Friday, April 13, 2012

Whatever Happened to the New Atheists?

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.


  1. I think you have missed the importance of the so called "New Atheist" movement. The effect that it has had is that now, otherwise reticent atheists who would previously have been silent about their skepticism, no longer are. They don't feel guilty about offending people who hold beliefs they don't agree with. Previously, it was thought by a great many atheists that it was wrong and disrespectful to call out what they perceived to be the ridiculous beliefs of the religious people around them. Now, however, they think that if a theist wants to get offended by arguments against their position, then that is their problem. In other words, they don't see any reason for the taboo, and they want to break it. The argument that religious views deserve respect has been largely thrown out the window for these people.
    Furthermore, I am not sure why you think this movement is dying away. When the next great scientific advancement comes, the debate will go on.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Chad.

    I agree that the New Atheist movement has emboldened atheists. That is probably not such a bad thing to the extent that people should be open about their beliefs and it also-- from a religious perspective-- actually increased the discussion of religious claims in our society. If you believe those claims stand up, that has to be good.

    On the other hand, I do think the New Atheists were often simply obnoxious in making wildly exaggerated claims about the damage done by religion, and in some of their language-- "fundies", "faith-heads", religious education being "child abuse", and so forth.

    I know they haven't gone away, and I don't for a minute think that religion has somehow "won the day". In fact, religion and Christianity are still "on the ropes" in European society, and to some extent in American society.

    But as you say, "the debate will go on". The message of the New Atheists was that there was no debate. For a brief period, they seemed to have convinced an awful lot of people of that, but now their influence seems to have declined. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a recent sermon: "But there are a few signs that the climate is shifting ever so slightly – not towards a mass return to faith but at least towards a reluctant recognition that religion can't be blamed for everything – indeed that it has made and still makes positive contributions to our common life."

    Thank you again for your comment.

  3. I'm from the land of the famous F1 Night Racing and I had joined a church which is originated in Aussie. I was looking for God and I had many questions in my mind. However, God was faithful and true to what I want from Him: the knowledge to path leading to eternal life and the wisdom to judge what is right and wrong. And of course, something GOOD happened to me.

    I was about to approach a girl to give her my moral support, but before I could open my mouth to speak, she gave me a pamphlet to salvation. To make the story short ... I was baptized and I received the Spirit of God with the evidence of speaking in a new tongue or language. The whole receiving process was so strange and ... I mean it was POWERFUL.

    I started to realize that God is actually in a form of ENERGY and WITHOUT a physical form. I could feel him in a form of heat (I thought I was going to get a sunburn soon) and pressure (I have never felt this before) that was coming down onto me. I could see Him in a form of a bright 'sunlight' that almost gave me a whiteout. My body was shaking, my breathing was deep and heavy; and my tongue was twisting violently. I began to speak LOUDLY with an Arabic or a sort Middle Eastern language. I don't know what I was saying. The whole thing was strange and that was like a powerful God trying to tell me, "It is I, the Lord."

    The 3 men who were brought into church by my brethren saw the whole thing right in front of them. They believed and they were ALL baptized. I do believe that was one of the greatest testimonies and the witnessing of God's power. I was proud to be used as an evangelical tool in fact.

    Till today, this has always been the greatest (true) story that I have always try to tell people about God's presence. Obviously, the atheists DON'T really know what they are talking about. Atheism is thus and therefore a FALSEHOOD. And itself is a unicorn. Reality speaks louder than words alone.

    Let's ALL hope that these miracles will continue and to help to change these people's mindsets to accept the reality and to strengthen those Christians and who are still seeking for God.

    The reality sux too. Why ? Many are called, but ONLY a few are chosen.

    That's probably the primary reason why you find priests or pastors becoming atheists. They are NOT chosen by God to do His bidding. Because, the pastors of His folds are chosen by Him. So, you cannot volunteer yourself to become one without His PERMISSION. Even Samuel had to seek 'THE ONE' in accordance with God's will and command. So, don't try to be funny. You are dealing with a powerful spirit that ... you should know you can't live forever.

    When I told God that will NO more be interested in getting 'stupid' people saved, God told me EXACTLY what He told Moses several thousands years ago, "you shall be as my mouth." I wasn't shocked by His answer. I accepted His request. I was once an escaping Jonah. You can't run from Him. He's everywhere.

    It is very HARD to prove to others about God's presence if they have not experienced one. Both Jesus and Moses knew that too. Man have NOT really changed a bit.

    Now, you know that the world is THEISTIC in nature and NOT an atheistic one because science is always standing side by side with God. If the natural world is atheistic, then there will be no life form on Earth and much less you and I talking about this issue here. Duh !!

    I can now proudly tell others that I'm the WITNESS of God. I must say I'm blessed and I'm lucky to know Him.

    "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call." (Acts 2:38,39)

    Well, amen!

  4. i think you have to see the "new atheists" as a response to what was happening in america immediately preceding their rise to prominence, the absolutely insane mess that was american culture in the mid 2000's,

    - where the west bro baptist church was being treated as something actually serious by the media,

    - where there was a serious push amongst the christian right to amend the constitution to prohibit gay marriage,

    - where there was a serious and repeated push in a number of communities to have "intelligent design" taught in public schools,

    - where you had documentaries like "jesus camp" (coming out at arguably the apex of power for the religious right during the 2000's) where children were sent to camps that made being christian synonymous with being republican.

    and i could go on (the courthouse ten commandments controversy, major televangelists blaming natural disasters on homosexuality, just to name a couple).

    none of these developments were compatible with a society that was tolerable for anyone who values science to live in without airing some rebuke, that it was primarily lead by british thinkers is i think a sign of just how powerless the voice of anyone who values reason is in america
    thank the gods that they took up this torch because the sycophantic posture the american media took to anyone on the right during the whole war on terror debacle meant that any moderate voices from mainline churches (who are unafraid to use their influence to attack atheism) or reasonable scientists didn't stand a chance.

    the reason they have faded back to their previous levels of notoriety is that the religious right in america is at present a spent force, intelligent design is well and truly off the table (which thinking back was probably the main issue that brought them to prominence.)

    what was the religious right is currently running around in the back woods with the former Tea Party training to shoot down UN black helicopters, and listening to alex jones and reading david icke and rehashing the satanic ritual abuse hoaxes they perpetrated in the 80's (this time targeting pop rather than heavy metal), if they ever get a measure of political power again expect to see a new "new atheist" movement, likely being lead this time by the american kids who got their boots wet during dawkins run.

  5. @ anon: You're basically blaming Bush on this. I see. Your entire last paragraph, let alone your bullet points, calls you out as someone who really drank the MSM Kool-Aid and visited HuffPo and Democratic Underground, all while eating their stale bread with an eager mouth. As with the media -- newsflash: even when Bush was in office it was, and still is, an institution that is made primarily of leftists. I have no clue/how you formed your points in your posts.

  6. Goldenrush, as one of the Atheists who participated in all of that, I can say Anon was absolutely right. The reason the New Atheism (which isn't any different than Atheism 25 centuries ago) came into being, was because Secular people were under constant attack in America. We got tired of being threatened, and bullied, and intimidated just for having our position. So we basically declared war, and started a full frontal assault to bring things into the public sphere. It worked completely, now Atheism is much more acceptable in America, and the religious have accepted their more limited and moderate place in the world.

    For what it's worth, nearly 27% of Americans under 30 now reject a higher power. That's double the average American rate across all generations. So the New Atheism succeeded where it meant to, as Dawkins said in the God Delusion, "Raise Consciousness", let people know Atheism is a viable alternative to religion, with strong logical arguments. It worked.

  7. Many thanks for your contribution, Bret Z. I honestly don't think it's fair to say that secular peple were ever really threatened, and bullied and intimidated in twentieth century America. I even wonder what you're referring to.

    The demographic changes you refer to are certainly real, and disturbing for religious believers. How far they are attributable to the New Atheism is hard to say. My own take on the New Atheism is that it did not so much seek to present atheism as a viable alternative, as to make religion seem as if it was not a viable alternative. (This, indeed, was the 'New' part of it.) And in this, I would claim, it has failed.

    Again, many thanks for your comment.