God is dead (again)
Atheism is old. It was one of the charges brought against the philosopher Socrates in ancient Athens. Atheism is the denial of the existence of God or, at least, the popular gods of one’s culture.
The denial of the existence of the God of Christianity is nothing new — Bertrand Russell’s collected essays and lectures, published as Why I am not a Christian, were written or delivered between 1927 and 1954. Earlier brash arguments against the God of the Bible were offered by Voltaire and Nietzsche.
So what is new about contemporary atheism? The term ‘New Atheism’ was coined by Wired magazine in 2006 as a way of identifying a new, militant, popular brand of atheism. Groups like the National Secular Society seem tired and old-fashioned. So, like Labour in the 1990s, atheism has had a rebranding since the turn of the millennium: New Atheism holds to the traditional atheist family values, but the packaging is much fresher, youthful and vibrant. There is no new content being offered. What is new about this atheism is its popular, aggressive militancy. After the atheist poster bus campaign can we now look forward to a new atheist version of the Alpha course?
The watershed moment is almost certainly September 11 2001. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centres, with their appalling consequences, were inspired by religion. Therefore, it is felt that religious belief that must be attacked and condemned. Previous generations had their polite forms of atheism that simply wanted to keep religion at a distance. The new atheism is militant in its desire to attack, critique and ridicule religious belief in any form.
Those described as new atheists include popular writers Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. The comedians Ricky Gervais, Bill Maher and Eddy Izzard also share the platform. The diversity of these characters ensures that the arguments against the existence of God find many channels, including sober TV documentaries, best-selling children’s fiction and light-hearted comedies. These atheists are often crude and delight in what a previous generation called blasphemy. They are aware of the power of film, humour and literature to make a point and win hearts and minds.
Bill Maher, a popular American broadcaster, produced the comedy documentary Religulous in 2008 (see review on EN website, May 2009) as an attempt to spoof, mock and undermine religious faith. Christianity is the main target, though Islam, Judaism and fringe religions also get a lashing. The film is slick and engaging, apparently presenting well-researched facts that count against religious faith.
One claim is that the story about Jesus is simply one example among many of the dying-rising redeemer god of the ancient world. The god takes many forms — Horus, Mithra, Dionysius — but the story follows a common form. At one point the film reels off a long list of claims about the Egyptian sky god Horus that parallel the life of Jesus. In on-screen text the film declares that Horus was born of a virgin, baptised by a man later beheaded, worked miracles, walked on water, raised a man called Lazarus from the dead, had 12 disciples, got crucified and after three days rose again from the dead. It all seems rather unsettling and gives the impression that the Gospel accounts are made up stories reflecting a myth in common currency across the ancient near east.
But what are the facts? Not a single claim made about Horus in the movie was ever made in the ancient world. It is pure fiction. No one ever claimed Horus was born of a virgin, had 12 disciples or got crucified. Even more significantly there is no resurrection account of Horus. Bill Maher’s claim that these facts are found in the 3,000-year-old Egyptian Book of the Dead is entirely fictitious. Yet these bogus claims are promoted by a lavishly made film and witty script. If they are not true, then where did they come from? What seems to be the source are books written by a Victorian poet, Gerald Massey (1828-1907), called Natural Genesis and Ancient Egypt, the Light of the World. The works have no scholarly weight and are the product of a great imagination. But in popular thought they have been continually recycled, most recently by Tom Harpur in The Pagan Christ and the internet documentary Zeitgeist.
Make the lie big
Adolf Hitler purportedly advised his propagandists with these words: ‘Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it’. Religulous boldly repeats simple claims that are manifestly untrue. Said enough times people will think: ‘I know that’s true … I heard it somewhere…’ For Christian apologetics, New Atheism does not require a New Argument because it brings nothing new to the table. What it does demand is that Christians patiently continue to teach the rock solid credentials for the biblical text and the gospel account of Jesus. It may not appear quite as glitzy or shocking as a Hollywood movie, but it will have the advantage of being true.