The so-called “new atheists” of today do not hold much weight against the more scholarly-based atheists of past years. Men like Bertrand Russell and J. L. Mackie wrote significant works that influenced a generation of scholars, but despite their refined worldview produced the likes of modern new atheists Dawkins, Hitchens, and the like. Why do the modern atheists have a wider audience, even though their arguments are less rigorous? Part can be explained by modern communication, but I believe a significant part is due to the the new atheists’ use of persuasion techniques rather than arguments. For example, the following quotes from Richard Dawkins overflow with the flavor of rhetoric and persuasion, not logic and calculation:
“Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”
“A delusion is something that people believe in despite a total lack of evidence.”
“One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers that are not really answers at all.”
Now, regardless of what you might think of Dawkins, these statements are primarily emotional and not technical. Even if you were to think atheism is true and Christianity totally false, or to think that Dawkins supports his statements with evidence, the fact remains that the statements above are closer to the product of a paper on persuasion than of logic. In turn, it has produced the diatribes that can be prominently found on atheist websites. Even for those who would disagree with Christianity, the statements above are incorrect on their face.
By contrast, Christians, at least those of us who know the power of persuasion, generally feel it is incorrect to use rhetorical and emotional persuasion techniques, as opposed to attempting to clearly present a defense with logic and reason. To use such techniques seems incorrect, like somehow cheating.
We do not have to doubt what Christian apologetics would look like if laced with the same techniques as the new atheists, for it has been published in Edward Feser’s book The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. Examples are not hard to find in the book. Speaking of Sam Harris’ A Letter to a Christian Nation, Feser says
. . . a book which, despite it’s absurdly pretentious title, reads like something Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s publisher would have rejected as too superficial. Since Harris is a dead ringer for comedian Ben Stiller, one wonders whether the whole thing is an elaborate publicity stunt — an Andy Kaufman wrestling match, only with anti-religious fallacies instead of anti-feminist chokeholds. But then one notices in Harris’ bio that he moved on from his undergraduate study of philosophy to seek “a graduate in neuroscience.” His B.A. having qualified him, he thinks, to dismiss the great religious thinkers of the West without having read them, perhaps his next feat will be to perform brain surgery without a single lesson. (Letter, p. 78)
Such language, when used wisely, can appeal to the taste buds of those whom already are disposed to agree. But we apologists should not use such techniques, tempting as they may be. Even if it seems like we are fighting with one hand tied behind our back, the task is not to persuade nor to give out tasty morsels that are not nutritious. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard, and not resort to base argumentation techniques even though our opponents have. Rather, we are to stick to the truth and present it in a dignified manner, trusting God to do His work.