Mark D. Roberts

By now, we’re quite familiar with the so-called “new atheism” and its primary preachers: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and company. These men have in common a deep digust for religion and a barbed tongue. Their approach to converting people majors in anger and attack, though, strangely enough, it claims to be exemplary in its love of reason. I’ve often thought that the communication styles of the new atheists might turn more people away from their cause than to it. But perhaps these atheists don’t feel obliged to treat people with kindness and charity.
Now, however, a new, new atheism has emerged, a kinder, gentler atheism, if you will. I had been vaguely aware of this new movement when an article in USA Today heightened my awareness. Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and an astute commentator on things religious, recently penned “Atheists need a different voice.” He highlights the emergence of the United Coalition of Reason, who are preaching the gospel of “Good Without God.” This also happens to be the title of a new book by Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at my dear alma mater. The stated mission of United CoR is:

The mission of the United Coalition of Reason is to raise the visibility and sense of unity among local groups in the community of reason, to create a national dialogue on the role of nontheists in American society, and to improve the way that nontheists are perceived by average Americans.

Notice, these folks are not, at least on the surface, trying to turning irrantional religionists into reasonable atheists. Stephen Prothero, who attended a recent meeting of the Boston Area Coalition of Reason, found that some of the rhetoric at the event reminded him of Hitchens and his gang. But he heard another kind of argument as well: “From this perspective, atheism is just another point of view, deserving of constitutional protection and a fair hearing. Its goal is not a world without religion but a world in which believers and nonbelievers coexist peaceably, and atheists are respected, or at least tolerated.”
Now that is a different from the old new atheist creed, hence my title “A New, New Atheism.” Another difference, according to Prothero, is the involvement and up-front leadership of women in the new, new atheism. He describes what happened at the Boston event:

There was one female speaker, however, and she spoke in a different voice. Amanda Gulledge is a self-described “Alabama mom” who got on her first plane and took her first subway ride in order to attend this event. Although Gulledge stood up on behalf of logic and reason, she spoke from the heart. Instead of arguing, she told stories of the “natural goodness” of her two sons who somehow manage to be moral without believing in God or everlasting punishment. But the key turn in her talk, and in the event itself, came when Gulledge mentioned, in passing, how some neighborhood children refuse to play with her sons because they have not accepted Jesus as their personal savior.

I find two things fascinating in Gulledge’s essay. First, though she was speaking at an event of the Coalition of Reason, her essay (PDF download here) is basically a powerful emotional defense of a life without religion. It ends, no lie, with a big “Group Hug!” as Amanda and her three sons embrace. Not exactly cold, hard reason here. As a rhetorical strategy, Amanda’s effort might very well win more converts than Dawkins’ acerbic “reason.”
The second thing that struck me in Gulledge’s essay was this line, referred to by Prothero in his article: “Three cousins and two neighborhood friends were not allowed to play with my children because we do not attend church or accept Jesus Christ as our savior.” Now that’s a great strategy to reach out to unbelievers, don’t you think? Not! Unbelievers will not listen to the good news of God’s love in Christ unless they experience that love through us.
As a Christian, I believe that we were created in the image of a good God, and that image remains, however tarnished by our sin. Thus people can be good without acknowledging God, even though their goodness actually derives from God. Saying that we can be “good without God” is rather like my daughter claiming that she can be a good actress without my help. Indeed, she is a fine actress, and I have not been her acting coach or director. But, then, there is the tiny little matter of her genetic inheritance . . . .
As a Christian, I also believe that our sin limits our expressions of goodness. Thus, we will only flourish in goodness when our lives are being transformed by God. This comes in the context of a relationship with him based on trust in Jesus Christ and lived in the presence and power of his Spirit. Those who do not know Christ will not be inclined to believe anything I just said unless they see in me a different quality of living.
I will close this post by quoting from Jesus:

 “You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. (Matthew 5:13-16)

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