God values free will so much because God wants each and every one of us to love Him of their own volition. A God of this nature will not deny any human being freedom, no matter how egregious the act of rejection. It is important to note in this context that God the Father didn’t intervene even when authorities unjustly tried and put to death His Son, Jesus. In demonstrating his solidarity with all who suffer, Jesus provides comfort to all those who suffer and the assurance that something better awaits us.

How do atheists regard miracles? How do theists regard miracles?

Miracles are impossible according to the New Atheists. Whatever miracles are, they involve the supernatural and New Atheists reject the supernatural by assumption. Whether or not one accepts miracles as supernatural interventions into the natural world, miracles are certainly not amenable to scientific testing since they are neither repeatable on demand nor subject to controlled conditions.

Christians understand that God works in and through the natural world. They do not reject the supernatural a priori, but are careful to test claims for the supernatural using both faith and reason. Most Christians are not so simple-minded as to accept any claim involving the supernatural, though there have been many invocations of the supernatural throughout history when a purely naturalistic interpretation would likely have been sufficient.

How do atheists regard Jesus Christ? How do theists regard Jesus Christ?

The most important miracle of all is the Incarnation, the coming of Jesus as God-made-human into our world, sent by God the Father.[40] Acknowledgement of Jesus’ divinity is the foremost challenge for atheists and non-Christians alike. Most concede that although Jesus’ teachings have had considerable influence on the world over the past two millennia, he was in the end only a "good man." A small fraction regards Jesus as a mythical figure, dreamt up presumably by those seeking to use his image for personal gain.

There is, however, unassailable historical evidence that a man whom we call Jesus Christ lived in Palestine two thousand years ago and that he was crucified and died at the hands of state and religious authorities. There is also excellent evidence that Jesus rose again, appearing to hundreds of witnesses whose culture and tradition did not lead them to expect such an event. Some of these witnesses – and many more in the early Church – gave their lives for the sake of witnessing and sharing the gospel, the good news of Jesus' teachings, impelled by the Holy Spirit. Christianity, an offshoot of Judaism, spread rapidly throughout Europe, profoundly affecting its culture for nearly two thousand years.[41]

In Jesus, God's nature became more fully revealed to us. God became personal. Jesus asked us to love God and our neighbour just as God loves us. God is love and God loved us so much that He sent His only Son to suffer and die that we might be forever reconciled to God; that is, enjoy eternal happiness in and friendship with God. To love most effectively requires that we enter into a personal relationship with Jesus in our “heart,” even though He isn't physically present in our world at this point.

Is there any objective evidence that we can and do encounter God in our heart? Not scientific evidence. But there are countless personal testimonies from reasonable people whose lives were transformed by such an encounter, inspired to do great good in this world because of this encounter even though they were no longer "of this world." On a more objective level, D.B. Hart documents the unique transformative change effected by Christianity on European society in the few centuries after Jesus' resurrection[42]; a cruel and nasty Roman society gave way to a society predicated on human charity.[43]

How do atheists regard Arguments from Design? How do theists regard Arguments from Design?

Arguments from Design, that the order and beauty of our world provide evidence for an intelligent Creator, are perhaps the most frequently cited arguments in favour of God’s existence. Have not the sheer awesomeness of the universe as well as scientific evidence for its beginning convinced poets and popes alike that God is? Perhaps. But not everyone is persuaded by such evidence; the New Atheists vehemently reject all Arguments from Design. They hold that the order and complexity of our world instead arise entirely from the application of purely random (or probabilistic) laws involving matter and energy. It is fascinating that the complexity and harmony of the universe is advanced both by theists and atheists alike for their positions!

Here the New Atheists have a point.  Science must necessarily be methodologically non-theistic. That’s a clear limitation of science.  Historically, out of zeal to explain a particular link of a causal chain where empirical knowledge is “thin,” some theists have imprudently invoked a “God of the Gaps.” Creationists, those who believe in a literal reading of Genesis and a relatively young Earth, provide an extreme example of this type of thinking.  (The “creationist’s God” must enjoy pranks because there is considerable evidence that suggests that the universe is billions of years old, not merely thousands.[44])  So too are those who support “Intelligent Design” in which some biological phenomena are considered “irreducibly complex,” a situation which cannot arise through natural selection and hence, furnishes direct evidence for a creator.

The problem with all these positions is that as science advances, more often than not, the need for a “God of the Gaps” disappears; a naturalistic explanation is found.  This is one reason why John Henry Cardinal Newman cautioned against using Arguments from Design as evidence for God’s existence, a caution that should be more widely exercised.[45]

It is understandable why Arguments from Design appeal so strongly to the human mind. The order, complexity and beauty within our universe, for example, seem to point to an intelligence far greater than our own. But are “blind” processes sufficient for generating order from randomness, complexity from simplicity, and beauty from plainness? Dawkins et al. offer a resounding “yes.” But this ignores the essential underlying reasons that make possible such astonishing transformations: the laws of Nature and the physical constants. Physical constants and laws operating on the microscopic level over long time-scales are able to generate macroscopic symmetries which appear to be designed in situ.

There are two other flavours of arguments from design that many also find compelling; the Cosmological Argument or “Big Bang,” and the Teleological Argument or “Fine Tuning.”

The “Big Bang” model suggests that our universe emerged from a hot, dense state a finite time in the past.[46],[47] The universe (or at least space itself) has been expanding ever since. With the discovery of “dark energy,” a form of energy which now dominates the mass-energy content of the universe and which acts as an “anti-gravity,” it appears that the universe will expand indefinitely. There is strong observational evidence for this model, including for a phase in the very early universe referred to as “inflation” when the universe expanded exponentially.

It is certainly tempting to affirm, as did Pope Pius XII, that the Big Bang provides scientific validation for the Bible, for a creation from nothing. After all, of all possible cosmological models that the universe could have exhibited, why does the best-fit model appear to have a first moment in time? But what if a naturalistic explanation for the Big Bang is found in the future?

The “Fine Tuning” argument holds that life is possible in the universe only for narrow ranges of the physical constants; for example the ratio of the masses of the proton to the electron. If this ratio were slightly smaller or slightly larger, life would no longer be possible. It is tempting once again to see this as evidence in favour of a Designer (or perhaps, our Designer). Critics of this argument are quick to cite science’s ignorance of a definition for life as well as possible ranges of the fundamental constants that would permit life to evolve. Perhaps, but even with considerably larger tolerances in the magnitudes of the fundamental constants, it is highly unlikely that life would arise in a single universe, however life may be defined.

This brings us to the concept of the “multiverse” whose conjecture resolves some of these unsettling coincidences in a naturalistic way: what if our universe is only one of a possibly infinite ensemble of universes called the multiverse? Each universe in this model might operate on a particular set of physical laws and be endowed with certain values of the physical constants. The vast majority of universes would be incapable of harbouring intelligent life. Only a very small fraction would be capable of evolving creatures like us. Some scientists are uncomfortable with the multiverse, citing its lack of testability (for example, adjacent universes are forever unable to communicate with one another). Others see it as a model with greater explanatory power.

But what of the origin of the laws and physical constants, or of the multiverse itself? It is at this point that many physicists shake their head, acknowledging that this is all highly speculative anyway since our current theory of gravity, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, though resoundingly successful to this point, is incomplete, to be replaced in the future by a more comprehensive theory of “Quantum Gravity” and who knows where this will lead?

Yet the options remain the same as ever: logically, to a Creator; illogically, to an infinite regress or the promise of a future scientific discovery that will obviate the need for a Creator. Some cosmologists are willing to go even further, insisting that it is unreasonable to require a cause for the universe itself even though everything within the universe must have a cause. Quite apart from the fact that there are a great many scientific and logical inconsistencies with this position, it seems to regard the universe itself as ontologically different from everything within the universe. By taking this position, cosmologists unwittingly attribute properties to the universe that theists attribute to God, a position which atheists outright reject.

Regardless of the cosmological model adopted for the origin of our universe (or for the physical laws and constants governing our universe), some material entity – scalar fields, vacuum fluctuation, master universe, whatever – has to be invoked to explain everything else. It is in this over-arching sense that arguments from design provide strong evidence for God’s, or at least a Creator’s, existence. In the end, as ontologists have argued, being cannot come from non-being.

Is there proof for God’s existence? Is there evidence for God’s existence?

It depends what is meant by “proof.” In the context of mathematics or logic, “proof” refers to “deductive certainty.” An example of deductive reasoning is the syllogism. In a syllogism, a true conclusion necessarily follows from true premises. For example;

Major premise: All men are strong.
Minor premise: Jack is a man.
Conclusion: Jack is strong.

In a deductive argument, there is nothing new in the conclusion that isn’t contained in the premises. While many syllogistic-like “proofs” for the existence of God have been proposed,[48] there inevitably arises a dispute about one or more premises.[49] The theist is acutely aware that if the existence of God were deductively certain, then there would be no need for faith[50] and much of the Christian Bible would be irrelevant. (Atheists are spared the effort of proving their position because it is not logically possible to prove a negative, that is, the non-existence of God. Perhaps this is another reason why so many atheists or anti-theists appear content with attacking religion rather than attending to the incoherence of their own position.)

What about evidence for God’s existence? Is Christian faith in this context “blind faith” as the New Atheists insist? If the New Atheists mean by this, “without supporting evidence” then they are wrong.  But if they mean, “without supporting scientific evidence,” then they are at least partially correct.  

The Christian tradition has always embraced reason and faith together.  St. Paul urged believers in first-century Thessalonica to “test everything and retain what is good.” This sounds less like “blind faith” and more like the creed of a contemporary open-minded scientist!

In Summary

The New Atheist’s case against religion is far from compelling in the end. This is in part because their arguments fail to engage the theist’s God, the God who made all things from nothing, the God who is love and who calls each of us to share in this love now and in eternity.

But by subscribing to an epistemology that is intellectually unsustainable, the New Atheists abandon all hope of being able to understand deeply who we really are as human beings and come perilously close to deifying science, a clear violation of their own principles of empiricism. The scientific method becomes the sole arbiter of truth in their worldview. Practitioners of the scientific method – scientists – become the priesthood while the laity professes articles of faith such as, “if something can be known, it will be known by science,” or, “design does not require a designer.”

The claim that atheism represents the only inherently impartial worldview is both preposterous and pernicious. Atheism requires a commitment to a set of beliefs and assumptions just like any other worldview, beliefs and assumptions that are less plausible and less comprehensive than the Christian worldview. Moreover radical secularization in western nations has led to the increasing marginalization of religion in the public square, while embracing so-called “impartial worldviews” like that of atheism with little or no scrutiny.

Finally, the New Atheists prefer to ignore the serious incoherencies of their own worldview. For example, it follows from a strict adherence to naturalism that free will is an illusion since the universe, including the complete human person, is merely “matter in motion” evolving according to well-defined physical laws. But if free will is an illusion, then reason and morality are illusions, a situation which challenges the very foundation and coherence of atheism and leads ineluctably to nihilism.


[1] I structured the original talk using the goals attributed to New Atheism on the University of Cambridge website, “Investigating Atheism” which is no longer active.
[2] Whether or not a person identifies as an “atheist” in surveys depends on how the question is posed.
[3] See for example this article.
[4] At the time of writing, Lawrence Krauss appears to have taken Mr. Hitchens’s place as one of the “four horsemen” gauging by the frequency of his appearances with Richard Dawkins et al.
[5] Some of the most prominent New Atheists have endorsed the use of the term Brights to refer to those who hold to “naturalistic, unspiritual and irreligious worldviews,” including, of course, atheists.
[6] One has but to contrast debates involving atheists Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins or Lawrence Krauss with theists John Lennox, William Lane Craig or Keith Ward, for example.
[7] Taken from this site
[8] Though that person may have arrived in the form or Lawrence Krauss according to Richard Dawkins’ afterword in Krauss’s recent book A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather Than Nothing
[9] See, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Brad S. Gregory, 2012, Belknap Press.
[10] A reputed reply of P.-S. Laplace to Emperor Napoleon I when asked why he hadn’t mentioned God in his writings.
[11] “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” – R. Dawkins
[12] Secularists readily welcome discussions based on such apparent neutrality in the public square while rejecting positions that emerge from those representing religious traditions.
[13] A philosophical position that all phenomena can be explained purely in terms of natural causes and laws
[14] This is an application of Occam’s Razor which suggests that in a situation in which two different hypotheses explain the prevailing evidence, then the simpler hypothesis should be preferred. It is important to note that there is no “scientific” justification for such a filter, though from an aesthetic perspective, Occam’s Razor is not unreasonable.
[15] This is the basis for that trenchant observation by C.S. Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. “
[16] A call that has been heard before: The Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries called for a social order based on the principles of reason alone.
[17] Epistemology refers to the study of the nature of knowledge; i.e., how we know.
[18] Sometimes referred to as scientific materialism.
[19] See this cartoon
[20] The prospect that there should be no skirmishes between science and religion such as in S.J. Gould’s NOMA – Non-Overlapping Magisteria – is problematic. Religion and science both aspire to truth. It is inconceivable that a line of demarcation agreeable to all would ever be possible.
[21]“Ontological” refers to the essence or the nature of a being.
[22] A majority of people cease to believe in the Tooth Fairy well before adulthood while they continue to believe in God throughout their adult lives.  Why?  Most people understand the ontological difference between God and a fantasy or mythological figure as illustrated by the fact that while among the greatest works of art, music, literature or architecture in western culture over the past two millennia have been inspired by or dedicated to God, it is difficult to name a single work of significance dedicated to the Tooth Fairy!
[23] Einstein would likely have rejected the New Atheists’ position on religion based on his quotation: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."
[24] Surely the most entertaining quotation in this context from any work by the New Atheists comes from Dawkins's The God Delusion: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." Following this tirade, one is tempted to ask how he really feels!
[25] See, for example, the book by P. Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?
[26] In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Smerdyakov astutely observes “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”
[27] The New Atheists ignore here the fact that a scientific paradigm from 50 years ago is inevitably on the “losing side” in any comparison with a more recent scientific paradigm by definition.
[28] The view that Earth was created only several thousand years ago.
[29] "The Bible was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." - Cardinal Baronius (1598) in a quotation cited by Galileo.
[30] See D.R. Danielson, The great Copernican cliché, 2001, Am. J. Phys, 69, 1029.
[31] See, for example, O. Gingerich, Truth in Science: Proof, Persuasion, and the Galileo Affair, 2003.
[32] The same could be said of beauty, justice, etc.
[33] What does the Christian mean by saying we are made in the image and likeness of God?  It does not mean that humans somehow look like God.  Rather, this refers to our capacity to love, our ability to reason and think rationally, to exercise free will and make moral decisions, etc.  Most Christians would argue that while some non-human animals may appear to behave altruistically, recognize simple patterns, etc., our differences from other animals in this context are one of form and not degree.
[34] Earlier humans weren’t terribly concerned about testing the hypothesis that the rustling in the bushes was a predator and not just the wind. Their very survival demanded they flee as fast as they could.
[35] S. Harris, 2010. “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.”
[36] Free will is an illusion according to most atheists, the result of an unfolding of an exceedingly complex, but nevertheless fully determined, set of physical laws.
[37] It is interesting to note that Richard Dawkins uses the “fact” that by being able to hear and answer the prayers of all several billion people on Earth at once, God must be exceedingly complex. Such complexity could not exist at the beginning of the universe, however, since the pattern of evolution is always from the simple to the complex. This entire argument betrays an astonishing ignorance of the nature of God.
[38] It is important to note that some evils that appear to be “natural” may actually be (partially) “moral.” For example, a building not constructed to code in an earthquake zone collapses and kills a family. While the earthquake is partially responsible for this evil, so is the human builder. A child contracting terminal cancer seems like a natural evil, but if the environment contributed to the cancer, then this could be an example of both types of evil.
[39] Why humans were made to live this life first before entering eternal life will be among the first questions God will be asked in the next life!
[40] Christians believe in the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity, that God is three Persons in one divine nature: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. A fuller articulation of this Mystery is beyond the scope of this discussion and of the understanding of this author.
[41] See this poem
[42] D.B. Hart. 2009. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies
[43] This does not mean the immediately post-Christian society became perfect; while the treatment of slaves was ameliorated to some extent, the institution of slavery took the better part of two more millennia to remove from western society.
[44] Including from radioactive dating, stellar evolution, and observational cosmology
[45] “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in God because I see design.” J.H. Newman
[46] With an extraordinarily low entropy which means a highly ordered initial state.
[47] One of the founders of Big Bang Cosmology was Monseigneur G. Lemaître
[48] The Kalam cosmological argument is one such argument.
[49] A critique of the Kalam argument.
[50] Faith in this context is described best in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”