The New Atheists cannot be accused of being relativists. But their attacks on Christian truth claims still need some careful relativising.
The New Atheists are not talking to Christians, but about Christians—to recruit fellow secularists in the campaign to silence the Christian voice in the public domain. So Sam Harris, in his Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, New York, 2006), writes,
The primary purpose of the book is to arm secularists in our society, who believe that religion should be kept out of public policy, against their opponents on the Christian Right. (p. viii)
Christians are thus placed in the position of listening in on plans for their own destruction.
Despite this declaration of (indirect) war, the New Atheists are actually allies of conservative Christianity against those who love the name ‘moderates’, or ‘liberals’—even if it’s for different reasons. Harris clearly recognizes a different voice among the conservatives where the truth claims being made are either true or false. That is, they are claims about reality (or not reality). There is no dissembling relativism here that denies the ‘law of non-contradiction’. He puts it colourfully:
We agree, for instance, that if one is right, the other is wrong. The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn’t. Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not. (p. 3)
—adding a long string of further either-ors. Looking ahead to the Christian-proposed judgement day, he muses, “… let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose” (p. 5).
At last we are having the kind of discussion we ought to have—even if we are not invited into it! There is no relativistic view of truth here: either Christianity is ‘true’ or ‘not true’. This is exactly what the Christian message has proclaimed since the beginning. Take the great Apostle Paul, for example: he was absolutely clear that if Jesus did not rise from the dead (and there are only two options on that one), then there was absolutely no point in being a Christian (1 Cor 15:12-19).
But despite this very helpful call for our secular friends to depart from their ridiculous relativistic views of so-called ‘truth’, the New Atheist onslaught also needs some relativising.
It is the nature of the beast for those who have declared fight-to-the death-warfare to seek to win at all costs. Part of the difficulty the Christian may have in listening to the barrage of assaults that are being flung about is sorting out which gun the various arguments are being fired from. As I said in my first post, even when we dispense with relativistic nonsense, there are still various kinds of truth.
Take the comment by Richard Dawkins that “Christian theology is a non-subject. Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content” (Marianna Krejci-Papa, ‘Taking On Dawkins’ God: An interview with Alister McGrath’, Science & Theology News, 25 April, 2005). Now, Dawkins likes to speak with the authority of modern science behind him. He stands for scientific method, firmly grounded in empiricism—and amen to all that! But at this point, his comment is far from a scientific criticism. Here he is not refuting any truth claim about the real, empirical world (such as, did Jesus rise from the dead?), for then the Christian would be saying “Yes”, and Dawkins would be saying “No”, and the negotiation would then come down to whose answer best fits the evidence of the external world.
Here Dawkins appeals to the criterion of coherence—that is, how does it all hang together? How does one part relate to another? What does Christian theology actually say, and does it cohere internally? After 2000 years of constant discussion, conversation and interaction, that presumably is the ‘Christian theology’ Dawkins so summarily writes off. It is not really surprising that there are many articulate explanations not only of the coherence of Christian theology as a whole, but also of practically any and every part of that whole—should Dawkins have the interest to pursue them.
Even Gary Wolf, the writer of the article that apparently coined the term ‘New Atheist’ in November 2006 (‘The Church of the Non-Believers’, Issue 14.11), saw straight through this one:
On the contrary, I find the best of these books [of Christian theology] to be brilliant, detailed, self-assured. I learn about kenosis, the deliberate decision of God not to disturb the natural order. I learn about panentheism, which says God is both the world and more than the world, and about emergentist theology, which holds that a God might have evolved. There are deep passages surveying theories of knowledge, glossing Kant, Schelling, and Spinoza.
With Christian theology, it is not coherence that is the problem, and it is not coherence that an empirical scientist who wants to discuss evidence should be concerning himself with. As Wolf went on to say, “It is all admirable and stimulating, and lacks only the real help anybody in my position would need: reasons to believe that specific religious ideas are true”.
And so we come back to the main game, having sorted out a sidetrack: in the barrage of arguments thrown willy-nilly by the frothing opponent of (conservative) Christianity, it is worth recognizing that there are various kinds of truth, and it is worth responding to the truth attacks differently, depending upon which kind has been marshalled at any one time. If coherence is questioned, then the answer is simple: tell the opponent how it all fits together so brilliantly: “Well, Jesus rose from the dead to show …, to bring …, to be …, to restore …”. That should then open up the discussion to further questions. What a brilliantly coherent portrait of the world, God, humanity, human history, the universe and everything! “Now, let’s get back to the empirical world: how do you know that it is real?”