New Atheists -- Sightings

Martin Marty is always insightful. He has seen enough American religion to understand the nuances and offer helpful insight to those of us who have trod this path a much shorter time. Many of us are troubled by the loud and often ignorant rantings of the "New Atheists." Their arguments, as Marty points out, aren't new. David Hume pretty much said what needed to be said back in the 18th Century. Darwin raised important questions but Darwin didn't overthrow God -- we have just had to figure out how best to adapt to Darwin's discoveries.
So, in this Monday's contribution to his Sighting's newsletter, we are treated to some important questions to be reflected on.


Sightings 9/17/07

The New Atheists
--Martin E. Marty

"For the first time in living memory, religious skepticism is hot," writes Katha Pollitt in The Nation (September 24). In a sensible one-page column, she points to best-sellers and talk show appearances by "the new atheists." These skeptics do not particularly impress the progressive media, she observes, yet they get a hearing. Why, if their arguments are not very good?

"It's no mystery why these writers are doing so well even though there haven't been any new arguments against the existence of God since around 1795." For the past seven years, she writes, born-again Christianity has been shoved down everyone's throat via public policy, and this has "sickened and disgusted a lot of us members of the reality-based community." Skeptics also speak up at the gross immoralities of "televangelists and right-wing family-man politicians."

Pollitt, counting herself a skeptic, also criticizes some political "progressives" who, counseled by advisers to be even more overt about their faith and to brush up on their religious vocabulary, suddenly sound too religious and are too ready to relate faith to public policy. (Pssst! They long have been so, but they are being noticed for it once again, and some of them might be glad to be noticed. But that's a topic for another day.)

She heaps on Democratic presidential candidates who answer intimate questions about their own faith in ways that seem designed to curry favor. It's fine with her if they believe in God, but she does not like the parading of faith in public—she might have quoted Matthew 6:1, which cautions that showcasing piety before others leads to no heavenly reward—or the suggestion that the candidates' faith would profitably affect their policies.

Political assault and spiritual hypocrisy inspire reaction from the new atheists: "It's one thing to show respect for religious belief in the context of social tolerance in a pluralistic society . . . but when Christians make faith a matter of public policy, it becomes hard to explain why nonbelievers should be deferential."

I can picture many aggressive religionists using columns like Pollitt's to suggest that "we are doing something right. Jesus warned disciples: 'Woe if all people speak well of you.' Now some speak ill of us, and that's a sign that we are serving the Kingdom of God ." Christian faith is supposed to be a scandal, something people trip over, says the wincing counter-attack. "At last we are picking up scandalized enemies, who are tripping over our expressions of faith and the policy proposals based on them."

A question will come up more and more as soul-searching goes deeper among religious (in this case, Christian) "progressives" and conservative Catholics and evangelicals alike. Christianity's scandal was supposed to be over the cross of Jesus, symbol of the heart of the faith: Are all these aggressive political programs near the heart of faith; or are they, as their critics suggest, "just politics?" Making distinctions, showing restraint, finding appropriate ways for faith(s) to work for the common good—these will demand and receive new attention.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Mystical Seeker said…
Why does Martin Marty use scare quotes around the word "progressive" but no scare quotes around the word "conservative"?
I believe Marty puts quotes around "progressives" because Pollitt is criticizing "progressives" not "conservatives"

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