Yet perhaps there is a more interesting development that merits consideration. Has the aggressiveness of the New Atheism caused a rupture within the mainline atheist movement? Paul Kurtz, co-author of "Humanist Manifesto II," was founder of the secularist Center for Inquiry. In June 2009, he was ousted from the Center in what he described as a "palace coup." Kurtz's own account of this development, written two months after his sacking, merits reading:
I was unceremoniously ousted as Chairman of the Center for Inquiry/Transnational on June 1, 2009. It is totally untruthful to state that I was not. The effort by the CEO to cover up this deed offends any sense of fairness and I do not wish to be party to that deception. It was a palace coup clear and simple by those who wish to seize immediate power.
Kurtz was appalled by the aggressive new direction that was then taken by his organization under its new leadership. The viciousness of the New Atheism, he declared, was likely to set the cause of atheism back. The New Atheism would come to be seen as a form of intolerant fundamentalism that ridiculed its opponents, rather than seeking to understand and engage them. This "atheist fundamentalism" is, Kurtz suggested, fundamentally "mean-spirited."
Some years ago, I used the phrase "atheist fundamentalism" to refer to the specific form of atheism I found in the recent writings of Richard Dawkins. It's good to see a leading atheist explicitly and approvingly adopting it, and using it against the obvious excesses of the New Atheism. Let me make it clear that I would not dream of using this phrase in describing the academically thoughtful and culturally respectful atheism of writers such as Iris Murdoch, or the functional agnosticism of an "atheism of indifference." But it's right on target to describe the dogmatic intolerance of the New Atheism, which resembles the nastier forms of religious fundamentalism at these points.
Kurtz profoundly hoped that this new "aggressive and militant phase" in the history of atheism would fizzle out before it inflicted lasting damage on the movement. This "dogmatic attitude," he declared, "holds that this and only this is true and that anyone who deviates from it is a fool." Hardly anyone was going to accept that, in his view. It was no wonder that the New Atheist approach was losing public sympathy and credibility.
Most atheists that I know are decent and compassionate folk. What I object to are the militant atheists who are narrow-minded about religious persons and will have nothing to do with agnostics, skeptics, or those who are indifferent to religion, dismissing them as cowardly.
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.