The Anglican Church Goes After the New Atheists

Archbishop John Sentamu (Left) w/ Archbishop Rowan Williams (Right) Photo courtesy the Telegraph UK (

This post comes out of this article from the Telegraph, which discusses a new report endorsed by both the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams and the Archbishop of York Dr. John Sentamu that encourages clergy in the Church of England to “to be more vocal in countering the arguments put forward by a more hard-line group of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have campaigned for a less tolerant attitude towards religion.”

So, some of you may be asking, why should we care? After all, we don’t live in Britain, nor are we Anglican. (Well, I am. But I’d expect many of our readers aren’t.)

One should care, I think, because at the root of this article lies a much more fundamental question regarding the relationship between the religious and non-religious in modern society. What I find most interesting is that the CofE’s report seems to locate the issue not only between Christians and atheists, but between all religious groups and atheists. The author writes:

“One of the paradoxes of recent times has been the increasing secularisation of society and attempts to marginalise religion alongside an increasing interest in spiritual issues and in the social and cultural implications of religious faith,” says the report, called Challenges for the New Quinquennium.

The Church must be “explicit about the need to counter attempts to marginalise Christianity and to treat religious faith more generally as a social problem,” it says.


The Church is keen to address the rise of new atheism, which has grown over recent years with the publication of bestselling books arguing against religion.

However, the document says that this intolerance is becoming more widespread and can be seen in public bodies, which it says must be challenged over attitudes of “suspicion or hostility towards churches and other faith groups”.

In recent years, a number of Christians have taken legal action against local councils and hospital trusts after being disciplined for expressing their faith by wearing crosses or refusing to act against their orthodox beliefs.

“There is still work to be done to counter the prevailing tendency of treating faith as a private matter which should not impact on what happens in the public realm.

“This is a challenge for all churches and faiths, but especially for the Church of England.”

As the report frames it, this isn’t just about Christianity– it’s “for all churches and faiths“. While things are a bit different here in the States– religion, for instance, is not marginalized as the author claims for Britain, and I find many claims made by Christians warning of impending threats of secularization dubious– I still find this deliberate “calling out” of one group worthy of watching.

If I’m not mistaken, the Vatican issued a similar exhortation to engage with secular society earlier this year (or a bit before), that sought to host dialogues and educational events in prominent cathedrals (I believe the article I read specifically named churches in Paris) between atheists and Christians. Such formal imperatives to get involved in the predominantly secular cultures in Europe could speak rather loudly as a bold step to save face, or it could represent a genuine attempt at peace and understanding divorced from mere proselytizing.

I’m all for engaging with atheists on notions of faith in public life– I’m even happy to debate theological/ethical/philosophical issues with the non-religious community; I believe a healthy debate is good, and can build bridges of mutual understanding if done well. However, what I hope does not happen is that the engagement turns into argument, rendering as lost any hope for understanding. Already many in the New Atheist movement have fervently spoken out against religion, calling it force for evil in the world and a gross suspension of reason. And here in the States, many in the more fundamentalist sects of the Christian faith refuse to deal with atheists, dismissing them all as immoral heathens bound for an eternity in hell. Painting in such broad strokes doesn’t strike me as productive, and so I hope that the CofE does a good job in countering New Atheism’s barbed critiques by promoting peace and a reasonable approach to faith.

Though sympathetic to the atheist’s position– and seeing it as a perfectly valid one– I personally  don’t appreciate the so-called New Atheist movement. I find it rather counterproductive and often results in the two sides (religious and non-religious) talking past each other. If the CofE can improve the public discourse surrounding the religious/non-religious divide, then I support the Archbishops’ effort; if this becomes another dialogic train wreck, however, I won’t think so highly of it. Much of this depends on how their initiative manifests itself in church life: will this be simply an increase in polemical apologetics, or a genuine attempt at providing quality lay-education programs on the subjects in question? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, the announcement of this report comes just before Greg and I are set to participate in a lunch-time panel discussion on Friday (tomorrow!) about Evangelicals and their (rarely peaceful) relationship to the atheist community. We will post more information on this event later.

We want to hear your thoughts. Do you think the church should engage so specifically with the so-called “New Atheists” and their criticisms?

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