Sunday, April 21, 2013

The end of the Atheist Spring?

The right wing Spectator magazine has a very self-satisfied article titled "Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new new atheists" and a follow up piece called "Move over, Dawkins. The atheist spring of the last decade is wilting."

The success of five or six atheist authors, on both sides of the Atlantic, seemed to herald a strong new movement. It seemed that non-believers were tired of all the nuance surrounding religion, hungry for a tidy narrative that put them neatly in the right.

Atheism is still with us. But the movement that threatened to form has petered out. Crucially, atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it. For example, he has observed that a sense of gratitude is problematically lacking in secular culture, and suggested that humanists should consider ritual practices such as fasting. This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton. His recent book Religion for Atheists rejects the ‘boring’ question of religion’s truth or falsity, and calls for ‘a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts’. If you can take his faux-earnest prose style, he has some interesting insights into religion’s basis in community, practice, habit.

New Atheism was never a strong movement and never could be a strong movement for the simple reason that Europe is now truly post-christian.  At its peek New Atheism was a historical reenactment of the 19th century protestant culture wars surrounding evolution, religion and scientists like Thomas Huxley.

But what an impact the New Atheists caused! A mere four outspoken men - Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens  and Sam Harris - caused convulsions to tear through the religious world.  The public devoured their books en-mass and theologians, already humiliated by their declining intellectual status, rallied to churn out book after book after book attacking atheism and defending every conception of God under the sun.  Many writers did very well out of this sub-culture with some intellectuals writing a series of polemics attacking and rebutting only each other in a public spat that nevertheless sold very well.  It is unusual for example to pick up a John Gray book without finding a few blunt attacks, or even entire chapters, against AC Grayling and vice versa.

New Atheism is best understood as part of the broader, disjointed, issues surrounding left-leaning politics: feminism, environmentalism, pacifism and now, atheism (see: New Atheism in political context. With the temporary exception of environmentalism these movements all failed to form mass movements because their supporters were too divided to unite around around a single platform.  Atheism for example split over the issue of feminism (see: Rift brewing in New Atheist movement).

But that does not mean Dawkins has failed because the core issues of New Atheism - promoting secularism, protecting scientific education in schools and reducing the privileges given to religious organizations  - were assimilated into mainstream politics and small but highly vocal groups began springing up around the world who now communicate and organize using social media.

Public appetite for religious philosophy may have abated and the 'new new atheists' may be more polite and less headline grabbing.  But this only means theologians are forced to return to writing books and letters only to one another while the world turns around them.  Atheism and religion must die together, their hands forever locked round the others throat.

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