Books on Science and Religion #44: New Atheism and its Demise

Books on Science and Religion #44: New Atheism and its Demise

Stephen FribergTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

April 26, 2015

“Atheism is here to stay,” writes Nick Spencer in Atheists: The Origin of the Species, “because God is back:”

After a troubled century in which its former promises not only failed to materialize but mutated into regimes of oppression that not even the religious had managed to achieve, atheism appears to have a renewed future in the twenty-first century. But it does so largely because religion, in its various guises, is once again a dominant feature on our social, political and intellectual landscapes. It is a pleasing irony with which to end.


Lets look at modern atheism – and the New Atheists – through Nick Spencer’s eyes. In doing so, we skip some important aspects of atheism in the 20th century that Atheists: The Origin of the Species, reviews, most notably the extraordinarily extensive and violent suppression of religion in the Soviet Union, in mainland China, and in Albania under the oppressive thumb of Marxist “Scientific” materialistic political ideologies, followed by the subsequent revival of religion. We also, skip important developments in France and in the United States, including the tragic story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

New Atheism

New Atheism, by most people’s reckoning, was born in 2004 with publication of the Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. But many of the basic claims were already in wide circulation, waiting for the trigger of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City to push them into print. Spencer cites a talk by the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey at a Amnesty Oxford event:

250px-Nick_HumphreyChildren, I’ll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas – no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no god-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to … insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith. …

So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

To Spencer, this captures much of what New Atheism will do and say:

[This captures] the tone – and content – for much subsequent New Atheist polemic: extreme hyperbole, absurd comparisons, lazy use of rights language, uncritical self-righteousness and an obsessive interest in how other people – other religious people to be precise – brought up their children.

Sam HarrisSam Harris – in The End of Faith – fits the mold. He says “We are at war with Islam … [not] with an otherwise peaceful religion that had been “hijacked” by extremists … [but] with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran.” Its hard to read this any other way but as Harris claiming all sincere Muslims are extremists and terrorists.

Harris escalates. He then claims that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them” and “if there is even one chance in a million that he [the terrorist] will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking”.  Harris is arguing that killing people for their beliefs – or torturing them – is just fine. Unfortunately, this is just Harris warming up. He next he argues that a pre-emptive nuclear strike on an Islamic state “may be the only course of action available to us.”

Spencer’s comment is appropriate:

Execution for one’s beliefs, the judicial use of torture, pre-emptive nuclear strikes: Harris achieved the remarkable feat of making an Islamic theocracy look comparatively humane.

Christopher_Hitchens_crop_2Christopher Hitchens is dismissed abruptly:

The respected journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote … [a book that]  swarmed with sweeping statements, sophistry, non-sequiturs, hyperbole and windmill-tilting, the literary equivalent of being pinned in the corner by a pub bore near closing time.

‘Religion is not unlike racism,’ Hitchens explained. Those who thought Saddam Hussein´s regime was secular ‘were deluding themselves’. The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was motivated by an ‘admirable but nebulous humanism’. ‘In no real as opposed to nominal sense … was [Reverend Martin Luther King] a Christian’.

Richard Dawkins, Spencer writes, “had earned himself a large, devoted and well-deserved following long before his atheist magnum opus through a series of matchless books explaining and defending evolution.” But when it comes to religion, Dawkins subscribes to a simplistic black or white perspective:

In spite of Darwin’s own opinions on the matter, Dawkins was convinced that evolution was in direct competition with God. Religion, he thought, ‘is a scientific theory’, ‘a competing explanation for facts about the universe and life’. More specifically, it is an alternative to natural selection. ‘God and natural selection are … the only two workable theories we have of why we exist.’

Dawkins_at_UT_Austin_croppedAmerican fundamentalists, following the writings of modern creationist thinkers, often see God and evolution as opposed to each other. Dawkins “entirely agreed with them”: 

The result was a painful standoff in which one unshakeable set of convictions squared up against the other. As far as the fundamentalists, of both persuasions, were concerned, subtle or sophisticated religious commitments, especially those that understood religiosity as a pattern of life rather than a set of verifiable propositions, were little more than sophistry.

The New Atheists, like their opponents, liked their religion undiluted and uncomplicated, and were unwilling to grant to theological (and often philosophical) reasoning the same charity or presumption of intelligence they naturally granted other disciplines.

The problem has been repeatedly pointed out by Dawkins’s critics (to no avail):


‘What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists,’ remarked the Nobel prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs. Dawkins’s fault, wrote Antony Flew, himself one of the world’s most prominent atheists … [is] ‘his scandalous and apparently deliberate refusal to present the doctrine that he appears to think he has refuted in its strongest form’ ….

Even worse, according to Spencer, was Dawkins’s contempt toward others, his wanting to humiliate people:

This ran all the way from contemptuous to gratuitously unpleasant. Some targets were predictable. Pope Benedict was a ‘leering old fixer’ The Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart was a ‘yammering fumblewit’. Others were less so. The eminent philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny was dubbed ‘[a] “philosopher” with special training in obscurantism’, while then Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees was called ‘a compliant Quisling’.

320px-Daniel_DennettOnly Daniel Dennett, “a philosopher of considerable repute,” seems to have survived with his reputation intact. His Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon urges understanding and scientific investigation even though Dennett’s support for the cringe-inducing “brights” movement has won him detractors.

The End of New Atheism?

New Atheism is dead, Spencer argues. Hitchens died tragically. Harris has transformed himself into a new age guru (in books such as The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion). Dawkins is increasingly being seen as “a joke figure, shaking his fist as sky fairies”, as The Spectator puts it, in no small part because of his many stumbles in using Twitter (see here and here).

Increasingly, the militancy deployed by new atheism is seen as misguided, even by other atheists. Spencer cites the New Humanist, the magazine of the Rationalist Association in Britain:

In August 2013, the editor of New Humanist, the magazine of the Rationalist Association in Britain, wrote a piece claiming that Dawkins ‘provided a case study in how not to do it’. He went on to point out that blanket condemnations of religious groups were morally dubious (as well as counterproductive); that religious believers were in fact no less intelligent than non-believers; and that secularism did not mean excluding religious believers from public life. The tone and arguments could hardly have been more different from those of the New Atheists.

One of the more fascinating current developments in atheism is that it is learning from religion, a development sometimes called the New New Atheism. Alain de Botton, for example, in Religion for Atheists writes that “religion, shorn of its doctrine, claims to truth and all traces of the supernatural, might equip non-believers to live well and wisely, by means of patterns of thought, discipline, community and aesthetic sense honed over centuries.” The distinguished legal scholar Ronald Dworkin has pointed out that atheists can be profoundly religious. And atheist churches, often for those on the run from fundamentalist families, provide song, community and good works engagement.

But new atheism sold an incredible number of books, and it is may have even been successful in achieving some of its aims:

It is hard to tell whether the movement had been successful. Certainly, the number of people calling themselves atheist increased in the first decade of the century. In many Western nations the proportion of atheists had never been higher, and although they were still a minority, particularly in the US, atheism appeared to have the momentum.

That recognized, the trend had been identified many years before the millennium. The number of Western atheists had been growing throughout the twentieth century, although not as fast as the number of people who had relinquished religious affiliation – a category with which atheism was often erroneously confused.

Does atheism have a future.? Trends suggest that it does. The driving factor behind those trends is reasonably clear, if Wittgenstein’s claim that doubt is parasitic on faith is correct. The growth of religion – especially fundamentalist religion – will lead to further growth of atheism. Spencer concludes:

After a troubled century in which its former promises not only failed to materialize but mutated into regimes of oppression that not even the religious had managed to achieve, atheism appears to have a renewed future in the twenty-first century. But it does so largely because religion, in its various guises, is once again a dominant feature on our social, political and intellectual landscapes. It is a pleasing irony with which to end. Atheism is here to stay because God is back.

Next Blog

This is the end of this series of blogs, not because I’ve run out of things to explore, but because its time to explore other things, including the Baha’i teachings about cosmology, the Center for Theology and Natural Science in Berkeley, and other fascinating topics in the Baha’i Faith and the topic of science and religion.


This is the 44th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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