Response to the New Atheists

This sermon is a response to the New Atheists preached as part of a sermon series on apologetics earlier this year. Specifically, it was designed to help people (many with no particular science backgrounds) understand the issues and give them some sense of how to answer the main questions. This is a slightly edited version of that sermon.

There are lots of helpful books refuting the approach of the new atheists, with Alister McGrath having written several good ones. The two books that I used and recommended for this sermon were The ‘new’ atheism by Michael Poole and the Grove booklet (Ev79) Whose delusion? by Mike Starkey. These are both short, introductory books. I don’t go into too much detail, as it was designed to be an introduction, not a comprehensive survey!

Is God a Delusion? (Readings Ecclesiastes 1:1-8 and 1 Peter 3:13-18)

You may remember that a couple of years ago, the British Humanist Association ran an ad campaign on London buses. The slogan was “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. One of the main funders of this ad was, of course, Richard Dawkins. It’s less well known that another group that contributed £50 to the campaign was one of the leading Christian think-tanks, Theos. The director of Theos said “We’ve donated the money because we think the campaign is a brilliant way to get people thinking about God.”

And Dawkins has helpfully got people thinking about God quite a bit over the last few years. His major contribution to this is his book, The God Delusion. Of course, that isn’t his purpose in writing the book. His purpose is to undermine religion and convert the reader to atheism. This is part of what is called the ‘New Atheism’, a group of atheists who are attacking religion and trying to convert people to atheism. But, these New Atheists, like Dawkins, have given Christians a great opportunity for conversations about our beliefs.

And, we heard a pretty serious challenge in our reading from Peter’s letter to the early Christians. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” And notice also, how we’re meant to give the answer “Do this with gentleness and respect”. A lot of the Christian reaction to Dawkins has not been with gentleness and respect. Give an answer for the hope you have. Do it with gentleness and respect.  If you drift off at this point, at least remember that!

For those of you who are still with me, at least some of you are thinking: I can’t do that. I can’t give an answer for the hope I have. I particularly can’t give an answer for the hope I have if I have to talk about science! And perhaps some of you are thinking: I’m not even sure about Christianity yet.

Well, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about these sorts of things. I’ve studied archaeological science, and I’m a member of two organisations that you’ve probably never heard of: the Society of Ordained Scientists, and Christians in Science. And both of those are concerned with the links between science and Christianity, and both are convinced that science enhances our faith, and doesn’t hinder it. So, some of you are probably now thinking, well its alright for him. He can talk about that sort of thing, but my last contact with science was at secondary school, and I didn’t like it then! But, you don’t need to know much, if any, science to have a sensible conversation about what the New Atheists are saying.

So, I thought that I’d let you eavesdrop on an imaginary conversation between myself and an imaginary atheist who’s just finished reading the God Delusion. I’m sure that there must be a good joke about having imaginary conversations with imaginary people, but I can’t think of it…

Atheist: Religion is bad for you isn’t it? Look at all the evil things done by religious people.

Yes, lots of terrible things have been done by people of different religions, including Christians. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, all sorts of things, have been done by people who said they were Christians. Lots of them were done for political reason or whatever though. But, that doesn’t prove anything though does it? Lots of bad things have been done by atheists; Soviet Russia, the Khmer Rouge, and so on. It doesn’t prove either of us is right or wrong.

Look, a couple of weeks ago we celebrated Easter. That’s about Jesus dying and rising again. We believe that Jesus opened up the way to God. And we believe that all that was necessary because of the mess we as human beings had made of things. The Bible tells us about loads of people who messed up. One of the early Christian leaders, Paul, wrote “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do”. We do believe that God sends his Holy Spirit to help us, but we also believe that we’re on a lifelong journey to be the people who God wants us to be.

Anyway, anyone who’s seen me attempt to put together flat-pack furniture knows how hard I find it to follow a simple set of instructions, let alone difficult ones like loving people, or answering people with gentleness and respect. Christianity is all about God giving us the free will to love him. The problem with free will is that it gives you the freedom to make a mess of things. So, Christianity isn’t exactly surprised when people do just that.

In summary: Yes, but so has atheism. It doesn’t prove anything. God gives us free will, so we’ve got the freedom to make a mess of things.

Atheist: Aren’t you just kidding yourself? Aren’t you deluded or indoctrinated?

I don’t think so, but then I would say that wouldn’t I?! What Dawkins is arguing is that faith is irrational. As Mark Twain once put it “faith is believing what you know ain’t so”. Dawkins thinks that believers are immune to argument, and that faith is about belief without evidence. But, faith is about putting your trust in something or someone. You put your faith in the bus driver to get you to your destination. You put your faith in the surgeon to perform your operation, even though you’ve never seen them perform an operation. The Bible defines faith as being “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Christians put their trust in God for all sorts of different reasons. Some believe that they’ve had a particular encounter with God. Some get to know Christians and believe that they’ve met God through them. I became a Christian because I believed that that explained the historical events of Jesus better than the alternative.

In the God Delusion Dawkins defines an atheist as “somebody who believes that there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world”. In other words an atheist is someone who has faith that there is nothing to hope for and is certain that there is nothing beyond what we see! But, both Christians and atheists believe, both Christians and atheists have faith, and both believe that it is right and rational to do so. So, we might be wrong, there might not be a god. But, on the basis of the evidence that I have I rationally and honestly believe that there is. If I’m wrong, it’s not because I’ve been deluded into thinking so, it’s because I’ve made a mistake. But, equally, all that could be true of the atheist.

In summary: Atheism is about belief too.

Atheist: What about modern science, and particularly evolution?

It may surprise you, but lots of Christians accept evolution. I personally think it’s perfectly possible to be a Christian, take the Bible seriously, and also accept modern science, including evolution. Lots of Christians do hold different views. I have problems with those both scientifically and theologically, but I for this I don’t think that it matters what you think about evolution. I don’t think that you need to get into a debate about it to show that Dawkins is wrong.

There are scientists who either have a belief in God themselves, or who don’t see such a belief as incompatible. The Principal of one of our theological colleges, where vicars are trained, has a PhD in astrophysics. Professor Brian Cox, who has presented the Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe, isn’t a Christian, but has said that he thinks that physics and religion have the same motivation “which is that you notice that there’s something worth explaining about the universe. It’s an emotional reaction to it — like, this is beautiful, I want to understand how it works.”

Other scientists have gone further. Dr Paul Davies is a physicist who has written about the relationship between God and science. At the beginning of his book The Mind of God he writes this “I belong to the group of scientists who do not subscribe to a conventional religion but nevertheless deny that the universe is a purposeless accident. Through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact.”

The philosopher Anthony Flew was for years an atheist, but came to believe in god, because he thought that the scientific evidence demanded it.

In summary: Science and religious faith are compatible. Some people believe in a god because of the science!

Atheist: But Dawkins argues that evolution means that God doesn’t exist.

That’s certainly Dawkins’ central argument. Dawkins claims that in evolution he sees “nothing but blind pitiless indifference”. Dawkins argues that if you accept the science you have to reject God. The problem with this is that I think that Dawkins has forgotten where the science ends and where his belief in atheism begins.

Dawkins believes that the scientific method can explain everything. There’s quite a few problems with that. The first is, that isn’t a scientifically testable theory. If the argument is “only scientifically testable statements are reasonable”, you can’t test that using scientific observation or experiment. So, whatever it is, its not science!

I’m sure you’ve at least heard, if not said yourself something like “why is that light on?” This isn’t a test on your knowledge of electrical engineering, really what the question means is ‘why have you left that light, or telly, or whatever on, and then wandered off?’. If you gave them a quick explanation of basic electronics, I don’t think that would got down terribly well. There are different types of explanation. Just because you can explain the current state of life on earth through evolution, doesn’t mean that you can’t also explain it by saying that God created life, as well. At least some of the Christians around at the time of Darwin knew that. William Temple, who became Archbishop of Canterbury, said that evolution showed us that “God had made things make themselves.”

So, Dawkins thinks that the limits of sciences marks the limits of what we can know. But, that isn’t a scientific claim, as you can’t test it or observe it. And, just because something has a scientific explanation doesn’t mean that that’s the whole explanation.

Dawkins’ understanding of the world is a bit like the one we heard from our reading in Ecclesiastes “meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless”. He thinks that science shows us that everything can be explained, but that there is no meaning behind it. Ecclesiastes was one of the first books of the Bible I read after I became a Christian. It rather cheered me up, which may tell you something about my state of mind at the time. But, one of the reasons that it cheered me up and spoke to me is that it looked at the all of the things that were happening in the world, all the different forms of knowledge and human endeavour, and said that they would never be enough.  Instead, Ecclesiastes says this: “God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no-one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

In summary: Science doesn’t set the limit of what we can know.

That’s the really important point and the basic one to take away. Science doesn’t set the limits of what we can know.

If you are interested in finding out more a couple of good books to start with are: The ‘new’ atheism by Michael Poole and Whose delusion? by Mike Starkey. They’re both short, fairly easy and get to the heart of the problem.

Science, like all of human life, points beyond itself towards something greater. Science rests on beliefs that can’t be scientifically proved. As Christians we believe that our relationship with God gives us the hope and explanation that we are all, in our different ways, looking for. As the reading from 1 Peter reminds us Christ suffered to bring us to God. That is the reason for our hope. So let us give our answer with gentleness and respect to those who ask us. Amen.

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