The new atheism is like a lot of things wearing the label—there’s really nothing new about it. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and others are simply this generation’s militant atheists. There are to their time what Madelyn Murray O’Hare or Robert Ingersoll was in their day. They’re churning up the same arguments and objections to religion (especially Christianity), that have been used down through the centuries. It would be more accurate to call it recycled atheism.
Most of their objections go back to the fact that they don’t like the way God goes about being God. Case in point, Jerry Coyne, who describes himself as a second wave new atheist. He argues that God can’t be the ultimate source of morality because He isn’t moral. He offers as evidence the assertion that God “repeatedly sanctioned or ordered immoral acts in the Old Testament.” He cites things such as slavery, the stoning of adulterers and people who engaged in homosexual acts, etc. Coyne also takes on Jesus, saying He taught “principles of questionable morality,” by barring the wealthy from heaven, speaking of wicked people in hell, etc.
Some of the objections he raises are misunderstandings of Scripture. Jesus taught it was impossible for a rich man or anyone to get into heaven on their own, but that with God all things were possible (see Matthew 19:23-26). Slavery was never sanctioned by God—it was tolerated in much the same way that polygamy, divorce, and concubinage were. Other objections are indeed more challenging. No less than the Apostle Peter admitted there were things in Scripture that are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16).
But it’s one thing to wrestle with a text and its teaching, it’s quite another to declare that you understand all aspects of it or any issue so well that you can declare the Almighty to be at fault. This is the kind of trap Job fell into. It is also the type of thing that Peter cautions against in the passage previously referred to as he writes of people distorting the Scriptures to their destruction. It’s precisely the position of new atheism. While faith and understanding are overlapping circles that complement one other, it’s important to realize that the circles will never become one (in this life). Even as God blesses us with growth the leads to a greater knowledge and understanding, it usually leads to more questions as well. But this is okay because our faith ultimately isn’t based on what we don’t know—it’s based on what we know. We know of a bloodied Roman cross, a broken tomb in a garden, and a risen and living Savior. For in the end, it’s not just a matter of what we believe, it’s also about Who we believe (2 Timothy 1:12)!