“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements - surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?” (Job 38:4-5).
Atheism is, of course, not new. Though the word can be traced to the sixteenth century (lifted from the Ancient Greek to mean “godless” or to “deny the gods”), its history is as old as some of our earliest materialist philosophies and indeed, religions themselves. But there are two particular periods for us ‘moderns’ that are especially noted for the argument that religion is a superstition with adherents who do not exercise reason, and who for the better part, are fanatics. At the same time natural science renders any literal belief in the Bible indefensible. What is common to these eras, the Enlightenment or Age of Reason (late 17th and 18th century), and our present times is the great progress in the sciences. Religious have responded in various ways to such titanic movements, some plainly wrong. There have been those, however, who set the good example. They have done so by entering in to the debate, by accepting correction where correction was required, and acknowledging that the tremendous mystery of God rather than being extinguished by the huge strides of science, is made all the more profound and astonishing.
It is indeed right to admit as believers in an omnipotent and omniscient Creator, that we do not know everything, and there is nothing whatsoever to be lost in acknowledging that we can be enriched by others outside our own particular belief-system. Most of us are familiar with the Enlightenment and with its revolutionary contribution not only in the sphere of the sciences but also in the broader area of the humanities. The medieval world-view was effectively put to death and so the idea of the modern world came into being. But what is this ‘new atheism’ so prominently espoused in our days by some very famous and very passionate people?
New atheism is not so ‘new’ after all. It has roots in the cultural Marxism of the 1920’s, though it often claims to be “carrying out” the work of the Enlightenment. This movement above all strong in the 1960’s understood Christian religion as a force which blinded people, particularly the working class, of its true nature and purpose. And so the religion had to be destroyed. But not everything about this school of thought which understood culture as a tool of oppression, is so damning, for instance, its critique of unequal social relations. Nowadays however, the rapid advances of scientific exploration and the modern-day marvels of technology have added an additional prestige to this increasingly popular new atheism movement. Moreover, the open and free access to information has allowed for the abuses of power in some parts of faith-based communities to become exposed… and rightly so. This has further eroded in many minds the beliefs and claims of religious. So how do we respond to these solid attacks on those very things which we hold to be most precious, that is, our belief in a personal Creator, who is not only interested in our lives, but who also continues to act in history. It is not easy in the face of especially eloquent and persuasive arguments in support of the ‘death of God’, often by persons like the incomparable author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens or the charismatic and highly qualified astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Not all of us have the knowledge and the abilities of an Ernan McMullin or a William Lane Craig to answer back to the first, or of a Sir Robert Boyd or a J. Richard Gott to get back to the second. Most of us would fall down, flat on our faces. So what is it that we ‘lesser lights’ can do?
We can accept and learn. And then testify to whatever little shards of the Light we, ourselves, might possess. Sometimes we might surprise with words and insights we never knew we possessed- the legacy of Pentecost and those tongues "as of fire" (Acts 2:1-4). This is to accept it is natural for individuals to disagree on the ‘big’ questions and that people respond to evidence, whether documentary or physical, in different ways. We each possess diverse gifts and we should admire these talents in others without anxiety or fear that this would somehow diminish or weaken our faith and strengthen the arguments of those on the other side. The new atheists can teach us to be more determined and much better read when presenting to the world our principles of faith, and indeed, to consider what example of moral exemplars we are who claim our ethical foundations from divine revelation. Whether we are Christians or members of other faith-based communities let us not fear those attacks from high places. They are not all misplaced. Let us take what is good and profitable to the spirit, rather than becoming unduly defensive and fretful. We should allow for these strikes to make us more sensitive to our responsibilities as faith bearers, but also to understand that science is a discipline which can only bring to us a greater amazement at the wonderment and mysteries of God, or as others might prefer, primum movens, the ‘Prime Mover’.
It does not mean that we too, cannot take offence at arguments or positions which are either not correct or scientifically prejudicial. We can and should take offence when Saint Paul’s, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11) is flagrantly taken out of context, suggesting that the Apostle to the Gentiles outgrew his faith. This is not only patronizing to readers of the New Testament but also showing that even the best intellects are not immune from an arrant misinterpretation of sources. And also we need not remain silent when elite scientists tell us that religious are “wired” to believe as if that is some sort of crime or evolutionary deficiency. Are we then also to believe the reverse, that those who are “wired” to dis-believe are somehow superior? This position whatever the neurological or biochemical proofs, is not only arrogant but also a terribly dangerous ideology, with consequences too horrible to consider here.
Ultimately, let us go about our own business of trying to become better men and women, and if we believe in a Creator, fear nothing and hope for everything. There is a synthesis here, and it is good to finish in this way. Albert Einstein, who incidentally was not a believer in God- and religious do themselves a disservice by claiming as much for his private correspondence makes it very clear he was not- spoke of his “sense of god” as his “sense of wonder” about the universe. This truly limitless fascination should be a place where we can All meet allowing for the overwhelming awe which grips the heart of the other to inspire our thoughts and to excite our souls. Next to Einstein’s evocative reflection, we can as a community of believers point to a similar declaration from Saint Basil the Great in his Hexaemeron commenting on the cosmogony of Genesis 1:1: “I stop struck with admiration at this thought. What shall I first say? Where shall I begin my story?”