Posted by: rohlfsen1 | April 21, 2009

Conversational Benefits of the New Atheism

Last night at Iggys I was talking to some of you about how writing blog posts always seems slightly intimidating, because I feel as though I need to make some profound, creative, new point with each post. And then of course, Gabe always poses an extra challenge, as I know no matter what I say, he will disagree in full force (though that is a good thing GabeJ). As the night continued, however, I came to find that Iggys and the beverages it serves make for a good setting for personal and theological reflection. And after three hours of good conversation with a bunch of you (in addition to my own mental wanderings) here is what I came up with last night.


Over the last three months, I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest that my friends, family, and strangers have taken in this class. When we first began the dive into the new atheism, I tended to feel awkward when reading books like The God Delusion and The End of Faith in public. Here I was, a Christian, reading books that would lead any stranger to believe that not only was I not a Christian, but that I was an outspoken opponent of Christianity. Surprisingly, however, these notorious books caught the attention of many of my friends and passersby alike, leading into really good conversation about why I was reading the book, what I thought of the book, and what I thought about the new atheism and Christianity in general. Ironically, I usually struggle to find ways to bring up my faith to my friends. Leave it to the new atheists to do it for me….


I have had some very good theological conversations with my family and Christian friends over the faith challenges I have faced this semester as a result of the pressing issues raised by the new atheists. My parents and my brother have visited our blog, and everyone I know has been more interested in this class in particular than any other theology class I have ever taken. Specifically, my mom and I got into an interesting discussion over the issue of creation vs. evolution during Easter break. She began with a rather intimidating intro of “can you believe what Ben (her best friend’s son) learned at Wheaton about creation taking place through the process of evolution?” And then she followed it up with a strategic, “what have you learned about that this semester?” Well, despite my own lack of study of the subject matter, I had to tell her that I had learned quite a bit from interactions with Nick, Joey, and other people who had studied it in more depth and that I agreed with Ben. As I began to explain, she immediately frowned and I could see the “what are you learning?!?!” thoughts quickly gaining strength in her head. Surprisingly, however, I felt better prepared than ever before to defend, explain, and clarify what I believed. This semester has undeniably challenged a great majority of my beliefs concerning both the Christian God and life in general, and as a result I have been forced to rethink a good number of them. I have tried very hard to give credence to the new atheist claims, and as Brooke just stated, my faith and beliefs have slightly changed and been strengthened as a result.


Overall, I guess I am trying to say that the new atheism was an excellent choice for this semester’s seminar. Yes, I have enjoyed learning about the subject matter, and of course I have loved the challenges of reevaluating my faith, but most importantly, I have loved the conversations that the new atheism has spurred, both inside and outside the classroom. Controversy, notoriety, and public debate are perhaps the best ingredients of good conversation, and the new atheism has all three. In addition, the issues and topics that arise from the new atheists are relevant and applicable to all people, from the most fundamental Christians to the most confident atheists. Most people have some sort of opinion on religion, evolution, faith, society, morals, etc., and simply due to the nature of these topics, most people are therefore very willing to engage in conversation over them. Perhaps this is too bold of a claim here, but I am going to make it anyways. People care about stuff like this, people have opinions, and the new atheists are very good at sparking conversations between people who are just different enough to make such conversations fruitful and interesting.



  1. Well, shoot Rae; I don’t know that there is really anything I can disagree with in this post :(. Maybe I’m only able to disagree tooth and nail with one person at a time and Brooke’s last few posts/comments have sucked up all my disagreement. Sorry, Rae!

    I will say, though, on slightly a tangent from what you said here, that the slight connexion which my paper has with the New Atheism consists in a debt of gratitude to atheists for the benefits to theology which can come from conversation with them. My paper is specifically over soteriological idolatry – wrong conceptions of salvation which limit God’s work and in which people end up thinking that they save themselves. I say that this idolatry has been exposed in large part because both atheists and idolatrous theists reject the complete giftedness of the Gift of salvation and so theists should be taken aback when they see how closely the walk with atheists on this matter.

    Anyway, that was the “conversational benefit” which I found in my meditations.

  2. I agree with you Rae about the importance of studying the New Atheists, not only for my own faith but in conversations with others. I wrote my final paper on evolution and faith and how compatible they really are but first came across the topic last semester when I listened to Kenneth Miller speak, who writes biology text books and who is also a strong Christian. It really peaked my interest and when we started this topic this semester I was extremely excited to pursue this further. I think my family has been rather interested in my discoveries as well, just wondering if my two majors actually do have anything to do with each other and through this topic it is obviously yes. Never before have my friends and family, just as yours Rae, been so interested in one of my theology classes. I have had numerous people ask to have a copy of my final paper to read what discoveries I have come across and never before has that happened.

    For me, the New Atheists have not only gotten my friends interested in my work but allowed me to examine my faith in an entirely new way. It is kind of ironic because after all these years learning about Christianity in class, I’ve felt that my faith has actually been weakened, not strengthened. But through examining direct attacks on Christianity I have found a renewal and a surprising instinct to fight and argue strongly for my beliefs.

  3. I have been greatly surprised by the amount people that know about some of the material discussed during this semester. I myself had secretly wanted to read The God Delusion for quite a while but had not figured out if that would be something that I wanted to do. After reading it, I am glad that I have done so in order to look at different aspects that are questioned about religion and my faith. In talking to people about my paper many have seemed interested in the topic while many have questioned why we are discussing such a thing in a theology class.

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