Evangelical Atheism

by Mar 5, 2015Culture, Linguistics, Mission2 comments


Two posts for the price of one:

1. This is an absolutely fantastic, must-read article by non-evangelical atheist John Gray.

It’s probably just as well that the current generation of atheists seems to know so little of the longer history of atheist movements. When they assert that science can bridge fact and value, they overlook the many incompatible value-systems that have been defended in this way. There is no more reason to think science can determine human values today than there was at the time of Haeckel or Huxley. None of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science. How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.

2. How can you have an “evangelical atheist”? “Evangelical” has now pretty well officially picked up the meaning of “evangelistic,” “proselytizing.” For a good ten years I tended to think this usage was an error; “evangelical atheist” was a contradiction in terms. But I hereby give in, at least in public discourse. Too many intelligent writers—as the author of this article clearly is—read and understand and even expect this sense.

If you’ll make regular checks of the OED a part of your intellectual diet, you’ll find that the OED is often decades ahead of you. It turns out that this sense of “evangelical” was added to the 1993 draft, and there is a citation going back to 1952:

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  1. trjones1792

    Fantastic indeed.

    Gray: “Throughout history, many have been happy to live their lives without bothering about ultimate questions. This sort of atheism is one of the perennial responses to the experience of being human.”

    On several points, including this one, Gray seemingly tries to deflect toward his “evangelical” colleagues the criticisms leveled by Lewis and others. And I would say his indifference toward “ultimate questions” could be, if anything, more dangerous than the vitriol of Harris or Dawkins. One thing about proselytizing: it doesn’t happen by purely rational argument. And I can picture some who were willing to suffer the vitriol unwilling to suffer the indifference.

    How would your apologetics answer Gray?

    • Mark Ward

      Right on, Todd. One of the most helpful things I’ve read recently was Jamie Smith’s summary of Charles Taylor’s point in A Secular Age:

      You’ve left your Jerusalem on a mission to Babylon. You came with what you thought were all the answers to the unanswered questions these “secular” people had. But it didn’t take long for you to realize that the questions weren’t just unanswered; they were unasked. And they weren’t questions. That is, your “secular” neighbors aren’t looking for “answers” — for some bit of information that is missing from their mental maps. To the contrary, they have completely different maps…. you can’t just come proclaiming the good news of a Jesus who fills their “God-shaped hole.” They don’t have any sense that the “secular” lives they’ve constructed are missing a second floor…. Your neighbors inhabit what Charles Taylor calls an “immanent frame”; they are no longer bothered by “the God question” as a question because they are devotees of “exclusive humanism” — a way of being-in-the-world that offers significance without transcendence. They don’t feel like anything is missing.

      Perhaps the most powerful argument against the Christian faith right now, at least for middle- to upper-class people, is that plenty of people have stopped going to church or caring about anything ultimate, and no lightning has come out of the sky.

      In part, my apologetics would recognize that creating a heart-level interest in the Lord simply isn’t within the Christian apologist’s purview. Nonetheless, stoking an interest that really is there—Romans 2:14–15 says so—is my job. I can’t speak from experiences of personal success (can any of my readers?), but I tend to think that you appeal to people to justify their strong moral feelings about things without reference to some ultimate, personal standard—and you appeal to them when they’re in the “house of mourning.” “God whispers to us in our pleasures, and shouts to us in our pain,” Lewis said. If we can both appeal to them and be there for them when things go wrong, we may have an entrance to their hearts through their comfortable but rock-hard exterior shell.

      Then again, nothing I ever do seems to be effective when it comes to evangelism. I just keep trying to be a faithful, loving messenger.