When I entered graduate school way back in 2008, I was burning with questions about religion and science. It was a timely passion. The “New Atheists,” led by firebrand evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, had recently published a bunch of bestselling books heaping scorn on religious faith, on putatively scientific grounds. The era of aggressive Internet atheists, those feisty avatars of scientistic rationalism, was at its height. Worried theologians were hastily pumping out defensive rebuttals of New Atheist scientism (which sold at approximately one-millionth the rate of Dawkins, but whose sheer number almost made up the difference). In short, religion versus science was the show of the hour.
More than a decade later, I’m not sure that the fight is still on. The tension between rationalism and traditional faith just doesn’t seem to have the same urgency as it once did. Take Google, with its invasively up-to-date, laser-accurate statistical knowledge of our collective obsessions and worries. Within the United States, the Google search terms “atheism” and “New Atheism” have crashed in popularity since 2006 — and especially over the past two years. So have the search terms Richard Dawkins and “religion and science.” (By contrast, the Google term “God” has slowly, continually risen in popularity over the same period.)
Anecdotal data might be even more telling. A friend of mine works at a Christian retreat and teaching center whose youthful guests often arrive suffering profound crises of faith or just needing help figuring out life. He mentioned that, as recently as a few years ago, many guests were desperate to learn how their faith could possibly be compatible with science, especially evolution. But not anymore. These days, guests are arriving with troubles about their personal relationships and families, many of which are in crisis. Scientific threats to religious epistemology just don’t command the same passion and attention.
Science, Religion, and Melodramatic Global Crises
Why would the clash between religion and science lose so much steam in just a few short years? One straightforward possibility is that the headline-grabbing eruption of New Atheism in 2006 (the year Dawkins’s The God Delusion was published) brought the question to a boil for a decade or so. But like any trend, the fervor eventually ran its course. People moved on. As the trendiness of New Atheism petered out, public concern with religion and science returned to previous baseline levels — an essentially niche concern.
Another possibility, distinct from but compatible with the first, is that New Atheism arose in a time of relative prosperity and stability (in the Western world, at any rate). When people have their material bases covered, they often pivot to what political scientists Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart call “post-materialist” concerns: artistic self-expression, philosophical quandaries, questions of identity. Maybe the period of relative wealth and ease in the mid-2000s allowed people to devote more of their time and mental resources to higher-level, more abstract questions and pursuits — such as whether Darwinian theory and traditional faith could be compatible.
But we’re now in the midst of many interlocking social and political crises, sparked off in 2007/2008 by the Great Recession and continuing through the increasing polarization, skyrocketing racial tensions, destabilizing Trump presidency, and crippling worldwide pandemic of the 2010s and early 2020s. Maybe people just don’t have the mental juice that they once had to devote to rarified questions such as the relationship between religion and science. The immediate troubles of personal life (families wracked by financial insecurity, loved ones dying in isolated wards) and wider society (cities smoldering from protests and riots, refrigerator trucks filled with dead bodies) are taking up all their psychological bandwidth.
But I’m not sure about this second hypothesis. It seems belied by the fact that, despite our myriad crises, we’re just as obsessed with “post-materialist” concerns as ever. While Google searches for terms related to New Atheism or science and religion have plummeted, searches for identity-related terms such as “cisgender” have spiked, as have searches for terms such as “critical theory” and “QAnon.” People clearly still have the time and resources to invest in higher-order questions — social critique, identity conflicts, and other sources of meaning.
Maybe The Battle Is Just Over
An interesting, if controversial, third possibility is that the fight between faith and secular scientism is simply over, and secular scientism won. Whether coincidentally or not, in the years since New Atheism broke onto the scene, Christianity has essentially imploded in the Western world. Only 38% of Britons now consider themselves Christian, down from 50% in 2008 and from 66% only ten years before that. With only one percent of young Brits identifying as Anglican, the Church of England — the national church — could soon disappear completely, like a ghost slinking out the back door of a motel.
Across the ocean in the United States, religiosity is still comparatively robust. But the proportion of Americans who describe themselves as Christian has declined from 78% to 65% over the same span of time, while “nones,” those who profess no religion, have shot up to more than a quarter of the population. In fact, Protestants recently became a minority of the U.S. population for the first time since the country’s founding.* One social scientist suggests that Millennials may be “the least religious generation in American history.”
Could New Atheism, with its weaponized, moralistic scientism, have actually helped cause this decline in normative Christianity? Maybe, but it certainly wasn’t the only culprit. Religious affiliation actually began collapsing way back in the 1990s and has continued ever since, a phenomenon that the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith pins on a combination of the religious right’s deep unpopularity, the end of the Cold War with its godless Soviet antagonist, and, eventually, the 9/11 terrorist attacks — which presented us with a new, fanatically religious geopolitical foe.
However, after the decline of the 1990s, rates of religiosity actually remained pretty static between 2001 and 2006. Then they started plummeting again. It’s possible that the advent of New Atheism helped kick off this second-wave collapse of religious affiliation. Think about how pervasive the New Atheist message was. For a few years, it was near-impossible to go onto the internet without running into Dawkins- or Christopher Hitchens-style atheists reciting polemical aphorisms like “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”
These aggressive, if decentralized, New Atheist outreach efforts might easily have helped nudge many nominal, noncommittal Christians to leave the faith entirely, much as fair-weather fans might abandon an unpopular team. In a cascade effect, as more and more people publicly “came out” as non-Christian, it became more socially acceptable to do so. If that’s the case, then New Atheism and evangelistic scientism had a real, society-wide impact — even if we can’t blame (or thank, depending on your point of view) them for much beyond simply pushing many weakly affiliated people through the exits they’d already been slouching towards.
But while the root causes of accelerating secularization may be largely sociological, the putative goals of the New Atheism movement were ideological to the core. They wanted a scientistic, faith-free world where rationality reigned and evidence and reason were triumphant. Religion, as the last, great vestige of civilizational magical thinking, stood in the way of this longed-for final triumph of Science™ as a worldview and even as a system of governance (think astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s “Rationalia”). So as religiosity waned, many advocates of scientism cheered on its demise, and did what they could to make irreligion seem normal, acceptable. Even right.
A Pyrrhic Victory for Science™
However, their polemics having possibly helped bring about the end of Christianity as the default Western worldview, advocates of scientism are exactly not getting what they hoped for, Rationalia-wise. It’s noteworthy that the 2010s — which may go down in history as the point when the West ceased to be normatively Christian — also saw postmodern irrationalism lurch out of the bowels of the academy, where it had been marinating since the 1970s, to crudely take center stage in world affairs.
The results have been messy, exciting, terrifying, and decidedly un-Enlightenment. Postmodern suspicion of “truth” and authority swiftly conquered entire voting blocs, media outlets, and societies — both on the left and the right. The Trump administration, with its almost cartoonishly Nietzschean insistence on burping forth its own reality with Alistair Crowley-like showmanship, was the first “postmodern presidency.” A new breed of fanatical, near-religious social justice activists began insisting on baffling, obviously irrational tenets of faith, such as that there can be no possible tradeoffs against the good of mass immigration, or that only hatred could explain why anyone might be baffled about how gender can be both a pure social construct and an innate, objective reality.
This isn’t to claim that any given manifestation of our new postmodern world is worse than any other; it’s just to point out how very, very far from Rationalia we are. Think about it: just as rationalistic scientism, with all its aggressive Enlightenment optimism and hopes for a post-religion, post-tribalistic Star Trek future, seemed poised to utterly triumph, a whole new, and much less predictable, slurry of irrational beliefs sprang forth and conquered the scene. Enlightenment values were briefly the toast of the hour. Now they’re back in the scullery. As my perceptive wife recently put it, if scientism was the shark that swallowed religion, postmodernism is the whale that swallowed the shark.
Changing the Subject Without Winning the Game
This new state of affairs makes the traditional questions that animated the religion-and-science dialogue ring hollow: How can God answer prayers if everything is determined by mechanical causation? Can humans be both evolved animals and the image of God? We’re in a civilizational crisis of pretty profound proportions. These questions aren’t that captivating now.
What we didn’t realize as we rapidly secularized over the past generation was that a society can’t just switch its entire operating system — from one religion to another, or from religion to non-religion — without tremendous upheaval. The sense of inarticulable crisis and instability we all feel right now, the eerie lack of solid ground to stand on, is just what it feels like when civilization teeters between completely different ways of seeing the world.
The religion-and-science “conflict” was always substantially about conflicting visions for how to run a civilization, not a debate about epistemology. Should we be individualists, or should we submit to the strictures binding groups, families, churches, nations? Should we see the past as a prison to escape from, or a guide to learn from? Should we give power to technocrats or to the guardians of tradition? Scientism was the ideology of scientific control over the levers of power, and it used epistemic arguments towards that end. But as its victory approached, it didn’t need to argue theology anymore.
The philosophy and theology in Dawkins’s writing therefore isn’t sophisticated. It doesn’t need to be. Instead of debating about salvation and sin, the New Atheists shifted the conversation completely — they tried to “change the subject,” as the philosopher Richard Rorty put it. We’d stop worrying about God and focus on Truth, on Reality. We’d talk about inputs and outputs, about solving problems rationally.
Well, the subject changed, all right. But it didn’t change into a rational conversation about how to use the tools of science to advance Enlightenment values. Instead, society lurched into a postmodern funhouse conversation about what truth and reality even are. Rather than unifying into a civilization-scale technocracy freed from religious tribalism, we’re splintering into countless separate worlds, each with its own, mutually incompatible Wittgensteinian language game. Linguist John McWhorter warns that words are “losing their common meaning.”
In this midst of this swirling ferment and confusion, weird things will happen. It might turn out that traditional religion and Enlightenment scientism have common cause against the whale that’s swallowed them both. As I’ve argued here before, both scientism and religion believe in objective truth, in a reality that definitively exists “out there.” That’s precisely what postmodernism rejects. As what we might call “applied postmodernism” becomes the modus operandi for popular, political, and scholarly discourse across the Western world, rational science and faith-based religion might find themselves backed into the same corner. This possibility implies yet another reason for the sudden cooling of the age-old fisticuffs between religion and science. What do I call the enemy of my enemy?
*How Protestant has America traditionally been? Wags have sometimes joked that the closest thing the world has to a Protestant pope is the president of the United States of America. The fact that our current president is Catholic isn’t necessarily an impediment here; after all, Chesterton somewhere quipped that in America even the Catholics are Protestant. All this goes to show how big of a deal it is that, suddenly, more than half of us think that we’re not Protestant.
Edit, 4/6/21: A colleague and reader pointed out that the term “applied postmodernism” has been popularized by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. I’ve added a link for the attribution of that phrase.