In 2008 I went through what is now fashionably called ‘faith-deconstruction’. I find the use of the word deconstruction confusing as I have always known it to refer to the postmodernist technique of identifying binary opposites in texts. It seems that deconstruction when applied to faith means to take one’s faith apart critically and then either reconstruct it in a way that suits one better or to discard it for another worldview.
Fortunately, my year of deconstruction finished with a resumption of my Christian faith that now rests on firmer intellectual foundations. However, as I had spent a lot of time during that year of doubt reading atheist writings, I rediscovered the intellectual interest in atheism that I had had as an undergraduate when I read works on religion by David Hume and Bertrand Russell. What drew my attention now was New Atheism. Advertisers tell us that the word new is one of the best words to use to attract consumers’ interest. I was curious if the New Atheists had something genuinely new to say in the debate with religious believers. What could they add to the discussion which Hume and Russell had not?
I had come to the New Atheist party rather late. New Atheism got its name from a journalist called Gary Wolf who coined the term in an article he wrote for Wired magazine back in 2006. In fact, New Atheism dates back to 2004 when Sam Harris, appalled like the rest of us by 9/11, decided to denounce religion as the worst thing ever invented in his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. He followed this up with Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006 which was a book in the form of an open letter to right-wing American Christians in which he tried to convince them that their morality was really of the Devil. That was the same year that Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins published his bombshell The God Delusion, a book that essentially told religious believers they were mad, and which became the defining sacred text of New Atheism’s devotees.
Other reinforcements soon arrived. Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett weighed in with a ponderous tome called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) which did what it said on the book cover: it argued that religion has its origins in human evolution, not in divine revelation. It did not sell as well as the other books because its academic tone meant it did not engage in the pyrotechnic accusations for which Harris and Dawkins were famous. Finally, Christopher (never Chris) Hitchens, the English American journalist, got in on the act in 2007 with his God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, a sloppy burlesque which piled up a plethora of historical and contemporary evidence that religious people do egregious things because of their religion whilst ignoring the myriad good things religious people do because of their religion. New Atheism now had its sacred canon and its de facto leadership who sealed the fact when they all met for cocktails and conversation in Hitchens’ austere apartment in Washington, DC in 2007. New Atheism was riding high the giant wave of media attention with invitations to speak and debate. As evangelistic as the early church, the New Atheists hoped to convert humanity to atheist secularism. With the self-assured rhetoric of Hitchens and the acerbic incisiveness of Dawkins, it looked as if humanity was on the verge of a new secular age with religion soon to be confined to the dustbin of history.
But it did not happen. Though it has become more respectable to be an atheist in the West, the great majority of people around the world continue to profess a belief in God and many of them are active believers. Even in the West, religious belief has held its ground. So, was the reason for New Atheism’s decline the very thing that had built it in the first place: The Media which eventually tire of the same story and move on to the next bright, shiny thing? Partly. New Atheism was a let down because it was a misnomer. It contributed nothing new to the debate with religion apart from an intense anger and an evangelistic zeal to convert. In fact, it subverted atheist intellectuality with such questions as Dawkins’ spectacularly jejune ‘“Who made God?”’ But there were more interesting and perhaps unexpected reasons than that. New Atheism transgressed with regards to race, culture, and gender. It also did not survive the counterattacks of religious apologists, criticisms from fellow-atheists and good old human decency. Let us begin with race and culture.
To assume, however, as the New Atheist Quadrumvirate did, that their new Gospel would re-shape human belief globally, even within individual nations, seemed to be another kind of Western supremacism. Three of the New Atheists were either American or living in America and one was British. In other words, the New Atheists came to be seen as saying this: “There, there, there, you poor Nigerian evangelicals, Kuwaiti Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists, let us relieve you of your superstitions and help you see reality as you should!” The secular liberal and the Left constituencies, which have traditionally been skeptical of religious belief as a barrier to progress and an ally of oppression, fell out of love with New Atheism because they concluded it was racist and in particular Islamophobic.
What added to New Atheism’s woes was the accusation that it was sexist. Where were the leading female lights in this movement? New Atheism appeared to be a gentleman’s club, at least at the top. And what about the scandal of ‘Elevatorgate’? In 2011, Rebecca Watkins attended the World Atheist Convention in Dublin. She complained in an online video that she had been sexually harassed by a man sharing with her a hotel elevator in the early hours of the morning. Dawkins responded by writing an open letter to her essentially arguing that she ought not to complain so much when women around the world suffer worse discrimination. It was one among many of his gaffes when his rationality fails him. A person has every right to complain about poor treatment even if others have it worse. To tell someone like that not to complain is like saying to someone with a broken leg that they ought not to cry out in pain when people are dying of terminal diseases.
A third reason was religious counterarguments (here I shall write about Christian apologists as they are the ones I know best) and the criticisms of fellow atheists. Some of the best Christian minds refuted the New Atheist message. I am thinking of Amy Orr-Ewing, Douglas Groothuis, Tina Beattie, John Lennox, Esther O’Reilly, Alister McGrath, Lydia McGrew, Keith Ward and David Bentley-Hart. To give one example from this stellar list: John Lennox has turned on its head the notion that Christianity is an enemy of scientific progress by showing through historical data that Christianity was the culture that enabled medieval and modern science to be born!
Less predictable and very enjoyable were the criticisms that came from within the ranks of atheism itself. Camille Paglia labelled New Atheism ‘snark atheism’ as it ignored the moral goodness and cultural richness of religion. Michael Ruse labelled New Atheism an embarrassment for its errors and simplistic arguments. John Gray was appalled at New Atheism’s hypocrisy for it had retained, despite its vociferous anti-theism, theist ideas such as moral objectivity and human free-will. These intelligent voices of skepticism perhaps are more dangerous than New Atheism’s tub-thumping in winning converts from the faithful.
The final reason is human decency. Most of us avoid deriding the beliefs of others when they mean a great deal to those people. I avoid ridiculing atheists to avoid personal offence, although I am prepared to give as good as I get when I meet New Atheist mockery. Many atheists say the same thing. This agreement to criticize belief rather than the person is the basis of rational disagreement. Long may it continue and survive.
The New Atheists got themselves onto the international scene by accusing the religious of being morally deficient and stupid. It was their own moral shortcomings and stupidity that was their undoing. There is an appropriate symmetry to this. The New Atheist elite have themselves realized that their project is over. Richard Dawkins seems to have become more emollient as he ages. Daniel Dennett has returned to his original philosophical interests. Sam Harris has been talking a lot recently to Jordan Peterson who takes Christianity seriously. Christopher Hitchens succumbed to esophageal cancer in 2011, thus New Atheism lost its most talented orator. It took just over a decade to fell New Atheism’s poisonous plant; time will tell if the roots live.