I. The New Atheism

The last four years or so have witnessed the surge of a highly combative and aggressive form of atheism in popular writings.[1] From Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett to Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, it is suddenly fashionable (and profitable!) to be an atheist. The rise of the “new atheism” is remarkable not for the persuasive nature of its arguments, but for the astonishing degree of its hostility towards God and religion, and the stridency of its claims—especially in our putative “postmodern” age which is supposed to be characterized by epistemological humility and suspicion toward any claim to know “the truth.”

Those who puzzle at the phenomenon that is the “new atheism”—whether religious or irreligious—could be forgiven for wondering what new cosmological data or insight into human nature suddenly became available around the mid-point of the twenty-first century’s first decade to instantly render belief in the supernatural remarkably less credible than in the millennia that preceded it. After all, it is not as though human beings just stumbled groggily out of a long epistemological hibernation to discover now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, that God is not an empirical piece of data in the observable world, or that those who claim to bear his name do not always live according to the professed ideals and ethics of their religious traditions. The meager nature of the contribution of the new atheists to the actual philosophical argument about the existence of God demonstrates that something else, clearly, is motivating this latest (and loudest) blast of hostility toward God and religion.[2] It is my contention that this something has less to do with science and reason vs. blind faith than it does with the problem of evil. The entire project undertaken by the new atheists is a theodicy, albeit of a curious sort. This claim is, perhaps, a strange one, and will require some unpacking.

II. An Atheist Theodicy?

On the face of it, it would seem unlikely to find two more unlikely and incongruous bedfellows than the terms “theodicy” and “atheism.” After all, theodicy is traditionally about providing a justification for God in light of the undeniable and depressingly prevalent amount and variety of evil in the world. What could be farther from the ambitions of the new atheists than justifying God’s manner of working in the world? Indeed, these authors are explicitly committed to opening a wayward and credulous population’s eyes to the irrationality and immorality of even believing in his existence! How then, could the new atheism be interpreted as a theodicy of any kind, never mind an inadequate one?

First, the term “theodicy” must be used in a broader way than has historically been the case and which is not, strictly speaking, in keeping with its etymological roots. Leibniz coined the word nearly three centuries ago to refer to a justification of God’s goodness in the face of evil.[3] I will be using the word to refer to any attempt to fit evil into a coherent conceptual structure that accounts both for its existence in the world and the pervasive human intuition that it does not belong.[4] It is, as Susan Neiman has said, “fundamentally a problem about the intelligibility of the world as a whole.”[5] According to Neiman, “theodicies place evils within structures that allow us to go on in the world” and should, ideally, “reconcile us to past evils while providing direction in preventing future ones.”[6]

Similarly, Peter Berger has given theodicy a central place in his sociological accounts of how and why worldviews are formed and maintained. According to Berger, a theodicy is, fundamentally, about “world-maintenance” and includes everything from justifying a particular institutional order, to preserving moral intuitions about the nature of human beings and the world they inhabit.[7] Ultimately, theodicies provide and reinforce what Berger terms a nomos or a “meaningfully ordered world.”[8]

For both Neiman and Berger, theodicy is about rendering the world—to ourselves and to others—in terms that are morally bearable. On this understanding of the nature and role of theodicy it will become immediately apparent that theodicies can come in theistic or atheistic varieties, a point made explicit by Neiman:

[N]othing is easier than stating the problem of evil in nontheist terms. . . . To make this observation, you need no theory. Any observation of the world that continues for more than a couple of minutes should do. Every time we make the judgment this ought not to have happened, we are stepping onto a path that leads straight to the problem of evil.[9]

The problem of evil is a human problem, not exclusively a religious one.[10] All people, regardless of their religious convictions or lack thereof, require conceptual categories to deal with evil, whether this is human authored or “natural” evil such as hurricanes or earthquakes. It is not only the theist who must give an account of her God in the face of evil; the atheist must give an account of his moral outrage at the evil in the world as well.[11]

Of course, it might be argued that using the term “theodicy” in this way amounts to little more than making it synonymous with the term “worldview.” All worldviews, after all, claim to make sense of our experience of the world, including the dissonance between human expectation and desire and the harsh, unforgiving nature of the way the world actually is. Indeed it is difficult to imagine what way of looking at the world would not merit the designation “theodicy” on this view. My only response to this charge is that it is absolutely correct. So why go to the trouble of yet another equivocation on a term that occupies a perfectly serviceable place in the lexicon?

I think that the term “theodicy” helpfully isolates the crucial feature of what worldviews actually do. If the world met all of our demands and desires, if there were no obstacles to the realization of our projects, if pain, disease, and waste were not prominent features of human experience of this planet, it seems unlikely that what we call a “worldview” would be necessary.[12] Insofar as the reasons that we have worldviews are moral in nature—we need some conception of why the world is unjust, cruel, heartless, indifferent, wasteful, chaotic, etc.—the term “theodicy” seems a helpful one. It isolates and illuminates what is going on in human attempts to understand and live in a morally ambiguous world.

III. Moral Protest

With this understanding of the role theodicy plays in the adoption of worldviews, it is time to examine the neo-atheist theodicy provided in the form of the current acerbic critiques of God and religion. To repeat, a theodicy locates evil within conceptual structures that help us make sense of and live in the world. While the neo-atheists take obvious delight in the “self-evident” rationality of their irreligious views, and never tire of pointing to the historical credulity and superstitious behaviour of religious adherents down through the ages, it is the evils of the world which loom large in each of their works. The “new atheism” is the latest in a long line of “protest atheism” motivated by moral outrage rather than by intellectual doubt.[13]

Most of the neo-atheists begin by inveighing against the inherent irrationality of religious belief, combining breathless paeans to the glories of science with indictments against the obscurantism and progress-inhibiting nature of religion. And some linger here for some time. But eventually, and to varying degrees, each of the current prophets of irreligion end up engaging in a profoundly moral critique. The new atheists are nothing if not morally sensitive. All exhibit a keen sense of justice, strong intuitions regarding what a world made by a good and powerful God ought to look like, and firm convictions regarding the kind of ethical behaviour that should characterize those who claim to believe in such a deity. They reject God for the kind of world they see around them and they reject religion because of the behaviour of the religious.

There are at least three foci of the new atheists’ moral protest. They protest, first, against the behaviour of the God portrayed by religious texts, second against the historical behaviour of those who claim to follow this God, and finally against the kind of world that this God is claimed to have made. Evidence for the strong element of moral protest is in abundant supply, no matter where in new atheist catalogue we turn.

First, the new atheists protest against the behaviour of God. Here the criticism is usually directed at the Bible and its presentation of God’s way of working in the world. Richard Dawkins opens chapter two of The God Delusion with the following, oft-quoted, adjectivally promiscuous salvo:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[14]

Dawkins goes on to complain about, among other things, God’s lack of intervention on Jephthah’s daughter’s behalf in the strange story found in Judges 11[15] and the “barking mad,” “vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent” doctrine of atonement.[16] Christopher Hitchens joins the fray, declaring that the book authored by God contains a warrant for the “trafficking of humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre.”[17] Not to be outdone, Michel Onfray offers the following “lesson” from the book of Genesis about what God demands of his creatures: “man is forbidden to seek awareness; he should be content to believe and obey. He must choose faith over knowledge, suppress all interest in science, and instead prize submission and total obedience.”[18]

Similar examples could, unfortunately, be multiplied throughout the writings of each of the new atheists. Their distaste for the Bible and the God it claims to reveal is as remarkable as the simplistic nature of their engagement with it.[19] Simply put, the Bible and the God it claims to reveal ought to be disregarded by anyone with even the most rudimentary moral sensitivity.

Second, the new atheists take issue with the behaviour of those who claim to act in the name of God. Each of the new atheists predictably point to the Crusades, the burning of witches, the persecution of heroic men of science, and, ultimately, the threat posed by the current resurgence of radical Islam.[20] Religion, by virtue of its firm beliefs in a world other than this one, is claimed to make people more willing to perpetrate violence than “rational” atheism. The new atheists have a big problem with the ethical record of religious people; they expect, quite rightly, I think, better behaviour from those who claim to know how God expects his people to live.

Finally, and perhaps most curiously, the new atheists’ moral protest is directed against the natural world itself. This form of protest is, perhaps, less obvious, and is usually framed as a manner of refuting attempts to infer God’s existence from the wonder of the world he has made, but the new atheists have a clear conception of what the world ought to look like. Dawkins has famously stated that:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe had precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.[21]

This is more than just a bald statement of the way the world happens to be; there is clearly an evaluative judgment being made here by Dawkins. A better world would not be indifferent to human concerns, and it might just contain justice. Christopher Hitchens likewise heaps scorn on those prone to see the beauty of God’s design in the natural world. After cataloguing the deficiencies and inconveniences of the human body, Hitchens directs the following query to believers: “Why do people keep saying, ‘God is in the details?’ He isn’t in ours, unless his yokel creationist fans wish to take credit for his clumsiness, failure, and incompetence.”[22] Sam Harris is equally blunt:

Biological truths are simply not commensurate with a designer God, or even a good one. The perverse wonder of evolution is this: the very mechanisms that create the incredible beauty and diversity of the living world guarantee monstrosity and death. The child born without limbs, the sightless fly, the vanished species—these are nothing less than Mother Nature caught in the act of throwing her clay. No perfect God could maintain such incongruities. It is worth remembering that if God created the world and all things in it, he created small-pox, plague, and filariasis. Any person who intentionally loosed such horrors upon the earth would be ground to dust for his crimes.[23]

God is repeatedly taken to task for the pain, waste, and decay of the world as it is experienced by human beings. Throughout all of these charges, the complaint rings loud and clear: a good God would have made a better world. Ours is grossly inadequate; even the least imaginative among us could envision a world more amenable to human aspirations than this one. The new atheists have looked squarely at the world as it is and it is a “perverse” one indeed—one for whose nature someone ought to be held morally (if not criminally) responsible.

The new atheists expect a better world than the one they observe—an expectation that simultaneously depends upon clear moral expectations of God and those who claim to follow him, as well as an appreciation, if not always clearly articulated, of prominent existential needs. To be sure, the new atheists are holding up the world they see to the world described by religious believers and in religious texts; but in addition to this, one senses a deep, even religious longing for a world better than this one.

IV. The New Atheism as Inadequate Theodicy

Taken together, the three elements of the new atheists’ moral protest against God and religion constitute an attempt to place evil within a conceptual structure, and to advocate a means of moving forward. It constitutes, in short, a theodicy. Returning to Neiman’s two minimal criteria, the new atheist theodicy’s “reconciliation” with past evils comes in the form of an evolutionary view of history, a steady progression from primitive, credulous primates, prone to all manner of speculative fantasy and deplorable violence in the promotion of these beliefs, to the enlightened rational elite of which they are current exemplars. The evils of the past are unfortunate, certainly, but what else could be expected from fearful, ignorant primates?

Direction for the prevention of future evils is equally obvious: less religion = less evil. To return to the language of Berger, the new atheists’ version of morally ordered “world-maintenance”—their theodicy—is breathtakingly simple. The elimination of religion equals the elimination of at least some—the most we can hope for, at any rate—evil. While none of the new atheists are so foolish as to suggest that all of what human beings experience as evil will disappear with the elimination of religion (hurricanes and tsunamis will still come), those evils that lie within human power to commit will be drastically mitigated once religion is out of the picture.

But is the new atheist theodicy an adequate one? If a common problem with theistic theodicies is that they have difficulty in rendering a coherent picture of God (i.e., how can he have the power we claim he does, and be as good as we claim he is, and yet evil exists), the problem with the new atheist theodicy is that it renders human beings unintelligible to themselves. On the one hand, we are told by the new atheists that human beings are nothing more than the result of a dysteleological, amoral process which rewards self-preservation by any and all methods. What we think of as evil is only a peculiar feature of our own psychology, for objective values are not “out there” in the natural world. On the other hand, the new atheists present us with endless moral proscriptions against credulity and superstition and violence. Perhaps most importantly, God and religious belief in general are evaluated according to a very specific ethical standard. God is rejected not because belief in a divine being does not offer a plausible explanation of why the world exists (the new atheists freely admit that a deistic God would fit the data[24]), but because of the evil done in his name, and exhibited by the world he has made.

By revealing their concerns primarily to lie within the areas of truth and ethics (not adaptive utility, which is all that could conceivably matter on a naturalistic picture of the world[25]), the new atheists locate themselves squarely within the orbit of the Western worldview so profoundly influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. They show themselves to be deeply committed to a just and morally-ordered world—a commitment that makes little sense on a view of the world which sees all of life as, ultimately, a survival game.

The new atheists’ indebtedness to the Christian heritage of which they are a part is revealed, although never acknowledged, in the very act of demanding a more close connection between “is” and “ought.” The protest against evil only makes sense on the supposition that the world should be better than it is, yet it is precisely this presupposition that is impossible to read off of a thoroughly naturalistic understanding of the world.[26] Susan Neiman has described the attempt to retain moral ideals within the framework of atheistic humanism as maintaining “the curse against reality” while abandoning “the forces that give curses power.”[27] It is precisely this morally outraged and incoherent “curse” against God and religion that we see in the new atheism.

V. Conclusion

So what, if anything, is gained by understanding the rise of the new atheism in the manner I am suggesting? Why not just leave the apologists on both sides of the atheist/theist divide to continue bickering over who really has science on their side, who really can lay claim to having the most intelligent adherents, and who has really got the better moral track record? In short, I feel that identifying and highlighting the element of moral protest in the neo-atheist critique of God and religion can serve as a bridge of sorts in what has been, in the last several years, an increasingly hostile and divisive engagement. At least some of the moral concerns highlighted by the new atheists seem to be entirely proper ones from a Christian point of view, even representative of important features of the Christian tradition.[28] Christians have, historically, shared the new atheists’ bewilderment and outrage at the moral behaviour of those who claim to be religious; Christians, too, struggle with how best to interpret the struggle of history—whether on a cosmic, evolutionary scale or with respect to the historical record of human enmity—in light of their belief that a good God is providentially guiding the world to a good and peaceful end.

But the Christian believes she has good moral reasons to hope, even to expect God to right the wrongs of history, to expect the world to be better than it is. The new atheists have no such reasons. If anything, logical consistency ought to oblige them to express admiration for the adaptive benefits provided by religion and seek their furtherance.[29] The Christian disagreement with the neo-atheists is not primarily with the nature of their objections but with the resources they offer both for making them in the first place and for ushering the world into a better (irreligious) future.

The prominence of evil in the new atheism—evil attributed to God, his followers, and the hostile, indifferent planet he is claimed to have made—suggests that the issue is not, as it is often presented, “rational” atheism vs. “superstitious” religion. Rather, the issue is between rival theodicies. If religion is thought to be the root cause of much of the evil in the world, a worldview which urges its removal represents a kind of theodicy. Evil is identified as such, its causes are described, and a way forward is recommended. What is not provided is a plausible account of why human beings should have such a strong moral reaction to the nature of our environment in the first place.

The current instantiation of protest atheism, like similar kinds in the past, relies more heavily on the moral capital accumulated through several millennia of Christian influence than it cares to admit. As such, the theodicy offered by the new atheism, while demonstrating an admirable (even biblical!) degree of moral sensitivity, is, ultimately, inadequate.


[1] Four of the more prominent works which form the core of the “new atheism” are: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006); Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004); and Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2007). Three other, less prominent works are: Michel Onfray, Atheist Manifesto: The Case against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, trans. Jeremy Leggatt (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007); Victor Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007); and Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007).

[2] Most of the new atheists admit that, strictly speaking, the existence of a God cannot be disproved; the term “God” could certainly be affixed to whatever puts a stop to the infinite regress of causation, as in Aquinas’ “five ways” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 2, a. 3). The new atheists take issue not with God in general, but with a particular God, namely, the God of the Abrahamic religions.

[3] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Theodicy, trans. E.M. Huggard (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).

[4] Peter Berger and Susan Neiman are just two examples of thinkers who use the term in this way: Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 5, 239; Peter Berger, A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 40-41.

[5] Neiman, 7-8.

[6] Ibid., 239.

[7] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967), 59.

[8] Ibid. 19-20.

[9] Neiman, 5.

[10] John Stackhouse has identified three different senses in which the problem of evil is understood and experienced to be a problem. At the intellectual level, the problem of evil is simply a logical puzzle to be solved; at the religious level, evil is a problem when one’s ideas and experience of it do not align with one’s ideas and experience of God or ultimate reality; and at the existential level, evil is problem when it calls into question one’s way of ethical behaviour and decision-making—one’s “pattern of life” in general. Part of my argument will be that evil is a problem in any or all of these three senses for both theists and atheists. See John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 27-29.

[11] C.S. Lewis famously came to the conclusion that an atheism that failed to provide an account of the nature of their moral protest against the injustice of the world was “too simple.” See C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Fontana, 1955), 39-42

[12] Schopenhauer described philosophy as being little more than a response to the unsatisfactory nature of the world: “The more specific character… of the astonishment that urges us to philosophize obviously springs from the sight of the evil and wickedness in the world. If our life were without end and free from pain, it would possibly not occur to anyone to ask why the world exists.” See Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Vol. 2, trans. E.F.J. Payne (Clinton, MA: The Falcon’s Wing Press, 1958), 171-72.

[13] Laato and de Moor cite Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov as the paradigmatic “protest atheist.” One gets the sense that, like Karamazov, the new atheists would sooner “return their ticket” than be morally reconciled to a world in which God allows the kind of evil this one does. Antti Laato and Johannes C de Moor, ed., Theodicy in the World of the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 11.

[14] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 31.

[15] Ibid., 243.

[16] Ibid., 253.

[17] Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2007), 102.

[18] Michel Onfray, Atheist Manifesto: The Case against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, trans. Jeremy Leggatt (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007), 53.

[19] To say that the literary and historical contexts of scriptural texts are ignored by the new atheists would be to put it mildly. There is not the slightest indication that these authors have considered the possibility that every text in the Bible might not exist for moral instruction or emulation, or that genres like poetry and prophecy might communicate in ways not entirely obvious or comfortable to twenty first century readers. Indeed, one commentator has chided the new atheists for being “almost as literal in their readings of the Bible as the least educated, most literal-minded fundamentalist in Flannery O’Connor’s rural Georgia.” See Michael Novak, “Lonely Atheists of the Global Village,” National Review 59 (March 19, 2007): 44-45.

[20] The immoral behaviour of the religious occupies such a prominent place in the each of the new atheists’ work, that it would be tendentious to cite examples. For a representative sample, see Dawkins, The God Delusion, 281-344; Hitchens, 15-36, 43-61, 217-28; Harris, 11-49, 108-52; Onfray 182-198; Stenger, 193-213.

[21] Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 133.

[22] Hitchens, 85.

[23] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 172.

[24] Richard Dawkins expresses what borders on admiration for the deist God: “Compared with the Old Testament’s psychotic delinquent, the deist God of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment is an altogether grander being: worthy of his cosmic creation, loftily unconcerned with human affairs, sublimely aloof from our private thoughts and hopes, caring nothing for our messy sins or mumbled contritions. The deist God is a physicist to end all physics, the alpha and omega of mathematicians, the apotheosis of designers; a hyper-engineer who set up the laws and constants of the universe, fine-tuned them with exquisite precision and foreknowledge, detonated what we would now call the hot big bang, retired and was never heard from again.” Dawkins, The God Delusion, 38.

[25] Alvin Plantinga argues that naturalism is logically inconsistent with evolutionary theory for this very reason. See Alvin Plantinga, “The Dawkins Confusion: Naturalism ad absurdum” in Books & Culture: A Christian Review 13 (2007): 21-24.

[26] Miroslav Volf puts it sharply: “I believe that you can protest against the evil in the world only if you believe in a good God. Otherwise the protest doesn’t make sense. I protest with God against God.” Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 229.

[27] Neiman, 216.

[28] The themes of protest and lament are found throughout Scripture. The Psalms, Israel’s and the church’s prayer-book, frequently ring out with the cry “how long?” The books of Job and Ecclesiastes also wrestle mightily with the problem of evil within the framework of belief in a good God. The biblical authors consider it entirely appropriate, apparently, to hold God accountable, to put it only slightly less reverently than they do, for the world of their experience in light of the goodness and justice of God.

[29] This is the position advocated by Loyal Rue. Noting that any feature of the world that is as universal as religious belief must have been profoundly evolutionarily advantageous, Rue argues that we should continue to promote it, regardless of whether or not it is true. See Loyal Rue, By the Grace of Guile: The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Religion is Not about God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture Our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004).