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Come back, Richard Dawkins, all is forgiven

Beware the patronising ‘new new atheists’ adopting the philosophical centre ground

By on Thursday, 25 April 2013

Richard Dawkins has been usurped by a new breed of nuanced atheists

Richard Dawkins has been usurped by a new breed of nuanced atheists

Have you heard about the New New Atheism? The old New Atheism is finished, as Ed West pointed out in these pages last month. It was a Noughties fad, like Emo or MySpace.

Richard Dawkins’s crusade against the religion “virus” excited lots of people in the aftermath of 9/11 and the global panic about Islamic extremism. Today it just sounds tired and silly – and the whole angry atheist vogue seems little more than a brilliant publishing stunt to sell big books to small minds.

Dawkins himself has turned into a sad figure, an attention-seeking old man who insults Muslims on Twitter. The other atheist stars have faded, too. Christopher Hitchens is dead, poor man. And can you remember anything Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett have said? Nope, nor can I.

In their place, another breed of nuanced atheists has emerged – with books of their own to flog. They disdain Dawkins for his fundamentalism and his rudeness. They are quick to recognise the strengths of religion and admit the shortcomings of unbelief. Their high priest is not a scientist, but Alain de Botton, the pop philosopher and author of Religion for Atheists (just £8.99 on Amazon, thanks very much). De Botton says that religions are “too intermittently useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone”.

He intends to “steal” – he puts the word in inverted commas – some of the most useful parts of religion and deploy them in the service of secular Humanism. Instead of priests, he wants better therapists. Instead of Scripture, he wants high-brow literature. Instead of churches, he wants museums to be places of “consolation, meaning and redemption”. In short, he wants to re-invent culture as religion. Well, good luck with that, Alain.

A number of other prominent atheists are talking about the need for a less strident secularism. Douglas Murray, the conservative intellectual, admits that life without religion can be hollow and that secularism is “faint on human suffering”. “Just because something is not literally true does not mean that there is no truth, or worth, in it,” he says. Murray is inspired by Richard Holloway, the former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh who these days prides himself on being post-faith. Holloway says he doesn’t believe in Christianity any more, but he still “wants to have it around”.

The New Atheism of the 2000s was caused in part by a secular exasperation at organised religion’s stubborn refusal to disappear from public life. But the newer atheism sees that anger is not an attractive position in the long run – especially not if it’s coming from people who say they cherish rationality above all else. The New New Atheists are nothing if not reasonable. Attacking religion for its own sake just seems petty to them. Fashionable feminist writers such as Tanya Gold and Zoe Williams are not interesting in picking on the devout old ladies who set up soup kitchens. That would be self-defeating. They would much rather keep their powder dry for the bigger fight against the dreaded Religious Right – which means any Christian who doesn’t fully support them on gay marriage, gay adoption, abortion, condoms, hating Tories, the whole Left-liberal shebang.

In one sense, then, the newer atheism is just a more targeted sneering – at those whose faith is uncompromising, like Catholics, for instance, or Evangelicals, or indeed Richard Dawkins. But something deeper is happening here, too. We might even be witnessing the beginnings of a reformation in the post-Christian world. Dawkins and co are the puritanical iconoclasts. The newcomers are more agnostic, even if many of them would be loath to admit it. They are moving away from unbelief and grasping through the medium of doubt for something more profound.

In this respect, the New New Atheism bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain sort of liberal Anglicanism. Both place a very English stress on good manners and fair-mindedness. Both accept the limits of human understanding. Both emphasise the social importance of shared values and ritual. Both appreciate The Selfish Gene and like to cast doubts on the literal veracity of the gospels. Both are deeply suspicious of firm beliefs and religious zeal. Just as the Church of England has been described as “the religion at the end of religion”, the Church of de Botton might be called “the atheism at the end of atheism”. Between them, there is plenty of room or what we might call inter-belief system dialogue.

And for certain type of godless metropolitan trendy, genteel Anglicanism, with its tea drinking and nice vicars, has a certain ironic retro appeal.

At first, Catholics and Evangelicals will welcome the shift away from outright antagonism and towards nuance. It makes for a more polite conversation. It restores our faith in human decency. But at least with Richard Dawkins, we knew where we stood.

There’s something quite patronising about the newer atheists’ attitude to faith: “Of course we are not so stupid as to believe any of it, but that doesn’t meant it isn’t jolly interesting and even handy in the fight against Right-wing individualism.” That’s not just patronising, it might be more destructive. Dawkins and Hitchens may have set out to finish off religion, but actually they saved several Christian publishers as religiously inclined readers ran to bookshops to arm their minds with good arguments. Still today there seems to be a cottage industry for anti-Dawkins literature.

But the New New Atheists are encroaching on the same intellectual territory, and by adopting the philosophical centre ground – the moderate middle between belief and unbelief – they may well prove more successful than their predecessors at pushing authentic religion towards the margins. Give me old-fashioned bile any day. Come back, Professor Dawkins, all is forgiven.

Freddy Gray is assistant editor of The Spectator

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 26/4/13

  • paulpriest

    …was thinking exactly the same thing :)
    I reckon we have about ten years to prepare apologetics-wise before the roof begins to cave-in and we have ardent, resilient determined and highly politicised atheists standing against us..and we won’t have a chance unless we reform the Catholic Evidence Guild as soon as possible and extend apologetics into every seminary and Catholic school

  • censored4

    Thank you for that. All my points stand and you prove christianity is baseless!

    1. it is silly to say a god would have a child with a virgin earthling, to be temporarily tortured to death, as a sacrifice of himself to himself
    2. you cannot deny that is is insane to say things like zombies rose from the grave to walk around Jerusalem or that the sun went out when he died and nobody in the world thought to record those events!
    3. there is zero hard evidence to even suggest that any of the miracles he as given credit for even occurred

  • Jonathan West

    Have you actually got any real evidence to go on? Have you read a book on evolution by a scientist? Would you be willing to read The Selfish Gene as I suggested?

    Because what you are producing seems very much to me to be interpretation rather than evidence. You have decided that you know what is going on instead of taking the trouble to find out.

  • Jonathan West

    Go ahead and do that. Give it your best shot.

    In doing so, I think that it would be exceedingly helpful to the debate if you were to take note of science’s approach to the acquisition of knowledge, which is basically that you don;t know whether something is true unless and until you have seen it. In science, observation always trumps theory. Theories predict what you will see when you make observations in specific circumstances. In the event of an observation conflicting with a theory, it is the theory that must go, not the observation. Of course, you check the observation to see whether what you think is causing the phenomenon really is causing it.

    This gives you a very simple epistemology which is generally applicable to all aspects of the world around us. And it is highly effective, in just a few hundred years of applying this principle more or less systematically we have made amazing discoveries.

    So, in your development of apologetics, it would be very helpful if you could explain whether you regard this epistemological principle as being applicable to knowledge of God.

    If you do not think this principle is applicable to knowledge of God, then I think it would be very useful for you to explain what alternative epistemological principle you would put in its place, which weaknesses of the scientific method it seeks to overcome, and how you can tell that it does not introduce other failings.

    Ultimately, if there are to be two separate principles by which we acquire knowledge, then there needs to be a justification firstly for having a division, and secondly a justification for where precisely you draw the line.

    Generally speaking, the position of scientifically-minded atheists is that having two separate principles by which we acquire knowledge is not justifiable. For your apologetics to be anything more than a defensive action to try and keep the congregations you have, you need to expiain why you think that is wrong.

    Do you have any thoughts along these lines?ge

  • kentgeordie

    We cannot deny the achievements of science, but part of the price we have paid for these gains has been a loss of the sense of the transcendent. Man has become a machine instead of a child of God.
    We know God differently than we know nature, and if you consider all religious experience to be invalid because it does not conform to criteria which do not apply to it, this discussion will not get far.
    But I think that if you had been present at the Sermon on the Mount, you would not have said Ah but; you would have fallen on your knees in adoration. Secondly because of the words that were spoken. Firstly because of the person who spoke them.

  • Jonathan West

    In practical terms, one of the most powerful deterrents against bad behaviour is the certainty that you will be caught and punished. As a trivial exam, people slow down when they are passing a speed camera, but the same principle applies.

    Now, if you are a Catholic, you believe in an omniscient God, and you believe in the certainty of Hell in the event of committing a mortal sin. (Unless you subsequently repent of it. But you can’t commit a sin with the intention of repenting later – the repentance isn’t real or valid.)

    So the only reasonable conclusion I can reach is that those in the clergy who have committed mortal sins don’t really believe in God and Hell.

  • Jonathan West

    if you consider all religious experience to be invalid because it does not conform to criteria which do not apply to it, this discussion will not get far

    I think you need to distinguish between the experience, which I do not deny at all, and the interpretation you put on it of being in the direct presence of God, which I very much contest on the basis that you lack the evidence to know it is true, given that you have not found a way to rule out any number of purely natural explanations for the experience.

    I think that if you had been present at the Sermon on the Mount, you would not have said Ah but; you would have fallen on your knees in adoration.

    I think you need to realise that the Gospels were not intended to be historical documents, but rather had a liturgical purpose. Mark’s gospel (the first of the four to be written) fits extremely neatly as a set of readings to be used in synagogue worship through part of the Jewish liturgical year. The start of the Gospel fits the theme of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) has Jesus healing the sick, the Feast of Tabernacles coincides with Jesus telling harvest parables, and the transfiguration story fits the Festival of Dedication, in which Jews celebrated the time when the light of God was restored to the Temple. Mark (writing after the temple was destroyed in AD 70) offers Jesus as the new temple, the new meeting place between God and human life. The crucifixion and resurrection fits with Passover.

    Matthew expanded this theme so that the entire liturgical year could be covered with Christian readings. He provided additional readings (either by expanding Mark’s stories or providing entirely new material) to cover the period from mid April to early September omitted by Mark.

    The one major Jewish festival not covered by Mark’s Gospel was Pentecost/Shavuot, which falls within this period. Matthew has Jesus go (like Moses) up a high mountain. Moses returned with the Ten Commandments and the Law. Jesus made the Sermon on the Mount, which is an eight-part commentary on the Beatitudes, found in Psalm 119. For the Jews, Pentecost was a 24-hour liturgical celebration, and Psalm 119 was written in eight parts, each part to be read as part of each three-hour section of the celebration. Each of the sections of the Sermon on the Mount was designed to accompany it.

    So I think there is good reason to believe that the Sermon on the Mount never happened in the way described. It is possible that some at least of what is included in it was spoken at some point or another by Jesus, but almost certainly not in a single block in the way it is described here.

  • kentgeordie

    = Ah but.

  • Jonathan West

    You’re asserting that you know my reaction to a hypothetical situation that probably never actually happened.

    That’s as perfect an example of deciding what is true instead of bothering to discover it as I have ever seen.

  • Peter

    The Selfish Gene? Is that the book which says that bees commit suicide because they die after stinging to protect the hive? Again, it is misleading because it distorts the motive. The motive for bees is not to die, as in genuine suicide, but to sting in order to protect and ensure collective survival.

  • ToonForever

    **The only major religion which is text-centric is Islam.**

    Did you type that with a straight face? Because I couldn’t read such a nonsensical assertion without laughing my head off.

    Christianity and its “god-breathed” perfect Word of God, which must not be added to or subtracted from, etc., uses its text to justify every absurd restriction it tries to impose on every society it touches.

    Unbelievable.

  • ToonForever

    Debates are semi-useless, especially with Christians who stack their audience and serve them with one-liners that do nothing to clarify the discussion, but only whip up the shallow deluded.

  • ToonForever

    Oh heavens, so much nonsense, kentgeordie, so little time – and packed into such a short comment.

    **But Jonathan, the whole point of religion is that it provides the only explanation of existence which is worth having: one which comes from outside of material existence.**

    No, it does no such thing. It *purports* to provide an explanation – and as an “explanation” it is found woefully wanting. This explanation is no more than a fairy tale spackled over the the fact that nobody had any idea what they were talking about when these religions were created.

    Secondly, the idea that the “only explanation worth having” is on that “comes from outside material existence.” should not be accepted by anyone capable of constructing a sentence. Why do you think that the only explanation worth having is one that comes from outside material existence?

    If I had to render a guess, I’d say it’s because you really don’t understand physics, quantum theory, astronomy, and so on. Not understanding those things is nothing to be ashamed of – trying to parley that lack into such an assertion is arrogant beyond words. Such an assertion assumes superhuman knowledge you can’t even begin to hope to have.

    **The universe as a phenomenon cannot explain itself, just as no phenomenon within the universe can explain itself.**

    You just sort of say things without understanding what they mean, don’t you? They probably sounded good on Sunday morning, but out in the light of day, they don’t stand up so well.

    The utter conceit in this little passage of yours is the underlying idea that you are somehow owed an explanation at all. The universe does not owe you an explanation. I wonder where you, or anyone, get off thinking an explanation should be available to you to the point that you accept blindly whatever bronze age one you grew up with. Just because you don’t have an explanation that makes sense to you doesn’t mean that the ancient, pre-scientific explanation you’ve chosen has any merit.

    We seek explanations because we are curious, because we want to know. What explanations we find we’re grateful to know. But we also have no fear of the words “I don’t know.” We look to that as the frontier of opportunity. We also understand that we may NEVER know.

    Scientists not knowing does not provide any merit to your made-up superstitious explanation. The possibility we will never know does not provide any support for the mythological explanation in that bronze age tome.

    Just because you wish you knew, and are conceited enough to think you have a right to know, doesn’t lend even a smidgen of credence to the explanation you’ve chosen outside of any reasonable evidence to choose it.

    **Of course, this does not prove the ‘existence’ of God, but one thing is sure: you won’t find Him by looking through your telescope or microscope.**

    That’s odd, because according the aforementioned book, you should be able to do just that:

    Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. ESV

    According to Paul, purportedly inspired by God via the Holy Spirit, observation of nature will reveal god’s invisible qualities so that people are without excuse when they don’t find him.

    You are looking in the wrong place if you’re really seeking an explanation.

    And if you’re seeking a comprehensive explanation, you’re only setting yourself up for bitter disappointment.

  • ToonForever

    Wow – this article is an egregiously ignorant rant couched in seemingly smart discussion.

    A couple of things. The idea that Dawkins has been marginalized in favor of philosophers such as de Botton is ridiculous. They are all in the conversation, and Dawkins’s reputation as a scientist and an atheist leader are impeccable. Your assertion otherwise seems nothing more than your own fantasy borne out of what I can only assume is a deep hurt that he has turned a good many of your once-complaint flock into thinkers who have since rejected the delusion.

    De Botton’s credentials, OTOH, are quite mixed. His amalgamation is often seen as self-indulgent and superfluous, whatever benefits he asserts are in store.

    In short, I’m sorry you’re butt-hurt about the way things have gone down in the last 10-15 years, but lying about it and the people involved are not the adult way to respond.

  • kentgeordie

    It’s a shame you sully a thoughtful well-written piece with this combox fury, about what I get off on on a Sunday morning and so on.
    You have placed your faith (and faith it is) in scientific rationalism. You are a materialist. You are no less convinced of the meaningless of life than I am of its deep purpose. You think that the generally available evidence can lead to the conclusions that you have drawn.

    Yet your clear-sighted evidence-based logic allows you to dismiss as claptrap the worldview that produced the Book of Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, Chartres Cathedral, the St Matthew Passion, and one or two other fairly persuasive hints that religion may be on to something.

    You haven’t really got much on your side have you – any advance on the murderous melancholy of Meursault, the profound silences of Pinter?

  • ToonForever

    Well written piece? Laughable, and part and parcel to your narrow and twisted vision of reality. Did you even read the author’s opening salvo? Allow me to reproduce it here in order to remove your natural inclination to intellectual dishonesty as demonstrated in your other comments:

    “Dawkins himself has turned into a sad figure, an attention-seeking old man who insults Muslims on Twitter. The other atheist stars have faded, too. Christopher Hitchens is dead, poor man. And can you remember anything Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett have said? Nope, nor can I.”

    Thoughtful and well written? If that’s what passes for thoughtful and well-written in your book, then you can be excused for your inability to parse fantastical mythology from everyday reality.

    Sadly, in the urgency you feel to impugn, you utterly ignore my main point, that all of your diatribe serves an arrogance of knowledge far too big for your, or any, britches. It’s not even about materialism. It’s about assertions for which you have zero basis other than the poetry and ramblings of long dead philosophers and zealots who, while they might have framed some interesting questions, and exposed some true aspects of the human condition, erred by pretending to an answer they could not know, and had only, like you, been taught as true without evidence.

    Rather than admit your utter arrogance, you double down with unfounded derision.

    You cannot know – and you replace your inability to know with dependence on the attractive but unsupportable writings of the ancients.

    Materialism is quite beside the point. You blather about persuasive hints that religion may be on to something, (and of course do little to elucidate) all the while ignoring the other overwhelming pile of knowledge that indicates most religions, particularly the exclusive monotheistic brands, are utter poppycock dressed up with the occasional truth to keep folks like you interested.

  • kentgeordie

    Howay the lads.

  • ToonForever

    Hahahaha! Way to deflate all my self-important bluster :)

    We are staying up!

  • Peter G

    crazy! just crazy! Is it worth even refuting these arguements? Crazy.

  • Ben – KY USA

    Why are people hanging on to Bronze Age superstition? There is literally not a shred of evidence supporting it. Further, it is a retardant to both our collective morals and intellect.