For Kurtz, the nastiness of the New Atheism was damaging the public face of atheism. And it was a self-inflicted wound, not one meted out by its critics.

It's no surprise that the backlash against the New Atheism has now begun within the American secularist movement. Many atheists are shocked at the anti-religious venom now associated with them through a public failure to distinguish between older schools of atheism and its newer and more aggressive forms. They are all being tarred with the same brush. And it hurts them badly. Media reports since late 2009 now openly speak of a "schism" within the movement, precipitated in part by a dawning realization of the darkening public perception of the movement.

Toleration is a cornerstone of western democratic and libertarian civilization. The New Atheism has misjudged the mood, believing that an unrestrained, aggressive, and dismissive criticism of religion will tip the balance in favour of secularism and atheism. It hasn't. It has just persuaded people that the New Atheism is intolerant and nasty. In most western democracies, respect and toleration are seen as essential to social cohesion and wellbeing. As empirical evidence mounts of the positive role played by religious commitment and involvement in fostering social cohesion, the New Atheist intolerance toward religion seems increasingly out of place and misdirected.

The jury is still out on the impact of the New Atheism on religion. But it's clear that something has gone badly wrong within the movement. It will be fascinating to see where it goes from here.

 

Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King's College London. He teaches in the areas of systematic theology, science and religion, spirituality and apologetics. His many writings include his acclaimed book on apologetics, Bridge-Building (Apollos), his internationally popular Christian Theology: An Introduction, and the international bestseller The Dawkins Delusion? His recent trilogy A Scientific Theology (Eerdmans, 2001-3) has been hailed as one of the most important works of systematic theology to appear in recent years.