Fellow Traveler

New Atheists and Young Calvinists

At break time at my talk on atheism I’m talking with a friend and I have brilliant revelation: what do the New Atheists and the Young Calvinists have in common?

Let’s back up a bit. The New Atheists have been around for some 10 years under the leadership of Richard Dawkins and other very eloquent smart guys. This is a much more aggressive atheism than the “kinder, gentler” God-deniers of the 20th Century. These guys are in your face about religion. It’s ridiculous, it’s ignorant, it’s unscientific. God cannot be proven scientifically, so that’s the end of the story. They  are fed up and they aren’t going to put up with it any more. Mind over superstition. The new atheists are often smart young people who, calling themselves “brights,” don’t seem to be in the least bit embarrassed about  relying on their minds to make sense of the world.

The Young Calvinists have been around a bit longer, perhaps, but a landmark Christianity Today article in 2006, Young, Restless and Reformed, brought the movement to everyone’s attention. Interestingly, this was a landmark year for the publication of New Atheism books with Dawkin’s The God Delusion and then a year later Hitchen’s God is not Great and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. The Young Calvinists are people who, like I Kissed Dating Goodbye‘s Josh Harris, were looking for more than easy-believism Evangelicalism and came home to the intellectual hearth of Reformed doctrine: “Once you’re exposed to [doctrine],” he said, “you see the richness in it for your own soul, and you’re ruined for anything else.” (see the CT article, page 2)

So what do these two opposing movements have in common? Young people, led by charismatic elders (think Richard Dawkins, b. 1941, and John Piper, b. 1946), placing a high value on the mind, thoroughly committed to their cause, rejecting superficiality, and placing a high premium on intellectual concepts as guides for life. There also appear to a preponderance of males represented in these movements. At least they are the ones getting noticed.

Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m not saying anything about the contents of the beliefs (at least not at this stage), but I do think there is something worth exploring here. Here’s a final piece of the insight that flashed across my brain like a revelation the other night.  I’m never sure exactly how they measure generations, but supposedly I’m one of the first (possibly the original?) genXers. Which is to say that I don’t count as a member of the latest batch of kids. But I’m still cool because I got named after one of the last letters of the Alphabet (unlike “baby-boomers” ptsh – what’s that?!) The main difference might be that I didn’t grow up with computers. I was, however, an early adopter and I currently make my living off them. In any case, maybe this puts me in a spacial position to observe that younger generations to seem more likely do value the intellect. Being smart is cool these days and it might even make you rich.  A few years back I worked in tech support for a software company and one of the things that used to bug me was how much competition there was to have the answer, to be the smart one, to get the right info from Google, etc. There seemed to be a lot ridding on knowledge for ego satisfaction. After a while I got tired of consulting my coworkers because there was this vibe that if you had to ask a question you placed yourself in a position of inferiority.

Another thing I have noticed is that both New Atheists and Young Calvinists are likely to be involved in tech jobs or to at least be nerdy – techy people. In my experience, at least, this is very common. I think that people who make their living from using their heads will tend to value, well… using their heads – for everything else.

So I wonder if it might be legit to draw a line through all these points and suggest a thesis: I think that we might be witnessing a generation that values knowledge and intellect a lot more than previous ones.  When I was getting my theological chops no one cared about ideas, theological or anti-theological. I was all alone out there. I ask my wife how much I complained about it. Now a lot of young people are interested in ideas. I think this is a great thing! The one concern I have, though, is that, with many notable exceptions, both New Atheists and Young Calvinists can display a tendency towards absolutism, and I find this a bit concerning.  And I wonder if this might also have something to do with being a computer savvy generation.




11 responses to “New Atheists and Young Calvinists”

  1. Nathan Diaz says:

    Interesting article Rob! I couldn’t help thinking you had me in mind when describing the young calvinists…

    • Rob Haskell robahas says:

      You’re a Calvinist?! Well, I never…

      Ha ha

      You are however one of those notable exceptions (as are all my friends) who is not given to dogmatism. But do you think there is anything to my overall idea? I realize it could be a bunch of bunk… But the parallels do keep coming back.

      • Nathan Diaz says:

        I think you’re on to something… I find the unwillingness to learn from others who have a different view in many different circles (not just calvinism) one of the problems of Christian theology. MacArthur’s recent conference is a good example.

  2. Dave138 says:

    Just stumbled across your blog from Parchment and Pen. I think you’re definitely on to something. I once heard someone speculate that the English Civil War was a battle between Oxford and Cambridge, as Cambridge was/is more the engineering/science/tech school and Oxford was/is more the liberal arts school.

    The New Atheists and Young, Restless, and Reformed do seem to share some similar characteristics, and I would extend the argument and say it is not only an interest in ideas, but a particular scientific, rationalist mode of thinking. I’ve seen New Atheists make arguments about the Bible which, if flipped on their heads, would sound like they were coming out a classroom in a small Fundamentalist Bible college. On the other hand, the logically consistent (or at least seemingly so) arguments issuing from John Calvin’s legally trained mind appeal to techies. So, it’s maybe not so much just that both are into ideas, but that both are into scientific and rationalist modes of thought.

    I don’t see much interest in the liberal arts among Calvinists, with the exception of those following in the Schaeffer/L’abri tradition, but, given what I know of Calvin College, it seems to me that the Dutch Reformed stream is an entirely different animal than the Young, Restless, and Reformed, who tend to be drawing their theology more from the Anglophone world of the English Puritans and/or American Presbyterianism as filtered through J. Gresham Machen.

    • Rob Haskell robahas says:

      Hi Dave – Thanks. I like the way you are honing the distinction. You might be right that it’s less about ideas than it is about rationalism. Unfortunately it is often, as you allude, not even truly coherent, but only coherent given certain premises which are not explored or defended. I’ve enjoyed Alistair McGrath’s critique of Dawkins, which shows pretty convincingly that Dawkins dabbles in a lot of areas of which he does not have deep knowledge (or if he does, he does not share). This leads to oversimplification. Similarly I would challenge my Calvinist friends to pay closer attention to exegesis and to ask themselves if contemporary Calvinism really gets exegesis. The growing emphasis in those circles on credal hermeneutics suggests that exegesis is a weak point, imho.

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