With the 2012 Global Conference of Atheism recently concluded in Melbourne, it is timely to perform some stocktaking on the broader New Atheist movement to which the Victorian meeting owes its origin. After all, more than 10 years have elapsed since this noisy faction burst into public view in the topsy-turvy aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.
The dust had not settled at Ground Zero before newspapers the world over carried an emotional opinion piece by Richard Dawkins, then a professor at Oxford University. Entitled "Religion's Guided Missile", the grumpy piece laid the foundations for what later became the new atheism. The odd hypothesis underpinning the hasty essay baffled many readers, me included: it essentially argued that all religions were responsible for the terrible events of September 11. Since all faiths teach that eternal rewards await those who perform acts of religious devotion in the present life, all religions shared in the criminality of that fateful day.
Yet while Christians groaned and rolled their eyes, a subset of secular readers across the Western world rejoiced like pilgrims cavorting in the River Ganges: to them the essay was a work of sheer intellectual brilliance. The flood of positive email apparently compelled Dawkins to begin his most ambitious literary endeavour yet: a book-length, frontal assault on religion.
When The God Delusion appeared in 2006 the response was again highly polarised. Most Christians found it appallingly one-eyed and expressed surprise at the dominance of Internet sites among the footnotes, leading them to suspect the book was a work of "Google scholarship" befitting a lazy sophomore but not a famous Oxford don. Rather than familiarising himself with the complex scholarly literature concerning the social impact of religion, the author was seemingly content to type "God AND mental illness" or "Churches AND child abuse" into his search engine and rely on the most prurient websites it returned.
To be fair, Christians were not the only frustrated readers. The book's adolescent lack of insight, ultra-fundamentalist tone, recurring nastiness and amateurish shortage of objectivity also repelled thoughtful atheists. Yet once again, for other secular readers, The God Delusion was a work of undiluted genius. It soon adorned the shelves of bookshops in trendy shopping districts, suburban malls and airport terminals across the Western world.
After The God Delusion officially launched the new atheism, several other writers galloped out to join Dawkins as leaders of the new crusading movement. The original self-styled Four Horsemen of the Atheist Anti-Apocalypse included two Englishmen (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) and two Americans (Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris). Although Hitchens no longer rides the range, this posse of anti-religious zealotry still patrols the prairies of the English-speaking world, seeking religious enclaves to harass while pausing frequently to exhort tribes of new atheist faithful assembled in flashy convention centres or on university campuses.
What are the main features of this influential outlook? First, new atheists contend that religion is a dangerous vestige of Darwinian evolution, a "virus of the mind" which infects people with weak intellects. Needless to say, this virus has never been isolated nor has its genome been sequenced: it appears that, like the rest of humanity, new atheist thinkers also must invoke immaterial entities to convey their philosophical beliefs and thoughts clearly. Second, religion is only a mask for using violence to dominate other people. The theistic religions and especially Christianity are particularly bad in this regard. Third, the sacred texts upon which theistic religions rely are loaded with outdated moral values that have no place in today's world. Fourth, the inbuilt tendency of religion to control people explains most of the warfare that has plagued humanity over its history. Atheism by contrast always cultivates societal niceness. Fifth, since religion is inherently irrational it is necessarily opposed to science. If we can only prevent childhood infection with the faith virus, humanity will move into a peaceful era of science-based progress.
This heady utopian cocktail has undoubtedly attracted many followers. Yet we need to ask whether these core new atheist convictions remain credible a decade after their first airing.
One area where the new atheists strain credibility involves their faulty representations of Christianity. Scratch the surface and one finds the Four Horsemen are surprisingly uninformed concerning key Christian beliefs, the history of the Church, or even basic principles of biblical interpretation. As US theologian D.B. Hart suggests, the new atheists make readers nostalgic for the early church era in which strident anti-Christian authors such as Celsus and Porphyry at least "held the amiable belief that they should make some effort to acquaint themselves with the object of their critique".
The new atheism also attracts criticism for breaking its promise to make the world a nicer place. One need only read the foul postings on new atheist blogs to sense the low regard for common standards of politeness and decency prevailing among the movement's followers. As Alister McGrath noted, nobody does nasty as well as new atheist websites. If the new atheism wishes to avoid becoming the private obsession of twisted web trolls, it needs to pitch its arguments more winsomely to the mainstream majority.
The new atheist slogan that we can "be good without god" is another arguable point. The movement predictably rejects the core Christian conviction that faith in God alone provides a secure foundation for ethics. Yet they are unconvincing when dismissing counter claims that the tyranny of North Korea or the former Soviet Union is proof of the morally-corrupting influence of atheism: although they bulldozed churches and machine-gunned pastors, such totalitarian regimes were really religions in secular disguise!
Yet the new atheist ethics problem gets much worse at a deeper, more fundamental level: since atheism rests upon a materialist view of reality which disallows the existence of transcendent immaterial entities such as universal moral values, how is their claim to possess a globally-applicable secular system of ethics ultimately justified? To quote again from D.B. Hart, there is something delusional in the optimistic new atheist certainty "that human beings will wish to choose altruistic values without invoking transcendent principles. They may do so; but they may also want to build death camps, and may very well choose to do that instead".
The new atheist belief that a scientifically-literate culture will emerge as the public influence of Christianity recedes is also fragile. Throughout the post-Christian Western world, tertiary enrolments in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are steadily falling. With an anxious eye on their ageing workforces, many large technology-based corporations such as Microsoft are reaching for the panic button.
Perhaps the wellbeing of Western science owed more to the cultural dissemination of Christian convictions concerning an orderly world governed by a wise, benevolent Deity than new atheists appreciate.
Speaking of science, is it also debatable whether modern discoveries have demolished the traditional Christian conviction that the order and design in nature points clearly to God's existence. "After Darwin," Dawkins tells us in The God Delusion, "we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design." Rather, given the advances of modern biology in recent decades, perhaps we should harbour deep skeletal scepticism regarding simplistic naturalistic accounts of the origin of the stunningly complex, digitally encoded and nanofabricated organisms that populate planet Earth.
The "warm little pond" Charles Darwin imagined was the "cradle of life" on the primeval Earth has not been credibly reproduced in any lab. Indeed, Darwin's pond now requires comparable magical powers to those of C.S. Lewis's imagination that allowed Digory Kirke to dive between parallel universes in The Magician's Nephew. When the scientifically-trained members of the remaining new atheist trio make their hand-waving gestures to convince the faithful that their worldview has satisfactorily explained the emergence of life on Earth, they are simply slipping enchanted rings on to their fingers and diving blind into bottomless pools of pure speculation.
In conclusion, can we identify any good that has come to the Church from the aggressive new atheism of recent times? First, we can acknowledge that there is sadly much truth in their claim that religion is too easily misappropriated to sanction overbearing behaviour. Although we obviously learn such painful truths from Scripture, we can thank the new atheists for reminding Christian leaders everywhere that we depend utterly on God's grace to restrain our fallen tendency to dominate others.
Second, we can also thank them for making clear the inbuilt hostility of fallen humanity to the kingly rule of God. Whereas polite forms of unbelief tended to cloak their disregard for the gospel with appeals to impartial objectivity, the new atheists have honestly torn this mask away. Perhaps one of our Puritan forebears such as Thomas Boston might have even thanked the new atheists for plainly laying bare the guilty guise of every graceless heart.
As Boston put it, "The unrenewed will is wholly perverse, in reference to man's chief and highest end. The natural man's chief end is not God, but himself."
In a thoroughly unintended way, by publically exposing the default anti-God setting of the human heart, the new atheists may have opened the door a tad to the clear proclamation of the gospel as the only remedy for our sad condition.