This book has been out for just under a year now, but I just learned of it recently and was very impressed. Veale is not the only one to answer the new atheists, of course, but he answers with an uncommon simplicity and clarity. His book is an easy and enjoyable read, and his argument is compelling. We’re glad to have him with us today to talk about his subject and his book.
Let’s begin on a personal note. Could you tell us about your work and how your interest in this subject come about?
At university I became friendly with David Glass (author of Atheism’s New Clothes); we’d a mutual interest in apologetics and evangelism, and this has formed the basis of a friendship which has lasted over 20 years. In 2012 we launched the website www.saintsandsceptics.org to promote apologetics in Northern Ireland and to challenge atheism and secularism.
After graduating in theology from Queen’s University (Belfast) I trained as a teacher of Religious Education. I’ve been teaching teenagers for 16 years – so I’ve earned every one of my grey hairs! When my students started referring to atheist “memes” like the Flying Spaghetti Monster my interest was piqued. I was also fascinated by the clumsy misunderstandings and crude misrepresentations of Christianity advanced by well-educated sceptics on blogs and chat-rooms.
Obviously, this sort of nonsense needs to be challenged by Christians. But why have atheists become so hostile? What presuppositions and prejudices lead intelligent, literate individuals to be duped by childish polemics and sloppy scholarship? These questions, and my concern that the evangelical churches are not really interested in addressing aggressive secularism, led to my book.
What is your target audience with this book?
The book is primarily for young people who are interested in New Atheism. Some of these young people will be what the atheist movement calls “a-curious”: they’re examining atheism and considering its truth claims. It is likely that they have heard the claims of the New Atheists and wonder if there is any substance behind the bluster. Other readers will be young Christians who are intimidated by the memes and arguments that they encounter online or in class.
But I also hope that the book will be read by Pastors and evangelists – especially youth pastors. I don’t think the church appreciates that young people are now primarily educated by websites like YouTube and Facebook. Style trumps substance on these forums- quirky humor and shocking statements gather more attention than sermons or lectures. The atheist movement has effectively captured this ground; you cannot avoid their presence online. So we need to teach all our young people (not just college students!) rational, persuasive Christian theology.
In your book you characterize the new atheists’ approach as essentially fundamentalist, and you describe at some length the irony of their claim to a supposed intellectual superiority that is “sold for a low intellectual price.” Would you explain your point here for us briefly?
Most members of the New Atheist movement are well educated and its leaders have very impressive academic credentials. So, if you buy into the New Atheism you get a feeling of intellectual superiority – you are part of a scientifically enlightened, technologically literate community. But this movement is unashamedly populist. The New Atheism seems to have been tailor made for the age of the Tweet: nearly all of its arguments can be reduced to 140 characters. The hope is that a crude “sneer pressure” will make the faithful seem foolish and out of place in the modern academic environment.
The problem is that an expertise in physics or medicine does not automatically confer any competence in philosophy or religion. For example, one popular “vlogger” on Richard Dawkins forum abandoned evangelical Christianity when she learned that: “…Christianity is plagiarized. Many gods before Jesus have stories too similar to ignore.” If she’d bothered to crack the spine of a book on the subject, she would have learned that she had abandoned the Christian faith for a dead academic theory.
Explain what you mean by “Dogmatic Scientism” – and its fundamental problem.
New Atheists argue against Christianity on scientific grounds – with particular prominence given to evolution. They also seem wedded to a mythology which teaches that, just as science has grown in knowledge, and just as technology has become more and more advanced, society is also becoming more enlightened. In general they seem committed to a position called “Dogmatic Scientism”.
Dogmatic Scientism holds that only the physical world exists, and everything in it is composed of matter governed by the laws of nature. Therefore only the hard sciences, like Chemistry and Physics, are capable of answering our ultimate questions. And while the arts might make life a little more livable, science provides the only hope for human flourishing and progress.
Now dogmatic scientism is a big claim. It’s attempting to tell us how to reason about ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’. Scientific theories usually avoid claims of this scope. So this scientism doesn’t seem very scientific. It’s more akin to philosophy or theology. But worse, dogmatic scientism is not a part of any scientific theory and it is not found in any experimental result. And the turbulent and sometimes revolutionary history of science should make us hesitate before we predict what the completed physical sciences will tell us.
In other words, if you believe dogmatic scientism you have a problem. You think that you should only believe what science teaches: but science doesn’t teach dogmatic scientism. So you shouldn’t believe in dogmatic scientism and no-one else should either.
What is the “Outsider Test for faith”?
The ‘Outsider Test for Faith” is an objection to religious belief made by former Pastor and sceptic John Loftus. He insists that we inherit our religious beliefs with our culture. So he issues this challenge to believers: “test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating. If your faith stands up under muster, then you can have your faith. If not, abandon it.” Of course, Christian have an emotional attachment to their beliefs; Loftus simply assumes that when these attachments are set aside we will have no reason to believe.
Now, often it is appropriate for us to ‘draw our emotional curtains’ when we analyse particular topics. Historians sometimes need to set aside the tragedy of the holocaust to study its causes. Prosecutors sometimes need to be clinical and dispassionate to convict the worst sort of criminal. So there is no reason why Christians cannot set their passions aside to meet Loftus’s challenge. Quite frankly, there is more than enough evidence for Christianity to pass his “Outsider Test”. Christian scholars are able to present arguments for theism and Christianity in secular, peer reviewed journals; and many atheists have come to faith after examining the evidence for Christianity. Christianity meets the Outsider Test day and daily.
But Loftus has not advanced his Outsider Test as a piece of advice; he seems to think that this test is a decisive argument for atheism. Now, Loftus has gained quite the reputation as an “ex-evangelical”: he would have a lot to lose if he was to change his mind again. So he’s kidding himself if he thinks he’s free from prejudice. Perhaps he needs to examine his Outsider Test as if he had not proposed it. I think he’d see that, as an argument for atheism, it doesn’t stand up under muster.
What do you mean by the “insider test”? How are the “outsider test” and “insider test” significant to apologetics?
The “outsider test” treats Christian theism as if it is a hypothesis. Now, if we want to play that game, we can certainly find evidence which supports this hypothesis. There are features of the universe that reflect purpose; the existence of a personal God explains those features. The universe’s order and structure, objective moral values, the resurrection of Jesus Christ and human spiritual needs are all ultimately explained by theism. But, while it makes sense to talk of a Christian world-view, Christianity is not a metaphysical hypothesis.
God is infinitely loving and morally perfect: He would want to do more than reveal theological information. God would not want us to study him from behind emotional curtains; so we should expect God to reveal himself in challenging and inspiring ways. The Christian faith claims that God is the ultimate source of meaning and significance; that we were made to know God and to enjoy him forever. So Christianity must also pass what we could call an ‘Insider Test’. If Christianity is true it must be existentially relevant, morally challenging, and go some way to satisfying our spiritual needs.
It isn’t advisable to evaluate every belief from behind emotional curtains: personal experience provides grounds for many important beliefs. For example, we do not appreciate the value of a human life until we have witnessed childbirth or comforted the dying. And if someone suggested that love and friendship are nothing more than neural and chemical conditions to facilitate bonding, or that beauty was simply an evolved neurological response, we might suggest that he needed to get out of the laboratory a little more: he simply has not grasped the subject matter. So, if we want to examine the truth claims of Christianity we will have to pay some attention to our experiences; more uncomfortably, we will have to examine the state of our own hearts.
Your book ends with a discussion of sin, atonement and the gospel. How do you think apologetics and evangelism should be related?
I don’t think that we can divide the two. We often fail to notice that Gospel calls us to make rational judgments. When I understand the Gospel correctly a momentous decision is forced on me: I must decide if this “good news” makes sense of me and my world. It tells me that I am a fallen creature; that the cross meets my needs for love, forgiveness, justice and hope. So does that message make sense? Does it illuminate my desires and my needs?
The Gospel insists that I acknowledge Jesus as my sovereign, and give him total authority over my mind and my character. This call is a deeply personal challenge and I can experience it in at least two ways. I can be morally challenged when I realise I have deep moral failing and I desperately need the atonement provided by Christ. Or I can be emotionally challenged by God’s perfect, sacrificial love. Such experiential evidence works directly on my conscience as God calls me to surrender to him and totally trust him.
But Christian doctrine explains much more than our inner, experiential evidence. The Christian gospel includes the claim that the universe has a personal creator who has entered history to redeem us. So the evidence provided by the universe’s order and structure, by the reality of moral values and obligations, and for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, verifies that Christianity is true. The end result is a powerful cumulative case for the truth of Christianity.
The Gospel is not a neat academic theory; it will always have its cultured and educated despisers. This is to be expected and, to some extent, welcomed. The hostility of intellectuals reminds us that the gospel is not a speculative theory for life’s spectators; it is not merely a source of abstract knowledge; it is how we know God.
Buy the books
NEW ATHEISM: A SURVIVAL GUIDE