03/10/2013 06:59 pm ET Updated May 10, 2013

Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens: The New Theists?

Today the word "sacred" is employed to name a certain realm of life that can be contrasted with the secular. The idea here is that some object, area of life or geographical location can act as a "thin place," i.e. a site where the transcendent shines through.

This approach to the sacred is ubiquitous in the contemporary situation and is borne witness to in the phenomenon of religious music, books and art, in the New Age interest in ley lines, the notion of Christian universities and in the embrace of artefacts believed to contain supernatural power. Here the religious or sacred is taken to be a sphere that can be identified in some way, visited, held or touched.

In contrast to this the work of theologian Paul Tillich reveals a different approach. For rather than seeing the sacred as some distinct thing (even the greatest thing), one can see it as the name we give to the affirmation of a depth dimension that can be found in all things.

In this way one does not attempt to place the sacred alongside reason, ethics or aesthetics, but rather sees the sacred affirmed in our heartfelt commitment to these. From this perspective, insofar as we affirm the world as wonderful, we express the sacred, regardless of whether or not we care to call it this. It is as we show loving care and concern for existence, and as we participate fully in life, we proclaim the sacred even if we are not aware of it. This is somewhat similar to the way that everything we see proclaims the existence of light even though we likely have no direct cognisance of the light (for we are focused on what the light illuminates).

As such Tillich argued that a serious rejection of God (rather than a mere lack of interest in the subject) is a deeply sacred act. For when someone rejects the notion of God because of the wars that have been fought over that name, as well as the abuse, the fundamentalism and the ecological destruction that is bound to so much religion, they are demonstrating a profound concern for both people and the planet. As such their attack is directly testifying to a depth dimension in existence. The stronger their attack the more care and concern they are showing. In this very assault they are thus asserting, in a direct and visceral way, a commitment to the protection and promotion of life. The result is a proclamation of the sacred that is birthed from the same mother as the message found on the lips of the various poets and prophets in the Biblical text. To take one example, consider the words of Amos who cries out, in the name of God:

"I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assembles. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"

It is because of this that both the theologian Tillich and the philosopher Heidegger each claimed that there is a form of atheism that is closer to the divine than the standard theism witnessed in the church. For wherever a concern of beauty, an embrace of life and a love of liberation are exhibited the sacred is proclaimed. In this way the passionate critiques of God propounded by the New Atheists can be seen as potent defenses of the sacred. Defenses that, at their best, are worthy of being called divine.