The New Theists
We hear much about “the New Atheists”—Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others—but, in fact, what they have said and are saying is not really “new.” What’s new is the crop and some of the ways they express their atheism (which is really naturalism).
I would like to suggest another category that deserves as much if not more attention: “the New Theists.” Here I’ll describe this category and offer a few names. It’s not a monolithic group, a “bounded set,” any more than the New Atheists are that. It is a collection of relatively young (not ancient) believers in God—most of the some kind of Christians but not claiming that only Christians believe in God.
Just as the New Atheists were and are largely reacting to something (part of why they are called “New”)—namely fundamentalisms—the New Theists are largely reacting to the New Atheists. All of them are highly intellectual scholars with doctoral degrees who have much teaching experience in universities not tied to any particular religious faith or denomination.
The three that come immediately to mind are: Alister McGrath, Keith Ward, and John Lennox. In fact, you can see those three being interviewed and engaging in dialogue on Youtube. I don’t know if they are friends, but they certainly know each other. To be sure, there are other New Theists who could be fitted into the category, but these three especially represent it.
The New Theists believe that belief in a personal Supreme Being, necessary being, source of all that exists and of all true and objective values, is more reasonable overall than disbelief in such a being. However, they are all cautious about using the word “proof.” Their main line of argument is that atheism is profoundly rationally flawed, especially in its attempts to argue that belief in God is unreasonable.
All three also believe that belief in God is culturally important and that atheism has deleterious consequences for meaning, purpose and values—all of which are necessary for the healthy functioning of a social order. But all three stop short of arguing that atheists are bad people, stupid people or deserving of ignominy—unless they cast aspersions against believers in God that are unfair (which is too often the case).
One way of describing the New Theists’ “newness” is to say that they attempt to distinguish carefully between theism—rightly understood and explicated—and religion. A person can believe in God, as did Antony Flew toward the end of his life, and not be religious in any traditional sense. On the other hand, all three of the above named New Theists are religious in their own ways. But they do not think belief in God is dependent on religious faith even if revelation and faith are necessary to fill out the concept of God in any personally meaningful way.
The New Theists are humble believers in God; they are not on a crusade to wipe out atheism. All are willing to enter into constructive dialogue, as opposed to mere debate, with atheists and agnostics. All New Theists are willing to reconstruct the traditional philosophical doctrine of God derived largely from Plato and Aristotle and their interpreters. On the other hand, they are not “neo-classical theists” like Whitehead, Hartshorne and their followers in “process theology.” They believe in God’s “prior actuality” (Austin Farrer’s phrase).
The New Theists’ main purpose, in their apologetics, is to persuade others that belief in God is a reasonable choice. It is not, for them, a “properly basic belief” (as in Reformed Epistemology) that needs no defense. Nor is it necessarily a “leap of faith” as in existentialist fideism. For them, God is a philosophical object of inquiry (as well as, especially for devout Christians, the Subject of revelation).
The New Theists accept perspectivalism as a given for postmodern intellectual inquiry. There is no “view from nowhere.” However, and at the same time, belief in God is not without reasons. Human experience of reality points toward the existence of God, and ultimately, many important aspects of human experience remain unexplained without belief in God.
For the New Theists, then, whether or not God exists ought to be and remain a legitimate question for intellectual inquiry, for philosophy, and not be relegated to an esoteric realm of “faith only.” And philosophers qua philosophers (and others) ought to be able to express belief in God as a philosophical belief and not have belief in God dismissed as inappropriate for classrooms. Just as a professor in a state university may express belief that, for example, the universe itself is infinite, so a professor in a state university ought to be able to express belief that God exists without being accused of promoting religion in a “secular space.”
I agree with the New Theists about this.
I also believe philosophical belief in God is not by itself salvific. However, acquiring it can open the “door” to faith in the God of the Bible, the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I also believe that it is better to believe in God than not to believe in God for the sake of having reasons why people ought to care for the weak. An atheist can care for the weak as a matter of preference, but cannot give any reason why it is right to care for the weak if someone else does not share that preference.