Amid all the warm words expressed by public figures after Pope Benedict announced his retirement one comment rather stood out. “I feel sorry for the Pope and all old Catholic priests. Imagine having a wasted life to look back on and no sex,” wrote Richard Dawkins on Twitter.
Even with the generally low standards of decorum on the site, the 71-year-old biologist’s comment caused groans. For while he still has his fans and admirers, Prof Dawkins has been preaching to the choir for some time, and the choir shrinks as embarrassed followers slink away from the scene. New Atheism has finally had its day.
As atheist writer Douglas Murray recently noted, after sitting alongside Dawkins in a debate: “The more I listened to Dawkins and his colleagues, the more the nature of what has gone wrong with their argument seemed clear. Religion was portrayed as a force of unremitting awfulness, a poisoned root from which no good fruit could grow. It seems to me the work not of a thinker but of any balanced observer to notice that this is not the case. A new … dogma has emerged. And the argument has stalled.”
Dawkins’s 2006 bestseller The God Delusion was New Atheism’s bible, and the professor became known as one of the “Four Horsemen”, alongside Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Dawkins’s website became an immensely popular place for atheists, often living in religious parts of America, to express their anger and frustration. Dawkins has also taken enthusiastically to Twitter, which (among many downsides) can become a hateful echo chamber. Even to the many fans of books such as The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker he has became a dogmatic ranter. Meanwhile, Harris has been ostracised for speaking up in favour of racial profiling and gun ownership.
Despite Dawkins’s continual attacks on religion, the basic premise behind New Atheism has turned out to be weak. Dawkins’s grand idea, set out in a 1993 essay, “Viruses of the Mind”, is that religion is essentially a parasite that spread in human populations that had no other way of handling the daily toll of misery and grief that was our lot until recently.
Dennett, a philosopher of science, saw religion is similar terms, and knowledge as the inoculation. Hitchens, meanwhile, conflated religious and ethnic conflict which are often poisonously interlinked but have more to do with tribalism than faith. He downplayed or denied the Christian nature of progressive beliefs, even the
faith of Martin Luther King. In reality, anti-racists, like all modern liberals, are standing on the shoulders of saints.
The New Atheism rage exploded in a generation two degrees separated from religion who, unlike their semi-Christian baby boomer parents, were not interested in tolerating what they saw as religiously bigoted attitudes to sex. New Atheism was as much of a social phenomenon, an internet-led social network, as a philosophy:
an expression of solidarity for young, educated westerners. Like most such movements it was heavily white, and embarrassed about it. And while it was partly a reaction to the politicisation of Evangelical Christianity in America, fear of Islam also played a part. “Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings”, read one banner at the “Protest the Pope” rally during the papal visit to Britain. But like with all these denunciation of “religion”, it was one faith in particular that was feared. Dawkins once called Catholicism “the second most evil religion in the world”, and made no secret of what he believed to be number one.
New Atheism was also a response to the cultural relativism that came with multiculturalism, the idea that we must “respect” all cultures, and Europe’s failure to address practices such as forced marriages, honour killings and female genital mutilation.
This view was shared by many Christians, who after Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of Islamist atrocities across the Middle East. And although Christians continue to suffer there, “the War on Terror” has quietened down. Perhaps also the ire of internet debate in the Noughties has also burned out in Britain, while America, with its increasingly hysterical culture wars, is a cautionary tale.
Despite the millennial hopes of some atheists, religion is not going away. Angus Ritchie argued in the Church Times earlier this year that New Atheism has declined because “the profile of faith in public life has grown, not diminished”, citing One Nation Labour and the “practical and intellectual renewal” of religion. But it could also be a reflection of religion’s declining importance in British life. The culture war in Europe has developed not necessarilyto the Church’s advantage. One Nation Labour, while couched in the language of Christianity, is if anything post-Christian, keeping the warm, fluffy language of faith without any of the challenging aspects. Likewise, Christian campaigners on tax avoidance, debt cancellation and the living wage argue in secular language, playing down their faith.
Rather, New Atheism is in decline because more atheists see the social benefits of religion. Evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued in The Righteous Mind that human groups practising moralistic religions would have had huge advantages over those that didn’t. For Haidt, religion binds us to the group and blinds us to the point of view of outsiders, which explains both its unfortunate sectarianism and also its incredible strength.
Even to non-believers, the argument that religion is a damaging parasite seems implausible. In their everyday lives people see that atheism does not explain the fundamental questions and a godless world doesn’t make us happier or even more questioning. The popularity of the Sunday Assembly, an “atheist church” in Islington, or Alain de Botton’s “10 commandments for atheists”, reflect the growing belief in secular Britain that religion is not just a beneficial thing but perhaps an essential one. Perhaps that is why New Atheism is as dead as Nietzsche.
Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion, published by Gibson Square