Response to Global Atheism Conference - Outside the Convention Hall

Part seven of Greg Clarke's series on the 2010 Global Atheism Conference

In this final article, I want to consider the consequences of taking seriously the case for God that has been developed in this series, as well as the answers to objections that today’s New Atheists raise.

If belief in God is rationally defensible, then we can argue for a good, powerful, knowledgeable deity. A god who is the beginning of all things, or better put, an eternal necessary, moral Mind.

We can see that placing importance on goodness supports, indeed leads us towards, the idea of a good God who wants us to live well. At the same time, we have awareness of our falling short of the Good Life, falling short of any standards we set for ourselves or try to live up to. This leaves a person in a vulnerable situation.
She believes in God, and she believes God cares about goodness, and she knows that, despite her efforts, she is not good. She also knows that society overall, despite all of its goodness, is not at base good. As Terry Eagleton put it: “There has been no human culture to date in which virtue has been predominant”.

If she has considered religion seriously, she will know that Christianity offers a solution to this dilemma. In my view its solution is unique, and worthy of deep reflection.

The solution offered is that, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God revealed his heart and mind to the world and, in the death of Jesus and his resurrection from the grave, showed that his purpose was to deal with the problem of sin (the falling short of goodness) and to provide hope for a better life to come (because of the beginnings of a new reality in the resurrection of Jesus). This ‘gospel’ can be stated plainly like that, and it can be explored in its depths and complexities by studying the writings of those around Jesus, the earliest Christians, and the subsequent wealth of Christian reflection on the uniqueness and centrality of Jesus Christ to history and to human need.

Now, she will hear the New Atheists make critical claims against Jesus, against the historical worth of the Gospels, against his teaching, against the interpretation of his death and (of course) the claim that he was raised to life again.

However, these claims are among the easiest to address—far easier than the philosophy we have covered—since the New Atheists repeatedly misunderstand, misquote or ignore the best evidence we have on Jesus.

  • There is a suggestion in Dawkins and Hitchens that Jesus may not even have existed. There are no genuine academic historians who hold such a view.
  • The New Testament scholars that the New Atheists use are not from the mainstream of scholarship, but the radical edges.
  • There is no serious effort to engage with Jesus in his own context, within first century Judaism, in order to understand what he is teaching.
  • There is simply ridicule for the idea of God being present in the world in human form, a ridicule based on the presumption of atheism not on the analysis of history.

At best, the New Atheists’ claims about Jesus must be labelled unscholarly. At worst, they are deliberately misleading. Mostly, they throw dust in the air, as if we could know nothing much about the man from Nazareth.

The truth is quite different. The Gospels we have in the New Testament are widely viewed as broadly reliable sources on who Jesus was, what he did and what he taught, as well as what happened to him around the events of his crucifixion and the reports of his return to life.

The difference Jesus makes is that he moves the debate about atheism out of the realm of the convention hall, and into the reality of the lives of those who take it seriously

Our reflective friend, will have before her what Christians call the ‘gospel’: the divine news that the God most of us already believe in is real and can in fact be known, even if he isn’t seen, because Jesus has made him known in words and deeds that we human beings can fathom. She will have before her the offer of forgiveness for sin, for falling short of goodness, an offer that can be taken up freely by trusting in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for your future.

And she will already have before her the evidence that following the way of life that Jesus Christ offers is in fact good for the world. Far from being a poison, it is a tonic, an energy drink, and has been the stimulus for some of the great developments of human history, things such as those that Terry Eagleton recognised, but also simpler things such as hope for future and comfort in times of sorrow. Sacrificial love; love for your neighbour, even love for your enemies; humility rather than pride and hubris; grace rather than law. These are the benefits of the Christian faith.

The difference Jesus makes is that he moves the debate about atheism out of the realm of the convention hall, and into the reality of the lives of those who take it seriously. Into the questions of forgiveness, and justice, and purpose, and meaning. Into the way we treat each other and the priorities we set. Into the kind of society we build, how we treat the weak, and what we think the Good Life looks like.

My hope and prayer is that Jesus’ followers, those who have taken up faith in Jesus, will in the words of the apostle Paul, “live lives worthy of the gospel” for a watching world.

Dr Greg Clarke is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity