2009 Richard Dawkins (C) (Photo credit Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why is atheism no longer cool?

How the New Atheists failed to make God go away

The shiny New Atheism of the early twenty-first century seems to have died a painful death and I quite miss it. I miss Christopher Hitchens calling Christmas “a good old Norse booze up”. There were times when their turn of phrase made me laugh. I miss the New Atheists because they reminded me of the angry, stupid punk music I loved as a teenager in the 70s, but I have grown out of that as well.

In 2006 I was studying theology and Christian apologetics at Oxford and there was a whiff of revolution in the air. Richard Dawkins’s, The God Delusion, was selling by the bucketload and it was becoming quite cool to be very rude about people of faith and God (even if he was a delusion).

On one wintry evening at a central Oxford church queues were snaking around the block. They were waiting to get into a talk by an Oxford Don, Alister McGrath, who was going to raise the counter suggestion that Dawkins himself might be delusional. McGrath told me that he was as amazed by the turn-out as I was, “I expected 100-max.”

The intolerant tone of the New Atheists began to look a bit childish

It was an astounding evening – like no other I had experienced before or after. It felt, well, dangerous. Dangerous because we were going to have a grown-up discussion. Strong voices were raised from the audience, on both sides of the argument. I certainly didn’t want the evening to end, although it must have been exhausting for McGrath. Indeed, we retired to a local Oxford pub, the Old Tom, with him afterwards for a pint. It seemed like an act of kindness.

I certainly felt I’d need to up my game – to be clear about why I believed and why it mattered.

Throughout 2006-7 the New Atheism, as coined by Gary Wolf in Wired Magazine, began to ruffle feathers. The ideas of New Atheists weren’t really that new, but what they had was a tetchy, rude and frankly insulting way of attacking the enemy. Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens made a boisterous case that believing in God was irrational, and because it was irrational it led people to do irrational things – like fly aeroplanes into skyscrapers.

Some of the points the New Atheists made were well made. For instance, Sam Harris argued that theists don’t understand probability – that they attribute things to God that were likely to happen anyway. It is a good point, isn’t it? God doesn’t need magical thinking on our part. As an ex-atheist, I have a lot of respect for those who still think as I thought. I think that the pungent criticisms of the New Atheists were right to be aired – even if the style of it was rather childish.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as they called themselves, didn’t play fair – but that was the point. McGrath told me, “Looking back at that time and that talk I gave I still feel annoyed by the way Dawkins and others pitched their argument. They basically said that there was no scientific proof for belief in God and that no sensible person could disagree. But they never subjected their own beliefs to the same criteria.”

Of course, the argument goes both ways – we too need to interrogate the basis of our faith, to ask difficult questions and perhaps be prepared to change our worldview every time we sincerely debate with someone of no faith.

The God Delusion rapidly romped to number four in The New York Times hardcover non-fiction best-sellers. Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation reached seventh in the NYT’s bestseller list.

The New Atheism drew its strength from two ideas. That God is past it and just needs a gentle shove to depart the stage for good; and that 9/11 clearly showed that religion is dangerous.

But even in the years following the initial euphoria of Dawkins and his pals, we might have begun to see the cracks that would later open up and swallow the whole movement. Primary among the issues was the very tone that made the New Atheists so compelling in the first place.

It was hard to get behind something that was so wholeheartedly negative

Hitchens was by far the best writer (it helped that he had a sense of humour, which is quite rare in atheist circles). His description in December 2007 of the Christmas period as like living in a one-party state overseen by the great Leader and his Son the Dear Leader, is still a good line. McGrath told me, “I liked Christopher Hitchens very much. He was entertaining and what he wrote was fun, even if I disagreed with it. Dawkins wasn’t much fun was he – if anything his writing was a bit of a whinge.”

That intolerant tone (which now seems so familiar everywhere) began to look a bit childish. It was hard to get behind something that was so wholeheartedly negative. Troubling ideas began to surface. What do you do with people who follow a very religiously zealous (and therefore dangerous) worldview? We whisper this quietly, but perhaps, as a prominent New Atheist suggested, it might be best if we wiped them out. It seems that the gentle atheist stereotype who wouldn’t hurt a fly may be a delusion as well.

As the years went on the movement began to look in trouble. McGrath’s 2011 book Why God Won’t Go Away, charted its decline. The movement’s virtual communities became fractious, almost paranoid. National Blasphemy Day was an embarrassing misstep. Meetings of the self-styled Brights – a term coined by Californian educationalists Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell to replace the rather boring term, Atheist – seemed to lack attendees, at least in London. In July 2009, attendance at a London Brights meeting was just ten – I get a lot more than this in church.

Covid doesn’t seem to have brought that sense of God’s abandonment

These days, New Atheism has gone quiet. But the quiet isn’t the real issue. The real issue was it began to look like a cult. P. Z. Myers, a biologist and assistant professor, charts his fascinating change from signed-up New Atheist to bruised survivor on the Freethoughts blog. He explains that he and others began to recognise the inherent Islamophobia of the movement and began to worry that there was a mangling of evolutionary science to fit the objectives of damning God. In a touching postscript Myers says that his dalliance with New Atheism was the greatest regret of his life – not because he was part of a movement that laid into God, but because he was part of something that “mangled science to promote racism, sexism and bloody regressive politics”.

Before lockdown I went into one of London’s finest independent bookshops and have an illuminating talk with the staff. First up, only two of the Four Horsemen are in stock.

“We only sell the odd Dawkins, but very few.”

I ask what happened.

“It was mainly due to publishers. They all jumped on the bandwagon at the start, but they began to lose interest as sales dropped. Atheism looked like it would be a whole new sales category, but it didn’t last long.”

Here is where it gets most fascinating:

“These days the question Is God a Delusion isn’t relevant. No-one’s really interested. They get their truth from elsewhere than books on atheism – from statistics, books on justice and the environment. It has had its day.”

Any movement that relies on personality above rigour is going to come unstuck at some point

This is really interesting. I wonder if Covid has made the very questions the New Atheists were asking to seem irrelevant, and what that might say to us as we wonder how to cut though in this topsy-turvey world. At the end of the First World War, the faith took a battering because it looked like God had abandoned us amid the senseless slaughter. But Covid doesn’t seem to have brought that sense of God’s abandonment. Science has saved us, thank God, but questions about God seem an irrelevance.

Perhaps we should not be too quick to crow. It looks like the New Atheism didn’t really have roots and perhaps it is hard to put roots down when you are essentially against something, rather than for all that makes for the good life. Any movement that relies on personality above rigour is going to come unstuck at some point. But how does the demise of the New Atheism speak into the place of Christians in public debate?

If the New Atheists were asking the wrong questions, what questions are people of faith posing? Are we doing any better? Is propositional truth likely to gain any toe-hold anywhere in a world that looks for its information from stories and feelings? Might we be undone in the same way as the Four Horsemen? If the question of the character of God and whether he is there at all seem unimportant, we need to ask why and wonder if we need to be more open in our debates while also acknowledging the weakness of our arguments.

I have two daughters, both in their early 20s. They care about fairness, the environment and peace. Christians do as well, but sometimes it is hard to get our voices heard. We need to think hard about what we can learn from the good and the bad of New Atheism.

It looks as if the New Atheism lasted 12 years, before imploding. The discussion has moved on. As Alister McGrath remarked, there doesn’t seem to be many jockeying to be the next Richard Dawkins. That’s something, perhaps.

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