We interviewed Paul Copan, President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, about his forthcoming article in our Summer 2008 issue of Philosophia Christi (10:1). Paul is also the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics Palm Beach Atlantic University (West Palm Beach, FL)
His Philosophia Christi article is titled, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics.”
Who are the “new atheists” and what makes them new?
The new atheists include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens – the “Four Horsemen,” they’ve been called. Perhaps because of the fading Judeo-Christian cultural consensus or worldview in our culture, they have been emboldened to take on a new stridency and, in some cases, even anger and hostility. God is “not great” (Hitchens) and a “monster” (Dawkins). (Dan Dennett strikes me as more even-handed. I’ve met him and have enjoyed cordial conversation with him, and we’ve contributed to a forthcoming book with Fortress Press, which I mention later.)
One feature many critics acknowledge about the new atheists is that their case against God tends to be fairly flimsy and not very tightly argued at all. In his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists (New York: Free Press, 2008), Chris Hedges writes of Harris’s book The End of Faith: “His facile attack on a form of religious belief we all hate, his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs, as well as his demonization of Muslims, made the book tedious, at its best, and often idiotic and racist” (2). Though Hedges shares the new atheists’ disgust – as do I! – with “the chauvinism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism and self-righteousness of religious fundamentalists” (3), he believes that their confidence in reason and science is profoundly misplaced and their optimism about human nature and utopian visions is equally misguided.
Hedges says that we should carefully distinguish between religious values or certain religious figures and religious institutions: “Religion, real religion, involved fighting for justice, standing up for the voiceless and the weak, reaching out in acts of kindness and compassion to the stranger and the outcast, living a life of simplicity, cultivating empathy and defying the powerful” (5-6). I think that if Christians took “real religion” (or, as James 1 says, “true religion”) seriously, many of the points made by the new atheists would be greatly weakened.
Why should thoughtful religious persons pay attention to what the new atheists are claiming?
These new atheists are getting quite a bit of attention with their claims that God and science conflict or that Christianity (or “religion”) is bad for people. They are rhetorically effective and happen to be churning out best-sellers, influencing the minds of many. Yes, the new atheists have plenty of critics. For instance, atheist philosopher of science Michael Ruse writes that Dawkins’s argumentation in the God Delusion “makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.” Many critics of the new atheists see them as strident. But this hasn’t prevented a lot of people from taking the new atheists very seriously.
How should theists listen to these claims?
I think that theist and atheist alike should listen fairly and even-handedly to them. The reader should sort out legitimate arguments from the anger, the rhetoric, the anecdotal and ad hominem argumentation, the exaggerated claims (such as the God-science conflict), the red herrings and caricatures (e.g., all Christians are young-earth creationists), and so forth.
Christians of course, need to be well-grounded in their faith, being able to graciously respond to some very legitimate questions the new atheists raise. (Indeed, many Christians themselves have grappled with questions that about the Old Testament’s harshness and, in places, inferior moral standards that are permitted because of human hard-heartedness). Christians must also be clear-minded and discriminating about what in Scripture is normative and what is not, about what is enduring and what is temporary, of what springs from human sin and what is rooted in the character of God.
Christians also should carefully guard what is articulated in the Declaration of Independence – that all humans “have been endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” We are experiencing a crisis in the West as to what our moral foundations are. If God does not exist who has made human beings and thus nature’s mindless, valueless processes have produced us as merely advanced animals, then such a crisis of moral foundations will only deepen.
What appears to be the main claim(s) of the new atheists when it concerns Old Testament ethics?
The main claims of the new atheists are these: (1) They see the “Old Testament God” as mean-spirited, cruel, capricious (e.g., God’s command to Abraham to kill his son, God’s permitting slavery or commanding the killing of the Canaanites). (2) They consider moral standards and practices in the Old Testament to be repugnant and strange (e.g., Lot’s daughters having sex with their drunken father out of a desire to have children). (3) These new atheists make the faulty inference that to be thoroughly biblical means embracing the death penalty for adulterers or idolaters and, further that the Mosaic Law is the presumed enduring moral and legal standard for all nations. (4) The new atheists point out that we can know moral standards without needing to appeal to Scripture.
Why would the new atheists be interested in “Old Testament ethics” and the “Old Testament God”?
If the character of “the God of the Bible” can be rightly questioned, then one has all the more reason for rooting the standard of objective goodness in something natural rather than supernatural. Attacking Old Testament ethics appears to be the best way of making quick work of dismissing God altogether.
What sort of reasons and evidences are presented by the new atheists when they offer support for their main claim(s)?
The new atheists appeal to science, history, and reason/philosophy to make their case for a decent world without God. They seem unaware of how the Christian faith helped give birth to modern science and early on shaped the philosophical assumptions that scientists – theistic or atheistic – utilize today. The new atheists downplay the remarkable cultural/moral influence the Christian faith has played in the West, and they overplay horrors committed in the name of Christ while underplaying the destructive role of atheistic ideologies in the twentieth century. Finally, the new atheists are remarkably out of touch with, say, sophisticated theistic arguments for God’s existence. Their arguments against God tend to be very superficial (bordering on village atheist argumentation that is often ad hominem or hasty generalization) and often naively tout science as the arbiter of truth, following in the barren footsteps of their positivistic forebears.
Your Philosophia Christi article claims to offer a “nuanced response to the new atheists.” Please briefly explain your response and why you take it to be significant to this discussion.
The new atheists are skillful rhetoricians. They commonly use one-liners, distorted descriptions, and emotional zingers to make their points. They generally do not give an accurate, well-rounded picture of Old Testament ethical questions, but they score a lot of rhetorical points with many readers. I’m trying to respond to this strategy with more nuanced description and reasoning to put such criticisms in proper perspective. While I am not here responding in kind rhetorically, I want to give adequate, well-researched material that others can utilize in response to the new atheists’ witty, but weak, argumentation on Old Testament ethics. I hope to write a fuller treatment on Old Testament ethics that is more popularly accessible.
In the “Final Thoughts” section of your article, you offer three final claims against the new atheists. Please summarize them and say how they compliment your “nuanced response.”
First, the new atheists reject the very theistic foundations that have made modern science possible, that have shaped the direction of the West’s moral progress, and that stand as the basis of human rights and dignity. Theism affirms humans have value because they have been made in the image of God. A supremely valuable being – not valueless, mindless processes – has endowed us earthly creatures with dignity and value. To get rid of God is to get rid of the kinds of values that these new atheists would like to affirm.
Second, the new atheists assume that theocracy or a nation ruled directly by God is the ideal when in actual fact a theocracy is simply one of several developments in Israel’s history. Indeed, the Old Testament itself looks beyond ethnic Israel as the true people of God to an interethnic, international body of believers who are the true Israel in Christ.
Third, as I noted earlier, the new atheists assume that the Old Testament proclaims and enduring moral standard for all nations for all time. However, we can rightly agree with Daniel Dennett, who thanks “heaven” that the numbers of those who believe this are dwindling!
So we can side with the new atheists on these last two points but without jettisoning God’s moral authority over humankind.
Can you recommend any other Christian responses or resources about the new atheists?
One can gain a lot from looking at Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion?; John Haught, God and the New Atheism; John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?; David Marshall, The Truth Behind the New Atheism; Francis Collins, The Language of God (to some degree); Dinesh D’Souza has debated new atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett (available at Youtube). See also Alister McGrath’s interaction with Daniel Dennett in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert Stewart (Fortress Press, forthcoming) – a book to which I have contributed on the topic of “Naturalism, Theism, and the Foundations of Morality”; and, as previously mentioned, Chris Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists (though responding to the new atheists from a distinct vantage point).
If Christians are to effectively respond to new atheist challenges, can you offer recommendations and encouragement in this area?
I have tried to take seriously these sorts of challenges. My popular-level books True for You, But Not for Me, That’s Just Your Interpretation, How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? and When God Goes to Starbucks have attempted to address many Old Testament ethical topics (and lots more!) in user-friendly, accessible ways. I’m working on another book that tackles Old Testament ethical issues specifically, again at a popular level.
In general, I would say that Christians need to be well-informed about their faith and its robust intellectual strength as well as common challenges to their faith. This will require turning off the TV and doing research and deeper thinking. We must also help equip the next generation of Christians to be more thoughtful about their faith rather than presuming upon the fading Judeo-Christian heritage that many Christians in our culture seem to cling to. Although the church throughout the world is growing dramatically, the church in North America is facing great challenges from within and without.
Along these lines, Christians need to see that much of the criticism directed toward the church stems from deeper problems such as hypocrisy, judgmentalism, anti-intellectualism, and a host of other concerns. I would recommend David Kinnaman’s helpful corrective, the book unChristian (Baker) – an excellent wake-up call to the church.