The CNN Belief Blog, which has graciously featured a few of my pieces, just celebrated its first anniversary, and for the occasion, its editors reflected on 10 things they've learned in the course of the year. The one that got my eye was this: Atheists are by far the most fervent commentators on matters religious.
This completely coincides with my own experience as an Internet commentator and blogger. Every day, my website and YouTube page are inundated with remarks, usually of a sharply negative or dismissive nature, from atheists, agnostics and critics of religion.
In fact, some of my YouTube commentaries have been specifically targeted by atheist webmasters, who urge their followers to flood my site with "dislikes" and crude assessments of what I've said. One of my contributions to the CNN site - what I took to be a benign article urging Christians to pray for Christopher Hitchens - excited thousands of angry responses from the haters of religion.
What do we make of this? I think we see, first, that atheists have come aggressively out of the closet. Following the prompts of Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Bill Maher and many others, they have found the confidence to (excuse the word) evangelize for atheism. They are no longer content to hold on to their conviction as a private opinion; they consider religion dangerous and retrograde, and they want religious people to change their minds.
This fervour has led them, sadly, to employ a good deal of vitriolic rhetoric. But this is a free country and their advocacy for atheism should not, of course, be censored. It should, however, be a wake-up call to my fellow religionists. We have a fight on our hands, and we have to be prepared, intellectually and morally, to get into the arena.
Most of the new atheists employ variations of the classical arguments of Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, namely, that religion is a pathetic projection born of suffering, that it is an infantile illusion, that it is de-humanizing, etc.
How well do Christians know the theories of our intellectual enemies? Can we identify their blind-spots and the flaws in their logic? Have we read the great Christian apologists - G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Ronald Knox, Fulton Sheen - and can we wield their arguments against those who are coming at us?
In the Catholic Church, we jettisoned much of our rich apologetic tradition in the years after Vatican II, convinced that it would be better to reach out positively to the culture. Well, at least part of that culture has turned hostile, and it is high time to recover the intellectual weapons that we set aside.
Today's atheists also eagerly use the findings of contemporary science to undermine the claims of religion. Are the advocates of the faith ready to meet that challenge? How carefully have we read the scientific critics?
Have we bothered to study the works of such deeply religious scientists as Father John Polkinghorne, Father George Coyne, Father Stanley Jaki and Father Georges Le Maitre, colleague of Einstein and the formulator of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins?
We shouldn't imitate the Internet atheists in their nastiness, but we should certainly imitate them in our willingness to come forward boldly and show some intellectual teeth.
But the fierce and vocal presence of so many atheists on the CNN Belief Blog and many other religious sites also speaks to what I call "the Herod principle." The Gospels tell us that Herod Antipas arrested John the Baptist because the prophet had publicly challenged the king. Herod threw John into prison but then, we are told, the king loved secretly to listen to the prophet, who continued to preach from his cell.
St. Augustine formulated an adage that beautifully sums up the essentials of Christian anthropology: "O Lord, you have made us for yourself; therefore our hearts are restless until they rest in you." A basic assumption of biblical people is that everyone is hard-wired for God in the measure that everyone seeks a fulfillment that cannot be had through any of the goods of this world.
My wager, as a person of faith, is that everyone - and that includes Hitchens, Maher and Dawkins - implicitly wants God and hence remains permanently fascinated by the things of God. Though the fierce atheists of today profess that they would like to eliminate religious speech and religious ideas, secretly they love to listen as people speak of God.
This goes a long way, it seems to me, toward explaining their presence in great numbers on religious blogs.
So I say to Christians and other believers: be ready for a good fight, and get some spiritual weapons in your hands. To the atheists, I say: I'll keep talking-because I know, despite all of your protestations and sputtering, that your hearts are listening.
(Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. He is the creator and host of a new 10-episode documentary series called Catholicism and also hosts programs on Relevant Radio, EWTN and at www.WordOnFire.org.)