They may make up only a minority in America but the small atheist numbers do not give one evangelical scholar reason to ignore them and their potential influence.
Arguments refuting theism have been made for centuries but have not swayed the American people's overwhelming faith in God's existence. But the challenges presented by a new group of atheists in recent years are starting to make a dent and, as Dr. Albert Mohler stated, demands "our closest attention."
"Just look at the number of media appearances these authors have made; look at where their book sales are," said Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a preeminent evangelical.
Mohler just released Atheism Remix this month in response to the New Atheist movement and its leading figures - Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, many of whom are widely recognized scientists and best-selling authors. Mohler called them "The four horsemen of the New Atheist apocalypse."
The media attention alone - from newspaper coverage to books and television shows - has thrust their challenges to Christian belief into the public square with many viewing the New Atheists as a "vanguard of a new intellectual movement," as Mohler stated.
While the movement may not have hit small-town America or even mainstream culture, it has made headway on college and university campuses, with the younger generation, and in elite circles such as policy-making bodies, he noted.
The New Atheist movement, Mohler insists, "deserves and demands a cogent Christian response."
But some are dismissing the need to respond, citing the tiny atheist population and its "surge."
"According to last year's Pew Forum survey, the percentage of Americans who say they're atheists has soared all the way to - wait for it - 1.6 percent! And a fifth of those say they believe in some kind of god," stated a blog post in The Dallas Morning News. The blogger, Jeffrey Weiss, suggested Mohler's new book "looks to waste his power on a less-than-robust foe."
Mohler called such a dismissal "intellectually weak."
"That kind of dismissiveness is not intellectually credible," he commented.
"I never said that atheism is a great challenge in terms of armies of atheists marching on the Church. The point is that it’s an intellectual challenge where it matters and that’s in the public square," the Southern Baptist theologian told The Christian Post. "The new atheists have a serious argument they’re making. They see themselves to be in an opportune moment in terms of the culture and I think Christians have to take it seriously."
Atheism Remix targets Christians as Mohler outlines the characteristics that set New Atheism apart from older forms of atheism and urges believers to step up to the challenge, especially at a time when many Christians know very little about their faith.
"There are a good many Christians who are almost completely unschooled in the basics of the faith. Even though they believe in God and have faith in Christ, they would be hard pressed to offer even the most intellectual defense of their faith," Mohler noted.
And in some cases, the New Atheists have studied the Christian faith more (in order to reject it) than some Christians.
"And that should be to our embarrassment," Mohler said.
The evangelical author is urging Christians not to merely refute atheism but to defend Christian theism.
"It’s not so much that we want people not to be atheists," Mohler explained. "I think that’s what’s very important for me, as a Christian. I don’t want people merely not to be atheists; I want them to believe in Christ. And that’s a very different thing."