Monday, February 16, 2009

New Atheism and Visible Faith

From Crackle: A Gift of a Bible

For some time, writers and culture watchers everywhere have been pointing out that there is a new brand of atheism that is emerging in the 21st Century. "New atheism" as it has been dubbed does not simply hold the belief that God does not exist; it also vigorously sets out to discredit and destroy the belief in God itself. Their target is religion and their weapons are reason and science. 

Books that typify the new atheism trend include Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great. Books that combat this emerging perspective include Albert Mohler's Atheism Remix and The End of Reason by Ravi Zacharias and Lee Strobel.  The former sell exponentially more copies, though I would argue that the Christian writers are equally capable thinkers and writers. 

As much as atheism has changed, one thing remains the same. The chink in the armor of those who disavow God is that they cannot find a counter-argument for a transformed life. Great atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens can muster up scientific evidence and well-reasoned arguments that leave many Christians scrambling, but they still have not found a weapon that can slay the power of compassion, generosity, peacemaking, and love that flow from a life transformed by Jesus Christ.

I can think of two great illustrations. First is an article written December 27, 2008 in the UK Guardian by a british journalist and atheist Mathew Parris. His article was entitled, "As an athiest, I truly believe Africa truly needs God." After a recent visit to poverty-stricken Africa where Christians are both preaching and living out their faith in radical ways, he was compelled to write this article that asserts,

"Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGO's, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good."

The other is a video blog from Penn of Penn and Teller. He is a new atheist in every sense of the phrase, and he often makes fun of Christians on his blog in a way that even stings my tough skin. Yet, here he wrestles with the actions of one man who watched his show and brought him a Bible. It gets really interesting and raw about halfway through. His words are powerful at the end are moving. Though he is speaking about a man who is "proselytizing" him, what made moved Penn to step away from his sarcasm and consider Christianity was not the man's words, but that he was "not defensive," "truly complimentary," "polite," "kind," and a "very good man."

Reflecting on these things makes me more convinced that effective 21st Century evangelism is shifting from "tell me" to "show me." While we must never stop proclaiming the propositional truths of scripture, in today's world that is no longer enough. Today, proclamations of truth must be accompanied by visible expressions of that truth's transformative power. While we must not abandon reasoning, we cannot forget experience. A life that expresses the transformative power of faith in Jesus Christ is far more convincing to a post-modern culture than a hundred well-reasoned arguments.



tmamone said...

As St. Francis of Assisi once said, "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary."

Kim Pittman said...

I've just discovered your blog through's website, you were featured in an article there. I'm so excited... such beautiful articulation, said just as I would like to be able to speak.

The new atheism, it's everywhere. And to some, it seems to have crept in from nowhere, when in fact it's been in the making for some time now. I guess I started noticing it with Sam Kennison (I just aged myself). But no matter how blasphemous man becomes, there's still that desire born deep in all of us to know God. Let's not give them an argument with us as Christians, our work as a body is extremely important, because even those that blaspheme like Penn still have those dark nights when that deep desire talks to them. Let's give them somewhere to turn.

Look forward to keeping up with your writing Jonathan! Excellent!!

Iam4Jesus said...

I remember the first time I saw this Penn clip...and still feel the same way...he is one of the most intelligent atheists I have heard.

I just wish all Atheists were as humble as Penn.

Your second paragraph is quite wordy Jonathan...with all its latters and formers. ;)

Have you seen the Dawkin-Lennox debate?

Jonathan Merritt said...


Nice to meet you. Bethany is an amazing organization, and their word (adoption) is exactly the type of thing that expresses the core of Christianity.


Jonathan Merritt said...


I don't know that I would consider Penn "humble."

I hope I didn't violate the "unedited stream of thought" that blogs are supposed to have, but I edited the second paragraph for you. It was a little clunky.


Kim Pittman said...

Crud - I liked the "clunk" ;-)

Yep, I do believe I'll be working with Bethany, starting next month. Great article you did on pastoredge, have you written anywhere else about them? This article is excellent fodder to take to the big churches around here to get new donors.

Chase said...

To be existentially relevant, our faith must be accompanied by words and actions that influence others where they live/work/play/learn/worship. This takes both a positive and negative approach: positive - the [pro]active influence on people, such as by meeting needs of individuals and those in our communities and spheres of influence; negative - generally defensive in nature, both overt and covert behaviors that serve to mitigate/prevent the advance of evil, injustice, and unrighteousness. They are two sides of the same coin, as evidenced by Jesus’ ministry and (as to be expected) that of the apostles. James tells us that faith without works is dead, and Paul tells us that those called of God have good works to accomplish--good works prepared beforehand by God (Ephesians 2:10).

To this end, followers of Christ have both a challenge and an opportunity: not simply meeting needs in the name of love, compassion...”social justice,” which many do for a variety of reasons, but rather using the platform(s) of good works that God establishes [beforehand] in ways that communicate the love of the Triune God. The model that Jesus and the apostles provide regularly includes word and deed. Let us not forget that we have these good works waiting for us; we know we are either planting or watering (1 Cor. 3) and that faith comes by hearing--and that by the Word of God.

I haven’t read The End of Reason, but in several of his earlier writings, Zacharias identifies three basic tests for truth:

1. Logical consistency (no contradiction)

2. Empirical adequacy (evidence)

3. Existential relevance (meaning)

There are two others that he identifies but they require a little more explanation: the test for falsehood and the test of undeniability. Although I assume he includes these in The End of Reason, they can also be found in "A Shattered Visage," "Can Man Live Without God," and/or "Deliver us From Evil."

Jonathan Merritt said...


You lost me at "existentially relevant." Haha. Only joking. Thanks for the informative post.


Benjamin said...

I think 'faith' is defined in Scripture as lived. Many quote Hebrews 11 as a definition of faith. However, Hebrews 11 does not define the essence of faith, that which makes faith faith. Instead, it emphasizes faith in action. All throughout Scripture faith is contextually exposed in relation to men and women who lived for God.

Personally, I think faith as lived is much more effective than mere propositions.

Wipe Out said...

Question: What in your estimation differentiates 'new atheism' from, for lack of a better phrase, 'old atheism'? For a very long time, and certainly since the Scientific Revolution, there has been a line of thought that existed saying that Science and Reason disprove the existence of God. And some of those who follow that line of thinking are quite vocal about it (take Dawkins for example).

To this end, I don't see any 'attack' on Christianity (or any other theistic belief system) on the part of Atheism inconsistent with what Christianity has had to face for generations. (I say this as a Believer in Christ who himself struggled with sincere doubts in his faith years ago... I was quiet about it, but I verged on Atheism.)

What do you define as a turning point or a shift from 'old' to 'new' atheism?

I do, however, notice that we are in a particularly interesting time from the academic front of the 'Atheism Conflict', as it were. Ben Stein's movie 'Expelled', though it may not have been a blockbuster, did carry some weight with me as to the persecution of any belief system inconsistent with a belief in Evolution. Dawkins is interviewed in the movie. You might find it an interested movie.

Nonetheless, enjoyed reading your post.

Stephen said...

I just finished "Atheism Remix" and found it to be very interesting. I had also previously seen the Penn clip, but your thoughts were a valuable addition to what I had already seen.

What really kicked me in my gut was when he said (paraphrased): "If you honestly feel like people will be in a place like hell for not believing something, how much do you have to hate that person to be silent, just to avoid social awkwardness?".

On that upbeat note, I'll move on. This being my first time on your blog though, I'll be sure to check in again.

K said...

Hi Jonathan, I found your blog from and wanted to share this article: "An atheist concludes that he can't talk about climate without talking about God"

This is an interesting article and although I don't agree with the theology, it is neat to see secular environmentalist "reaching" for God in some sense of the word.


Jonathan Merritt said...

Stephen and Katie-

Good to have you on board. Great article in Orion Mag btw. I enjoyed reading it.


Luke Hudson said...

I agree. If you're a Christian, live like one! A life well-lived is the best witness there is.

Churches ought to watch Penn's video. What he said about caring about people enough to tell them what you believe - I haven't heard it said any better.