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Atheism Preys on Fear And Prejudice

Atheism prays on fear and prejudice – a look at the impact and challenge of the new atheism in the USA – my article published on Desiring God Website today.

If God died in the 1960’s, then someone forgot to tell the English publishing industry. Books about God have been surprising bestsellers for the past decade. Richard Dawkin’sThe God Delusion which has sold over a million has been joined in the best seller lists by Christopher Hitchin’s God Is Not Great, Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, A.A. Grayling’s Against All Gods, and a host of other books extolling the virtues of atheism and the dangers and follies of religion.

Atheist publications are not new, and for anyone with any knowledge of basic philosophy and religion, the arguments put forward in these books contain nothing new. What is interesting is why they have proved to be so popular. They are clearly tapping into something in the popular zeitgeist in sections of both European and North American society. From a publishing point of view, it is clearly the right place and the right time to launch the New Atheist publishing. Why?

There is no doubt that the books are in general well-written, entertaining, and informative. They are written in a populist style about subjects, which most people would consider important and interesting. Little wonder that they have proved a hit. Yet there are other reasons why they have hit the spot.

The first is fear. People are afraid of religion. After all, as is pointed out ad nauseum by all the atheist writers, atheists don’t fly planes into buildings. Granted, but then neither do they build hospitals or establish schools because of their atheism. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and the others love to warn us that the religious are going to bomb us, take us back to the Dark Ages, and abuse our children.

Prejudices and Generalizations

Another reason for the popularity of these works is that they appeal to the prejudices of their readers. Prejudices such as the idea that all religions are essentially the same and that therefore what can be said about one must apply to the others. The illogicality of that should be obvious — but sadly when it comes to matters of religious belief, logic often seems to be thrown out of the window. Dawkins makes it no secret that he is preaching to the choir. He just rejoices that it is a big choir.

Most people who read these books are delighted with them, not because they challenge pre-existing beliefs, but rather because they reinforce them. The books are read with all the delight of a believer reading Holy Writ. One can almost hear the Amens and Hallelujahs being shouted across atheist living rooms and media outlets.

In addition, whilst making some clear and reasonable criticisms of religion, criticisms which religious people have to face up to and indeed have been doing so for centuries, the New Atheist authors are able to get away with their sweeping generalizations, ad hominem arguments, and simplistic philosophy because they are largely appealing to people’s ignorance.

In a world where, thanks to Google and Wikipedia, everyone has instant ‘knowledge’ to suit their own prejudices, it is easy for the wisdom of previous ages and of those who have studied and thought about these issues for many years, to be dismissed as irrelevant and meaningless. Thus our New Atheist writers are able to dismiss all theology as useless as a chocolate teapot.

They know that we largely live in an ahistorical society where, despite the interest in genealogy, people are rooted in the here and now, and are largely ignorant of the past. This enables the New Atheists to make sweeping historical generalizations which will never be challenged. For instance, Dawkins in The God Delusion can make the incredible claim that the racism of such ‘liberal’ thinkers as HG Wells and Thomas Huxley would now be unacceptable because of “improved education and in particular the increased understanding that each of us shares a common humanity with members of other races and with the other sex — both deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution.”

Only someone with a complete ignorance of the Bible, theology, and the early history of 19th Century evolutionary thought could make such a claim. Whereas in the early 19th century, Christians such as Wilberforce were arguing that all human beings were made in the image of God and should be treated equally, liberal evolutionary thinkers such as Huxley argued in 1871, “No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man.”!

A ‘Debate’ Without Dialogue

Well-written, polemical, appealing to fear, prejudice, and ignorance, all that needs to be added to the mix is that New Atheist books have been superbly marketed. The God Delusion is a ‘must have’ coffee table book for the liberal chattering classes. Newspapers and media are regularly drip fed interviews, publicity material, and of course many columnists share the presuppositions and thinking of Dawkins et al. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this marketing is the self-portrayal of the books as being new, brave, courageous, and adding to ‘the debate’.

However the New Atheists generally do not debate. They shout and mock. They know that they are right and that their position is the reasonable and intelligent one. Therefore, everyone who disagrees with them is ipso facto not intelligent enough to debate with. If anyone doubts the crypto–religious nature of the New Atheism, just pay a visit to the Dawkins website, complete with its testimonies and ‘converts corner.’ Try challenging atheist doctrine and you will soon find yourself on the receiving end of abuse normally reserved for heretics by the most extremist religious cults. Attending a Dawkins book event is more like a Billy Graham revivalist meeting, than it is an educational event. There are a lot of needy atheists out there (and recovering religious types) who need this kind of therapy, but it should not be dignified by being called ‘debate’.

This lack of debate is exacerbated when the other point of view is rarely carried in the secular media. Of course occasional critical columns or comments are offered, but these are usually about style rather than substance. And to some extent the Church in the U.S. is to blame for this — divided, defensive, and dumbed down, it has created a ghetto mentality and a Christian market, with the result that any attempt to break out of that is met by defeatism at home and derision abroad.

Atheism and America

The New Atheist movement may be a publishing phenomena but it is also a political movement, and as such carries all the dangers of fundamentalist involvement in politics. Should we be worried? Yes. When fear, prejudice, and ignorance are used to influence politics and stifle debate, then all those who want an open and tolerant society should be warned. Atheist fundamentalism may prove to be just as potent, intolerant, and dangerous a force in U.S. society as any religious fundamentalism.

In my view, the church in America has been caught napping. The assumption has been that America is a Christian nation and will always be so. Far too many churches have proved adept at evangelising their own adherents and seeking to attract those who are already Christians, but rarely reach out to challenge the worldview of nonbelievers and bring them the good news.

Instead, it is now the ‘world’ that has reached out to the nominal Christian demographic, and as a result there has been a remarkable rise in the number of people in the U.S. expressing themselves as ‘non-religious’, from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014. I regularly do a show on Moody Radio with Janet Parshall, and it is always interesting when we discuss atheism to note how many concerned parents phone in because their children have become atheists.

Is there hope? Yes. But we need to get out of our Christian ghettos and fantasy worlds and get into the real world, without compromising with it. There is a lot of ground to be broken up and sowing to be done before we can reap a harvest. Long-term, church-based, persuasive evangelism is the need of the hour. In a church that far too often reflects the short-term quick-fix culture we live in, there is surely a need for repentance, and for a return to the basics of prayer, the Word of God, and personal holiness. Equipped with the full armour of the Spirit, we may be able to bring light into the darkness, and to the New Atheists.

Related Resources

  • Christianity and Atheism: Choose Your Strangeness: It’s true: The Christmas story is humanly strange. But to be fair, atheists also embrace wildly far-fetched, strange beliefs of their own.
  • Atheists Miss the Joy: If you look at sunsets and sunrises without knowing that God is painting them then and there, you will miss the point.
  • The World’s Joy-Tragedy: We all must have happiness. And for sinners, we choose sin over God. Total depravity is this desperate helplessness.
Thumb david robertsonDavid Robertson is minister of St. Peters Free Church of Scotland in Dundee, director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, and author of The Dawkins Letters and Engaging with Atheists.


  1. Excellent analysis David. Sadly I fear that the situation you describe of the church in the USA also applies in Scotland. I wholeheartedly agree that there is hope for the church in all its various shapes and colours from liberals to legalists, not forgetting the apostles and prophets of the so-called new apostolic reformation. The only hope lies in Christ when all are prepared to bow the knee in humility and repentance and as stated above: “return to the basics of prayer, the Word of God, and personal holiness”.

  2. I enjoyed reading that, thank you.

    I found “recovering religious types) who need this kind of therapy” particularly challenging. I will confess, I did enjoy reading Christopher Hitchins’ “God is not Great” to find that here was someone who had empathy with where I was at in my journey with aspects of experiences with established religion where were I to express such I would find myself marginalised in Christian communities. The logic of his arguments nevertheless frequently failed in not dissimilar ways that you talk of happening with fundamental atheism which prevented me going down that path.

    What is interesting is the phrase “God is Dead” being hijacked by new atheism to talk of the “dangers and follies of religion.” Ironically, Nietzsche (the son of a pastor turned atheist) frequently used the term in a difference scene. For example in The Gay Science (Section 125, The Madman) “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?.. Must we ourselves not become gods?” Rather than being a declaration of the non-existence of God, it is his statement that rejection of God would lead to an era of nihilism and plunge the world into chaos without the higher moral authority of God to defer to, to provide order and meaning.

    As for the church, I believe the letter Martin Luther King wrote form a Birmingham jail to have been prophetic. “The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning.”

    Social club with no meaning – isn’t that what atheist fundamentals like to paint the church as or would have it being? And doesn’t that appeal to the spirit of the age?

    It would seem, would it not, that the blame for the church being the way it is cannot rest solely at the hands of atheism. I personally don’t see this as cause for despair but opportunity for God to work in new and exciting ways, yet valuing appropriate church tradition if the church is willing.

  3. Really? It’s actually atheism that preys on fear is it? Come on there, you can’t be that serious… can you?

    We, yes, you might be serious but, I suspect, seriously wrong.

    1. Atheism is just one thing, no believing in gods or, if you prefer, believing in one less god that David Robertson. Not beliving in one more god that a Christian is hardly the act of fear and more a laxck of evidence.

    2. Just who has been warning people to repent, join the church (and pay in money in the name of god) under the threat of eternal punishmemt? Yes, that’s right! It’s the Christian Churches – telling people to join up or be damned – literally.

    This really is a silly title and silly piece. Atheists and unbelivers generally just don’t accept the bible as. ,. er… gospel and don’t see it as sufficient evidence of anything, especially of the resurection of Jesus. Even Paul says that is Jesus wasn’t raised the religion in in vain. So, sorry, but religion is loosing out due to its complete lack of evidence.

    1. Take a deep breath. Calm down…chill and think.

      Atheists are very confused. On the one hand they keep repeating the mantra that atheism is just simply a lack of belief (as though being blind was a quality to be desired), on the other they talk about atheist values etc.

      The one less God thing was quite funny when it was used about fifty years ago – but the constant repetition of it becomes tiring…can’t you think for yourselves?

      The fear that is referred to is that which atheists seek to instil in people – watch out, if your neighbour turns religious they could kill you…or abuse your children or make you listen to Christian music all day long!

      There may be some people who have said join the church and pay money or be damned – but it is not Jesus Christ nor those who follow him (the clue is in the name Christian)….perhaps you need to find out what it actually is you are criticising before you do so…knowledge and evidence does help.

      If religion is losing out then why do you shout so loudly? Despite a century of atheist propaganda human beings persist in worshipping God and seeking to find him. That is why you are so fearful and intolerant….you just can’t handle and cope with the possibility that you might be wrong….

    2. “Complete lack of evidence” – and the evidence for the non-existence of God is? No – any ground that has been lost by “religion” has been due to the “religious” losing authenticity and not taking an appropriate stand.

      What is religion? One definition is this. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27. So – orphans and widows in that context being the most vulnerable of society. Food banks providing for the hungry, Street Pastors listening helping and caring I would have thought would earn a good reputation from anyone with a modicum of common sense and good will.

      I would be interested in your definition of “religion” and why you have made no mention of the good that can result from it.

  4. “atheists don’t fly planes into buildings”
    Perhaps. but what about mountains? Do we know for a fact that the German Wings pilot was not an atheist?
    Atheists like to say that whatever they do is not to be blamed on their atheism. (Except, of course, when they want to portray themselves as being super generous and public-spirited.) However, the point is that their atheism didn’t stop them doing the horrible things that atheists like Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot did. If atheism has no values – which are specific to atheism – then there is nothing to stop atheists behaving in the ways that those three people did. Nothing at all. Atheism allows people to behave in any way they wish to. Sometimes they choose to behave well. Other times they choose to behave very badly. But no atheist can condemn another atheists fro behaving badly because, for an atheist, there are no absolutes in morality.
    Perhaps the reply to the atheists’ slogan that atheists don’t fly planes into buildings is that Christians don’t kill millions of their own fellow-countrymen through death camps and state-created hunger. Nor do they force women to have abortions just because they have become pregnant a second time.

  5. I think you get to a big issue no-one addresses is that the institutional church went way more liberal (300%? lately) than most moderate people liked, and that much of New Atheism is the old “conservative” like stance of that “ignored 50%” of Christendom.

    The bigots stayed bigots but just another kind sort of thing. All these tactics you complain of are liberal Christian tactics too within the Church

    Yet, to say the church was napping is wrong. They knowingly built this seigework against themselves.

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