Reflections on the New Atheism

Alister McGrath

Who could fail to notice the rise of the New Atheism? The movement burst onto the scene in 2006 and 2007, with high profile blockbusters such as R. Dawkins’ The God Delusion and C. Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. Although their profile is now fading, the aftermath of these publications and the media attention to the movement remains with us. In this short essay, I would like to reflect on what we can learn from the New Atheism, and how we can respond to it.

First, we need to distinguish this “new” form of atheism from the varieties that have been present in Western culture since the 18th century. For many of us, there is little doubt about its distinctive features. First of all, the New Atheism is media-savvy. It has appreciated the opportunities of a media culture. Detailed, richly evidenced arguments are no longer of primary importance. Snappy slogans — preferably highly controversial ones — carry the day and are guaranteed media headlines. The slogans get embedded in the public imagination, even if the evidence brought forward in their support turns out to be decidedly ambivalent and flaky.

Second, the movement gained its cultural traction through public anxiety about aspects of religious behavior — in particular, Islamic terrorism, as seen in 9/11. The New Atheism portrays religion as intrinsically dangerous. It is violent, unpredictable, and irrational. While the New Atheism prefers to concentrate on religious behavior — privileging religious people who are inclined to fanaticism and violence — it also engages with religious ideas. The reason for this engagement with ideas is primarily to reinforce the core atheist conviction that religion is irrational — and hence prone to unpredictable and dangerous behavior.

The idea that religion is dangerous was not taken with great seriousness in the U.S. before the suicide attacks on Manhattan. For a while, however, these attacks galvanized at least a significant section of public opinion, leading to a crystallizing conviction among opinion makers that religion needed to be controlled, and limits placed on its ideas, influence, and actions. This simplistic interpretation of 9/11 is not taken with great seriousness today. There is a growing realization of the complex cultural, political, and ideological issues that converged on that terrorist attack. Yet it allowed the New Atheism to exploit a window of cultural vulnerability for religion in the U.S.

Critics of the New Atheism have not been slow to point out its many inconsistencies and its own distinct irrationalities. Writers like Dawkins and Hitchens were quick to argue that religious fanatics were typical of religion as a whole, yet were outraged when their critics suggested that leading atheists such as Lenin and Stalin showed that their movement was violent and intolerant. How dare you judge atheism by portraying its fanatics as if they were representative! Their critics had little difficulty in pointing out that using fanatics to stigmatize entire movements was one of the more abusive and immoral weapons in the New Atheist arsenal. Yet it was a weapon they were more than happy to use.

Equally, the New Atheism declared that anyone who believed things that could not be proved by logic and science has fallen into the dangerous and deluded world of “blind faith.” Hitchens argued that atheists do not have any beliefs. They simply limit themselves to what can be proved by logic and science. Yet, as his many critics observed, his own book God Is Not Great was packed full of moral and rational judgments that simply could not be proved. Hitchens was relying on his readers sharing his own moral convictions, and turned out to have no interest in working out whether those beliefs were defensible. It became almost routine for Hitchens’ public appearances to include challenges from interviewers and audiences over how he defended his moral beliefs. Hitchens tended to meet these by shrugging his shoulders and asking what the problem was.

This brings us to what in my view is one of the most disturbing features of the New Atheism — its intellectual arrogance. Most New Atheists seem to assume, without any need for argument or evidence, that those who believe in God belong to a lower cultural and intellectual plane. Ridicule is equated with refutation. Older forms of atheism critiqued Christian ideas; the New Atheism ridicules Christian believers, portraying them as simpletons, knaves, and charlatans. Although this approach garnered media headlines in the early years of the movement, it is now proving counter-productive.

Most social commentators now accept that the New Atheism used aggressive rhetoric to distract attention from the evidential weakness of its arguments. Where religious fundamentalism was once seen as having some kind of monopoly on being dogmatic and arrogant, these judgments have now been extended to the New Atheism. Again where liberal commentators once pilloried the exclusivism of Christianity, they now find themselves confronted with a much more aggressive exclusivism in the form of New Atheism. As a result, the New Atheism is losing its cultural appeal to the social liberals who might once have been expected to be its most significant supporters. What trendy liberal wants to be associated with a dogmatic atheist fundamentalism?

There are two additional areas in which the New Atheism raises important questions. Admittedly, their own answers are not persuasive. Nevertheless, the issues they raise are fair and important.

The Question of Violence

How can we create societies in which differences are respected without encouraging fanaticism? The New Atheism plays on a cultural fear of violence, and tries to create an automatic association between religion and fanaticism. Limiting the public influence of religion is thus argued to be a failsafe way of enhancing social cohesion.

It is easy to understand the appeal of this approach. I grew up in Northern Ireland, and one of the factors contributing to my youthful atheism was my perception that religion engendered social tension and violence. I now realize that this was a hopelessly simplistic take on things, but it made a lot of sense to a 16-year-old who wanted quick answers to big and complicated questions.

I agree with Dawkins that religion can cause violence. But I would like to add two qualifying statements, which have the advantage of anchoring us to evidential reality instead of drifting off into some make-believe New Atheist world.

First, let us agree that religion can cause violence — but it need not. That is what the evidence indicates. It is very easy to pick on religious extremists, and portray these fanatics as if they are representative of their communities. They are not. Indeed, the Christian faith contains within itself important correctives for anyone inclined to use violence in support of Christian objectives. The most important of these is the moral example of Jesus Christ himself. It is right to ask ourselves this question in trying to work out how to lead a good Christian life: What would Jesus do? As I read the Gospels, one thing that Jesus does not do is to use violence against anyone. Violence is used against him, not by him.

Second, whether the New Atheists like it or not, they need to face up to the harsh reality of institutionalized atheist violence against religion in the 20th century, especially in the first decades of the history of the Soviet Union. Both Lenin and Stalin were exasperated at the persistence of religious belief, and authorized the use of violence as a means of repressing it. Any ideology or worldview can turn nasty, especially when it feels threatened.

That brings us to a very important point. Why did the New Atheism arise when it did? As we have seen, one contributing factor was the suicide attacks on Manhattan. Yet there is another factor, often overlooked by cultural commentators, that needs to be highlighted here. When I was growing up in the 1960s, there was a pervasive belief within the social elite that religion was on its way out. The future would be secular, and religious belief would play a minimal role in public life or private existence. It just has not worked out like that. While religion remains in the doldrums in Western Europe, it has resurged throughout the rest of the world.

Now this is more than just an inconvenience for atheism. It is not just that the continuing presence of religion is an irritation and annoyance. The real problem is much deeper than that. Suppose you have a metanarrative that tells the story of the triumph of reason and science and the erosion of religion. Suppose this metanarrative predicts that religion will disappear. What happens to its plausibility if things turn out very differently? What happens, that is, if religious belief bounces back? It is precisely this anxiety about the public credibility of atheism in the light of continuing religious belief in the U.S. that gives the New Atheism its sense of anger, and its almost evangelical zeal to crusade against religion.

The Question of the Alleged Irrationality of Belief

The New Atheism clearly sees itself as a bastion of enlightenment rationalism, besieged by a tidal wave of irrationality, most evident in the persistence of religious belief. Hitchens, for example, ends his book God Is Not Great with an appeal to return to the ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment.

Yet this is just cultural nostalgia — a yearning for a long-departed golden age. Hitchens suggests that the reason we have failed to sustain the Enlightenment vision is a resurgence of irrationality, which can be reversed through better education. Yet the rest of us would disagree. The reason we have moved on from the Enlightenment is that we have realized that its fundamental ideas simply cannot be sustained. People reason in different ways at different times and in different cultures. What the Enlightenment regarded as a universal quality independent of culture and history turns out to be decisively shaped by history and culture.

In any case, attitudes towards rationalism have changed over recent generations. The British intellectual historian Sir Isaiah Berlin made the point that, while the Enlightenment saw pure reason as liberating, subsequent generations have found it to be limiting and enslaving. One of the reasons for the rise of postmodernity is a reaction against its exclusivism — the belief that there is only one “rational” way of doing things. The New Atheism is a classic example of modernism. Yet this is now seen as authoritarian, and insensitive to the richness and complexity of human experience. The harsh modernism of the New Atheism has alienated it from many potential supporters, particularly in American liberal social elites.

Postmodernity works with a much more nuanced idea of reason, in which reason guides and informs, but does not dictate. There may be a multiplicity of reasonable outcomes and approaches, each of which gathers its adherents in what S. Fish calls “interpretive communities.” The New Atheism is one such community, which seems to have formed the impression it is the only rational community. Yet Christianity represents another, equally rational in its beliefs — but refusing to be limited by reason.

For Christianity, faith is about going beyond reason, not against it. Faith transcends the limits of reason, allowing us to embrace what we know really is there, even if we cannot prove this by logic. Faith is a relational idea, pointing to the capacity of God to captivate our imaginations, to excite us, to transform us, and to accompany us on the journey of life. Faith goes beyond what is logically demonstrable, yet is nevertheless capable of rational motivation and foundation.

A very good example of this “reasonable faith” is found in the writings of C. S. Lewis, whose early atheism was granted in a form of fundamentalist rationalism. He gradually came to see that this offered an impoverished vision of reality, and broke away from it in the 1920s, eventually to discover the full richness of the Christian worldview. For Lewis, the rationality of worldview was to be determined by its capacity to make sense of things. “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not just because I see it but because by it I see everything else” (The Weight of Glory [HarperOne, 2001], 140). For Lewis, Christianity was the most reasonable thing in the world.

The New Atheist assertion of the irrationality of Christian belief lacks evidential warrant. Nevertheless, it has a certain cultural plausibility. It is therefore important for Christian students, pastors, and academics to realize that the credibility of the New Atheism is partially dependent on Christians being seen as intellectually lightweight. Time after time I have noticed how many people are turned off by the New Atheism after hearing a Christian speak in a way that is humble, reasonable, and culturally engaged. Once people realize there is a mismatch between the New Atheist theory and what they see around them, they will begin to raise critical questions about the credibility of this outlook.

Now there is much more that needs to be said about the New Atheism. But let me conclude by encouraging you to develop a “discipleship of the mind.” Christianity makes a lot of sense, and our own appreciation of our faith is deepened by grasping its internal logic and richness. The more you appreciate its richness, the greater your own satisfaction in your faith — and the more effective you will be in engaging our culture as it reflects on the great questions of truth and meaning. These are questions for which Christianity has some excellent answers. Let me encourage you to find them, rejoice in them, and share them.

Posted Apr 01, 2013       /      /   Google Plus    /