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New Atheism (6): Different strokes for different blokes—Christian leaders

[This is the sixth article in a series on New Atheism. Read parts 123, 4, and 5.]

The third group is Christian leaders. The issues here are usually much the same as the second group, and the solutions will work much the same. The distinctive extra element leaders bring to the table is the particular demands that come from exercising some kind of leadership role. On the one hand, they usually (if they’re any good) have high expectations of themselves. So the ambiguities and compromises of life can often vitiate their sense of the vitality of the Christian life more than for ‘run of the mill’ believers. The right expectation that they will be an exemplar of the life of faith puts pressure on them that sometimes ends up being directed to the reality of God himself. Their falling short in life and godliness can make the whole faith seem less real. This in turn can leave them vulnerable to arguments that the faith is merely a human construct, with no inner objectivity or power.

On the other hand, they tend to be the person that people look to for solutions to their own crisis of faith. Part of their life is given over to encountering just how fragile faith can be, the myriad of reasons why someone might not believe or even take back a faith once proffered. Over time, this constant dealing with the problems of faith can have an effect on them. Doctors who deal regularly with sick people should probably be prepared to catch some diseases.

In dealing with such concerns, they often have to push deeper into the arguments of the opposition than those to whom they minister. Being a teacher often requires people to read every Dan Brown novel or New Atheist publication that is currently making waves. If a particular heresy or attack is having some influence, then many Christian leaders will make sure they have some firsthand knowledge of it. Thus leaders are often exposed to far more attacks on the faith than the average believer. While the success rate of such polemics can be low, frequent exposure will still lead to a surprising number of people affected. In the words of Gandalf the Grey, “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill”. Filling your mind with something usually has an effect on you. So there’s an ‘occupational hazard’ that comes with this role.

This can sometimes be exasperated by a weight of expectation. There is a certain appropriate anticipation, by others and themselves, that Christian leaders will be able to refute arguments against faith in Christ. It’s part of the job description, but it’s not always possible. A very intelligent person can make a good argument out of a bad idea, and a good rhetorician can take a bad argument and make it more compelling than a better argument. Sometimes you find yourself facing someone who can run intellectual and rhetorical rings around you. Most of us are used to that, and we don’t automatically assume that losing an argument means we are wrong (indeed, some of us could afford to recognize that sometimes losing an argument can mean that we are wrong). But Christian leaders are expected to be ‘experts’ about the knowledge of God, and this can lead to a wrong view that one will always be able to win the argument.

In this situation, it helps to remind people that they aren’t all that smart, and it’s no surprise that they get bested, or go up against an argument they can’t prove wrong. There are a lot of very intelligent people that have existed in history, and they disagree strongly with each other about a wide range of things. They can’t all be right, and yet you might not be able to win an argument with any of them. One of the most important survival skills for any teacher is to realize that very intelligent people can be profoundly wrong, and so develop an instinct for when a hard-to-answer argument might be a sign of some truth, and when it is just more evidence that You Are Not the Smartest Person Ever. Intelligence and rhetorical ability are no guarantors of truth. Working out when a winning argument is an indication of truthfulness is a harder task than simply saying, “I can’t answer that, so it must be right”.

There are three final things that are good to keep in mind, whichever ‘group’ of Christian you are dealing with. First, the kind of people who are attracted to the arguments of New Atheism will invariably be people who have an aptitude for science and some kind of respect for scientists and the capacities of the scientific method. People who don’t care, or who are orientated to other aspects of life, like art, are rarely going to be swayed much by New Atheism (although they may be attracted to forms of atheism grounded in other approaches—more on that next time). Thinking highly about science is hardly a bad thing: science is a good gift from God. But it is something to keep in mind. One of the things that might be useful to check and address when you think someone might be susceptible to New Atheist arguments is the level of the person’s respect for science and scientists—do they think science can answer almost any question, for example? Do they see it as having any limits, and if so, what?

Second, New Atheism runs two main kinds of arguments. One is primarily intellectual—there is no reason to believe in God; belief in God is inconsistent with an empirical view of knowledge. The other is more existential—religion is a night-light for people who are scared of the dark; religion is the cause of most of the world’s evil. The first addresses primarily whether the Christian faith is true, the second addresses whether it is a force for good or harm, or just utterly irrelevant for living life (i.e. the idea that atheists can be (and are) just as moral as believers). When someone is being swayed by their arguments, usually only one of those two prongs is doing most of the heavy lifting, the other is simply support. Identifying which one is which can often help uncover the area of concern for that person. Focus the energy on the prong that’s doing the heavy lifting.

Third, it makes a big difference whether the person is primarily being swayed by New Atheism’s arguments and so is (more or less reluctantly) finding themselves in a position where they’d like to believe but find that they can’t with intellectual honesty, or whether they don’t want to be a Christian (either because it involves something they don’t want, or because it involves not having something they do want) and so find themselves drawn to New Atheism’s arguments to validate that. Those are two very different paths to unbelief, and it makes a huge difference in how you address the issue. In a sense, the person being swayed by the arguments is the kind of person who might end up being a New Atheist ‘true believer’, the other is the kind who will likely end up as ‘Mr or Miss Average Aussie’. And so, some attention to the issues to do with those two groups is worth keeping in mind as well.

When it is all said and done, I think New Atheism is a fairly limited challenge, and responding to it is moderately straightforward, not least because a large number of written resources doing so have been produced over the years. You don’t need to have the answers, you just need half-decent abilities in reading and comprehension and then to pick up something in your Christian bookstore on the topic. However, that doesn’t mean that New Atheism is nothing at all; because of the respect that science and scientists are held in, when and if you choose to deal with New Atheism it needs to be dealt with seriously, and shouldn’t simply be waved away with empty rhetorical tricks.

Next time, we’ll conclude by batting around the kind of atheism that I think might form the basis of a more serious threat to faith, once New Atheism fades into the background once again.

[This article is part of an 8-part series: read parts 1234567, and 8.]

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