Posted by: Philip Rushton | July 1, 2012

Vacation Bible School and the Neo-Atheists (Repost)

(This is a repost from a couple of years ago. Some food for thought on the legitimacy of religious education for children, in lieu of our vbs program this morning. I have a number of new people following the blog since I posted this last. I revisited some of these thoughts myself this week and thought I’d open the discussion to others.)

It’s that time of year again. Churches around the country are gearing up for Vacation Bible School. While VBS is often a highlight for kids and church members, there is one group in society that is not particularly fond of these sorts of events.

Meet the ‘neo-atheists.’ Neo-atheist is a label given to writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who, in recent years, have set out on a militant campaign to discredit religion and promote atheism. Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and Hitchens’ book God is Not Great, have become best sellers.

Richard Dawkins seeks to discredit faith as a legitimate way to discover truth. With his typical overstated rhetoric he writes, “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument; their resistance builds up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature” (1). It is from this line of reasoning that Dawkins takes issue with religious education for children. He argues that religious education is nothing more than indoctrination. He even goes so far as to call religious education for children a form of child abuse.

Dawkins argues that he has reached truth from a purely objective scientific method. He insists that “scientists do not have faith” (2). From his scientific standpoint Dawkins proceeds to argue that there is no God because it is scientifically probable that natural selection rules out the presence of a creator. For Dawkins it is as simple as looking at the facts and moving on.

Before I proceed to point out some of the flaws in Dawkins overly simplistic approach to truth, I must confess that I am picking on a very easy target. Dawkins has lost his intellectual credibility even among the atheist community. Michael Ruse, a philosopher at Florida State, writes, “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist,” (3) and Prospect magazine, which at one point voted Dawkins one of the top three contemporary intellectuals, comments that The God Delusion is an, “incurious, dogmatic, rambling, and self-contradictory book” (4).

When responding to Dawkins, it is important to note that scientific knowledge is not exempt from faith. Contemporary philosophers of science have shown that there is a lot more to science then simply looking at objective facts. Michael Polanyi argues in his book Personal Knowledge: Toward A Post-Critical Philosophy, that, “complete objectivity as usually attributed to the exact sciences is a delusion and is in fact a false ideal” (5). Polanyi points out a number of non-scientific factors that shape the work of scientists. He shows how scientists are motivated by personal interests, and appeal to culturally accepted ideas or authoritative schools of thought (6).

This last point is particularly interesting. Polanyi points out that scientists begin by accepting the authority of experts without actually observing objective factual material. Before they can evaluate scientific theories they must start by accepting what their mentors and teachers are teaching. Faith, then, is a starting point for scientists. This is illustrated by the fact that most scientists started believing in Einstein’s theory of relativity about 40 years before it was actually proven (7). The ability to prove a theory requires that the scientist step out in faith and take on some basic assumptions about the world.

When you expose Dawkins reasoning, it becomes clear that he actually does rely on faith. Dawkins’ conclusions are often based on unproven assumptions and unrealistic probabilities. For example, Dawkins admits that the idea that the world emerged from natural selection would require a “highly improbable occurrence,” and he is content to embrace this improbability for no other reason than: “we know it happened on Earth because we are here” (8). He blasts faith, then proceeds to form a view of the universe that requires him to have faith.

Now I should say that I am not out to get into a creationist – evolutionist debate here. That conversation requires a whole other essay on its own. I should also say that I think Christians should be engaged in science and be open to scientific developments. The point I want to make is that the neo-atheists are wrong to criticize faith as an illegitimate starting point towards the pursuit of truth.

Polanyi goes on to say that faith is not a careless approach to knowledge. He writes, “Intellectual commitment is a responsible decision, in submission to the compelling claims of what in good conscience I conceive to be true” (9). The pursuit of truth, then, does not begin from an objective neutral place. We begin by taking on certain assumptions based on a compelling claim. We commit to this claim, which allows us to really explore it’s validity. We must take that step of faith before we can begin to understand our whether the claim we have chosen to believe is true.

This approach to seeking truth lines up with what the bible teaches about seeking God. Polanyi actually argues that St. Augustine’s got it right when he wrote in the fourth century, “unless ye believe, ye will not understand.” In the gospels we discover that faith is a prerequisite for understanding God. When Jesus encounters Nicodemus in John 3 he says that if is going to see and understand the kingdom of God he must be born again. In John 3:15 he explains that this rebirth begins by putting his faith in the crucified Lord. Faith in God initiates an encounter with God that allows us to understand who he is.

In light of this discussion I think that religious education for children is a legitimate undertaking. Everybody is raised up in some type of tradition. As Christians we pass on to our children a worldview that we have come to see as true. Of course children are not capable of evaluating all the arguments for the existence of God; however, they are also not fully able to understand the complex arguments for natural selection. Before they are able to evaluate anything they must begin somewhere. They must take on a tradition, grow up in it and then evaluate what they believe. As they mature in the church it is our responsibility to guide them as they explore new ideas and work out their faith.

(1) Dawkins, God Delusion,(New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 5.
(2) Ibid, 51.
(3) Alister McGrath, and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, (Great Britain: SPCK, 2007), quoted on front cover.
(4) Ibid, xi
(5) Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958),18
(6) Ibid, 266
(7) Alister McGrath, The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 137.
(8) Dawkins, God Delusion, 137.
(9) Polanyi, 65.

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Responses

  1. Well reasoned, well said. I would make a few comments about another view of education in the Christian world. All the many things we do have place and importanance but just as the education people tell us “true learning starts at home”. so, I,m afraid the parents get a little lazy when there are snazzy programs and lots of bells and whistle events. Now this is from a guy who has run program after program and some of them pretty good. So bring on SS, VBS xyz but lets remind the parents that godly values start and home and who cares what the secular critics think.

  2. Neo-Atheists, I know the movement but guess I never knew the name.

    There’s a group of people I hang out with sometimes that include many people with this sort of thinking. They honestly believe that it is wrong for parents to take their kids to church and force their beliefs on their kids. Granted, most of them don’t have kids so have no clue what raising a kid means but some do and they still have this belief. As if I could go to church, be a Christian, but at home put it in my pocket and be what they consider a normal person. Obviously, they detest VBS.

    Sometimes it’s easy to see their side when someone introduces my kid to something I don’t like and my automatic reaction is “hey, don’t try and influence her. she’s just a kid”. But you can’t stop that from happening and all you can do is share with them your beliefs as they grow up and then let them decide on their own when they are older. They see the good and the bad of your own beliefs so they can, hopefully, choose wisely.

    We had friends who were non-Christians, close to neo-Atheists even, but wanted to be Christians. They sent their kids to church because as they told me they wanted it to be easier for their kids to accept the stories of the Bible. They felt they were so jaded and involved in the faith of science that they couldn’t make the leap of faith away from it and wanted their kids to be able to do that. An impressive goal I think. Their kids were exposed to both scientific and Christian faith.

    Okay, so I responded just on your first paragraph. 🙂 The rest was good too but I have nothing to add to your thoughts about Dawkins. Is Hitchens next?

    By the way, have you seen the movie Religulous?

  3. Mr blogmaster: If you haven’t seen Religulous it is a must. In fact the Thursday Starbuck groupie thought LCChurch ought to pay to have it shown at the Kelso Pub. Well alright, it was just me , besides it was a Portland dude that put it together. ……………..Paz en Cristo……………

  4. Hey Gil, haven’t seen it yet. When I get down it might be helpful to watch it with those interested and have a good conversation about it.


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