Friday, January 4, 2008

The new atheism is selling because of us

Lately, I have come across and heard conference speakers talk about "the new atheism." Various concerns are raised about how Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others have become best-selling authors and what that reveals about American culture. The Christian writers/speakers that I've heard are convinced that better philosophy training and better science training among the American public will help them see through the weaker arguments that the new atheists are making. But I see the thing differently. I think Harvey Cox (Harvard Divinity School) has a better understanding of this cultural tide:

"It always makes a comeback, I think, when religious people get too arrogant, when they begin to look as though or speak as though they know it all, when they begin to impose themselves in ways that are unwelcome to other people in the society. Then atheism is a kind of, for me, a welcome critique of this arrogance." (

It seems to me that in the quote above Professor Cox has identified a primary reason why the new atheists are selling so well: people are tired of anything that smells of an inerrantist mindset. Come to think of it, if I am honest with myself, my own foray into the field, "If scientists can naturalize god, should philosophers re-supernaturalize him?", in Theology Today, 64 (3), 2007: 340-348, was probably (at least partially) motivated by how I saw in recent evolutionary and cognitive science accounts of religion a legitimate challenge to evangelicalism, a challenge that I could emotionally use to protest the imposing arrogance of my inerrantist theology professors.

After all, Sam Harris did not feel the need to publish a letter to "all Christians everywhere" (although he disavows Christianity of all stripes). He wrote a letter to evangelicals. Whether his letter has any merit really does not matter. (Taner Edis muses how in academic circles, "Harris's work is usually seen as popular polemic with little intellectual substance." See his Science and Nonbelief. [Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008] p. xi.) What matters is that he wrote a letter to evangelicals and people can't wait to read it. They want somone to quell the arrogance, and at this point, they don't care if it's a militant atheist who does it.