‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35). Anthony DeStefano uses this Bible quote toward the end of his new book Inside the Atheist Mind: Unmasking the Religion of Those Who Say There Is No God, pointing to the resiliency and truth of Christianity. “You can hide it, persecute it, denigrate it, scoff at it, lock it up, even murder it—but all to no avail . . . those words of Christ have not passed away.” He talks a bit about the book and why he wrote it.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why do you consider it an important thing to frame the “new atheists” as bullies?
Anthony DeStefano: It’s important because it’s the truth. Bullies are usually cruel, arrogant, ignorant, intolerant, selfish, self-centered, often cowards and liars — and when you try to correct them, they usually throw temper tantrums. Well, that’s the perfect description of modern atheists. And these particular bullies are at war with us, plain and simple. For the last 20 years, they’ve been waging an all-out, media-driven attack on believers — especially Christians — in the form of anti-Christian books, movies, TV shows, articles, speeches, billboard campaigns, blogs, anti-religious civil litigation, and government legislation — and it’s been relentless. Their goal has been to totally eradicate religious beliefs from the public square. As I say in my book, there’s only one way to deal with bullies — and that is to stand up to them and fight them. Ultimately, that’s why it’s so important to define the “new atheists” as bullies right from the start — so we don’t waste any more time and start countering their attacks in the most effective way possible.
Lopez: Why is now the time to do this? The “new” atheists have been around for a while, haven’t they?
DeStefano: It’s true that the “new” atheists have been around for a while, but their influence has never been as great as it is now. Atheism is reaching epidemic proportions today in the West. In a very short time, most of the countries in Europe will lose their Christian majorities to those who consider themselves atheists or “religiously unaffiliated.” In fact, the “religiously unaffiliated” or “nones” are now the second largest “religious group” in Europe. In the United States, “nones” make up almost a quarter of the population!
Atheism is especially popular with today’s youth, who have been attracted to the confident, firebrand styles of atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, and also to the idea of a hedonistic culture with no moral truths or commandments. And in truth, these figures understate the impact of atheism on the culture. Many people stop short of calling themselves “atheist” but reject the majority of dogmas held by Judaism, Christianity, and the other world religions. In other words, their professed religious views have little or no relevance in their lives. These are the “Cafeteria Christians” the “Christmastime Christians.” They are believers in name only; in their behavior, they are thoroughly secular. For all practical purposes, they are atheists — and this is especially true in the media, academia, the entertainment industry and the government. Now is therefore the best time for my book, because the world in which we live is literally facing a crisis of faith.
Lopez: Is it your prayer that Christopher Hitchens now knows he is wrong about God after having experienced His mercy? Do you pray for him and others you describe as bullies who are still with us?
DeStefano: It’s very much my prayer that Christopher Hitchens was forgiven by God for his attacks on Christianity. During the writing of my book, I prayed for his soul often, and I still do. I actually like Christopher Hitchens. Despite his offensive and sometimes obscene attacks on our Faith, he could be very charming and funny and likeable. In fact, since he died, I think there hasn’t been a trace of wit or cleverness to come out of the mouths of any of the new atheists. He was truly their brightest star. I enjoyed the way he wrote, and I especially enjoyed his humor.
I think many Christians feel this way, and some — such as Bishop Robert Barron — have said so publicly. Hitchens’ mother killed herself when he was young, and he felt a lot of guilt about it, because she had reached out to him before she died, and he wasn’t there. Those kinds of painful experiences leave a mark on a person, and I hope and believe that God, in His infinite mercy, took that into account when judging Hitchens.
The main point to understand, however, is that sometimes the best way for us to show mercy to others is to employ “tough love.” My book is tough on atheists, but the reason is not because I hate them, but rather because I want to prevent them from harming others and from harming themselves. Their vicious attacks on believers and on Christian values have to be stopped, and I believe that by being honest with them we are actually showing more mercy for their souls, and not less.
Lopez: Why does it matter that that Hitchens had a cross in his hospital room near the end of this life?
DeStefano: Hitchens spent a good deal of his time in a Catholic hospital during the last year of his life, with priests and nuns darting through the corridors and crosses hung above all the doors. This is an important point to note because it means that up until the very end, the man who wrote that “religion poisons everything” couldn’t escape religious kindness. This ironic fact, predictably, was completely lost on his atheist followers. But it can’t be lost on us. Christ said that “Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” The truth always wins out in the end. Christopher Hitchens was born with the very name of God imprinted on his identity — Christopher, after all, means bearer of Christ — and he couldn’t get away from the cross of Christ even as he lay dying. God always has the last word.
Lopez: You talk about atheists using descriptors such as “pseudo-intellectual blowhards.” How Christian is that? Could the tone have been less strident? Aren’t you called to joy?
DeStefano: Christians are called to be Christ-like. That is the primary duty of anyone who identifies as a Christian. The question is what did Christ do and say when he was confronted with hypocrisy and injustice? And the answer is he was extremely direct and forthright. In fact, it’s good for all Christians to reflect on why the founder of Christianity was tortured and killed. It wasn’t because he was so “nice.” He was killed because he said some very upsetting and harsh things to the people who were in authority at the time. In fact, he was extremely confrontational!
When he saw how the money-changers in the Temple were cheating His people, He didn’t try to give them a pleasant, civil lecture. Instead, He made a whip of cords and physically drove them from the marketplace. And when the Pharisees and Scribes tried to trip him up with their clever word games, he put them squarely in their place, calling them “white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones” and a “brood of vipers” and “blind guides” and “hypocrites.” Our Lord didn’t mince words. He fought back hard against the injustice and hypocrisy of his day. And he was crucified for doing so.
Some Christians have this naïve idea that Jesus Christ was sort of like Mr. Rogers. Well, I like Mr. Rogers as much as anyone, but as nice and good a person as he was, he didn’t save the world! He didn’t overcome the forces of evil. In order to fight against great evil, you sometimes have to use very strong words and be very honest. You have to use tough love, just the way Christ did. And that’s exactly what we need to do today in response to today’s arrogant, atheist no-nothings. Yes, we must always love our enemies and pray for them, but we must never allow them to stop us from carrying out the command Christ gave us — to make disciples of all nations and to fight injustice with every fiber of our being. In fact, the joy we experience as Christians will be more real and more intense if we start to fight against the evil that is all around us in a courageous way, instead of just trying to live a “comfortable,” “nice” Christianity.
Lopez: What is it about the “intolerance” of the “Atheist mind” today that might help us unmask other misconceptions about intolerance?
DeStefano: “Tolerance” is such an important buzz word today. The problem is that it’s used too often as a weapon to employ “intolerance” against anyone who believes differently than you. Case in point: the atheists. Atheists are tolerant and believe in free speech as long as you agree with them. If you don’t agree with them, watch out! For instance, well-known atheist Sam Harris has said: “If I could wave a wand and rid the world of rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.” And Al Stefanelli of the organization American Atheists has stated that “sometimes intolerance becomes necessary and even laudable, if it is directed towards bigotry, discrimination, etc.” In other words, atheists believe that it’s ok to be intolerant, as long as you’re being intolerant against Christians! And this is nothing new.
Secular atheists have a long history of intolerance and repression. It’s part of their DNA. It’s part of who they are. It’s been at the root of their relentless drive over the last 50 years to systematically purge all religious symbols and imagery from the public square. Atheists have accomplished this repression of free speech with a mixture of scorn, smears, deception, and legal intimidation. There’s really been the equivalent of a modern inquisition in this country — in entertainment industry, in much of the media and in the academic world — to root out secular heretics — people who don’t believe in the secular humanist agenda.
Just look at the repression of free speech on the college campuses today! There’s even a movement among atheists to stop parents from exposing children to religious “propaganda.” The bottom line is that secular atheists just don’t believe that the rights our Founding Fathers spoke about — including the right to free speech — are from God and therefore unalienable. They believe our rights come from government. So naturally government can repress those rights when it wishes to — which is a prescription for tyranny. The lesson for all of us is that “tolerance” and “intolerance” are virtually interchangeable words for atheists today, depending on who they are attacking.
Lopez: Do you really believe your book can teach atheist readers humility?
DeStefano: I believe that if an atheist is sincere and truly has an open mind, then yes, my book can teach him or her humility, because it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the great contribution religion has made to civilization and the great misery atheists have caused throughout history. However, I think most of the atheists writing their books and blogs today are not sincere. Rather, I think they are practicing their own religion — a religion of unbelief — and I think they wish to spread this religion of nothingness to the whole world. In fact, their dogmas are so powerful that their whole thinking process is overwhelmed, and it’s extraordinarily difficult for them to be humble. That’s why I’m not worried about it at all. As I say on the very first page of Inside the Atheist Mind, this book is not for atheists, it’s about them.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.