Atheists Don’t Own Reason

The new atheists–participants in the contemporary anti-religion movement led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, among others–are working overtime to tell the world that reason favors atheism, and atheism alone. Richard Dawkins leads his Foundation for Reason and Science. Sam Harris is founder and chair of Project Reason. The upcoming March 24 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. is the new atheists’ latest and most visible attempt to send the message that reason belongs to the atheists.

For years, though, knowledgeable critics have been calling attention to new atheist’ rational fallacies, emotionally loaded rhetoric, and illegitimate, selective use of evidence. It’s time now to add that up together and recognize what it means: the new atheists have no business proclaiming themselves the defenders of reason, simply because they don’t practice it competently.

Of course that’s not what the new atheists want us to believe. It is religion, they say, that is the antithesis of reason. Sam Harris assures us in “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” (p. 55) that “faith is what reason becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse-constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.”

What happens, though, when we examine the new atheists’ own “reasonableness” and “internal coherence”?

Sam Harris debated William Lane Craig last April on whether atheism or theism (roughly defined as the belief in one God) provides a better explanation for the existence of moral truths (transcript here). Opinions may differ as to which of them held the more defensible position. What can hardly be disputed, though, is that Craig showed up with logical arguments, at least one of which, if sound, would completely destroy Harris’s atheistic explanation for morality. Harris conspicuously ignored this, and indeed virtually all of Craig’s logic. He devoted one 12-minute segment to rhetoric depicting Christianity in the most negative light possible, and suggesting that we should therefore conclude that Christianity is wrong. It was what logicians would describe as a fallacious appeal to emotion with respect to the question being debated and to the points Craig had raised.

“Far from being the defenders of reason, atheists are among the chief offenders against it,” writes Tom Gilson. (Nikki Kahn - THE WASHINGTON POST)

In his best-selling “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins devotes an entire chapter to unscientific anecdotes supporting his belief that a religious upbringing is abusive to children. (See also “Religion’s Real Child Abuse.”) Actual science shows exactly the opposite: spiritually engaged teens are healthier than others on multiple dimensions. Such abandonment of science is surprisingly irrational for the man who was formerly Oxford University’s Professor for the Public Understanding of Science.

But rational and logical errors are pervasive throughout “The God Delusion,” so much so that  University of Florida philosopher Michael Ruse, an atheist, would endorse Alister and Joanna Collicutt McGrath’s “The Dawkins Delusion?” by saying, “‘The God Delusion’ makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why.”

These are, unfortunately, not isolated examples. The American Atheists, for example, co-sponsored a billboard in Harrisburg, PA  juxtaposing half of a sentence from the Bible with an inflammatory, racially charged image of slavery. In doing so they combined at least two rational errors: the fallacious appeal to emotion and imagery, and the “straw man” fallacy of misrepresenting their opponents’ position; for although the quoted phrase, “Slaves, obey your masters,” is troubling on the surface, the Bible’s supposed endorsement of slavery is not what atheists allege it to be.

As Glenn Sunshine shows in his chapter in “True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism,” Christianity has in fact been history’s major force for the freeing of slaves. Immediate abolition was realistically impossible in New Testament times: The Romans would have treated it as insurrection, and the inevitable bloodshed to follow it would have produced greater evil than would have been alleviated by abolition. The injunction to “obey” was thus temporary and contextual. It was also tempered with instructions to masters to treat slaves reasonably, as fellow human beings. Eventually slavery “virtually disappeared” from Europe under Christianity’s influence, as social historian Rodney Stark stated in “For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery” (p. 299).

Failures in the practice of rational reasoning such as these are all too common among the New Atheists. They charge Christianity with being unreasoning or unreasonable, but too often they do so as they have done with slavery: use incomplete evidence or demonstrably invalid reasoning.

From my observations, it adds up to this: the new atheists’ difficulty with valid, responsible reasoning is widespread and systemic. Far from being the defenders of reason, they are among the chief offenders against it. It’s time we called them on that.

Tom Gilson is a writer and missions strategist blogging at, and the managing editor of the collaborative e-book “True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism.”

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  • pnyikos

    Atheists blaming slavery on Christianity would do well to remember that the most inhuman and massive slavery in the twentieth century was in the slave labor camps of the Gulag Archipelago. We may never know how many political prisoners died of starvation while being forced to work inhuman hours.  All this  was under a regime that aggressively promoted atheism and persecuted Christians.

  • Matt B

    That’s why Jesus counselled “don’t throw your pearls before swine.”

  • Guest

    Living in a country that was and to a great degree is closed to atheist ideas, I liked so much the books by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennet and B.RUssel. They changed my views radically, gave me realisation of just how crazy and stupid was to believe what I believed before that. They make so much change. It is interesting to hear the arguments of the religious after you read the above authors. Everything that seemed rather reasonable (although suspicious) earlier, no makes so little sense. The interesting thing that 99 per cent of the ideas, doubts, questions raised by those authors just mirror my own ideas and doubts that I already had before, but was unable or afraid to formulate…

  • Guest

    The Christian love affair with slavery has been best summed up by Mark Twain here,

  • Editor

    You know, I love Mark Twain, but this really is just a very well-crafted but ultimately illogical rant. He speaks of slavery in Christian lands (which no one denies, of course) but then he refers to slavery’s abolition being a mysterious result of some vague process of “hearts going soft.” The reality is that it is the teachings of Christianity, and the grace of Christ, that led to the abolition of slavery. It was, and is, simply untenable for a person to call himself a Christian and also treat another human being as a mere possession. Christianity offers that “way out” of slavery–teaching always that every person is made in the image and likeness of God. Even if Christians forget it, they can’t escape it unless they discard Christianity completely. When and where people truly follow the teachings of Christianity, slavery disappears. Can the same be said of those places where atheism and radical secularism are followed? 

  • Pants

    christianity makes slavery disappear? bollocks
    colossians 3:22exo 21:1-11
    exo 21:20-21
    num 31:17-18
    duet 20:14
    lev 25:44-46
    judges 5:30
    judges 21:10-12
    judges 21:21
    1 peter 3:5-6
    ephe 6:5
    1 tim 6:1-2
    luke 12:47-48

    cmon this is like a mini platter of the kind of sick stuff that christianty has offered over it’s time in power, Christ was indiferrent to slaves so were most people in that time.
    religion has no impact either way on slavery, it’s the society that the religion is nestled in that chooses its own path, the religion usually just models itself on what is acceptable at that point in time that it was founded (and often stubbornly tries to keep things that way too, often to it’s detriment) if there are changes it’s usually in spite of the faiths modus operandi

  • Pants

    any atheist (I am one) trying to claim that christianty is solely responsible for slavery needs to be reminded about the many civilizations that predate christ or even the old testament by thousands of years, like the Babylonians or the Sumerians and the many societies that have followed that are also happy to accommodate slavery. 
    A more rational argument is that christianty is simply complicit in slavery and was reluctant to make any real changes, much like many other large and powerfull entities that influence or control a society.

  • Beg pardon but Craig was not logical. His premise—that, if there is a god, there is an objective standard for morality—was never proved. He never even attempted to prove it but left it as an assumption. There is no logical necessity that, if there is a god that A) it has a standard for morality; B) that it cares whether or not people adopt any standard of morality; or C) that there is any mechanism for god’s will, if it has one, to be known. Craig blithely assumed all that to be true and sailed blindly on; but logical it was not.

  • No one says the Christians invented slavery; they were simply happy with it.