Why God Won’t Go Away: Reflections on the “New Atheism”

By Alister McGrathKing’s College London and Contributor to Patheos.com The term “New Atheism” was invented in 2006. Gary Wolf was … Continued

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.

This essay is part of a series on the Future of Religion at Patheos.com.

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  • WmarkW

    A couple comments on a multi-component article:1) Paul Kurtz is 85 years old. Free Inquiry magazine, his organization’s seminal publication, had gotten a little tired and needed some re-invigorating. Sometimes these CEO-emeritus need to be encouraged along.2) Religion often functions as an anchor in a society having problems with change. IMO, many Americans think their government and the media they consume is dominated by interests and values not necessarily compatible with theirs, so they turn to religion as one of the foundational assumptions in their lives. For example, most Americans oppose gay marriage, support the Arizona immigration law and opposed the Obama health care plan before its passage. They think government just passed their opinions by.3) The message that the New Atheists didn’t manage to connect is that moderate religion is empowering aggressive religion. The “people have the right to believe whatever they want” attitude sounds like a perfect middle of the road, until you realize some people want to believe in Creationism, Apocalypticism or conquering their neighbors in the name of Islam. It’s the fact that ideas have consequences that has never been properly sold.

  • Rongoklunk

    Utter drivel. You just don’t get it do you? Old atheists – new atheists – who cares? An atheist is just someone who doesn’t buy the god hypothesis.Full Stop.Atheists don’t necessarily have anything in common with each other – except they understand gods to be mythical. If atheists are angry it’s more to do with the believer’s seeming gullibility in believing without evidence = stories about gods and angels and a guy who walks on water and feeds an entire mob with a can of sardines. It’s interesting that Karen Armstrong – the ex-nun – says that the typical religious concept of God – as a personal or supreme being is infantile. God is a mythical being who exists as an idea. A wish, a hope, an aspiration. God is a word for something bigger than ourselves. Of course there may be forces out there that we haven’t discovered yet. But to anthropomorphize it is ridiculous.

  • woodstock-41

    ……………….yukk,……………….

  • Carstonio

    Having read some of those New Atheist books, my suspicion is that the authors were deeply affected by 9/11 on a level they may not understand or admit. Sam Harris is one of those who points to that event as an inspiration to write. After many years of the Falwells and Robertsons weakening the separation between church and state, I found the New Atheist books to be emotionally satisfying on purely a surface level. I still maintain that hypotheses that can’t be tested are indistinguishable from speculation and should be avoided. However, much of religion is not about such hypotheses, and those can also be found outside of religion. The real ideological problem is not religion but absolutism in any human endeavor, the persistent denial of gray areas and of diversity of opinion. The only certain absolute in human life is its finiteness. Here again, not all religion is absolutist, and absolutism finds comfortable homes in some secular ideologies as well. Over time I grew frustrated with many followers of the New Atheists because they defined different religions according to the extremist elements, seeing people like Eric Rudolph as the ultimate Christian and bin Laden as the ultimate Muslim.

  • Secular

    One would think that if all believers blindly followed scripture, that all Christians would oppose same-sex marriage or favor execution of gays. The Pat Robertsons of the world claim to read scripture literally, when in reality they’re applying an interpretation just like their fellow believers. At least one evangelical Christian says that if your reading of scripture conflicts with reason and experience, you’re reading it wrong.Posted by: Carstonio | I am glad there are a large numbers of people especially in Christianity, Judaism, Hindus are a’la carte style whatever. I have two points in this regard.1) If I have to pick and choose from these books, for the few pearls in a ocean of horse manure, do we really need them? Because if you already know what to choose from them, then you already know what is good and what is bad. It is like this when I pick a book of physics, like say Feynman lectures, I do not have to choose what is right and what is nonsense. Then I ma learning it all, cover to cover. in that context these books need to be consumed the dust heap of history, like I did with all my Alchemistry books.2) The fat that these books are there we have likes of pat Robertson and other can spew hatred and bigotry, like there is no tomorrow. Because their hate is in the good book, there are lots of people, who are otherwise very normal and good people, who do not feel like shouting this bigots out into the street corners. Where they should be selling pencils out of a tin cup to make their ends meet.

  • david6

    Why do religious folks think nothing of proselytizing for their particular sect, but take offense when others choose to act in a similar manner? Some religions, if they are powerful enough to control the state, make proselytizing illegal.Why shouldn’t atheists speak up against religious sects that cause harm to others and even their own followers? Why shouldn’t they remind people that religions are not based in evidence and logic? “At least one evangelical Christian says that if your reading of scripture conflicts with reason and experience, you’re reading it wrong.”He is a part of an unfortunately small minority.

  • zakaria_belal

    Why wont God Almighty Go away ? The Prophet of Islam tells us that God created angel also out of light. Light is a name of God “God is the light of the heavens and the earth” (24:35). All creature represents darkness in relation to God. The goal of religion is to bring about a movement from Tanzih to Tashbih(beads to utter God is Kind God is merciful and God is Great)i.e.so called nervous bead God goal is to bring from distance to nearness, from difference to sameness, from manyness to oneness.God wish to brings from wrath to mercy, from darkness to light. The Quran frequently explains that God’s goal in creation is to bring about unity, and often it employs the terms light and darkness to make this point.In extreme case imagine?

  • areyousaying

    The question is not “Why God won’t go away?”It’s “Why won’t his intolerant, theocratic followers?

  • Carstonio

    If I have to pick and choose from these books, for the few pearls in a ocean of horse manure, do we really need them? Because if you already know what to choose from them, then you already know what is good and what is bad. I’m one of those people who is astounded that the same book that preaches love for one’s fellow man also treats familial and interethnic cruelty as good or justified. But I suspect that almost everyone “picks and chooses” different things from scripture, even casual readers from other religions or from no religion. Fundamentalists generally have an authoritarian/absolutist worldview that transcends religion, so they’re naturally going to gravitate to the Old Testament’s lengthy lists of rules. Other types of believers have worldviews that have a greater appreciation for gray areas, so they focus more on the ethical principles in the Gospels, arguing that scripture isn’t supposed to be read as a simple rulebook. While I respect the latter view more than the former, both sides seem to illustrate the principle that you only get out of scripture what you put into it.

  • JAF-LexingtonKY

    I wish he would go away. He causes so much trouble.

  • Secular

    This article is total drivel. The author has failed to cite a single instance of the so called New atheists harming anyone. The fact of the matter is that these four horsemen when they say would like to destroy religion do not at all mean the way the religious people would like to bring everyone to jesus or Allah. WE make it very clear that defeating religion is making the it impossible for the the clergy from trading their wares not by any form of coercion. On the contrary this is an exercise in the removing any intellectual refuge for religions. The long and short of it is that we want to public at large to see the fallacies in religion, all religion. When we say we want to destroy religion we just mean we want to defeat religion by persuasion with evidence and not with mere words. Unlike religion which never gave us a place at the table at all, We are just asking for evidence.

  • Secular

    Carstonio you wrote, “Over time I grew frustrated with many followers of the New Atheists because they defined different religions according to the extremist elements, seeing people like Eric Rudolph as the ultimate Christian and bin Laden as the ultimate Muslim”. We do not see Eric Rudolph as the ultimate X’ian nor Bin Laden the ultimate muslim. We read the scripture and we find they are incoherent texts that are full of in-group morality and out-group hostility. WE challenge these scriptures head on. We challenge the adherents about them, in hope that they would have salutary affect on them

  • JonMoles

    Straw man arguments, check.Nothing new here, move along.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    Atheists are people who do not believe in God. The motiviating belief in the existience of God does not operater in the psyche of someone who is described as an “atheist.”The only reason there are any kinds of atheistic organizaitons at is is because of the persecution of atheistis by the dominating religious majority.This “new atheism” is a reaction to mistreatment. Christians love everyone, except people on a list, who are unlovalbe, like the untouchables of Hinduism. Gays are on this list. To some Christians, gay people are an abomination. More moderate Christians believe that God loves gays no matter how bad they are.There is a dominating Christian and Islamic agenda to target and eliminate gay people from society. This is wrong. Any system of belief that arrives at such a conclusion is wrong, and does not deserve respect, no matter how good such believing people may seem to be, or may pretend to be in other aspects of their lives.