William Reville has an article in this week’s Irish Catholic headed “Religion is not Anti-Scientific”. It goes over some very well-trodden ground indeed (has anybody anything original left to say on this subject?), but what struck me was the very first line: “The New Atheists claim that religion is inherently anti-scientific...”
The New Atheists! Remember them? Richard Dawkins, the biologist. Christopher Hitchens, the journalist. Dan Dennett, the philosopher of mind. Sam Harris, a professional atheist with no other obvious claim to fame. AC Grayling, the British philosopher. Philip Pullman, the writer of children's fantasies who drew on Milton and Dante to attack the central doctrine of those authors. PZ Myers, a particularly nasty science blogger who profaned the Eucharist for kicks. And a whole supporting cast of sympathizers, some of whom had been damning and blasting religious belief for decades, but who suddenly seemed to have caught the wind of the zeitgeist; the Amazing Randi, Stephen Fry, Ian McEwan, Ian McEllan, Terry Pratchett, Ricky Gervais, and a whole gaggle of other notables-- not to mention an apparently innumerable swarm of bloggers, protestors, letter-writers and lurkers on various internet sites.
To mangle Byron:
We counted them at break of day--
And when the sun set, where were they?
I shouldn’t be too flippant, as one of their luminaries (Christopher Hitchens) tragically died last year. But even before that the movement seemed to be losing steam, and now it seems downright quaint to hear the name invoked in the first sentence of a newspaper article. I think the New Atheists have joined the Y2K bug , video nasties and Swine Flu in the Museum of Failed Apocalypses.
And that they were an apocalyptic movement is beyond doubt. They may not have heralded a literal end of the world, but they certainly seemed to proclaim the end of one era in human history and the dawning of another (although backward people in poor, ill-educated parts of the world might have been expected to take some time to catch up).
Scientific rationalism was now the gold standard of knowledge, and reason was by definition anti-supernatural. Religion wasn’t just an embarrassment, it was potentially lethal. If someone thought they were in touch with a supernatural entity, after all, what limit could logically apply to their nuttiness? The apple-cheeked old lady at the parish cake sale was a not-so-distant relative of Osama Bin Laden.
Rudeness towards believers was not only permitted, it was positively a duty. There had been too much wishy-washy tolerance. The searing light of rationality would penetrate into all the murky corners of supersition, and soon nobody would get away with proclaiming a belief in the soul, miracles, Providence, or grace. It would not even be allowed as a pious fiction or a figure of speech.
What amazes me in retrospect is how much their clamour intimidated me. I was a religiously-inclined agnostic when I read Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, the anti-Bible of the New Atheists. Even at the time of reading it, before I started really delving into the arguments for and against religious belief, I found its logic unconvincing. (I also had no idea, before reading it, that the scientific case for religion was so strong—even in attempting to rubbish it, Dawkins couldn’t help publicizing it.)
But it wasn’t the logic or the arguments that hit me in the solar plexus. It was the bitterness of the rhetoric, and also its confidence. The message was stark: religion was to be driven beyond the pale. Faith in God was no longer intellectually, culturally or socially respectable.
And for a while, it really seemed like that.
But now, the spell seems to have been broken.
The would-be blockbuster film taken from Philip Pulman's atheistic fantasy, The Golden Compass, flopped at the box office, while Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia-- all fantasy franchises with an unabashed Christian message-- triumphed.
The Pope visited Britain and Germany, to almost universal acclaim. Predicted widespread protests turned out to be a damp squib.
The recent Irish census revealed that nine out of ten Irish-born people consider themselves Catholics. Not many more than five per cent described themselves as non-religious, and the high-profile campaign of Irish atheist groups encouraging respondents specify that they were atheist or agnostic (there was apparently no box for this on the census itself) only resulted in about three thousand such declarations.
All of the candidates in the Presidential election supported the broadcasting of the Angelus bells on RTE. Even the liberal candidates spoke of their spiritual values.
I visited the GPO over Christmas, and was happy to see the Christmas crib still enjoying pride of place, despite grumblings about this from God-bashers.
The closing of the Irish embassy to the Vatican has drawn a backlash from the public way beyond what might have been expected.
Every other day, it seems, there are lively discussions on religion, especially the Catholic faith, on the opinion page of the Irish Times. The topic seems an almost ever-present in the Letters to the Editor section. Is the interpretation of Christ's message, in our day, any less a matter for burning public debate as it was in the time of Newman and the Oxford Movement?
A new RTE radio show on religion, the God Slot, has proved very popular, while the BBC have produced an acclaimed documentary on the lives of Catholics that apparently (I have not seen it) is sympathetic and objective in tone.
Even in the field of British comedy-- apparently a New Atheist bastion if ever there was one, with the likes of Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais, Simon Pegg, Alan Davies, David Baddiel, and many others making rather a meal out of their unbelief-- there has been a change in the wind. Frank Skinner has recently appeared on stage with the Archbishop of Canterbury, while the situation comedy Rev takes faith seriously and has won prizes and rave reviews, as well as cameo appearances from stars like Ralph Fiennes and Richard E. Grant.
So the mood seems to have changed, and to reveal that the moment of the New Atheists, after all, was only that-- a mood.
What lesson to draw? Simply, I think, that believers should not be too impressed by these ebbs and flows of public opinion. I am reminded of these lines by GK Chesterton, from a poem dedicated to his friend Edmund Bentley, in which he remembers the rationalism and decadence of the Victorian era in which he grew up:
A cloud was on the mind of men
And wailing went the weather,
Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul
When we were boys together.
Science announced nonentity
And art admired decay;
The world was old and ended:
But you and I were gay...
Life was a fly that faded,
And death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed
When you and I were young.
This is a tale of those old fears,
Even of those emptied hells,
And none but you shall understand
The true thing that it tells—
Of what colossal gods of shame
Could cow men and yet crash,
Of what huge devils hid the stars,
Yet fell at a pistol flash.