The new atheism – a challenge to the modern world

The new atheism – a challenge to the modern world

Postmodern atheism is generally seen as "silent", practical atheism, which does not engage in direct polemics with theism. It is atheism that is certain that religion is doomed to extinction in the course of history and it is enough to show a little patience. The so-called new atheism, which does not want to wait anymore, but has decided to declare war on all religion, deviates from this picture. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Denett and Sam Harris are usually regarded as its representatives. These authors come from the circles of Anglo-Saxon culture and thought and present views slightly different from the other two theorists, Andre Comte-Sponville and Michel Onfray, who represent the continental variant.

The term new atheism was coined by Garry Wolf, who drew attention to the hostility that this trend has towards all religion: it considers religion not only a deceit but also a threat. To convince the public, it avail itself of latest media tools, uses marketing services to arouse polemics and facilitate the reception of their main arguments. The representatives of the new atheism are extremely radical in posing problems, preferring a black and white image without any shades. Therefore, their views are not an attempt to establish a philosophical dialogue about the existence of God, but a transmission of the "absolute truth" already acquired by them. For this reason, they are described by some critics as the new fundamentalists or even compared to radical preachers. They have a mentality more of "missionaries" than of theologians because they are not so much about seeking the truth as about spreading it.

A characteristic feature of the "new atheism" is the programmatic negation of God in the name of science (although the trend itself is largely based on emotions). By "science" neo-atheists understand the evolutionary model which, in their opinion, makes the God hypothesis completely redundant and, above all, harmful. But it is not the existence or non-existence of God that draws their attention. For their discourse is directed primarily against religions. More than resolving intellectual aporia, they are interested in achieving a clear socio-political goal: ousting religion from public life. Therefore, it seems justified to say that neo-atheism is more of a social movement than an intellectual attitude.

The most important, and at the same time providing a specific "frame" of thought, for neo-atheists is the belief that the methods of exact sciences are compatible with all kinds of cognition. In the world of the new atheism, only those beliefs that have an adequate scientific justification are allowed. Faith becomes a superstition that is not based on any evidence or datum. The dialectical tension between science and faith reduces the latter to a synonym of irrationality, closure to the world and a kind of blindness. This is why religion is ultimately considered a threat to civilization and a sign of barbarism. According to neo-atheists, a believer is someone who hates intelligence and instrumentalizes knowledge. Thus, the religious attitude is associated with impoverishment of personality, intellectual narrowness that does not allow new ideas to be born.

In fact, faith does not compete with science in explaining the world, for it is not a substitute for knowledge or a pseudoscience that dispenses the believer from questioning and seeking the truth. Let us recall, moreover, such classics of theological reflection as St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas, for whom faith is a dynamism of reason and will, since believing means "being convinced, and continuing to reason". This means that faith is not a static holding of views, but a constant striving for the truth already grasped and still insufficient for man. On the other hand, science itself rests on a certain act of faith in its assumptions and is therefore an existential phenomenon, familiar to man.

Contrary to previous epochs, which set the slogan of the emancipation of science from the influence of religion, neo-atheists want something more: to remove religion from the sphere of social life and discredit any form of religious life. At the root of this vision of the world is the belief that religion is synonymous with fanaticisms, and therefore responsible for a series of acts of terror that befell the world in the 20th century. Each of the believers is perceived as a potential terrorist, therefore world peace will only be possible after the last religion disappears.

It is hard not to notice the weaknesses of this reasoning. In the opinion of neo-atheists all religions are the same – and yet even a cursory analysis of the various religions existing in the world shows that this is not true. The one-sided image of religion does not show the good that religious people do in the world. According to neo-atheists, the very fact of the existence of many religions in the world does not allow for an objective determination which of them is true. This relativism is based on the belief that religion is a product of culture that is accepted for political reasons. The main problem here is hermeneutic: study focused on reading the literal meaning of religious texts distorts their message and takes on the hallmarks of fundamentalism, this time in an atheistic version. The texts of the great religious traditions of mankind, on the other hand, need to be set in the context of the epoch and culture.

According to neo-atheists, belief in God or the lack of it does not change anything in great moral matters – values exist autonomously. Man is a moral being because evolution and genes have made it. Morality explained from a naturalistic standpoint appears to be the fruit of the genes' desire to be immortal. Such reasoning raises many reservations. Moral evaluation requires a certain constant measure, absolute criteria on the basis of which the system of values is built – and if there is no God, what criterion can be considered "absolute"?

The relationship of faith and science, framed in terms of mutually exclusive options, leads to the rejection of the God hypothesis from the scientific standpoint. When trying to disprove the existence of an "intelligent designer", neoatists do not, however, obtain confirmation of his non-existence, but only confirmation that he does not act directly. While explaining everything by natural selection, they can only say "how" and not "why." By operating with arbitrarily determined categories which they consider absolute, they shape their own, deeply anthropomorphic vision of God: it is a vision tailored to man. This is clearly seen in the critique of God's omnipotence, which denies human freedom, or even in question about the existence of evil in the world and God's responsibility for this state of affairs.

All the above-mentioned assumptions of the new atheism lead to the adoption of certain practical attitudes. Their source is the rejection of the so far binding Enlightenment principle of tolerance for religion. Automatic respect for religion should be abandoned, as its consequence is perversion of the mind. Instead of allowing religion to be taught in schools, we should teach about atheism. Neoatheists expect an openly atheistic era and therefore put to the fore the promotion of pride in being an atheist, showing that where atheism occurs, there is less violence, and healthy intelligence along with mental independence dominate. Looking at the postulates of the new atheism, it can be seen that it is no longer a pure lack of beliefs, but a philosophy of life that can evoke strong emotions.

A man of faith who knows the philosophical and theological heritage of Christianity may be terrified by the way God and the followers of Christ are presented in the writings of neo-atheists. Nevertheless, every atheism, yesterday and today, is a call to vigilance and purification of the image of God, which is naturally tempted by anthropomorphization. It is no accident that the greatest theological syntheses started the discourse on God by reflecting on the nature of theological language: how do we pronounce about God? Is our language able to embrace and express the mystery of a transcendent God? The new atheism consequently means an important hermeneutical challenge to reading the "difficult" pages of Sacred Scripture. The reading by neo-atheists of certain events described in the Old Testament requires in-depth attention to Christian exegesis and the development of an integral answer which will explain the issues of revelation in the Old Testament from theological standpoints

In the discussion with the new atheism, the everlasting attractiveness of the Christian narrative may resonate, with a much more interesting story about man and God to convey than proposed by nihilism or atheism, operating with many reductionisms. Atheism tries to satisfy "hunger" in an insufficient, hasty way, but at the same time it reveals that man still needs "something more", Someone more, because he is capax Dei – open to God.


fr. dr hab. Piotr Roszak, NCU prof.

Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń


This text presents in short form the research problems discussed in more detail in the article: P. Roszak, F. Conesa, Nowy ateizm: czy rzeczywiście nowy? Analiza argumentów i wyzwań dla współczesnej teologii (Is new atheism really new? Analysis of arguments and challenges for contemporary theology), „Teologia i Człowiek” 2014, vol. 25, no. 1, p. 79‒100.


Autor: Laboratorium Wolności
Date: 18 August 2020
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