Philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote in his influential book The Last Word: ‘I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that’.
This was a mature and self-reflective comment made by a man of intimidating intelligence. Nagel is a convinced atheist. But he is not so obstinate as to ignore the insightful arguments for religious belief. In fact, these arguments force him to examine his own motivations for being an atheist.
Compare Nagel’s considered position with the slogan: ‘There’s nothing wrong with God that a dose of reality won’t cure’. This was entered into a competition organised on ‘Blasphemy Day’. The goal of the competition was to produce the slogan most likely to ‘challenge’ religious believers. Most of the entries were so offensive that mainstream journalists were unable to print them. On the same day young sceptics were encouraged to take up ‘The Blasphemy Challenge’ by uploading comments to YouTube.
Here’s a typical recording according to USA Today1: ‘Hi, my name is Ray and I deny the Holy Spirit. [Ray pauses] No lightning. Maybe next time’. Blasphemy Day was, officially, organised in defence of Free Speech.
Journalist Barabara Hagerty2 was quick to spot the true intention. Blasphemy Day was ‘about the future of the atheist movement’. It was part of an attempt by younger atheists to adopt a new approach — ‘a more aggressive, often belittling posture toward religious believers’. Anyone engaged in dialogue with atheists is bound to come across this aggressive attitude sooner or later. So it is essential that evangelists and pastors understand the roots, causes and symptoms of the abusive debating tactics adopted by the new wave of atheism.
In the late 1990s, several evangelical commentators noticed a disturbing trend in evangelicalism. Managerial and promotional techniques were rapidly replacing mature preaching and depth of knowledge. The result was what Chuck Colson labelled ‘McChurch’3 . The Christian message was sliced down to easily digestible portions. The nutritional value of the church’s message was neglected in favour of more appetising nuggets with mass appeal. We believe that in the 21st century many atheists are making the same mistakes that evangelicals made in the late 20th century. It is this general ‘dumbing down’ for mass appeal that we label ‘McAtheism’.
On some level many atheists want to emulate the success of evangelicalism in the United States. And who can blame them? It seems that evangelicalism remains both stubbornly popular and politically powerful in American society. A younger generation of atheists regards this success with envious eyes. They are more evangelistic than their predecessors, and they are prepared to copy the tactics of the evangelical marketeers. Atheists have become more media savvy, and have learned how to market their message to a younger, more cynical market.
Together on the net
The number of online atheistic communities is now genuinely impressive. The internet has allowed strangers previously separated by geography to meet and exchange thoughts. Prior to the internet, Humanist Societies did exist, but were relatively small in number and influence. They could not match churches for weekly attendance. The net has changed all that. Blogs and chat-rooms are oddly addictive and can draw people back daily to exchange ideas and comments. Thanks to sites like ‘Infidels.org’ and ‘Dawkins.net’, an individual atheist need no longer find herself isolated and swimming against the tide.
Simultaneously, a publishing phenomenon known as the ‘New Atheism’ surprised the church. Aggressive atheists like Richard Dawkins have always been a thorn in the church’s side. But no one could have predicted the astounding success of The God Delusion. Dawkins outshone even Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, who had published similar books attacking theistic religions. The commentator Christopher Hitchens joined the trend with his book God is Not Great. These four writers make up the core of the New Atheism. But they are not alone. The philosopher A.C. Grayling wrote Against All Gods, and the scientist Lewis Wolpert produced Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Scientists Jerry Coyne and Steven Weinberg have voiced their support in articles and reviews.
Then, finally, they sent in the clowns. The humorist Bill Maher starred in the documentary Religulous (see review in EN, May 2009), in which the politically incorrect Maher mocked a variety of rather eccentric theists for being rather eccentric. He then concluded that theism is an instance of insanity.
Maher is incredibly ill informed — his film inexplicably states that there is no historical evidence for Jesus, and that the main themes of Christianity are all derived from other ancient religions. It is an extraordinary achievement, in that Maher has managed to produce a documentary that leaves the viewer knowing less than they did before viewing it. But Maher never intended to inform. The point of Religulous is that religion can no longer be considered worthy of respect in a secular world. Religion is now the legitimate target for the bluntest and crudest form of satire.
P.Z. Myers’s blog ‘Pharyngula’ is another clumsy and ill-informed attack on religion. The whole point of the blog is to be clumsy and ill informed about religion. It takes a great deal of intelligence and effort to be this clumsy and ill informed. There is no need to carefully research the grounds and justification for religious belief when you can steal and desecrate consecrated wafers from a Catholic mass, or promote a poster that depicts Jesus involved in lewd activity. For Myers, religious sensitivities are only worthy of contempt. His aim is to debase and sully Christian belief. And, as propaganda goes it is eerily effective.
Trying for mass appeal
The result of these three movements — online atheistic communities, the literature of ‘New Atheism’ and iconoclastic satirists — has been what we call ‘McAtheism’. McAtheism is marketable, popular with the young, and fun. It is also ill-considered, wilfully ignorant and on the rise. McAtheism has no time for complexities, for once careful thought enters the equation the product ceases to be fun. McAtheism seeks to create certitude in the atheist without requiring the atheist to make an appropriate mental or emotional effort. As an illuminating example, the ‘Problem of Evil’, once the bedrock of atheism, is not central to McAtheism. The problem of evil requires the atheist to believe that the world contains more evil than life is worth. We can’t have the punters feeling gloomy, so this argument is rarely mentioned. Feelings are central to McAtheism, arguments are peripheral.
So these are the roots and aspirations of McAtheism. It is an attempt to give atheism a mass appeal by avoiding serious thought and dialogue. The aim is to make atheism a potent cultural force — at least as potent as evangelicalism in the USA. When next you are subjected to an argument against your faith that feels like it’s strayed from a South Park script, remember that you are dealing with a McAtheist. There is little point in confronting that puerile argument directly.
Advice to Christians
Our advice is to question why the sceptic feels the need to confront you with satire. Use the quotations by Thomas Nagel that we gave at the start of the article, and suggest that well-informed atheists are rarely so dismissive. What is it about your faith that offends them so very much? What merits such ill-considered ridicule? The answers may generate a more productive discussion.
We have one more piece of advice. The phenomenon of the McChurches has taught us that lack of depth is a powerful selling point in Western culture. McAtheism resembles the shallower side of evangelicalism so much that we feel almost hypocritical in judging it. But this should give a clue to the church’s best response to McAtheism. We should not answer in kind, with marketing campaigns and sound-bites of our own.
We need to leave the shallows of our faith to immerse ourselves in the depths of its wisdom. Or, to put that another way, we need to grow up. McAtheism answers mankind’s deepest questions with witticisms and clich?s. If the Church can have the courage to whisper God’s answers to anyone who will listen, God’s kingdom will continue to grow. And the gates of Pharyngula will not stand against it.
Graham Veale is Head of Religious Education, City of Armagh High School, and David Glass is at the School of Computing and Mathematics, University of Ulster.
1 ‘Did You Celebrate Blasphemy Day?’, Leanne Larmondin, http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-10-02-blasphemy-day_N.htm
2 ‘A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists’, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113889251
3 ‘Welcome to McChurch’, Charles Colson with Ellen Santilli Vaughn, Christianity Today, November 23 1992