There Are New Atheists in Foxholes, Part 3

As part of an extra-long holiday weekend read, we bring the third of a three-part series. Don't blame Richard Dawkins for the state of our culture so much as our hapless, tepid pastors.

By William Dembski Published on May 27, 2024

There’s an old joke about Satan weeping outside a church. One of the parishioners asks what’s wrong. Pointing to the church, Satan replies, “They blame me for everything.”

It sometimes seems that with the West’s falling away from Christianity over the last few decades, Richard Dawkins — or at least the movement he represents — deserves all the blame. Certainly, in advancing atheism he has played an influential role. And yet, let’s not give him too much credit.

If there’s blame, it falls mainly on a weak and inept Christian Church that has failed to adequately educate its young people. Over and over again in the Old Testament, God’s covenant people — Israel — are enjoined to be careful to teach their children the law. Jesus Himself, as an adult, was principally known as a rabbi, or teacher. The Great Commission is to make disciples of all people, teaching them the Christian faith. The Christian faith is supposed to make education central and effective. Yet we’ve dropped the ball here.

Ask yourself what Dawkins’s actual record of achievement has been in promoting atheism. He’s a great popular writer. He can turn a memorable phrase. He is excellent at choosing striking titles for his books. His coinage of the word “meme” was brilliant. He has a powerful platform at Oxford as an evolutionary biologist, which lends scientific credibility to his atheistic arguments.

Even Weak Arguments Beat Laziness and Cowardice

And yet, his arguments for atheism are weak. Christian thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga, John Lennox, and Stream Editor-at-Large Jay Richards are readily able to refute his atheism. And his defense of Darwinian evolution is simplistic. I’m an intelligent design guy, but you can be naturalistic in your biology and still see that Dawkins’s case for Darwinian evolution fails (see, for instance, University of Chicago biologist James Shapiro’s Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, now in its second edition).

So how did Christians miss it? How could we have more effectively trained our young people and thereby closed the door to Dawkins’s atheism? Let me offer seven key points on which Christian education has missed it and that hinder Christians from effectively countering the atheism infecting our culture. I’m painting with a broad brush, so there are exceptions — churches, schools, and teachers that are doing Christian education right. The problem is that they are exceptions.

Ghetto Mentality

Christians have become overly comfortable in the security of their faith communities. Rather than venture out and try to take the Promised Land, it’s easier to wander around in the wilderness. That may work until Christian young people have to venture into the world of higher education, which has an entire infrastructure in place to subvert Christian faith. A ghetto mentality is inherently isolating and breeds a sense of inferiority. Indeed, if we were confident about our position, we wouldn’t stay trapped in a ghetto — we’d play offense rather than defense. We’d storm the gates of Hell rather than let them fall on us.

Scientific Materialism

We’ve already touched on this point. The commanding heights in our culture see science as underwriting materialism. The idea that science could reveal God’s work in creation is anathema. Scientific materialism requires an atheistic origin story, which Darwinian evolution helps to provide. With scientific materialism in place, general revelation is dead. Without general revelation, we lose God as Creator. Without God as Creator, we lose design. And without design, we lose all constraints, so that people now take seriously the idea that men can bear children and that two plus two can equal anything, including a granola bar.

Misguided Views of Scripture

Secular criticism of the Bible sees it as a hodge-podge of writings cobbled together over time by committees disconnected from the events discussed and intent on achieving theological purposes with little concern about the factual truth of what is affirmed. Many Christians have responded with a biblicism that requires an ultra-literalist mode of interpreting the Bible and that makes defending its truth impossible without presupposing that biblicism. Without a sound, intellectually credible view of the Bible, the Christian faith becomes indefensible. Fortunately, the work of scholars such as Mike Licona, Gary Habermas, Craig Keener, and N. T. Wright is showing the Bible, and especially the New Testament, to be intellectually credible.

Avoiding the Extra Work

Phillip Johnson, the founder of the intelligent design movement, used to say that a sound Christian education requires twice the work of an ordinary education. An ordinary education will, for instance, teach Darwinian evolution as textbook orthodoxy. But a Christian, to avoid being misled by this textbook orthodoxy, will need to know it as well as venture beyond it, studying the alternatives. I found the same thing in my student days at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I needed to supplement the theological liberalism I was being taught with more traditional orthodox scholarship. Being a clear-thinking Christian in this culture means doing a lot of extra work. Many Christians, unfortunately, think they can get by with doing the bare minimum. An effective Christian education won’t allow that.

A Culture That Devalues Education

Christian culture in the West doesn’t seem to value education all that much. Perhaps that’s because Christianity has lost so much ground, especially at the hands of intellectuals like Dawkins, that Christians feel their energies are best spent elsewhere. Thus during what traditionally had been Sunday school, Christian youth may focus more on sports or videogames than on the Bible and Christian doctrine. Thus adult reading groups at church may focus more on personal growth, relationships, and overcoming negative emotions than on what the faith is and how it is being challenged. There’s nothing wrong with such devotional reading, but what about reading Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker and balancing it with Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis? What about studying the history of Christian doctrine? A Christian culture that values education would eagerly try to understand and engage the principal forces moving the culture.

Loss of Creedal and Confessional Moorings

Education is great, but it needs to be directed rightly and grounded in truth. There are plenty of educated people whose education is making the world worse. Education is a force multiplier, but unless properly directed and grounded, it can be as much a force for evil as for good. Barna and Gallup polls indicate that Christians increasingly have little knowledge of what they believe or should believe. Many Christians regard it as morally acceptable to do things that the Christian Church has universally rejected (these days, especially in the area of sexuality). A sound and effective Christian education means reasserting the traditional creeds, confessions, and catechisms (compare Jude 3).

(Side note: My friend, the late church historian Samuel Moffatt, learned the Westminster Shorter Catechism when he was seven. He was born in 1916, so that would have been back in 1923. A hundred years later, who does that any more? And if not, why not?)

Reluctance to Inoculate

For the record, I’m not anti-vax, but I am a vaccine skeptic in the sense that I distrust vaccines that carry no liability for the manufacturers (thanks to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986) and for which rigorous safety studies are lacking (which seems to cover a lot of vaccines). That said, I’m a great believer in inoculating Christians to the falsehoods of our culture. Yet consistent with a ghetto mentality, Christians often seem reluctant to inoculate their children to false ideas. Inoculation has the advantage of exposure to a toxin in a controlled setting where it cannot do much damage. Unfortunately, inoculation is messy, can lead to unwanted questions, and can even be the catalyst for some to lose their faith. Yet the alternative is to confront the toxin at full force later, with a much greater loss of faith. A sound Christian education evinces a willingness to inoculate.

Side note: I would inoculate my students when I taught at seminary. For instance, when Dawkins visited Austin, Texas, in 2006 to promote his newly published The God Delusion, I gave my students extra credit to go down to Austin (almost 200 miles from Fort Worth, where I taught), listen to him speak, and get his signature on a copy of his book. I always insisted that my students read my side as well as the other side.

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Richard Dawkins has always been more bark than bite. Unfortunately, we’ve let him and his fellow atheists get away with far more than the strength of their arguments ha merited. I’ve responded to Dawkins’s evolutionary arguments at length in my writings, especially in the recent publication of the second edition of The Design Inference. You can judge for yourself the success of my efforts. My own view is that his defense of Darwinian evolution stands refuted.

At any rate, his argument for atheism is on even weaker ground than his argument for Darwinism. Dawkins is a professional biologist but an amateur philosopher, and his argument for atheism is philosophical, displaying his limitations in the field. This can be readily seen in the two YouTube videos with which I close. They show Dawkins debating fellow Oxford professor John Lennox (a mathematician and philosopher). Whether you agree that Lennox won these debates, it’s clear that he is unfazed and holds his own against Dawkins:

See Parts 1 and 2 of this essay here and here


William A. Dembski is a founding and senior fellow of the Center for Science and Culture and a distinguished fellow of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

Originally published at Reprinted with permission.

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