Has Dawkins Lost?


There was an interesting article in the British newspaper The Spectator on April 13 with a headline that caught my attention, “Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new new atheists.”[1] And the byline is “Secular humanism is recovering from its Dawkinsite phase – and beginning a more interesting conversation.”

This is what the author had to say,

The atheist spring

I would prefer to call it the atheist winter myself.

that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God. Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies. . . .

So what was all that about, then? We can see it a bit more clearly now. It was an outpouring of frustration at the fact that religion is maddeningly complicated and stubbornly irritating, even in largely secular Britain. This frustration had been building for decades: the secular intellectual is likely to feel somewhat bothered by religion, even if it is culturally weak. Oh, she finds it charming and interesting to a large extent, and loves a cosy carol service, but religion really ought to know its place. Instead it dares to accuse the secular world of being somehow -deficient.

The events of 9/11 were the main trigger for the explosion of this latent irritation. There was a desire to see Islamic terrorism as the symbolic synecdoche of all of religion. On one level this makes some sense: does not all religion place faith above reason?

And here I want to say no, not at all! That is not a correct characterization of all religion but this author apparently thinks that it does.

Isn’t this intrinsically dangerous? Don’t all religions jeopardise secular freedom, whether through holy wars or faith schools?

Well, hardly, since Christians believe in freedom of conscience and the right to follow your conscience where it leads and therefore we support religious freedom so long as it doesn’t infringe on the liberty of another. But he goes on to say,

On another level it is absurd: is the local vicar, struggling to build community and help smelly drunks stay alive, really a force for evil — even if she has some illiberal opinions? When such questions arise, a big bright ‘Complicated’ sign ought to flash in one’s brain. Instead, in the wake of 9/11, many otherwise thoughtful people opted for simplicity over complexity. They managed to convince themselves that religion is basically bad, and that the brave intellectual should talk against it. (This preference for seeming tough and clear over admitting difficult complexity is really cowardice, and believers are prone to it too.)

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.

Now, I am not convinced of that yet. His main evidence is to point out five or six new-new atheist authors who are not so belligerent as the ones that are more famous. But those sorts of traditional atheists have always been with us and the press just tends to ignore them, unfortunately, because the more belligerent ones get the headlines. I’m not convinced yet that, culturally speaking, these more belligerent ones won’t continue to get the lion’s share of the attention and the more sensible atheists will tend to just be ignored as they have heretofore. But at any rate, he thinks that the belligerent movement is petering 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.

. . .

All these writers admirably refuse to lapse into a comfortably sweeping ideology that claims the moral high ground for unbelief. Life’s complicated, they admit. Institutional religion might be dubious, but plenty of its servants buck that trend with a flair that puts secular culture to shame.

. . .

A polemical approach to religion has swung out of fashion.

. . .

What, if anything, do these newer atheists have to say? In previous generations, the atheist was keen to insist that non-believers can be just as moral as believers. . . . What distinguishes the newer atheist is his admission that non-believers can be just as immoral as believers. Rejecting religion is no sure path to virtue; it is more likely to lead to complacent self-regard, or ideological arrogance.

Here he continues to talk about the social impact of religious belief but he doesn’t deal with what I think is the more fundamental philosophical point that the rejection of God leads you without any foundation for the affirmation of objective moral values and duties. Regardless of whether the rejection of religious belief leads to complacent self-regard or arrogance, the more fundamental question is: does it land us in nihilism if God does not exist? And a good many atheists and naturalists are acknowledging that today; that really we are without any sort of objectivity in our moral values and duties.

Finally, he says,

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.

And, again, included in that “so on” I would say is a foundation for objective moral values and duties.

The key novelty of the newer atheism, perhaps, is its attentiveness to human frailty.

The religious believer might say: we do not need humanism to tell us this. Indeed not, but it might not hurt non-believers, inoculated against all religious talk, to hear of it.[2]

[1] Theo Hobson, “Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new new atheists,” The Spectator, April 13, 2013. See http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8885481/after-the-new-atheism/ (accessed September 5, 2013).

[2] Total Running Time: 7:49 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)