It’s rather a scary thought that we are already over one eighth of the way through the twenty-first century. And even though year seems to follow year at an increasingly rapid rate, our culture changes even more speedily. One feature of the last decade that shows no sign of going away has been the rise of the ‘New Atheism’. It’s easy to dismiss the New Atheism as no more than a warmed-up version of old-fashioned humanism and in terms of substance there is little new. What is truly novel and troubling is the movement’s aggressive and bitter hostility to religious faith in general and Christianity in particular.
A fascinating revelation into where things are going with the New Atheism is to be found in a website www.kidswithoutgod.org, created to help children and parents live ‘a life without God’. Actually, the very existence of the site is significant. For years atheists have been saying how unfair it is of Christians to teach or – as they charmingly term it – ‘indoctrinate’ our children about God. In the past sceptics used to claim that children should be left to make their own decisions on matters of belief. Well this website suggests that such guidance is now buried: it is apparently legitimate to teach children about ultimate values.
There is actually a great deal of unintended amusement to be found on the site. So, for instance, children are introduced to a dog called Darwin. Darwin tells us that he is a ‘humanist’. At this point isn’t any smart child going to wonder why Darwin isn’t a ‘doggist’? Actually, it may simply be that Darwin the dog is stupid because reading on we are told that he only believes in things that he ‘can see in the real world, like friendship, and being nice, and learning’. Well, when I last looked friendship, niceness and knowledge were actually invisible. It’s also a little unfortunate that Darwin’s exclusion of anything ‘unseen’ prevents him from believing in such rather useful things as electricity, scent, sound waves, X-rays, infinity and gravity. This tripping up over logical shoelaces is all rather embarrassing given the New Atheism’s claim that it is seizing the intellectual high ground.
Another feature of the site is the way in which it inadvertently reveals some of the gaping problems in atheism. One of the difficulties in talking to children is that you have to use plain language and plain language allows very little scope for the sort of fancy wordplay that atheists can use to cover over difficulties. Such problems are highlighted when the site’s authors attempt to give children a moral code. Darwin the dog suggests that his young readers might like to follow his principles. (He doesn’t actually call them ‘principles’ presumably because as a dog sympathetic to modern worldviews he knows better than to try and impose his values on others; instead they are ‘things he has promised to do’.) There are seven of them:
“I promise to be nice to other people, just because it’s the right thing to do.”
“I promise to help take care of the Earth, because this is our home and we need it to stay healthy and safe.”
“I promise that I will think about the questions I have, and learn as much as I can about how things work.”
“I promise that before I say something or do something to another person, I will stop to think about how I would feel if somebody else said that or did that to me.”
“I promise that I will always tell the truth and take responsibility for my own actions.”
"I promise that I will help those who are sad or angry by being a good friend to them."
"I promise to eat healthy, get plenty of sleep and exercise, and practice good personal hygiene.”
Why is ‘being nice to other people’ the ‘right thing’ to do? Says who? If the only basis for morality is evolution then why not push and shove your way to the top and, in the process, make sure that your genes get circulated as widely as possible? Why ‘be a good friend’ to those who are sad or angry? Doesn’t evolution demand that we walk over life’s losers? I could go on.
Yet beyond all the accidental amusement it provides, ‘Kids without God’ is a troubling website. You do not have to go far in it to find Christianity ridiculed and misrepresented. For all the proud claims that atheism is about truth there is no attempt at discussion, only distortion and sneering innuendo. What this website does present is a much-needed reminder that as Christians we are, like it or not, being increasingly drawn into a bitter conflict with the New Atheists. Traditionally, most Christians have adopted a bemused, live-and-let-live attitude towards atheists. That attitude was something that we had assumed was mutual. Yet it is now plain that for the New Atheists, the world has changed and tolerance is not a virtue. Christians are now clearly seen as an enemy to be fought and beaten.
At this point it is easy to shrug and say that the Church has faced such challenges before and survived them. Yes, it did, and God is greater than all the powers of this world put together, but it is worth remembering that the Church survived because Christians were prepared to pay a heavy price. The followers of Christ lived better, thought better, cared better and, quite often, died better than their opponents. Will the same be true of us?
Revd Canon J.John