By Alister McGrath
King’s College London and Contributor to Patheos.com
The term “New Atheism” was invented in 2006. Gary Wolf was writing an article for Wired, a British magazine “for smart, intellectually curious people who need, and want, to know what’s next.” He was looking around for a snappy slogan to refer to a group of writers who had attracted media attention with best-selling popular books advocating atheism: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion; Sam Harris, The End of Faith; and Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell. Wolf hit on the phrase “New Atheism” to designate their highly censorious diatribes against both religious belief in itself, and cultural respect for religious belief. By 2007, the movement had gained a new hero. Christopher Hitchens published another atheist bestseller: God Is Not Great.
The phrase “the Four Horsemen” now began to be used to refer to these writers, who were now collectively identified as the intellectual and cultural spearhead of a popular movement, distinguished by its aggressive rhetoric more than the originality of its ideas. American humanist organizations had been talking about these things for years. Their mistake was to use polite language and reasoned arguments. The media ignored them. What attracted media attention were the outrageous claims and aggressive rhetoric of the New Atheism. They made for great headlines and simple stories. Other recent atheist writers were eclipsed, drowned out by the New Atheist noise.
At first sight, the New Atheism might seem to be little more than a movement demanding equal rights and responsibilities for atheists, like the civil rights movement of the 1960s or the more recent movement for gay rights. Yet this narrative quickly becomes deeply problematic. The New Atheism, as journalist Gary Wolf shrewdly noted shortly after the movement’s appearance, condemns “not just belief in God but respect for belief in God.
Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil.” The New Atheism can never rest content with winning full cultural acceptance for atheism; it wants to get rid of religion as well. Though clearly sympathetic to the agenda of the New Atheism, Wolf identifies and pounces on the problem: the analogy with gay rights is flawed.
Gay politics is strictly civil rights: Live and let live. But the atheist movement, by its lights, has no choice but to aggressively spread the good news. Evangelism is a moral imperative. Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them.
Wolf’s sure-footed analysis casts light on why so many ordinary atheists find the New Atheism to be such an embarrassment. It paints them as dogmatic and intolerant, aggressively seeking to expand their cultural space, rather than encourage an ethos of mutual toleration and response.
If the “New Atheism” wanted to get a debate about religion under way, it certainly succeeded. Suddenly, everyone wanted to talk about God. Although the evidence suggests that the sudden emergence to prominence of the movement in 2006 took the churches by surprise, there has been no shortage of responses by Christian writers and others since then. In the last three years, a surge of works has appeared from religious and secular writers, challenging the New Atheism on its home ground. Every aspect of the New Atheist polemic has been subjected to scrutiny, and found wanting. God hasn’t gone away. God has survived attempts to enforce his death in the Soviet Union. Belief in God is surging in mainland China, having survived the violence and intimidation of the cultural revolution. And the evidence indicates it is surviving the ridicule and derision directed against it by the New Atheism. God just hasn’t gone away.
Atheist blogs regularly feature agonized reflections on the failure of the movement to gain the intellectual high ground. Appeals to reason and science have failed to score anything even approaching knock-out blows against belief in God. To the intense irritation of New Atheist apologists, their Christian opponents regularly appeal to both in their critique of atheism, and in their proclamation of the rationality and relevance of the Christian faith. More books than ever have been published recently asserting the intrinsic rationality of Christian belief. It’s not comfortable for New Atheist foot soldiers to have their weapons used so effectively against them.
Even worse, society at large has not bought into its analysis of the pathological role of religion. Instead of thanking the New Atheism for enlightening everyone with the dreadful truth about religious people, people are complaining about the movement’s intellectual shallowness, dogmatism, and intolerance. It’s outrageous! 9/11 obviously demonstrates that religion leads to terrorism. So why is everyone interpreting it in other ways, and ignoring the obvious truth? Why did Barack Obama praise faith in his 2009 election campaign, instead of rubbishing it?
Yet perhaps there is a more interesting development that merits consideration. Has the aggressiveness of the New Atheism caused a rupture within the mainline atheist movement? Paul Kurtz, co-author of “Humanist Manifesto II,” was founder of the secularist Center for Inquiry. In June 2009, he was ousted from the Center in what he described as a “palace coup.” Kurtz’s own account of this development, written two months after his sacking, merits reading:
I was unceremoniously ousted as Chairman of the Center for Inquiry/Transnational on June 1, 2009. It is totally untruthful to state that I was not. The effort by the CEO to cover up this deed offends any sense of fairness and I do not wish to be party to that deception. It was a palace coup clear and simple by those who wish to seize immediate power.
Kurtz was appalled by the aggressive new direction that was then taken by his organization under its new leadership. The viciousness of the New Atheism, he declared, was likely to set the cause of atheism back. The New Atheism would come to be seen as a form of intolerant fundamentalism that ridiculed its opponents, rather than seeking to understand and engage them. This “atheist fundamentalism” is, Kurtz suggested, fundamentally “mean-spirited.”
Some years ago, I used the phrase “atheist fundamentalism” to refer to the specific form of atheism I found in the recent writings of Richard Dawkins. It’s good to see a leading atheist explicitly and approvingly adopting it, and using it against the obvious excesses of the New Atheism. Let me make it clear that I would not dream of using this phrase in describing the academically thoughtful and culturally respectful atheism of writers such as Iris Murdoch, or the functional agnosticism of an “atheism of indifference.” But it’s right on target to describe the dogmatic intolerance of the New Atheism, which resembles the nastier forms of religious fundamentalism at these points.
Kurtz profoundly hoped that this new “aggressive and militant phase” in the history of atheism would fizzle out before it inflicted lasting damage on the movement. This “dogmatic attitude,” he declared, “holds that this and only this is true and that anyone who deviates from it is a fool.” Hardly anyone was going to accept that, in his view. It was no wonder that the New Atheist approach was losing public sympathy and credibility.
Most atheists that I know are decent and compassionate folk. What I object to are the militant atheists who are narrow-minded about religious persons and will have nothing to do with agnostics, skeptics, or those who are indifferent to religion, dismissing them as cowardly.
For Kurtz, the nastiness of the New Atheism was damaging the public face of atheism. And it was a self-inflicted wound, not one meted out by its critics.
It’s no surprise that the backlash against the New Atheism has now begun within the American secularist movement. Many atheists are shocked at the anti-religious venom now associated with them through a public failure to distinguish between older schools of atheism and its newer and more aggressive forms. They are all being tarred with the same brush. And it hurts them badly. Media reports since late 2009 now openly speak of a “schism” within the movement, precipitated in part by a dawning realization of the darkening public perception of the movement.
Toleration is a cornerstone of western democratic and libertarian civilization. The New Atheism has misjudged the mood, believing that an unrestrained, aggressive, and dismissive criticism of religion will tip the balance in favour of secularism and atheism. It hasn’t. It has just persuaded people that the New Atheism is intolerant and nasty. In most western democracies, respect and toleration are seen as essential to social cohesion and wellbeing. As empirical evidence mounts of the positive role played by religious commitment and involvement in fostering social cohesion, the New Atheist intolerance toward religion seems increasingly out of place and misdirected.
The jury is still out on the impact of the New Atheism on religion. But it’s clear that something has gone badly wrong within the movement. It will be fascinating to see where it goes from here.
Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London. He teaches in the areas of systematic theology, science and religion, spirituality and apologetics. His many writings include his acclaimed book on apologetics, Bridge-Building (Apollos), his internationally popular Christian Theology: An Introduction, and the international bestseller The Dawkins Delusion? His recent trilogy A Scientific Theology (Eerdmans, 2001-3) has been hailed as one of the most important works of systematic theology to appear in recent years.