The Decline of Dawkins and the Dawn of Deliberative Doubt

In March 2012, a crowd of atheists flocked to the National Mall in Washington, DC for the first “Reason Rally.” Billed as the “Woodstock for atheists and skeptics,” the rally, headlined by Richard Dawkins, seemed to signal a new resurgence of popularity and influence for the New Atheism.

But while atheism is still strong, the New Atheism is rapidly becoming the Old Atheism, and Richard Dawkins is in danger of becoming irrelevant. So argues Theo Hobson in an article this week in the UK’s Spectator magazine entitled “Richard Dawkins has Lost: Meet the New New Atheists.” The article describes a generation of thoughtful and amicable atheists who share Dawkins’ secular humanism but reject his acerbic tone.

You don’t need to look far for examples of this tone. In a 2012 opinion piece for the Washington Post advertising his Reason Rally, Dawkins indulges in creating fictional people who will not attend the rally, and speculates as to their reasons for living their lives as they do: “If I can’t trust the school to shield [my children] from science, I’ll home-school them instead.” He then dismisses them as too irredeemably unenlightened to participate in his panegyric to secular humanism. Yet in closing he issues an invitation – an altar call, one might say:

Even if you are unaccustomed to living by reason, if you are one of those, perhaps, who actively distrust reason, why not give it a try? Cast aside the prejudices of upbringing and habit, and come along anyway. If you come with open ears and open curiosity you will learn something, will probably be entertained and may even change your mind. And that, you will find, is a liberating and refreshing experience.”

I took his invitation (being homeschooled through high school, it was too direct an invitation not to take) and was in the audience that day, surrounded by 20,000 atheists. But instead of receiving evenly measured propositional attacks upon religion, we were regaled with a less-than-sophisticated diatribe as Dawkins took the tone of a hired polemicist. Of his regard for theists he knew, he confessed “I don’t despise religious people; I despise what they stand for.” Of faithful Catholics believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation, he instructs his listeners to “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!”

It is these sorts of comments that allow the Spectator to observe that “Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies.”  In his place arises a New New Atheist movement, described as “bemoan[ing] the new atheist approach and call[ing] for large injections of nuance.”  This movement “emphasizes human frailty” and readily admits that the value of certain kinds of religious beliefs.

Christians ought to welcome this new development, and not because it signals a softening of opposition to theism. In some ways, this signals an intellectual danger for Christianity. Brash, exhaustive, generalized statements about the nature of reality of the kind perfected by the New Atheists (e.g., “Religion poisons everything”) are always more easily defeated than relatively nuanced, careful positions of the variety advanced by the Newer Atheists. Therefore it is this newer atheism, with its measured and non-dogmatic anti-theism, that poses the larger intellectual challenge to theistic belief.

Nevertheless, the shift away from Dawkins-ism is a welcome one for Christians because it signals a steady and perhaps increasing global interest in religion. The once-popular thesis that world is growing more secular every day has been proven demonstrably false. Instead of a world so post-religious that conversations about religious belief are passé, people everywhere are still talking about faith. If atheists are now willing do so more charitably and thoughtfully, theists would do well not to miss this opportunity for the creation of conversations and friendships across intellectual boundaries that the former stridency of the New Atheism might have prevented.

We might, perhaps, even acknowledge the valuable reminder provided by the Newer Atheists of the balance between conviction and personality. Though Dawkins himself did not, the Newer Atheists understand that the most effective persuasion consists not merely in dogmatic beliefs defended strictly and consistently, but by passionate conviction coupled with a winsome spirit. The personal aspect cannot be ignored; it is, after all, persons who must do the arguing, and it is persons with whom we argue. The persuasive power of a winsome personality gets right to the heart of Christianity. The central reality of the world is not merely a proposition, but a living Person, and it is to the beauty of the form of Christ that Christian evangelization must ultimately refer.

[Image of the Reason Rally from Wikipedia]

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  • Brian Westley

    The once-popular thesis that world is growing more secular every day has been proven demonstrably false.

    [Citation needed]

    • Tony

      “Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure…”

      [Citation needed]

      The original article was nonsense and Hawkins panegyric was just as bad.

  • Of faithful Catholics believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation, he instructs his listeners to “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!”

    No, that’s not what happened. He talked about the countless unfaithful Catholics who do not actually believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation in any meaningful sense and yet identify as Catholic. He talked about challenging them to own up to their beliefs and he talked about mocking the absurdity of their beliefs. I wrote a whole post defending Dawkins against this sort of simplistic quote mining you did here. There are a number of challenges to believers I offer within the post. Perhaps you are up for meeting one of them? If you are, send me the link to what you write and I’ll highlight it to my atheist readers.

  • Dennis Keane

    I love it when people who are proponents of religion declare new atheism to be declining. It’s similar to communists declaring the capitalist system is declining (and vice versa) – why should I trust you without real data?

    Looking at Theo Hobson’s piece, it is poorly argued and referenced – the comments alone take it apart better than I could here.

  • FAIL.
    Claiming the “New Atheism” is in decline is merely wishful thinking from those still suffering the delusions of religious superstition.

  • John Jones

    Recent surveys continue to show that people are less religious; that they attend church less often; that they don´t believe in the dogmans of their church; that they don´t think religion is relevant; that they want to be listed as “none” on forms, and don’t attend church services as often. So where is the proof that atheism is on the decline and religion is growing? The author just wishes that Dawkins and other aheists were on the decline but offers nothing more than his opinion.

  • The “New Atheists” is a term the press and others have affixed as a label, but the only thing that is new is that more of us are standing up in public and challenging the absurdities of religion instead of giving these false reverence. Yes, Richard Dawkins does not suffer fools gladly, but that does not mean that he is not a very polite person when dealt with honestly on an intelligent level. As an example, I direct you to his discussions with the former Archbishop of Canterbury. The subject of effective discussions with our religious friends and neighbors is important, and has been a topic at the Richard Dawkins web site.

    • Edward MacGuire

      I note that that the impolite and strident speeches of fundamentalists against Dawkins get a free pass also.

  • So you could say that you have “faith” that Atheism is declining. Have any evidence? Doubt it.
    The ancient art of worshiping sky gods is dying. That’s something you’ll have to get used to.

  • Neil Moffatt

    It would be fascinating to see how many children allowed to grow up before being exposed to religious indoctrination then decided that religion did indeed make sense. Religions target the young for the very good reason that they are highly impressionable. Many religions, it should be noted, are more big businesses than seats of morality.

  • Ken Adler

    This article says nothing (truthful) about Dr. Dawkins and everything about the insecure author’s need for everyone to stop saying there is no god. There is no god, aetheism (at least in the west) is rising and no, you don’t get a pass for your silly and completely unsupportable beliefs, even though you never go to church. Grow up and stop parroting what was force fed to you as a child from your parents.

    • HistProf74

      Many athiests are supportive of the kind of virtiolic scorn have for those who profess myth as fact, for example as the article says “I don’t despise religious people; I despise what they stand for.” Of faithful Catholics believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation, he instructs his listeners to “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!”
      Yes, go and berate and ridicle and destroy that which forms the kernel of their world view, morality and ethics. Nothing bad could posible come from that. As any rational atheist surely knows.

  • Becca

    I’m not fond of Dawkins, but it’s painful to hear dishonesty of this magnitude aimed at him. Statements like “… people everywhere are still talking about faith,” are ridiculous. The writer has been everywhere? He’s God? “The once-popular thesis that world is growing more secular every day has been proven demonstrably false,” needs a citation. Without that, it’s pitiful.

    • Edward MacGuire

      Not just pitiful but obviously false. Where are churches expanding? In South America and Africa. Why? A generally uneducated and oppressed population easily manipulated by the proposition that things will be better in the next life. Knowledge is corrosive to religion.

      • cécile stevens

        in india as well… gullible indians… every year there are new proclaimed saints…

  • Excellent post.

    One thing that I think the “Newer Atheism” has going for it (and you kind of touch on this) is that it’s simply *truer* than the stuff Dawkins and friends have to offer. “Religion poisons everything” is demonstrably untrue. “Religion does certain things quite well, while it has a tendency to do other things quite badly” is simply more truthful. Those of us who take religion seriously on its own terms can rejoice as the newer atheism gains a more prominent role in the public debate on these issues, regardless of whether we’re theists or atheists (or something in between).

    Also – wow, these comments.

    • Edward MacGuire

      Your definition of ‘newer atheism’ seems to be one that is more tolerant of foolishness than the old. Some atheists may be more politically correct than others, like the catholics that worship with protestants while believing they will ultimately end up in the fires of hell but in the end they have no more respect for believers than the Dawkins’ of the world. By the way, what does religion do well?

  • Edward MacGuire

    This article s mostly nonsense. Atheism is increasing and church attendance declining in the developed world, and the process is accelerating as fewer parents force their children to go to sunday school or church. I don’t like Dawkins’ style and I personally think people have the right to believe whatever foolishness they like as long as I don’t have to listen to it or pretend to respect it.

    • cécile stevens

      wud not it be better if the foolishness decline for ever….
      its time to be a part of and spread the awareness..