Beware the patronising 'new new atheists' adopting the philosophical centre ground
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