Why God Won't Go Away: Reflections on the "New Atheism"

Alister McGrathBy Alister McGrath

The term "New Atheism" was invented in 2006. Gary Wolf was writing an article for Wired, a British magazine "for smart, intellectually curious people who need, and want, to know what's next." He was looking around for a snappy slogan to refer to a group of writers who had attracted media attention with best-selling popular books advocating atheism: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion; Sam Harris, The End of Faith; and Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell. Wolf hit on the phrase "New Atheism" to designate their highly censorious diatribes against both religious belief in itself, and cultural respect for religious belief. By 2007, the movement had gained a new hero. Christopher Hitchens published another atheist bestseller: God Is Not Great.

The phrase "the Four Horsemen" now began to be used to refer to these writers, who were now collectively identified as the intellectual and cultural spearhead of a popular movement, distinguished by its aggressive rhetoric more than the originality of its ideas. American humanist organizations had been talking about these things for years. Their mistake was to use polite language and reasoned arguments. The media ignored them. What attracted media attention were the outrageous claims and aggressive rhetoric of the New Atheism. They made for great headlines and simple stories. Other recent atheist writers were eclipsed, drowned out by the New Atheist noise.

At first sight, the New Atheism might seem to be little more than a movement demanding equal rights and responsibilities for atheists, like the civil rights movement of the 1960s or the more recent movement for gay rights. Yet this narrative quickly becomes deeply problematic. The New Atheism, as journalist Gary Wolf shrewdly noted shortly after the movement's appearance, condemns "not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil." The New Atheism can never rest content with winning full cultural acceptance for atheism; it wants to get rid of religion as well. Though clearly sympathetic to the agenda of the New Atheism, Wolf identifies and pounces on the problem: the analogy with gay rights is flawed.

Gay politics is strictly civil rights: Live and let live. But the atheist movement, by its lights, has no choice but to aggressively spread the good news. Evangelism is a moral imperative. Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them.

Wolf's sure-footed analysis casts light on why so many ordinary atheists find the New Atheism to be such an embarrassment. It paints them as dogmatic and intolerant, aggressively seeking to expand their cultural space, rather than encourage an ethos of mutual toleration and response.

Read More from: The Future of Religion

If the "New Atheism" wanted to get a debate about religion under way, it certainly succeeded. Suddenly, everyone wanted to talk about God. Although the evidence suggests that the sudden emergence to prominence of the movement in 2006 took the churches by surprise, there has been no shortage of responses by Christian writers and others since then. In the last three years, a surge of works has appeared from religious and secular writers, challenging the New Atheism on its home ground. Every aspect of the New Atheist polemic has been subjected to scrutiny, and found wanting. God hasn't gone away. God has survived attempts to enforce his death in the Soviet Union. Belief in God is surging in mainland China, having survived the violence and intimidation of the cultural revolution. And the evidence indicates it is surviving the ridicule and derision directed against it by the New Atheism. God just hasn't gone away.

Atheist blogs regularly feature agonized reflections on the failure of the movement to gain the intellectual high ground. Appeals to reason and science have failed to score anything even approaching knock-out blows against belief in God. To the intense irritation of New Atheist apologists, their Christian opponents regularly appeal to both in their critique of atheism, and in their proclamation of the rationality and relevance of the Christian faith. More books than ever have been published recently asserting the intrinsic rationality of Christian belief. It's not comfortable for New Atheist foot soldiers to have their weapons used so effectively against them.

Even worse, society at large has not bought into its analysis of the pathological role of religion. Instead of thanking the New Atheism for enlightening everyone with the dreadful truth about religious people, people are complaining about the movement's intellectual shallowness, dogmatism, and intolerance. It's outrageous! 9/11 obviously demonstrates that religion leads to terrorism. So why is everyone interpreting it in other ways, and ignoring the obvious truth? Why did Barack Obama praise faith in his 2009 election campaign, instead of rubbishing it?

9/10/2010 4:00:00 AM
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