Atheists have always been with us, but historically their leaders have tended to be philosophers rather than activists—academic types who looked down on Christians with arrogant but benign scorn. The names Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Sigmund Freud come immediately to mind. However, the face of atheism is changing, and the new face is contorted in anger. A new crop of atheists has replaced the old guard and this generation is filled not with benign scorn for Christians, but with hate. In the ultimate of Ironies, the new atheists are not just angry—they are angry at a God they refuse to acknowledge.
Leaders of the new atheism movement include Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Lewis Wolpert, Victor Stinger, Sam Harris, and, until his recent death, Christopher Hitchens. Each of these contemporary atheists has written one or more no-holds-barred books attacking religion in general and Christianity specifically. All of their books virtually drip with anger, hate, and vitriol. The God Delusion by Dawkins, The End of Faith by Harris, and God Is Not Great by Hitchens all sold well suggesting that the anti-God, anti-Christianity views of the new atheists have found a market niche among America’s increasingly self-indulgent society. Atheism has a powerful appeal to those who want to be their own god.
Christopher Hitchens’ interview on CNN back in 2009 concerning the death of evangelist Jerry Falwell is representative of the mean-spirited, venomous attitude that characterizes the new atheists. Asked if he thought Reverend Falwell was in heaven, Hitchens responded: “No. And I think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to. The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called reverend…I think he was a conscious charlatan and bully and fraud. And I think, if he read the Bible at all—and I would doubt that he could actually read any long book—that he did so only in the most hucksterish, as we say, Bible-pounding way.” Mr. Hitchens has never been noted for his kindness.
One can only wonder what has transformed leading atheists from arrogant philosophers into snarling attack dogs. Perhaps the new atheists believe they are losing the battle with Christianity and have become desperate. Evidence that desperation might, indeed, be the cause can be found in the spate of highly-publicized defections suffered by the atheist movement. In recent years, newspaper articles describing the conversions of former well-known atheists to Christianity have become common place. When British philosophy professor and well-known atheist, Anthony Flew, abandoned his no-God stance in 2004, the story made headlines worldwide.
Other leaders of the atheist movement who gave it up and came to Christ include: 1) A.N. Lewis who found that his thinking was more in-line with that of religious authors than the hopelessness that permeated the thoughts of his atheistic colleagues, and 2) Matthew Parris who began to doubt atheism after observing the work of Christian aid workers in Africa. High-profile defections from the flock such as Flew, Lewis, and Parris certainly rocked the world of contemporary atheists, but no defection was more devastating to them than that of Peter Hitchens, brother of Christopher Hitchens. Partially because of his relationship to Christopher, Peter’s conversion and subsequent book, The Rage Against God, sent shockwaves through the atheist community in 2010. It had the same effect on atheists that a defection by Jerry Falwell would have had on Christians.
While the new atheists become fewer and fewer and, as a result, angrier and angrier, the response of Christians to their vitriol remains the same as it has always been. It is not a message of hate, anger, or venom. Rather, it is the message of hope that Christ died on the cross for our sins and that forgiveness is still possible, even for the most ardent atheist. That message is summarized in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (The author is indebted to Dr. David Jeremiah whose excellent book, I Never Thought I’d See the Day, provided the impetus for this column).