New Atheism has its enemies in panicky retreat
This is the opening contribution to our debate "Is it time to move on from the New Atheism?", from the Winter 2013 issue of New Humanist. You can read responses from Terri Murray, Alom Shaha and Ariane Sherine.
There’s a backlash against the New Atheists! Or so we are repeatedly told. The strident, aggressive, smug, hectoring tone of Richard Dawkins and his fellow “horsemen” – the late Christopher Hitchens, and the philosophers Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris – is counterproductive, apparently. People, we learn, are tired of being shouted at, told that they’re stupid if they believe in God. The anger is no longer just coming from the religious, but from other atheists, who want to start a more nuanced debate about the place of faith.
If the New Atheist movement has really had its day, perhaps it’s time for a retrospective. The term first came in to widespread use in about 2006, the year of Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell; Hitchens’s God Is Not Great came a year later. In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, the scars of 9/11 were still fresh, and Britain and America were waging two wars against “terrorism”, which, let’s face it, meant “Islamist terrorism”. If there was ever a time to start a fight with religion, that was it.
And start a fight they undoubtedly did. Before that, the public attitude of most scientists and intellectuals towards religion was largely one of respectful disengagement. This is encapsulated in the late Stephen Jay Gould’s term “Non-Overlapping Magisteria”, or “Noma”. Science can tell us about one area of the world and religion another, said Gould in a 1997 essay: “The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap.”
Luckily, Harris, Dawkins et al. were on hand a few years later to point out that this is poppycock of the first water. If religion has no place telling us what the universe is made of and why it works this way, why does it spend so much time telling us what the world is made of and why it works this way? You don’t have to look very hard on the internet to find religious sites explaining why evolution is a lie and that the Big Bang never took place, or how dinosaurs fell off the Ark. Islamic scholars are keen to claim that the Qur’an explains particle physics.
Equally, claiming that science has nothing to tell us about morality and meaning is obviously false to anyone who thinks about it for more than ten seconds. Is morality the same across all cultures? How much of it is innate, how much learned? Human behaviour is evolved, like all animal behaviour; empirical evidence can tell us how, and why, it evolved. The idea that science shouldn’t examine it, and can reveal nothing about it, is laughable.
The battle against the Noma was part of a wider fight by the New Atheists, an attempt to stop us treating religious beliefs with unearned respect. No other beliefs, they said, are treated like this. If I tell you that I believe that the Government should provide free corsets for the under-fives, you would rightly laugh at me; but if I tell you that I believe, as the Mormons do, that the American Indians are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel – despite clear DNA evidence to the contrary – and that Jesus was resurrected in Missouri, then you are supposed to nod wisely and say, well, that’s your belief, and I respect that. This is ridiculous, said Dawkins and the rest. You don’t get to cordon off your beliefs from criticism simply by labelling them “religious” – you have to put them out into the marketplace of ideas, like all the rest, and see them stand or fall.
They went further still. Not only are the stories and claims of holy books empirically testable, the New Atheists said – God Himself is open to scientific verification. The “God Hypothesis”, as Dawkins put it – the theory that we live in a universe which is created and run by an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent perfect God – makes predictions that could, in theory, be tested and perhaps falsified. There should be, they said, no more hiding behind a veil of mystery, no more saying, “This is unknowable.” You believe the world was created by an intelligence. We do not. Let’s see whose theories fit the data better.
New Atheism has been a glorious, fiery, take-no-prisoners onslaught. And inevitably – intentionally – it has made religious people angry. In 2007 the theologian Alister McGrath wrote The Dawkins Delusion? attacking The God Delusion as dogmatic; a sort of atheist mirror image of religious fundamentalists. This did not greatly bother them. Dawkins has laughed openly at the suggestion that he was innocent of theology (“Would you need to read learned volumes on Leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?” he once asked).
However, in recent years, the backlash has spread. Now, criticism comes not just from the religious but from some atheists. Some, such as Alain de Botton and, to an extent, AC Grayling, have sought to tame religion, rather than destroy it: de Botton has said that religions are “too intermittently useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone”. There has been a growing clamour to acknowledge that religion can be useful; evidence suggests that it has a role in keeping societies together. Some atheists on the political Right ally themselves with the Christian church, which they believe bestowed the moral values of the West; others, on the Left, see racism in the New Atheist attacks on Islam. There is a chorus of voices calling for more “nuanced” atheism, more willing to accommodate with religion, less vituperative, less aggressive; the public does not like to be lectured, they say.
But by the New Atheists’ own standards, their mission has so far been a success. The number of people in Britain who describe themselves as atheist, which has been rising for decades, has taken a sudden upward jump since 2006, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey; the 2011 census also showed a record number of British atheists. Worldwide there is a similar story, of atheism on the rise and religiosity dwindling. While its leading lights would be the first to tell you that correlation does not equal causation, it certainly appears as though the “hectoring, strident” tone of the New Atheist movement is doing exactly what it is meant to do.
Perhaps the critics are right (and I have written in the past asking Dawkins to “be quiet” after a particularly crass tweet about Muslims), and the time has come for atheists to start thinking about finding the good things about religion, to stop fighting and start making peace. But I suggest that they – we – are only in a position to do that because the scorched-earth blitzkrieg of the New Atheists has won so many battles, and got its perceived enemies in such a panicky retreat. Maybe it’s time to be magnanimous in victory. I’m sure that the New Atheists themselves, though, would say that when you’ve got your opponent on the floor, you keep them there.