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Is the New Atheism Really Affecting People’s Belief in God?

As of 2005, according to a Cambridge study, 88 percent of the world’s population believes in God. This is down from around 90 percent in 2000. Ninety-five percent of Americans still believe in God. Whether these polls are off a slight bit or not, most people would agree that somewhere around 9/10 people have always believed in some sort of deity.

Some may credit the advent of the so-called “new atheism” for the number creeping down in recent years. The “new atheism” is interesting in so many ways. I suppose the fundamental reason why it is called “new” is not because of any new evidence that has been found that profoundly militates against traditional theism, but in the attitude and zeal of the “new atheists.” In essence, whereas the “old atheists” were content to keep their disbelief in God to themselves, not being too concerned about what others believed, these “new atheists” seem intent on converting as many people as possible to their faith. What is “new” is that they are evangelists of unbelief. They truly believe that the world would be better off without a belief in God. Therefore, they want us to be atheist too. In fact, I just saw that The American Humanist Association just launched the largest evangelistic anti-God campaign in history.

However, the fluctuation in the numbers (90 to 88 percent) may not be a very good indicator of the true effect that the “new atheism” is having on people’s beliefs. With the proliferation of atheistic “evidences” among the general public brought about by the “new atheism,” we have something very different. While people are not giving up their confession of belief that God exists and becoming outright atheists, I find that they are more prepared to suspend their belief in God for a sort of accommodating agnosticism. This could be just as problematic for the Christian cause as full-blow atheism itself.

Let me explain.

Belief is not black and white. In fact, the anatomy of belief is very complicated. There are various degrees and ways which people believe things. When it comes to a belief in God, people can lose their conviction without completely losing their faith. When you ask someone whether they believe in God and require a yes/no response, you are assuming that belief in God is either something that you have or you don’t, with little regard for the complexities and variations in between. To put it in a very elementary way: some people kinda believe in God. Others just believe in him. Still, others really believe in him. And some really believe in him. You see the difference?

But, it is even more complex than this. In fact, there is a fundamental difference between believing in God and believing that God exists. You cannot have the former without the latter, but you can have the latter without the former. One can also have varying beliefs about God. Confused?

How about some Patton graphics to confuse things more (don’t pay attention to where the dials are at on the first one here)?

 This meter represents faith. There are three individual meters that contribute.

1. Correct information: This has to do with orthodox information or data.

2. Intellectual assent: This speaks to the level of intellectual conviction that a person has that the information is actually true.

3. Trust: This speaks to the action of resting in the truths about which one is convicted.

The complexities of this present meter illustrate how one can have correct information, be resting in this information, but have a very low intellectual conviction of its truthfulness. Psychologists would label this meter “cognitive dissonance.” Here, you are living according to beliefs that you don’t really believe.

In a perfect Christian world, all of the meters would be at their highest. But the reality is that, depending on the person, these meters can vary.

Country Music Faith

Notice here, there is a high conviction with no little or no trust. I find people like this all the time. I often call it “country music faith” since it expresses a strong belief in God, but just does not seem to live according to that belief.

Unorthodox Faith

Notice there is not much correct information. Without the right information, all the intellectual assent and trust are not going to get you to God. This would also be true of other religions. (Although, the intellectual assent will vary a great deal. This chart may express it way too high for most.)

Back to the “new atheism”…

So far, my desire is to convince you that belief (and non-belief) is not black and white. When it comes to the issue of the “new atheism,” many of us may be content to say that if the “bottom line” is not being affected (i.e. people still say they believe in God), we don’t really need to turn our heads.

But I believe the “new atheism” is having a greater effect than the bottom line suggests. While the meters of trust and information may not be changing, I do believe that the meter of intellectual assent is. And with this change, I believe that the Christian faith, from a human perspective, is facing some serious challenges.

Let me use the meter chart to show what I mean.

Timid or Cognitive Dissonant Faith

 

If you don’t get anything else from this article, let me be clear here: This is what I believe the average American Christian’s faith looks like.

Notice here: There is a distinction between “belief about God,” “belief that God,” and “belief in God.” This parallels the “information,” “conviction,” and “trust” in the other chart. Now we are talking specifically about beliefs about God’s existence.

When we take surveys, people’s belief about God and belief in God may only change slightly. Therefore, when they are asked the question Do you believe in God? they answer with what seems to be an honest “yes.” The survey marks it up as such. However, what we don’t see is that their intellectual conviction that God exists is very low.

It is said that Darwin made it possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Prior to this, the atheist had no credible path to take in his rejection of an ultimate creator for all things. However, the average Christian is struggling these days to find a way to be an intellectually credible theist. They may be theists, believing in God, but they are slowly losing their conviction that God exists.

Now, I am not saying that any of the supposed intellectual credibility of the new atheists is real, but I do think it is perceived to be real by the average Christian. When this perception occurs, most Christians simply rely on the trust meter alone to sustain their faith.

The biggest problem is that Christianity simply cannot function without all three of these meters pushing forward. A cognitive dissonant faith is not a biblical faith. Commitment without convictions will lead to a dead church for it is the conviction upon which the commitment is built.

In the end, I do think that the “new atheism” is having more of an effect than the polls suggest.

26 Responses to “Is the New Atheism Really Affecting People’s Belief in God?”

  1. Interesting article I ran across recently that is tangentially related to this.

    http://www.bigquestionsonline.com/columns/phillip-longman/survival-of-the-godliest

  2. The only difference between “faith” and “unorthodox faith” is the “Correct Information” dial. This is extremely assumptive on your part and may or may not actually be correct. For your presentation, it is merely correct because you say it is correct. If someone doesn’t agree with you, then they are of an “unorthodox faith” because you say so. You have no objective standard by which to assess this degree of correctness other than your own prejudices to a particular view of the information.

    If anything, you have elucidated the primary problem with Christianity today in a sublime manner: arrogance of information. You assume that you have correct information but even that is based on assertions that your version of information is correct. These assertions are formed first from conclusions you need for your doctrine rather than merely examining the information itself at face value. Once someone does the latter, Christianity begins to fall apart at the seams.

  3. HQuin,

    That was quit assertive. The post did not even deal with what is correct belief and what is not correct belief. It just made the assumption that correct information is a central part of the Christian faith.

    Are you suggesting that correct information is not an important part of faith? Can people just believe anything and it be okay so long as their belief is sincere?

    Lastly, are you arrogantly assuming that the information in your comment is correct simply by assertion? (Just messing with you…no need to answer that).

    I don’t get your criticism here.

  4. Well done, CMP. Very well done.

  5. “As of 2005, according to a Cambridge study”

    C Michael Patton, can you please link to the study?

  6. Great post.

    Its always good to see vague concepts put into categories that are more easily understandable.

    I am still somewhat confused about the difference between conviction and trust.

    So conviction is obviously being convinced in the mind about certain information and trust is acting on that conviction? Perhaps being convinced in the heart?

  7. I’ll restate it: you assume that you have the “correct information” and therefore “faith” and that anything not agreeing with you is “unorthodox faith” and therefore has “incorrect information”.

    That’s precisely how your dials read. It would be illogical to assume that you are stating that you have “incorrect information” and therefore “unorthodox faith.” It is then safe to assume that you perceive you to have the correct information, based on your own prejudices of perspective, and therefore “faith” that is “correct.”

    I’m just stating the obvious based on your dials. You are correct and others are incorrect. I don’t make such assumptions and, indeed, assert that most of your perception of the information is skewed toward the end goal you desire (i.e., doctrine). Just an observation of your blog posts (and evidenced here in this post explicitly) over the last several years.

    • You are right on target. I even have doubts my Presbyterian doctrine. Anyone that posits they have the correct information and subsequent correct understanding and subsequent doctrine is delusional. God reveals himself to different people in different ways including non Christians. We are just as exclusive as those Allah guys. If God has a personal connect with each human and there are 5 billion people then there are 5 billion correct and no incorrect. Each one is correct because it is unique. Unless God doesn’t know His own theology.

  8. HQuin said: “I’m just stating the obvious based on your dials. You are correct and others are incorrect. I don’t make such assumptions and, indeed, assert that most of your perception of the information is skewed toward the end goal you desire (i.e., doctrine).”

    I might be misunderstanding you, but this is quite a trivial observation. I also think that I am correct and others are incorrect. And you do too. Everyone does. no-one* says, “I think I am incorrect about X, but I will believe it anyway”.

    do you mean something further than this?

  9. Very insightful post! I think one of the most potent attacks from the new atheism (not that this is really a new attack) is the charge that certain aspects of Christianity are immoral (hell, the Old Testament, views on women and homosexuality, the requirement to believe whether or not you have a large amount of evidence).

    Not saying the attacks are valid, but they are far too troubling to ignore (for me at least). It makes it difficult to focus on faith “anchors” like the resurrection. I find the evidence for the resurrection compelling, but I’m disturbed by other aspects of Christian teaching. They are to connected to separate (in my mind), but they pull in different directions. Result? Timid, uncertain, cognitive dissonance.

  10. I think I might print this out for my wall. If I develop doubts I can always look at it and remind myself of the intellectual bankruptcy of unbelief.

  11. I saw that. It is very odd how some antagonists insist on interpreting the Bible in a literalistic way that rivals fundamentalists!

  12. whoschad, clever.

    C Michael Patton It is very odd how some antagonists insist on interpreting the Bible in a literalistic way that rivals fundamentalists!

    I think you mean: …in a hyperliteralist way that makes fundamentalists look like John Shelby Spong.

  13. Still would like to see a link to your Cambridge study. Care to provide a link to this study for everyone to see in all of its glory?

  14. Wait… you mean we actually have to take things like context and genre into account? man….

  15. HQuin writes:

    You assume that you have correct information but even that is based on assertions that your version of information is correct….Once someone does the latter, Christianity begins to fall apart at the seams.

    Exactly how is that statement any different than what you’re condemning? Are you not assuming your info is correct?

  16. Truly there is an evangelistic atheism. In a piece I titled: “The Ayatollah of Atheism and his publicist”
    I too suggested that if you believe in God, you’re in the majority. But you’re also the target of Sam Harris and gang. Best selling author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris is a man on a mission against God. Atheism is his religion and he wants more people to worship with him. Arguably, Harris is the reigning publicist of atheism. But he is not alone on his mission. He follows the footsteps of Richard Dawkins, (the academic guru and Ayatollah of atheism). In Dawkins’ new book, “The God Delusion,” he shakes his tiny fist in the face of Almighty. His book is so full of venom and condescending ridicule that it’s hard to take him seriously. His broad stroke analysis and ranting against the Bible and all things Christian are ironically based on strongly held moral assumptions that would parallel any fundamentalist.
    http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2007/04/02/harris-and-dawkins-promote-atheism/

    I think these boys from the club are upset that science and progress didn’t accomplish what they had hoped and what they see as logically obvious– “Enough of this silly religious stuff!” “We’ve figured it out for ourselves! “Ok, we’ve made a really big mess of it all, but we’ve at least progressed enough to know there is no God!”

    Yet I agree that true belief of the “saving” kind is not as plentiful as the “I believe in God” surveys yield. There is work to be done. Thanks for sparking ongoing conversation!

    “Atheism is the most daring of all dogmas, for it is the assertion of a universal negative” (G.K. Chesterton).

    See: Atheists Contradict themselves
    http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2008/11/01/atheists-contradict-themselves/

  17. I did not know the stats would cause people so much angst. Wiki article that gives about the same stats. Not the reference to the 2005 study in Britannica. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism. I imagine the Cambridge study is one and the same referenced there.

    Either way, I think we all know that the percentage of Atheism is very, very low. The point of this article is that we cannot look at the “bottom line” effect, but must understand that many more people are being affected and these polls cannot be used to determine how we respond.

  18. Interestingly, my ministry for the past 26 years has been in a University town. Most college students accept that some creative force is behind the existence of the universe. But, as Professor Daniel Liechty (Illinois State University) notes, “What is a debated topic is how you move from this rather impersonal force to the beliefs of a particular religious tradition, and especially whether in affirming the truth-reliability of one path, you must stand against the truth-reliability of all other paths.”

    The issues we need to present with wisdom and clarity relate to matters of singularity and exclusivity in the gospel. Here are a couple of pieces I have done on this theme:

    http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/are-christians-too-exclusive/

    http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2007/07/26/is-there-a-narrative-for-all-people/

    Steve Cornell

  19. I think most atheists may admit God but just don’t want to have anything to do with Him. God of OT pretty mean. He’s vindictive, vengeful, murderous(slay thine enemies) conditional, punitive, jealous, cruel, whip brandishing and allows evil. If that’s God, I’m outta here. Would be animist American Indians alternative with Jesus in the forest of course.

  20. Carl,

    I understand where you are coming from. In fact, I would up the ante a bit and say that it not merely the “God of the OT” but the God of the NT. While slaying enemies in the OT might seems harsh and severe, there is an eternal slaying in hell that will make that look like a hay ride.

    There are three issues:
    1. Christians believe that these things are purposeful. In other words, the pain and suffering in the present world have meaning and purpose, even if we don’t know what it is.
    2. One of the worst things that has happened in human history is God himself being slayed by his own creation in Jesus Christ so that people can be redeemed.
    3. If we don’t like the way God has revealed himself, we don’t really have the ability to veto it based on our own subjective finite emotions, do we?

    The question comes down not simply to one of understanding and perspective, but one of our justification for believing in both the God of the OT and God of the NT. We don’t encourage people to believe these things because they sound nice or because they fit within our personal puzzle we are putting together, but because we believe the represent the revelation of the only one who has the authority to make such claims.

    Hope that makes sense.

  21. Our tendency to reject some of God’s harder judgments probably reflects our inclination toward a high view of humanity and a low view of God. I look at the apparently harsh actions and commands of God in the OT and feel the sting of the Psalmist’s question: “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive?” (Psalm 130:3, NLT). Perhaps when we read these things the words of Jesus should ring in our ears: “I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.” (Luke 13:5, NLT)

  22. Atheism is experiencing a sort-or Renaissance right now. I don’t think that the goal of outspoken Atheists is to convert Christians… that would be just about as futile as Christians trying to convert Atheists.

    The idea is to let others with doubts know that it’s okay to be Atheist, and that they’re not alone. I was a “closet Atheist” for many years because I live in the Bible Belt and knew I’d be ostracized by some of my colleagues if they ever found out I was a “heathen.” So I just played along, knowing that I didn’t believe any of it (and even despised some aspects of religion.)

    The authors who are so hated by Christianity got me to realize that I wasn’t alone, and that it was okay to not believe the Bible.

    Eventually, I “came out of the closet” with my Atheism. As I suspected, I lost some friends. Some of my co-workers openly don’t trust me anymore even though I’ve proven myself time and time again to be one of the most honest and trustworthy people at the company. Most of them are still civil with me, but just don’t get too close.

    It’s pretty sad that Christians are so insecure that they see me or the above-mentioned authors as some kind of threat, BUT… my “coming-out” got a couple other closet Atheists to do the same, so as far as I’m concerned, it was worth it.

    These authors aren’t trying to destroy your beliefs. They’re not reaching out to the believers, they’re reaching out the the non-believers and letting them know that they’re not alone, and giving them knowledge to use when attacked by fundamentalists.

  23. New Atheism is a Marxist oriented political movement that is, as it’s primary focus, oriented toward radicalizing university students in the West away from a traditional Western worldview and towards a progressivist worldview that aids in the building of a utopian society based on collectivist principles rooted in secular humanism.

    Promoting atheism and attacking Christianity is one of the primary planks in the Socialist International agenda. Victim groups are crucial to accomplishing attacks on societal institutions in the West, hiding behind the cover of free speech. New Atheism is the nucleus of a classic “victim group” which organizes atheists around an ideal for social change, rooted in vague concepts like enforcing “seperation of church and state” or “getting rid of the pledge of allegiance” in America, for instance.

    New Atheists here have been around for as long as Madylyn Murray O’Hair. She was indeed the prototype example of atheist political activist.

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