Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

What’s the best way to combat the trend toward “village atheism”

A village atheist is an atheist who is very convinced about his atheism but whose reasons for atheism are completely naive and superstitious, and who is completely unaware of the scholarly evidence for theism. Letitia wrote a post recently on her blog in which she expressed her concerns about the idea that the public may be trending towards village atheism, just because atheism is being presented as the most intelligent view in popular culture, and because Christians are not getting their scholarly arguments and evidences heard.

Excerpt:

While reflecting on his debate with Sam Harris and the audience questions that came after, Dr. William Lane Craig wrote the following about the makeup of the audience that night:

I wonder is something culturally significant is going on here. Several years ago, I asked the Warden at Tyndale House in Cambridge why it is that British society is so secular when Britain has such a rich legacy of great Christian scholars. He replied, “Oh, Christianity is not underrepresented among the intelligentsia. It’s the working classes which are so secular.” He explained that these folks are never exposed to Christian scholarship because of their lack of education. As a result there is a sort of pervasive, uninformed, village atheism among them. I wonder if something like this could be happening in the States. I was surprised to see the number of blue collar folks from the community buying Harris’ book and thanking him for all he has done. They didn’t seem to have any inkling that his views had just been systematically exposed as logically incoherent. The intelligentsia have almost universally panned Harris’ recent book (read the reviews!). Yet it is lapped up in popular culture. Wouldn’t it be amazing if unbelief became the possession mainly of the uneducated?

This comment causes my heart to sink. Personally, I like to think that I am fairly observant of the religious cultural shifts here in the U.S. and their bearing on what Christians should do to respond to them. However, I have to admit that Dr. Craig’s note above catches me a little off guard, even alarming to a degree as I realize what his observation, if truly symptomatic of an eve of a significant change, means for Christian apologists in this day and age. An inculcation of “New Atheism” among the blue collar/working class here would be a dramatic reversal of the religious landscape of America. I cannot help but feel that such a situation might be more “dismaying” than “amazing.”

[...]I have no doubt that the inculcation is taking place. It is being impressed upon the public through books by New Atheists like Sam Harris that are aimed on the popular level, both to adults and youth (e.g. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials). In the public classroom, atheism is the default worldview in the disciplines of both the hard and social sciences. Atheism is marketed as the new neutral position in almost all of public literature, television, and many commercial media outlets. Atheists pronounce that atheism is the only viable alternative for fair-minded people once they have shed the evil “superstition” of theism and Christianity that has existed here since the Pilgrims brought their Bibles off the Mayflower. Pair the New Atheists’ media blitz of book tours and public appearances and the fruits of declining Christian influence over American culture, I suppose we should expect an eventual ‘atheism-of-the-masses’ to emerge.

She then finishes the post with three ideas on how to counter this trend: 1) Christian scholars should try to appear on television shows, 2) Christian scholars should try to submit opinion columns to newspapers, and 3) Christians who are prepared to discuss theology and apologetics should participate in public discussions. I’ll just point out that it is excellent for Christian women to be concerned about these things, and to come up with solutions to the problems they raise. We need more women like Letitia to be concerned about these things, and to come up with effective plans to do something about it. (You’ll recall that she has a conference coming up in Arizona where she will be speaking – so she has chips on the table).

She also posted her post on Facebook, and got a few interesting replies. I’ll just paste a few of them in anonymously.

Here’s one from P:

The culprit here is government-controlled education. Secular progressives control teacher certification, teacher and administrator education, curriculum construction, textbook writing and selection, and just about all curriculum selection. …Virtually everybody but the very wealthy are required to spend 12 years under this regime. The consequence is uniform inculcation of the young in America, from kindergarten to high school graduation, with the same ideas that we just heard come out of Sam Harris’ mouth.

That echoes my comments earlier about how Christians should support school choice and oppose a public school monopoly.

But there’s more from S:

[D]on’t you think we (the church) ought to be more supportive of our congregants who wish to pursue doctorate level work within their particular field of discipline? It seems that if we had a individuals …with full-on Christian worldviews who have risen to the highest levels of authority in places like the educational system, that they could make just as much impact as what is happening now.

And then I chimed in and recommended that the church bring more scholars to speak in the on issues of policy and apologetics, so that the congregants would have something to talk about with their neighbors, and so that the children would get ideas about what they could study in order to have an effective influence.

I would like to see churches turn to questions like 1) is Christianity true? 2) how do we know it’s true from science, philosophy and history? 3) which economic policies are the best for Christians to support? 4) how do you use evidence and arguments to convince other people to be pro-life and pro-traditional marriage? 5) why do Christians have so many rules about sex and relationships? 6) how do you respond to the arguments made by non-Christians? 7) what is the best way to prevent wars – disarmament or deterrence? 8) what should Christians think about secular fads like global warming and feminism? And so on.

When the church starts to become interesting again, by actually having lectures, debates and disagreements about what’s true, then people in the culture will take it seriously. Right now, I think we are too focused on not have debates, not pursuing truth, not making exclusive theological claims, not making moral judgments, and just putting on a show that will make people have happy feelings and a sense of community. Eventually, when people in church notice that there are no men in the church, and consequently no children in the church, then we may decide to try something else.

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5 Responses

  1. Jared says:

    I agree. Churches should focus on equipping Christians to give good reasons for their faith in Jesus. My pastor has been giving discussing why evolution cannot account for “ought” and “should” in morality. He also explained how evolution doesn’t scare him as a Christian, but gave his reasons why evolution’s method cannot be the best explanation for what goes on in our genes. I live in an area where this stuff isn’t incredibly popular, but our church is growing from these kinds of messages.

  2. sorentmd says:

    This is something that has been on my heart for a while. Craig had believed for a long time that as Christianity became a bigger influence in academia, that there would be a trickle down effect into the working class. But this has yet to happen, and its been nearly 5 decades since Plantinga and Craig and others started making Christianity more popular again. The other thing that I see is that this has had a major effect on the demographics of Christian scholarship. Most of our big name apologists in the university setting are older. Plantinga just retired, van Inwagen, Habermas, Copan, Geisler, Craig, Kreeft, Zacharias, etc. are all 60+. I see Licona, Strobel, Keller, D’Souza, and Meyer are the youngest major apologists I know of, and they are all 50+ as of this year since Licona hit/s the big half century mark. To me, this is an issue. Where is the younger crowd? I have 2 friends that are pursuing doctorates in apologetic areas, but both are worried that it may not work our because there are no jobs for them when they graduate.

    I think we can do some things to help this. High school groups should drop the duck-duck-goose game style teaching and introduce the students to these people and their “rival” atheists and allow them to think things for themselves. Its like 85% of high school students that go to secular colleges lose their faith within two years of being on campus. That’s a problem. They need to know how to defend their faith before they get there. But this will do another thing as well. By introducing them to these topics, they may find interest in them and want to pursue an education in them. My youth group is about 30 large, yet we have about 4 or 5 students per year pursuing education in apologetic fields for apologetic reasons. I would say that is a very decent number. Of these, 2 or 3 will probably do graduate work. So the question is, does this ratio translate to bigger churches and bigger youth groups? Unfortunately, not even close. Without mentioning church names, there are a few here locally in the greater Cincinnati area that have 100-200+ high school students. Our youth minister is from one of these churches and is dumbstruck by the fact that they have the same if not less number of students pursuing education for apologetic reasons, despite have up to 8 times as many students. Having looked into it, he found that none of them could name a single Christian apologist apart from C.S. Lewis and even then, many answered that they didn’t know that he had written apologetic works and only knew him from the Chronicles of Narnia.

    This is a problem. They need to at least know of these people. They need to know that there are “smart” people out there that are Christians and that they can look to these people in defending their own faiths. If one doesn’t know where to look for defense of the Christian faith, they will go to Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris and such to answer their questions, which is the wrong way to go because we know that the arguments they put forth are terrible defenders of atheism. Yet the public has this perception that these guys are the smart guys and think that they are invincible. Clearly they have never seen Craig debate any of them as he mutilates their arguments.

    I have to agree with S also, further education in apologetic fields should be encouraged to pursue such education and come back and speak to lay people. This is the other area that I think Christian scholars have been lacking. They are well-known among scholars. You can’t have a philosophy of religion class without mentioning Plantinga and Craig. You can’t take a class on genetics without Collins being mentioned. You can’t defend evolution without knowing the objections Behe raises. But lay people often don’t even know the names of these people. They couldn’t tell me what the Discovery Institute is or what Christian scholars take part in that work. They don’t realize that Christianity is a major player in many fields of science and philosophy today. And I think part of the reason for this is that they spend too much time being scholarly, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but has negative results. Craig has improved on this recently, but where are Plantinga’s popular books? Craig has a few, Geisler has a few, but Habermas and Licona and Meyer and the others tend to write mostly scholarly works. On the other hand, our friendly New Atheists have a New York Times best seller every year. They release popular books all the time and this is what the public sees and hears about. Getting on television would be nice, but the history channel and stations that might have interest in such a thing know that having Craig expose the New Atheists for what they are or having somebody who actually knows how to defend Christianity well doesn’t make for good tv. That’s why Rob Bell was on, but not a more orthodox pastor. That’s why the history channel focuses on the minority view when it comes to Christian history and the Bible and life of Jesus, because a good controversy is better than affirming what we already believe.

    I think creative people in the church need to help the analytic people to become more effective at getting their message to more people. Why can’t a marketing person help out scholars and such in coming up with new ways of getting their work in the hands of more people through promotion? Why can’t a communications person improve how they put that promotion in words that catch people’s attention so that they are eager to read more about it? Why do we not function like a body here? Isn’t that how its supposed to be? I feel like the brain of the Church isn’t connected with the rest of the body right now except by a few threads. This needs to be fixed before the Church is decapitated. There isn’t a lack of Christian scholarship, just a lack of knowledge about the true depth and breadth of that scholarship among the public and lay people.

    • Nick says:

      “Why do we not function like a body here? Isn’t that how its supposed to be?”

      So true

      Even if the scholars you mention don’t write more books, couldn’t others re-write some of them as simplified and popularised editions. It does happen, and could do much more in Christian publishing if people were prepared to do the work (and give the permissions).

  3. Crude says:

    “On the other hand, our friendly New Atheists have a New York Times best seller every year.”

    Do they really? It seems to me that the New Atheists have been less and less popular, peaking in around 2005. And it’s not as if there are no Christian or Christian-themed books getting on the same list – they just aren’t spoken about as much, particularly among Christians.

    No, I think New Atheism is and will remain a tiny minority movement – even agnostics have responded by distancing themselves from New Atheists. The secularism to worry about isn’t the animated sort, but the lackadaisical sort. A kind of automatic deism, or a person who shrugs off those questions as not only unanswerable but unimportant.

    More than that, though, I think what’s being missed isn’t the “blue collar” aspect of some new atheists, but another point highlighted: That having a superior argument does not necessarily matter. People seem to act as if people become atheists or theists principally due to being convinced by intellectual argument. That seems downright insane to me. Has no one else noticed the tremendous emotional content of the New Atheist message? How it just so happens that the sort of people who sign on with New Atheism, etc, also make it clear that they hope to God (ha ha) that Christianity is false?

    I think it’s clear that there are not only great arguments for theism and Christianity (indeed, the arguments are superior to those for atheism or naturalism), but also no real lack of intellectuals arguing for such. (It was pointed out that many apologists are older, but keep in mind the New Atheists aren’t exactly headed up by youthful sorts. Even Sam Harris is in his 40s.)

    But let me repeat the remark from Craig that I think is being ignored: They didn’t seem to have any inkling that his views had just been systematically exposed as logically incoherent. I would add, perhaps they did not care. Perhaps their reasons for supporting Harris aren’t owed to strength of argument, but other reasons – emotional reasons, subjective reasons, personal reasons. Even cultural reasons.

    It is a mistake to try and combat secularism by means of superior argument alone, or even principally. You must address the culture. You must address the emotion. And that’s complicated.

    • sorentmd says:

      This is the reason I think the Church needs to work together as a body and use people with multiple skills to diagnose the problem and find solutions. So that would be getting info in everybody’s hands, as well as putting the info in a way that is effective at what we want it to do.

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