Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Atheism Is Not Radical

‘Atheism is not radical as you may believe,’ atheists have long been preaching. It is surprising to find this echoed, though not explicitly, by R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Dr. Mohler is president of the Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and “is considered a leader among American Evangelicals by Time and Christianity Today magazines.” His recent book Atheism Remix: A Christian Confronts the New Atheists is a quick survey of the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others, and the responses to them. As an atheist, I was impressed by how accurately the views of each of these New Atheists were reproduced. Dr. Mohler made no attempt to cheapen the discussion with oversimplification or pettiness.

His talk at the University of Louisville’s Red Barn digressed very little from the contents of Atheist Remix. The arguments of the New Atheists were accurately if incompletely (it was a 30 minute discussion) represented. Dr. Mohler represented a deep understanding of the topics that I have not generally seen in theologians. I must confess, that his description of the selfish gene theory was accurate enough to send chills down my spine (the same chills I am getting right now, thinking about how writing this, somehow, is inextricably the result of my very selfish genes).

For myself, and anyone familiar to the debate, though, much of Dr. Mohler’s book was boring with the exception of the novelty of a fair tone. Unlike most jewelry, the gems are the last things you might see in Atheist Remix, but they are there. In both the talk and the discussion, Dr. Mohler waited until he had completely introduced the context before revealing his take on the debate. The unscrupulous probably missed it entirely. There is one issue, and one issue only on which Dr. Mohler disagrees with the New Atheists.

‘If I did not believe the Bible was the word of God, then I would be writing right alongside the New Atheists.” Perhaps the only difference between Dr. Mohler and Richard Dawkins is that the former understands the bible as truth. Okay, that’s still a big difference, right?

Well, not so fast. There are two very important points on which Dr. Mohler and his opponents agree passionately. First, that this issue is worth the scale of the debate they wish to, and are, escalating it toward. And second that there should be much, much less fence-sitting. In the debate among Christians, as Dr. Mohler suggests in the final lines of Atheist Remix:

“The New Atheists are right about one thing—It’s atheism or biblical theism. There is nothing in between.”

Dr. Mohler suggests that liberal Christianity (Christians who don’t believe the bible is the Word of God but instead is up to interpretation; or those who don’t believe in a personal God, a supernatural God—as Dawkins singled out) is sometimes not very different from Atheism.

Whether you know it or not, if you worship a God who “set up the laws and constraints of the universe, fine-tuned them with exquisite precision and foreknowledge, detonated what we would now call the hot big bang, retired and was never seen again,” as I did for years before stepping into atheism, you are worshiping a Deist God as Richard Dawkins very accurately described. Belief in a God who doesn’t answer prayers, or judge, or make use of divine revelation, or place his only begotten son on earth, in human form, to die, literally, is effectively irrelevant. A God who is not supernatural is not God. According to Dr. Mohler: “The only God that matters is a supernatural God—a personal God—who will judge.”

This surely does not mean that Dr. Mohler considers liberal Christians to be atheists. I doubt many of the New Atheists do either. But the point is that in the big picture the many believers who, like myself a couple years ago, have stripped away from God his most extreme and troublesome characteristics are not that far off atheism. According to my best interpretation of Dr. Mohler, liberal Christians are fence-sitting just the same as labeled ‘agnostics’ and even some, as he clearly states, are effectively atheists.

My suspicion is that these ‘fence-sitters’ are a very large chunk of even the church-going Christians. I don’t mean to say that these folks are, will be, or even should be atheists. But it seems like even Dr. Mohler is placing them significantly closer to atheism than the ‘fence-sitters’ would realize. To the New Atheists and Dr. Mohler they are up for grabs; if this were an election they would be independents.

If this group could be convinced that the real debate is, as Dr. Mohler and the New Atheists believe, really a debate between Biblical Theism and Atheism, then is Atheism so radical?