West London Alliance Church

TBT@ITT: Wilberforce versus the New Atheists

Originally posted March 12, 2009:

A post inspired by Reading the Classics with Challies.

“Had she not been wholly unarmed for the contest, however she might have been forced from her untenable posts, and compelled to disembarrass herself from her load of encumbrances, she never could have been driven altogether out of the Belt by her puny assailants, with all their cavils, and gibes, and sarcasms; for in these consisted the main strength of their petty artillery.” (Real Christianity p7)

Christianity has always been under attack. Whether from hostile forces in governments, hostile ideologies of contemporary cultures, or hostile entities not of ‘flesh and blood’, Christianity has been in conflict since its inception. It seems that Christianity in Wilberforce’s lifetime experienced a similar struggle. In the first chapter of Real Christianity, Wilberforce considers some of the intellectual and ideological enemies of his faith. He encourages his readers that they are to always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Wilberforce specifically mentions a “neighbouring country” (p7) in which Christianity had been under attack.

The author refers to the attackers as “puny assailants” (p7) and gives an inventory of the attackers’ weaponry; cavils, gibes, and sarcasms. Cavils are trivial objections whereas gibes are facetious or insulting remarks. They are suitable partners to the sarcasms which round out the weapons of Christianity’s antagonists in the 1790s. This list of verbal arms is reminiscent of a current barrage that Christianity has encountered from ‘The New Atheists’.

The New Atheists are espousing nothing new. Rather it is their methodology that is novel: they attack Christianity with rhetoric. This where Wilberforce’s ‘cavils, jibes, and sarcasms’ come in to play. Consider an argument buy one of New Atheisms four horsemen Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens suggests the fact that 98% of species that have lived on this planet are extinct is evidence against a Creator. This is not really an argument. It is a cavil; a trivial objection. Extinction of an animal is not proof that it wasn’t designed. There is no substance to this reasoning. Or consider another of the horsemen’s comments that the evils of Christianity are like the evils of chicken pox, the only difference being that Christianity is harder to eradicate. This gibe, an insulting remark, is attributed to Richard Dawkins. Apparently, in some circles, insults add up to argument and ridicule is reasoning. And the New Atheists also employ the use of sarcasm. Yet another one of the four horsemen is Daniel Dennet . Dennet suggests “The kindly God who lovingly fashioned each and every one of us and sprinkled the sky with shining stars for our delight -- that God is, like Santa Claus…” This is not a serious argument. It is sarcasm. So it seems that Wilberforce was facing a similar threat to Christianity in his day as we face in ours. Not only do we face “arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 2:5) but we also face less-than-lofty cavils, gibes, and sarcasms.

But for Wilberforce there is no fear of these “puny assailants”. Rather there is confidence in the Word of God. But he warns the people of his time, and we would do well to listen, that if their Bibles remain covered in dust on their shelves they may well lose their children, and culture, to disbelief. So Wilberforce warns: “The time of reckoning will at length arrive. And when finally summoned to the bar of God, to give an account of our stewardship, what plea can we have to urge in our defence, if we remain willingly and obstinately ignorant of the way which leads to life, with such transcendent means of knowing it, and such urgent motives to its pursuit?” (p16)

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