‘The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God,’ says Theo Hobson, writing for the Spectator in an article that proclaims the death of New Atheism. Here are some of his paras:
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.
In these pages Douglas Murray recently recounted debating alongside Richard Dawkins and being embarrassed by the crudity of his approach. Murray is not one of life’s fence-sitters: it must have occurred to him that atheism has polemical possibilities that would suit him rather well. But he has the sense to turn down the role of the new Christopher Hitchens. A polemical approach to religion has swung out of fashion. In fact, admitting that religion is complicated has become a mark of sophistication. Andrew Brown of the Guardian has played a role in this shift: he’s a theologically literate agnostic who is scornful of crude atheist crusading, and who sometimes ponders his own attraction to religion. On a more academic level, the philosopher John Gray has had an influence: he is sceptical of all relics of Enlightenment optimism, including the atheist’s faith in reason.
It might sound odd to cite Alain de Botton as a critic of complacent self-regard, but this is central to his stated purpose. Attending to the religious roots of humanism can prod us out of seeing secular humanism as natural, the default position, and incite us to ponder our need for discipline, structure, community, and so on. At one point he commends the Christian perspective, that we are ‘at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures, a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable, always on the verge of anxiety, tortured by our relationships, terrified of death — and most of all in need of God’.
Polemical atheism was never going to go down well with the intelligentsia and immediately a kind of counter movement – what one blogger called ‘The New Sophists’ – grew up to oppose it. Though it was much more about tone than content, the New Sophistry had three basic positions: that religion was a lot more complex and interesting than we godless were willing to say, that atheism was more or less the same as religious fundamentalism (not that they ever criticised actual religious fundamentalists) and, finally, that criticism of religion should in many instances be regarded as racism. With Harris discredited, Hitchens still dead and Dawkins playing out an increasingly silly Twitter presence it must seem to Hobson that his own chin-stroking cabal must have won the bitter faith wars of the 2000s.
A few points, though. The first is that the philosophers Hobson praises have not connected with the public in the way that Dawkins and Hitchens did. There are no New Sophist bestsellers and most of Hobson’s cited names are little known outside academia and the CiF Belief blog. Andrew Brown, for instance, is the kind of nonentity even close friends sometimes struggle to recognise. To this point, Hobson would say that nuance is less marketable than grand sweeping assertions. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is that the arguments of Terry Eagleton, Karen Armstrong etcetera have not resonated because they are not particularly original or interesting. (For example, the link between medieval apocalyptist movements and the twentieth century Nazi and Communist totalitarians was explored with much more eloquence and verve by Norman Cohn in his The Pursuit of the Millennium, long before John Gray got anywhere near it.) And perhaps the New Atheists spoke to people who for some reason or another weren’t able to speak up. I think of that line from Paul Berman: ‘I wonder if bookish young Muslim women in the immigrant zones of Europe aren’t sneaking a few glances at Hirsi Ali’s writings and making brave resolutions for themselves.’
There’s also the fact that belief hasn’t moved on in the way that unbelief has. Let’s ignore the obvious examples of Islamism and the Vatican and look at Hobson’s Anglican Church. Far from the harmless caricature quoted by Hobson – ‘The idea of my late church-going mother-in-law beating homosexuals or instituting a pogrom is obviously ridiculous, although she did help with jumble sales’ – the Church of England is probably one of our most reactionary institutions. It almost derailed equal marriage. It did nothing to rein in the murderous homophobia of its Ugandan counterpart. It openly discriminates against its female employees. Liberal Christians are at the end of their rope. Here’s South Manchester Anglican blogger Rachel Mann:
I am still reeling from the most recent ‘Church of England’ statement on marriage. Much attention has rightly been focused on exactly who ‘the Church of England’ is in this statement and who thought this was a sensible statement to utter. The ‘we’referred to again and again in this statement may haunt all parts of the C of E for years to come. Even if it is the case that the government proposals for equal marriage are ill-conceived and no one in the C of E was consulted about the so-called ‘quadruple lock’, the Church House statement does little to affirm people like me – seeking to be faithful to Christ, to serve the church, but who are frankly tired being given the impression of having a place in the church on sufferance.
The awful suspicion comes that good people like Mann are actually in the minority. Julian Baggini, cited by Hobson in his article, said that the problem with this debate is ‘a lack of knowledge about what religious people, rather than the elite commentariat, really think.’ To get a better idea Baggini hung around outside various Bristol churches asking the congregation about their actual beliefs. Here’s his results:
So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.
For substantial numbers of people it really is about flying to heaven on a winged horse. And the controversy over gay marriage drew out further evidence of a literalist mindset. In the run up to the vote MPs were deluged with furious emails. One told the Independent that ‘Quite a few of us who were considering abstaining will vote in favour of gay marriage because of the unreasonable nature of the emails we have been receiving. Some of the emails I’ve had are simply appalling and I’m fed up with it.’ All those fine words about a poetic response to human suffering and the heart of a heartless world end in the same old ugly preoccupation with what lovers do behind closed doors.
What particularly annoys me about Hobson’s brand of new sophistry is its implication that we need to admit faith into our lives to experience the transcendent. A Catholic priest criticises Richard Dawkins, saying that ‘Dawkins stands in that long – and often noble – line of zealous irreligionists whose faith-foundation is reason and science. I deeply respect that stance, which is clearly religionless faith, but can it provide the ‘trusting place’ for the immanence, transcendence and mystery which our human spirits seem to need?’ Yes it damn well can, and I speak as someone who experiences these transcendental moments on a very regular basis. I did go through a religious phase in my teens – closely related to the OCD I grappled with back then – and it was absolutely terrifying. Being out of it is a liberation. The fact is that faith has little to offer and the rest of life offers so much more. Congregations were falling way before 9/11 and those atrocities gave us the chance to break with religion for good. We blew that chance and the twenty first century is a darker time as a result.