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The place was Federation Square, in downtown Melbourne, Australia. Four thousand Christians were responding to the Global Atheist Convention with their own event, called Undeniable. As atheists locked horns with Christians wearing “Ask me my story” T-shirts, on stage Peter McHugh was telling his early experience of God.
“Rules and regulations,” he lamented. “[God] wanted to beat you up.”
By the time McHugh hit university, he was an atheist.
“I became a Marxist student politician who believed Christians were nerds,” he said. “I would sit on the lawns and wait for Christians to come to me and have an argument with them.”
But these Christians would stall at the same frustrating point: a place of experience.
“They’d jump across this chasm called faith and just say, ‘Well, we just believe,’” McHugh said. “And I’d say, ‘Come back here. Have the argument with me. Be logical.’”
But when McHugh’s life got into a mess and a friend invited him to church, he went along.
“I thought I’d walked onto the set of a Blues Brothers movie,” he said. “It was a crazy Pentecostal church.”
When the preacher invited people to the front of the room for prayer, McHugh’s head said, “I’m not going out the front,” but he found himself doing just that. Bracing himself, since he saw some receiving prayer fall to the floor, he prayed to be forgiven.
The preacher was nowhere near him, yet McHugh says, “I fell flat on my back. I cried for an hour. I had an encounter with God.”
McHugh, now pastor of the thriving Stairway Church in Melbourne, concluded from the stage, “So here, tonight, I can still tell you every reason why you should not be a Christian. I still know all those arguments. ... But those arguments mean nothing because I’ve had an experience with God.”
That Global Atheist Convention is just one of a number of expressions of the so-called New Atheism. In reality, it is not a new atheism so much as a new militancy. It emerged as a reaction to the Muslim radicalism behind 9/11, but it condemns religion in general, including Christianity and the Jewish faith, offering science and rationalism as the substitute.
Capitalizing on the post-Christian mindset, the New Atheism’s numbers, though just above 2 percent worldwide, are increasing. The most recent American Religious Identification Survey found a rise in the number of atheists and agnostics in America between 2001 and 2008, from 0.9 percent to 1.6 percent—nearly double.
So how do we respond?
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