Foundations: No.62 Spring 2012

Aggressive Atheism

Kieran Beville, Pastor of Lee Valley Bible Church (Baptist), Ballincollig, Co. Cork, Ireland

Recently I read again the story of the encounter between David and Goliath in the Valley of Elah and how the champion of the Philistines taunted the people of God. Goliath was arrayed in impressive armour of bronze and heavily armed. But David, who declined to wear the armour of King Saul, approached this awesome opponent in the name of the Lord. What impressed me most about the account is how David was grieved in his spirit that the Lord’s name should be profaned in such a way. He had an unshakeable confidence that God would grant him victory in this amazing confrontation. Goliath taunted the army of Israel and this had the effect of discouraging God’s people. The most unlikely person (a shepherd boy) had the most astonishing victory over the most powerful adversary in an unpredictable manner – with a sling-shot. The words of that youth are a trumpet-call for the valiant who have more confidence in their God than fear in the face of awesome odds: ‘You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts… whom you have defied. This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand…’ (1 Sam 17:45-46). [1]

David emerged from obscurity and the shadow of the contempt his brothers had for him. An unlikely person worked an improbable victory that day in the Valley of Elah. David selected five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. However, he also possessed five notable qualities. He entered that valley with confidence in God, experience in defending the flock, a spirit that was grieved to hear the Lord’s name being profaned, a courageous heart and a desire ‘that all the earth may know that there is a God…’ (1 Sam 17:46). Thus armed, David stepped into the valley to face a formidable foe and God granted him success. Those who possess such qualities are needed today to act as valiant champions in the cause of the Lord. It is my hope that God will grant success today to those courageous shepherds of the flock who step forward to defend the honour of the Lord against the giants who mock God and deride faith as an intellectual cop-out – the New Atheists.

What is atheism?

Atheism is sometimes defined as the rejection (or absence) of belief in the existence of God. But it is more accurate to define it as belief that there is no God. [2] Whereas a theist is someone who believes in God, an atheist is someone whose disbelief in God is central to his worldview. Atheism, therefore, is not merely uncertainty or doubt about the existence of God such as agnosticism or scepticism. Although atheism is a minority view in Western culture, it is nevertheless growing in popularity. Historically, atheism would have been scandalous, but today it is far less objectionable and, in some circles, well-respected.

Historical overview

The Greek word atheoi, as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians, ‘remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’ (2:12) is usually translated into English as ‘without God’. In ancient Greek the adjective atheos meant ‘godless’. It was first used as a term of censure roughly meaning ‘ungodly’ or ‘impious’. In the fifth century BC the word began to indicate more deliberate and active godlessness in the sense of ‘severing relations with the gods’ or ‘denying the gods’. Atheists were those who impiously denied or disrespected the local gods, even if they believed in other gods. Thus the word ‘atheist’ was originally used pejoratively and as such was an insult. Nobody would willingly have assumed such a title.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus (c. 341–270 BC) disputed many religious doctrines, including the existence of an afterlife or a personal deity. He considered the soul purely material and mortal. While Epicureanism did not rule out the existence of gods, it asserted that if they did exist, they were unconcerned with humanity.

The Roman poet Lucretius (c. 99–55 BC) agreed that, if there were gods, they were unconcerned with humanity and unable to affect the natural world. For this reason, he believed humanity should have no fear of the supernatural. He expounded his Epicurean views of the cosmos, the soul, mortality, and religion in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which popularised Epicurus’ philosophy in Rome. Disciples of Epicurus were essentially devotees of sensual enjoyment.

The meaning of ‘atheist’ changed over the course of classical antiquity. During the Roman Empire Christians were accused of being atheists for not worshiping the pagan deities and many were executed for their rejection of the Roman gods in general and Emperor-worship in particular. [3]

The Renaissance did much to expand the scope of free thought and sceptical inquiry. Individuals such as Leonardo da Vinci sought experimentation as a means of explanation, and opposed arguments from religious authority. He was one of several critics of the church during this period. But generally the Renaissance and Reformation eras witnessed a resurgence in religious fervour, as evidenced by the proliferation of new religious orders and the emergence of Protestantism.

Criticism of Christianity became increasingly frequent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially in France and England. Some thinkers who emerged from a Protestant tradition (such as Thomas Hobbes) espoused a materialist philosophy and scepticism toward supernatural occurrences, while the Jewish-Dutch philosopher Spinoza rejected divine providence in favour of naturalism. The philosopher David Hume developed a sceptical epistemology grounded in empiricism, undermining the metaphysical basis of natural theology.

The French Revolution took atheism and anti-clericalism into the public sphere. There was a restructuring and subordination of clergy with respect to the civil authority of the state. The enforcement of it led to anti-clerical violence and the expulsion of many clergy from France. The Napoleonic era institutionalised the secularisation of French society, exported the revolution and inspired the founding of other republics.

Before the eighteenth century, the existence of God was so universally accepted in the western world that even the possibility of true atheism was questioned. According to this view, atheists were simply in denial. But the eighteenth century atheist Paul-Henri Thiry, asserted:

The source of man’s unhappiness is his ignorance of Nature. The pertinacity with which he clings to blind opinions imbibed in his infancy, which interweave themselves with his existence, the consequent prejudice that warps his mind, that prevents its expansion, that renders him the slave of fiction, appears to doom him to continual error. (The System of Nature, p. 57)

In the nineteenth century, atheists contributed to political and social revolution, facilitating the upheavals of 1848, the Risorgimento in Italy and the growth of an international socialist movement. Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841) would greatly influence philosophers such as Engels, Marx and Nietzsche.

Atheism in the twentieth century found recognition in a wide variety of other, broader philosophies, such as existentialism, secular humanism, nihilism, anarchism, logical positivism, Marxism, feminism and the general scientific and rationalist movement.

Atheism and totalitarian regimes

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and the psychologist Sigmund Freud (amongst many others) argued that belief in God and other religious beliefs are human inventions, created to fulfil various psychological and emotional needs. Many Buddhists share this view. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, influenced by the work of Feuerbach, argued that belief in God and religion are social functions, used by those in power to oppress the working class. For such philosophers, psychologists and social theorists the concept of God implies the abdication of human reason; an abandonment of liberty has led to the enslavement of mankind.

The twentieth century also saw the political advancement of atheism, spurred on by the works of Marx and Engels. The Bolsheviks in Soviet Russia were inspired by an ideological creed that professed that religion weakened society and they resolved to eradicate it. After the Revolution in 1917 Orthodox hierarchy were summarily executed and children were deprived of any religious education outside the home. Increasingly draconian measures were employed to suppress religion. In addition to direct state persecution, the League of Militant Godless was founded in 1925, resulting in churches being vandalised. While the Constitution of 1936 guaranteed freedom to hold religious services, the Soviet state under Stalin did not consider education a private matter; it outlawed religious instruction and waged campaigns to persuade people, at times violently, to abandon religion. By 1938, eighty bishops had lost their lives, while thousands of clerics were sent to labour camps. [4] Many Muslim mosques and Jewish synagogues were also shut down.

As well as the communist bloc countries of the Soviet Union, several other communist states (including China and North Korea) endorsed state atheism, deeming religion to be a subversive threat to the status quo. In 1967 Enver Hoxha’s regime conducted a campaign to extinguish religious life in Albania. By the end of that year over two thousand religious buildings were closed or converted to other uses, and religious leaders were imprisoned and executed. Albania was declared to be the world’s first atheist country by its leaders, and Article 37 of the Albanian constitution of 1976 stated, ‘The State recognises no religion, and supports and carries out atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in people.’ [5]

Stalin (Russia), Mao (China), Pol Pot (Cambodia) and a host of others, all committed atrocities in the name of a communist ideology that was explicitly atheistic. Their bloody deeds were perpetrated in an attempt to create a new secular order, a utopia free of the curse of religion. This was not mass murder by people who happened to be atheists; atheism was a central part of their ideological inspiration.

Although since the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) the number of actively anti-religious regimes has reduced considerably, the history of the twentieth century offers sobering lessons: The exclusion of God, religion and virtue from society leads ultimately to a poorer vision of humanity.

Atheism Today

Demographic distribution

It is difficult to quantify the number of atheists in the world as respondents to religious-belief polls may define atheism differently. A 2005 survey published in Encyclopedia Britannica found that the non-religious made up about 11.9% of the world’s population, and atheists about 2.3%. [6] This figure did not include those who follow atheistic religions, such as some Buddhists.

A 2006 poll published in the Financial Times gives rates for the United States and five European countries. The lowest rates of atheism were in the United States at only 4%, while the rates of atheism in the European countries surveyed were considerably higher: Italy (7%), Spain (11%), Great Britain (17%), Germany (20%), and France (32%). These figures are similar to those of an official European Union survey, which reported that 18% of the EU population does not believe in god. [7] Other studies have placed the estimated percentage of atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers in a personal god as low as single digits in Poland, Romania and Cyprus. In Scandinavian countries the percentage of the populations describing themselves as atheists is very high (up to 85% in Sweden, 80% in Denmark, 72% in Norway, and 60% in Finland). [8] According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 19% of Australians have ‘no religion’, a category that includes atheists. [9] Between 64% and 65% of Japanese are atheists or agnostics. [10]

Godless gurus

Many celebrities in contemporary society are atheists but there are others who have achieved celebrity status by virtue of the fact that they are exponents of atheism. They are part of a movement that has come to be known as New Atheism, in which the mood has changed from passive non-belief to something more dogmatic and aggressive. They advocate the view that religion should be countered, criticised and exposed by rational argument; it is a superstition and they are dedicated to its eradication.

Poisoned penmanship

Following the recent death of Christopher Hitchens (a conspicuous New Atheist voice) the obituaries described him as an articulate journalist, incomparable critic and masterful rhetorician. Hitchens was an intellectual with a world platform from which he advanced atheism. His works include God is Not Great and The Portable Atheist. Referring to Mother Theresa as ‘a lying, thieving, Albanian dwarf’ is typical of the poisoned penmanship he used to promulgate contempt for people who hold religious views. Hitchens is a harbinger of what is to come as aggressive atheism advances.

Such antipathy to a religious perspective of any kind has spawned pseudo-intellectuals who feel it is open season on people of faith. Many of these zealots are equally dogmatic in their opinions as those they criticise. But I have found that most of these devotees are profoundly ignorant of philosophical theology in the fields of ontology (that branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being) and epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge).

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, is probably the most well known advocate of atheism today, believing that science and religion are mutually incompatible. He is committed to the evolutionary theory of Darwin as a means of undermining religious belief. [11]

Some of these celebrity new atheists and their cult of devotees use the word ‘fundamentalism’ as a pejorative and convenient label to express contempt for people whose religious convictions shape their worldview. Such a broad definition includes suicide bombers and ordinary Christian worshippers. As such, they lack perspective and the nuances one might expect from intelligent debate. Ironically, these outspoken atheists have a form of evangelical zeal and a strident tone that has much in common with the ‘fanaticism’ they despise. They no longer speak like the besieged who have retrenched into defensive enclaves; atheism is now a dogmatism that crushes the interrogative spirit and insists that its doctrinaire views are the only legitimate creed. As a belief system (for what it asserts in relation to the origin of the universe is, in fact, an unproven and un-provable theory) it is itself a form of orthodoxy which is intolerant of any disagreement. Those who do not subscribe to its views are deemed heretics and treated as outcasts who are ostracised and ridiculed. Some of the things they say about religion are so provocative that they constitute incitement to hatred, de facto if not de jure.

Several years ago I bought a book about atheism, written by an atheist. The Preface includes the following statement:

This book is intended for a variety of different readers, including atheists looking for a systematic defence and explanation of their position, agnostics who think they might be atheists after all, and religious believers who have a sincere desire to understand what atheism is all about.’ [12]

As I belonged to the last category in this list I thought this will be helpful to me, but as I read the book I was surprised and disappointed to read Baggini’s vitriolic attack on evangelical faith. He speaks of, ‘The crass simplicity of this world view’ and describes it as ‘comforting idiocy’. [13] This is typical of the kind of attack one can expect from New Atheism. I felt cheated because the book was not what it promised in the Preface. I had, after all, a sincere desire to better understand atheism. Instead of a balanced dialogue the book rubbished belief in God, describing it as ‘wishful thinking’, ‘self-delusion’ and akin to believing in goblins and hobbits. [14]

Altruism, philanthropy and charity

Genuine faith has inspired altruism, philanthropy, and charity and acted as a stimulus in developing an enduring system of jurisprudence. There is a faith that is reasonable and welcomes intellectual inquiry and contributes positively to the debate on issues such as social justice, human rights and the environment. Faith has produced development agencies that work tirelessly and selflessly in underdeveloped countries. Nevertheless, these neo-atheists trawl through history for supporting data to underpin their atheistic presuppositions. They ignore the positive contribution of religion to the development of society, particularly in the field of doxological science (i.e. science conducted to the glory of God).

Many of them do not have an objective approach in accumulating and evaluating data. They are biased, subjective and much of their anti-religious diatribe is more philosophical in nature than scientific and many of these people are not competent in the field of philosophy.

Rogues gallery

There are many influential atheists today but here is a sample of who’s who:

Daniel Dennett is a philosopher who has argued for materialistic atheism in everything from human consciousness to evolutionary biology. He has written, Breaking the Spell and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

Stephen Hawking is one of the world’s greatest theoretical physicists. His book, A Brief History of Time, had a phenomenal impact when it was first published in the late 1980s. In that work he raised the prospect of a self-creating universe. This theory has since developed at length. His consistent theme is the extraneousness of the God hypothesis. Another of his influential books is The Grand Design.

Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist who deconstructs all elements of human thought that might be construed as pointing to a non-material origin. With a Harvard professorship and a steady stream of popular books arguing for a materialistic view of cognition, he has been a remarkably effective apologist for atheism. Some of his best known works are How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate.

Michael Shermer, a former evangelical Christian, promotes scepticism that eliminates any vestige of supernaturalism. Founder and publisher of Skeptic magazine, he is an indefatigable voice for atheism through popular books, highly visible debates and television interviews, and a monthly column with Scientific American. His books include: Why People Believe Weird Things and The Science of Good and Evil.

Steven Weinberg is a Nobel laureate physicist and deemed to be one of the great scientists of our time. He is also a remarkably good writer, as demonstrated in his popular books on physics, which advance an atheistic view of the universe. According to him, science’s greatest cultural achievement will be to eradicate religion. His books include The First Three Minutes and Lake Views: This World and the Universe.

Paul Kurtz is a preeminent advocate of secular humanism, which eschews religion in the quest for human flourishing. He has been director of the Council for Secular Humanism, edited the Skeptical Inquirer, and founded Prometheus Press. His books include: What is Secular Humanism? and Science and Religion.

Lawrence Krauss is the darling of US television networks whom they frequently engage to discuss the relation between science and religion. A physicist with solid credentials as well as a ready pen, who has written many popular science books, Krauss has effectively used this platform to promote atheism. His books include, Hiding in the Mirror and The Physics of Star Trek.

Edward O. Wilson is the inventor of sociobiology and the inspiration behind contemporary evolutionary ethics. He started life as a Southern Baptist only to become an ardent supporter of evolutionary naturalism under the inspiration of Charles Darwin. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, he sacralises nature and argues that it should replace traditional conceptions of God. His books include, Sociobiology and The Future of Life.

P. Z. Myers is an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota. He was catapulted to atheist stardom through his popular (and outrageously blasphemous) blog ‘Pharyngula’.

John Brockman is the literary agent and publicist for all the leading atheist authors. Through his Edge Foundation he channels the energies and talents of his authors, advancing what he calls ‘the third culture,’ an effort to integrate humanistic and scientific thought that excludes traditional religious belief. His books include, This Will Change Everything and What We Believe but Cannot Prove.

Philip Pullman is an Oxford-educated, best-selling author. He sees himself as ‘undermining the basis for Christian belief.’ Viewing C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series as religious propaganda, he has written his Dark Materials trilogy as an atheistic foil. He has also written a fictional account of Jesus, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christrepresenting Christ as a cynically manipulating deceiver.

Barbara Forrest is an active secular humanist who came to prominence as the leading philosophical voice against the form of creationism known as intelligent design. Criticising intelligent design as religious propaganda and as an attempt to insert God into educational curricula, she has been effective at making conceptual space for atheism. She has written, Creationism’s Trojan Horse.

David Sloan Wilson is a biologist and anthropologist who argues for the pervasiveness of selection in the evolutionary process. In consequence, he sees religion itself as an adaptation that can motivate humans to cooperate and behave altruistically. At the same time, he denies that religion has any basis in transcendent reality. His books include, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior and Darwin’s Cathedral.

Ray Kurzweil is an author, inventor and entrepreneur. He sees technology as fulfilling all aspirations previously ascribed to religion, including immortality. He argues that computing machines will soon outstrip human cognitive capacities, at which point humanity will upload itself onto a new, indestructible digital medium (an atheist version/vision of ‘resurrection’). His books include, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near.

The hiddenness of God

Without faith, God is hidden and even with faith there are times when God seems to be concealed. The idea of God’s hiddenness is expressed in Scripture, for example, the lament of the Psalm, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.’ (Psalm 22:1-2). Isaiah also expresses this sentiment, ‘Truly, you are a God who hides himself’ (Isaiah 45:15). But both authors (David and Isaiah) knew God well. This merely reflects moments in their experience. God’s Hiddenness is not a valid excuse for non-belief.

One of the first philosophers to contemplate the problem of hiddenness was Anselm of Canterbury who in his Proslogion complains:

I have never seen thee, O Lord my God; I do not know thy form. What, O most high Lord, shall this man do, an exile far from thee? What shall thy servant do, anxious in his love of thee, and cast out afar from thy face? He pants to see thee, and thy face is too far from him. He longs to come to thee, and thy dwelling place is inaccessible. He is eager to find thee, and knows not thy place. He desires to seek thee, and does not know thy face. Lord, thou art my God, and thou art my Lord, yet never have I seen thee. It is thou that hast made me, and hast made me anew, and hast bestowed upon me all the blessings I enjoy; and not yet do I know thee. Finally, I was created to see thee and not yet have I done that for which I was made. [15]

A person may be stubbornly blind to evidence of the divine, but the claim is that some non-believers have tried hard to believe in God. Schellenberg introduced the distinction between culpable and inculpable non-belief, where the latter is defined as ‘non-belief that exists through no fault of the non-believer.’ [16]

However, human beings possess an intuitive sense of God. This sensus divinatis (sense of divinity) means that the presence of God is universally perceived by all humans. Paul Helm explains, ‘Calvin’s use of the term “sense” signals that the knowledge of God is a common human endowment; mankind is created not only as capable of knowing God, but as actually knowing him.’ [17] Thus there is no inculpable or reasonable non-belief. Jonathan Edwards (the eighteenth-century American theologian) claimed that while every human being has been granted the capacity to know God, successful use of these capacities requires an attitude of ‘true benevolence’, a willingness to be open to the truth about God. Thus, the failure of non-believers to see ‘divine things’ is due to ‘a dreadful stupidity of mind, occasioning a sottish insensibility of their truth and importance.’

Cognitive idolatry

Today’s aggressive atheists demand that God should prove his existence. A detailed treatment of these kinds of demands, and their moral implication, is provided by Paul Moser who calls this ‘cognitive idolatry’. [18] He defines idolatry as ‘our not letting the true God be Lord in our lives’ and instead committing to something other than God by pursuing a quest for self-realisation on our own terms:

Cognitive idolatry relies on a standard for knowledge that excludes the primacy of the morally self-transforming knowledge of God central to knowing God as Lord. It rests on an epistemological standard, whether empiricist, rationalist, or some hybrid that does not let God be Lord. Such idolatry aims to protect one’s lifestyle from serious challenge by the God who calls, convicts, and reconciles. It disallows knowledge of God as personal subject and Lord to whom we are morally and cognitively responsible. It allows at most for knowledge of God as an undemanding object of human knowledge. [19]

Dangerous dogmatism

New Atheism is a form of dogmatism which could be described as scientific imperialism. Michael Novak reviewing books by Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Dawkins writes: ‘all three pretend that atheists “question everything” and “submit to relentless, almost tedious, self-criticism.” Yet in these books there is not a shred of evidence that their authors have ever had any doubts whatever about the rightness of their own atheism.’ [20] Stephen Jay Gould criticised Richard Dawkins for having a ‘Darwinian fundamentalism’ and ‘uncompromising ideology’. [21]

Harris has been criticised by some of his fellow contributors at The Huffington Post. In particular, R. J. Eskow has accused him of fostering intolerance towards faith, potentially as damaging as the religious fanaticism which he opposes. [22] Madeleine Bunting wrote in The Guardian that books by the so-called ‘Four Horsemen’ of the New Atheism (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) are ‘deeply political,’ sharing a ‘loathing’ of the role of religion in American culture and politics. Quoting Harris as saying, ‘some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,’ Bunting says ‘[t]his sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition.’ [23] Quoting the same passage, theologian Catherine Keller asks, ‘…could there be a more dangerous proposition than that?’ [24]

If there is no God

In Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov there is the famous argument that if there is no God, all things are permitted: ‘“But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?’’’ In his Templeton Prize address Alexander Solzhenitsyn said:

Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ [25]

Well-functioning human beings are typically aware of actions as being right and wrong. Furthermore, this awareness binds them to certain obligations. A proposition such as, ‘torturing babies for fun is wrong’ is generally regarded as a statement of fact, a position known as moral realism. [26] The existence of God provides a better explanation for this than various alternatives.

Social organisation strategies in the West (such as systems of jurisprudence) have evolved over time and are based on the transcendent ethical code of the Commandments. If morality is transcendental in nature then theism provides the best explanation for this. Thus, the existence of morality provides good grounds for belief in God. He made people in his image and morality reflects something of his nature. Thus morality is best explained within a theistic hypothesis; if God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. But objective values do exist and thus we must conclude that God exists.

Belief in God cannot be adequately explained in terms of psychological and sociological hypotheses. Although I believe there is sufficient evidence for the existence of God to warrant sincere investigation it must also be said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. [27] Faith is more than a shared neurological and cultural framework based on cognitive processes in the brain. Even if it were then it could be argued that those who don’t possess it are cerebrally deficient. This runs counter to the widely held view of atheists that believers are stupid. Belief in God is one of the most powerful impulses in human development and a strong impetus to personal transformation and collective progress. There are countless examples of its transformational power and faith should be acknowledged as a constructive force that makes a positive difference in the lives of individuals and communities.

David and Goliath

It was noted earlier that in his confrontation with Goliath David possessed five noteworthy qualities: confidence in God, experience in defending the flock, a spirit grieved to hear the Lord’s name being profaned, a courageous heart and a desire ‘that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel’ (1 Sam 17:46). In closing it might be helpful to make some pastoral observations on those points.

What does it mean to have confidence in God?

Having sufficient confidence in God to enter such an arena is not the same as possessing self-assurance based on intellectual ability, level of education or aptitude for communication. Rather it comes from knowing who God is – a spiritual perspective which understands the relative proportion of things such as human wisdom in relation to the infinite wisdom of God. Knowing God comes from a meaningful relationship with the Lord which is cultivated (through prayer and reading Scripture) in times of intimate and dynamic communion. Such frequent encounters with God fortify the soul for battle.

What does it mean to defend the flock?

It is a pastoral duty not only to feed the flock but to also fend off predators. The welfare of God’s people is well served by those who preach pastorally and prophetically. Christ-centred, Spirit-filled expository preaching of God’s Word will minister to the mind as well as heart and will. Preaching that bridges the worlds of the ancient text and the contemporary context will have an apologetic emphasis, dispelling doubt, defending faith and creating a safe space for critical examination of relevant intellectual issues at all levels. Just as David refined his skill in the regular performance of his duty to the flock, so too the spiritual shepherds of today need to develop in their roles as defenders of their people.

What does it mean to have a spirit that is grieved to hear the Lord’s name profaned?

Those who cultivate a close relationship with God will be possessed with something of the mind and heart of the Lord. Such was the case with Paul in Athens; Acts 17 records that he was ‘greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols’ (v.16, NIV). Seeing as God sees will result in feeling as God feels. The next verse tells us how Paul responded to the situation: ‘So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day’. How reminiscent this is of God’s own gracious invitation to engage with those estranged from him: ‘Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool’ (Isaiah 1:18). Believers need to engage in this same kind of rational dialogue in both sacred and secular space so that spiritual/biblical discourse has an apologetic emphasis that addresses questions people are asking.

What does it mean to have a courageous heart?

Engaging in the embattling apologetics of New Atheism is a daunting prospect for most believers and ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’. But having a courageous heart means preferring a potentially humiliating defeat rather than cowardly observing the Lord’s name being traduced. David had a desire ‘that all the earth may know that there is a God…’ (1 Samuel 17:46). The apostle Paul said ‘we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ (Ephesians 6:12). Who would not be afraid of such a fight? But God has supplied the armour. In the very next verse Paul says ‘Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm’ (v.13). The word ‘Therefore’ emphasises the necessity for spiritual weaponry in this war of worldviews. In vivid terms he explains that truth, righteousness, faith and the Word of God are necessary in this cosmic combat.

David stepped forward in the name of his God and although the opposition was frightening to others, it was not overwhelming to him. A great victory was wrought that day which inspired the people of God and instilled fear in the hearts of those who were their enemies. Such exemplary qualities are needed today at a time when the deity is being publicly mocked. Let us do all that we can to champion the cause of the Lord today!

What does it mean to have a desire ‘that all the earth may know that there is a God’?

The apostle Peter charged believers about the necessity of always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15). This is not an instruction just for pastors, missionaries and those engaged in apologetics. This is what all believers must do and we need to consider our own role in encouraging atheism by our moral shortcomings and intellectual laziness. Those who profess faith in God need to reveal something of that divine nature and not conceal it or distort it. Let us love the Lord with all our hearts, souls and minds.

The believer’s hope is a reasonable faith in the existence of God and must be presented as such in a spirit of humility. Christians must create a safe space for those with intellectual doubts to ask questions and find answers without recrimination. To respect other people’s views does not necessarily mean that we agree with them. Making God known in contemporary culture will involve dialogue in the public forum as much as in the pulpit and pews. The secular humanist desire to write the obituary for religion is futile. It is not so much that God is back but rather that he has never gone away. [28]

Religion is experiencing a resurgence in the twenty-first-century and this provides a new opportunity to make the true God known, not only through everyday interaction with friends, colleagues and neighbours but also preaching and teaching within the church, Christian publications and training seminars. The virtual community of our global village (with its social networks, websites and blogs) means that everybody has opportunity to speak out so that ‘all the earth may know that there is a God’