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Defending the Truth

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Whatfs so new about the 'new atheism?

By Michael De Groote, Mormon Times, Thursday, Nov. 05, 2009

PROVO, Utah  -- Dinesh D'Souza loves to debate the big names in the new atheism such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Usually he loves to do this on the home turf of the opposition.

Then he came to BYU.

D'Souza, a popular author of political and social commentary, was at Brigham Young University on Oct. 16 for the Wheatley Institute's "Symposium on Responding to the New Atheism." He wasn't in enemy territory, but his trademark take-no-prisoners rhetoric was still sharp as he laid out what he thought was new about the new atheism.

The old atheism focused on separation of church and state and wasn't all that appealing to the masses, D'Souza said. The new atheism is different.

"It's not content with policing the bounds of church and state, it wants to attack belief in God and wants to attack religion in the private sphere also," D'Souza said. 

"It wants to make the believer feel like a total idiot for believing in God. So it's more ambitious, it's more aggressive in its agenda."

The new atheists are also a "suave bunch" that strikes a "rebel stance" appealing to young people, D'Souza said.

And young people are the target. The new atheists' goal is to "let the religious parents breed 'em" and then win them over later with their arguments, he said.

D'Souza took on what he called the three strongest arguments of the new atheists.

The first argument against religion is that God is not needed to be good. Hitchens challenged D'Souza in a debate once to name any single virtue that could not be practiced by a non-believer.

D'Souza turned this argument around by listing the most prized virtues of atheists: science, the individual, the right to dissent and to criticize, the equal dignity of women, compassion and the abolition of slavery. "All these virtues came into the West, and arguably into the world, because of Christianity."

Other cultures, such as ancient Greece and Rome, did not have these ideas. "Even the secular values of our culture ... are historically rooted in the soil of Christianity," D'Souza said.The second new atheist argument is that religion stands in the way of science. D'Souza said the new atheists point to such stories as how religion insisted the earth was flat.

But D'Souza said the flat earth idea is a legend and that educated people knew it was spherical even in Christ's time and in ancient Greece. "All you need to do is go observe an eclipse," D'Souza said. "You can see the shadow of the earth on the moon. Hey guys! It's round!"

D'Souza finds it curious that the new atheists hearken back to old controversies in science, but seem to ignore recent discoveries that may support a divine creator -- such as the way the laws of the universe are so precisely tuned as to allow the development of life.

The third argument is that religion isn't just wrong, it is pernicious and dangerous. To prove this, the new atheists point to the Inquisition, the Crusades and the Salem witch trials.

It is a matter of degree, however to D'Souza. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, lasted about 375 years and killed about 2,000 people -- about five a year. The Salem witch trials killed 19 people. He said this was 2,019 too many, but these crimes are pretty much unrepeatable today.

The atheist death toll is not only larger, it is more recent and is ongoing, according to D'Souza. He said that in seven decades the atheist regimes of Stalin, Mao and the Nazis killed 100 million people.

"Atheism has amassed a massive body count. A mountain of bodies. An ocean of blood," D'Souza said. "Atheism, and not religion, is responsible for the mass murders of history."

Even most of the modern religious conflicts have at their heart not religion, but other issues such as land or the right to self-rule, D'Souza said.

But the ultimate motive for the current antagonism against religion, according to D'Souza, isn't science or lack of evidence. "I don't believe in unicorns, but you'll notice I haven't written any books called 'The Unicorn Delusion' ... or 'Unicorns are not Great.'"

"The belligerence of the new atheism is an important clue that something deeper is going on here," D'Souza said. It has to do with divine ultimate justice.

"How do you get out from out of the shadow of unceasing accountability, of unremitting moral judgement?" D'Souza said. "Well, abolish the judge. If you can somehow get rid of God, then all his preachments and commandments become optional."

To those who don't want religion to become marginalized, D'Souza recommends that people of faith become prepared and learn about their religion above the "crayon level" of a child. They need to learn of ways to speak that communicate their ideas without religious-based language. Different faith traditions also need to work together."(The new atheists have) taken these issues," D'Souza said, "and put them into the public square, creating an opportunity for the believers to reenter the public square and engage them there."

Even on their home turf.

 

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