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]