New New Atheism 5 April 2014

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Has New Atheism had its heyday? Is there a new New Atheism? Joseph Adams argues that there is and that it is good news for believers and non-believers alike.

There was a time when atheism was synonymous with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other Horsemen of New Atheism. The term New Atheism came to describe an emerging brand of non-believer – rather than the confident secularism the Western world witnessed from the 1960s onwards, which saw religion as clearly outdated and on its way out, New Atheism felt there was a war to be waged. Dawkins and others were not as certain as their predecessors that religion would disappear and die a quiet death in a modern world that was increasingly confident in rationality and science. Instead, somewhat inspired by 9/11, they took it upon themselves to fight the good fight.

Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason as well as Dawkins’ The God Delusion paved the way for an aggressive challenge to religion. The movement that would follow saw an increasingly organised and youthful resistance to religious values, and the movement defended secularism with fervour.

In many ways, New Atheism was a response to a post-modern world in which faith communities had decided to reassert their presence in the public sphere. Society was not becoming increasingly irreligious as popular logic had argued, but rather religious practice was changing and in some cases, becoming more prevalent.

New church movements grew in both the United Kingdom and the United States of America, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ became common also, pagan and new religious movements were emerging, and world religions such as Buddhism and Islam were growing at a phenomenal rate in the West.  

However, it seems New Atheism is a spent force. The movement has matured, and a new generation of atheists have rejected the battle cries against the devout. This can be seen nowhere more clearly than in the UK. Where a new type of atheism is emerging.

Alain de Botton, New New Atheism

Alain de Botton, author of ‘Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion’.

Philosopher Alain de Botton is one amongst many of these new voices – in his publication Religion for Atheists, he argued the many benefits of religion that simply could not be replicated in a godless society. Across the pond, author and Humanist chaplain Chris Stedman published Faitheist exploring his own journey and how he found common ground with people of faith. Both these authors rejected a vision of society in which religion ceased to be, both as unrealistic and also something undesirable.

The British Humanist Association elected Professor Jim al-Khalili in 2013 as their president. Jim al-Khalili is a very different brand of atheist – having presented a BBC documentary on science and Islam, he is someone who sees plenty of room for co-existence with the religious. He is perhaps no ‘Faitheist’ to use Stedman’s words, but he certainly lacks the anti-religious zeal of predecessor Polly Toynbee and the almost-president A. C. Grayling.

The New Humanist magazine (published by the Rationalist Association) has also taken a different turn. Its new editor Daniel Trilling began his tenure with a post titled ‘Beyond Dawkins’, contending that atheists should recognise that ‘some “criticism” of religion is racist’, that ‘religious believers are no less intelligent than non-believers’ and ‘secularism does not mean excluding religious believers from public life’. The statements were an attack on what he believed to be the excesses of New Atheism, and his previous work at the New Statesman clearly reflected an author conscious and understanding of the importance of religion in the modern world.

It is not only the ‘elite’ authors and thinkers of atheism who are speaking with a different voice, but notably events such as  ‘Sunday Assembly’, in which atheists gather in a communal ‘celebration of life’ for the godless, reflect a recognition that perhaps religion is getting some things right.

Increasingly, the voices of New Atheism are seen to be out of step with public mood. Sam Harris’ and the late Christopher Hitchens’ support for the Iraq War and Dawkins’ sometimes bizarre and sometimes racist rants on Twitter, have opened them all up to greater amounts of public criticism.

It may be too soon to speak of ‘New New Atheism’ – after all, New Atheism is barely a decade old itself – but there is certainly a change of direction. I welcome this change, and am optimistic it bodes well for a society that truly accepts all faiths and none.

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About Joseph Adams

Joseph Adams is a PhD student in religion and theology, with a particular interest in contemporary society, secularisation and religion.