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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