Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

13 Jan 2020

New Atheism, Social Justice, and Apologetics in the New Decade

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As we embark on a new decade, it can be helpful to consider what has occurred over the previous decade(s) to consider what we might expect in the coming one. I recently read a thought-provoking argument that may have some insight into apologetics efforts in the coming years.

The article (NOTE: contains mild language) is discussing how New Atheism seems to have largely disappeared from its place of significance in the culture (especially on the internet) and offers an explanation for what has happened. For those unfamiliar with it, New Atheism was a kind of movement that came to prominence in the late 2000’s. Those involved in the movement differed from previous atheists in the intensity of their arguments for atheism and their hatred and vitriol against any kind of organized religion (e.g., book titles included God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The God Delusion).

The article notes how much atheist related arguments dominated online discussions during the mid-to-late 2000s. Yet towards the mid 2010s, discussions of atheism and its related ideas seemed to be replaced by issues of social justice. The author suggests two related reasons for the decline of New Atheism and the rise of the social justice movement: (1) most of those in the New Atheism movement simply moved to the social justice movement, because (2) the social justice movement seemed to offer a better (or more palatable) explanation for what’s wrong with the world (or as he states, “New Atheism was a failed hamartiology”).

New Atheism stated that the problem with the world was that people were not following reason and science because they were being blinded and corrupted by organized religion. Some in the movement believed this completely and continue to oppose any and all kinds of religion. However, others in this New Atheism movement were uncomfortable condemning groups like Muslims, Hindus, or African-American Christians. Thus, they concluded the problem with the world was not organized religion per se, but something else.

From the mid 2010’s to the end of the decade, the answer to the problem of the world shifted from organized religion to hatred and prejudice. The problem was not belief in God but issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression against marginalized communities. Thus, the social justice movement overtook New Atheism as the dominant force in online culture.

The article does not go in depth to consider why the understanding of the fundamental problem of the world seemed to shift so easily from religion to prejudice. I believe a recent article in Themelios helps explain why this answer seemed more plausible to many in the New Atheist movement: Neo-Marxism, or “Cultural Marxism,” and its ideas about oppression, marginalization, and sexual liberation had already largely infiltrated American media, education, and politics. Additionally, some offshoots of that movement, including intersectionality, were already arguing that the problem was not religion in general but the Christianity of white, (male), western people.

If the social justice movement has replaced New Atheism, that means one of the major tasks of apologists in the coming decade will be to seek to address the arguments of the social justice movement. One of the first steps in adequately answering an argument is to understand it. The articles linked above about Neo-Marxism and intersectionality are helpful introductions to these ideas. Additionally, Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer recently wrote a booklet, Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement, providing a brief introduction to what they call “contemporary critical theory,” the philosophy underlying prominent ideas in our culture like “white privilege,” “colorblind racism” and “heteronormativity.”

In closing, I have three thoughts/suggestions to consider as we seek to engage with the social justice movement.

  • Since at least some elements of the social justice movement are not just targeting Christianity but what they see Christianity supporting—Western culture and capitalism, including things like the nuclear family—will Christians seem as though they are only defending the former (Christianity) because they support the latter (Western culture and capitalism)? Without getting into all the details and arguments about how much of Western culture reflects the biblical worldview, at a minimum I can confidently state that not all of Western culture is Christian. Thus, we need to be able to distinguish arguments for Christianity from arguments for Western culture.
    • One way to potentially avoid wrongly conflating Christianity and Western culture is to focus on the foundational ideas of Christianity and the new social justice movement rather than their fruit. While there may be times it will be important to defend aspects of culture (e.g., the institution of marriage) the real battle needs to focus on the diagnosis of the problem: is the world flawed only because certain people are in power and are oppressors, or because all of us are fallen in sin and therefore will seek to use power to our advantage if given the opportunity? Is the problem society or sin, external or internal?
  • Many seemed to push back against New Atheism by agreeing with its premise but arguing it could still support Christianity. “Yes,” they would say, “we should emphasize reason and science. I’m not one of those dumb fundamentalist Christian rubes—I’m smart like you.” So, they would quickly sacrifice things like biblical creation at the feet of evolutionary science, not realizing they were actually sacrificing biblical Christianity in the process. Perhaps there is a danger today in responding to the social justice movement in the same way. “Yes,” some might say, “we should be primarily concerned with matters of oppression and privilege. I’m not one of those sexist, homophobic bigots—I’m woke like you.” But before long, we might find we are sacrificing things like biblical sexual ethics at the feet of being an ally to the marginalized, not realizing we are actually sacrificing biblical Christianity in the process.
  • Finally, we need to consider the possibility that by the end of this coming decade, the social justice movement may have been replaced by some new false idea, much like it replaced New Atheism last decade. And while I cannot predict what that new idea might be, I do know the answer to it will still be biblical Christianity. So take some time in the coming years to understand issues like social justice, intersectionality, critical theory, etc., but invest even more time in understanding the Bible so that you can be equipped for whatever challenges lie ahead.

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