The NEW New Atheists

The NEW New Atheists

A British writer rejoices that many of today's unbelievers apparently reject much of the recent New Atheist movement typified by Richard Dawkins and others.


Transcript The NEW New Atheist

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, in culture we will observe a backlash, and then a backlash to the backlash, and then a backlash to the backlash to the backlash. A backlash may or may not have anything to do with the truth of a proposition. It may only be a sociological phenomenon, but it gets my attention when I see a backlash among unbelievers against the so called New Atheist. A writer for The Spectator, Theo Hobson, in the UK says, “Richard Dawkins has lost. Meet the new new atheists.”[1] He writes that there is this new breed of atheists and unbelievers who tend to distance themselves from Dawkins and the typical tactics of outspoken atheists. By the way, I have seen some in the atheist community refer to the New Christians, and I wonder to what that refers. You know, it could be a tongue-in-cheek response to being called the New Atheist. So, the New Christians?

Dr. Craig: Well, I would welcome that, or the caricature of Christianity that they have hitherto held as ignorant, backward, and close-minded. It would be great to be new in that sense. I remember Christopher Hitchens in one of the dialogues I participated in with him saying that running into people equipped in Christian apologetics and ready to defend their faith was something new. He characterized this as a new thing and I was shocked because I thought, is he unaware of the great history of British Christians like C. S. Lewis, Joseph Butler, and William Paley and others who have defended the faith? Yet, for Hitchens at least, his encounter with intelligent, philosophically informed Christians who are prepared to defend the truth of their faith was something that he thought was remarkably new.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, what is all this newfangled giving evidence and reason for why you believe? Well, now we are going to have to contend with this I guess. It used to be like shooting fish in a barrel. Not anymore, apparently. Anyway, well, it could be a compliment then. If the New Christians are those who are equipped, philosophical, loving, and intellectual; well, bring it on. Anyway, this writer, Theo Hobson, says, “The atheist spring 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. He’s the Mary Whitehouse of our day.” Mary Whitehouse was a evangelical Christian. She crusaded a lot in the U.K. against indecency on T.V. and radio.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and was seen as prudish and made fun of and now he is comparing Dawkins to Mary Whitehouse.

Kevin Harris: That is amazing! I can always tell when somebody's been surfing around some of the atheist and non-believing, naturalistic sites because they start using the same language and lingo. Sky fairies being one of them; skydaddy, skybuddy, flying spaghetti monster, and starting to spell God with a small “g” and so on. There are these little memes that go there. He continues,

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?

Okay, lets stop right there.

Dr. Craig: Yes, let’s stop right there. I agree. He thinks on one level it makes sense to think that Islamic terrorism epitomizes all of religion. Why? Because all religion places faith above reason. Well, that’s ridiculous. That is just historically false.

Kevin Harris: So many people think that.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, well they have never read, I guess, people like Joseph Butler, William Paley, and others who insist that faith must be rational.

Kevin Harris: Or, ReasonableFaith.org.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, ReasonableFaith.org.[2]

Kevin Harris: Well, here is this criticism:

Don’t all religions jeopardise secular freedom, whether through holy wars or faith schools? 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.)

That’s a pretty good analysis there.

Dr. Craig: Yes, the tendency to oversimplify things, so as to make it easy to deal with religion dismissively. You don’t look at the complexities. You don’t look at the differences between religions. You just lump them all together and then dismiss them, and I think that the author is absolutely right. There is that sort of condescending attitude toward religious belief on the part of many of these New Atheists.

Kevin Harris: He goes on to say, “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.” He is very correct that Richard Dawkins, and the popularity of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and so on, came from 9/11. The reactionary, knee jerk reaction. Wow, what an analysis from this writer here. They're the ones who suddenly wanted to put everything into a tidy narrative that was right and didn’t have any complications. You know, and that is what religion is accused of doing.

Dr. Craig: Then you don’t need to discriminate between the different truth claims of the different religions; the different ethical codes that they follow. You just lump them all together. So we have evangelical Christians lumped in with Islamic terrorists as dangerous to society and prone to violence.

Kevin Harris: Continuing, he says,

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.

What are we seeing here, Bill?

Dr. Craig: Well, he is claiming that more recent atheist authors, and he gives a couple of examples, are more nuanced in their approach to religion, and that they will recognize some of the good points about religion whereas the New Atheists could only see bad. But I have to say, Kevin, that is not, to me, sufficient evidence to think that the movement engendered by Richard Dawkins, and that he still zealously promotes through the Dawkins Foundation, has petered out. I think the average person would be shocked if he were to learn of the public relations offensive that Richard Dawkins is mounting and the enormous sums of money that he is raising through the Richard Dawkins Foundation to fund secular causes and websites in multiple languages of the world in order to promote his movement.

As evidence that this has not, by any means, petered out, I would simply note the poll recently taken by the magazine Prospect of its world thinkers.[3] In this Prospect poll of 10,000 different persons, the results of the poll was that the number one world thinker is Richard Dawkins. Richard Dawkins is represented as the number one thinker in the world. Now, notice that that isn’t to say that he is the world’s greatest scholar, the world’s greatest intellectual, the way it was represented in The Guardian newspaper. But the poll said he is the leading world thinker and, in the sense of being known and influence, that may not be far off. There are few other thinkers in the world that are probably as widely translated and as widely known as Richard Dawkins. So, I think that the pop cultural movement that he is continuing to foster has far from petered out. Pointing to a couple of New-New Atheist writers whose publications pale into insignificance, in terms of their cultural influence next to Dawkins, is hardly evidence that the New Atheism has petered out.

Kevin Harris: That was a bold statement by this author, to say that it has petered out, because I’m thinking, man, that’s all I ever hear about in so many ways. Yet, perhaps in his literary circle, that could be the case.

Dr. Craig: Oh, I’m sure it is, Kevin. When he says at the beginning of the article that “even among non-believers, Richard Dawkins is now seen by many as a joke figure,” I think he is talking about the way Dawkins is viewed by fellow academics.

Kevin Harris: We need to make that distinction.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that’s right.

Kevin Harris: There is the populous and there is the academic culture, right?

Dr. Craig: That’s right, and he is an icon in pop-culture, as this poll taken in Prospect Magazine seems to indicate.

Kevin Harris: Continuing with this article, Theo in The Spectator says that perhaps there is this new new atheism that is kinder and gentler that can see the good and see cultural value in religion. This Botton guy, he really wants, Bill, to have church in every way, except leave out God. He says seculars are missing out on the transcendence that we as Christians enjoy. Well, I wonder why that is? Can’t have your cake and eat it too. He says,

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.

Dr. Craig: I think the problem there is that there are plenty of people that are quite willing to be unsophisticated in their critique of religion. Murray, whom I don’t know, may not want to join in as Richard Dawkins’ debate partner and colleague, but Lawrence Krauss is quite willing to do that. In fact, I think Krauss rather relishes the sort of rock star status to which his association with Richard Dawkins has catapulted him, as seen in the new movie The Unbelievers which Dawkins and Krauss have released. That is basically a self adulatory account of their tours together speaking before large audiences and rallies and promoting this sort of New Atheist perspective that Theo Hobson seems to think is out of fashion.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, this article in The Spectator is very British and really kind of represents what's going on in the U.K. and it might be kind of foreign to American culture in many ways. I know that it is with me. I would have to kind of look into the U.K. and see some of the things that he is talking about here. Maybe you can shed some light on that because of your travels there and living there in Europe. There are a lot of high liturgical and ritualistic elements in the Christian church there that so many have rebelled against and that Monty Python has made fun of for decades. It is a very secular nation but at the same time there is this guy bemoaning that and saying even atheists and non-believers and secularists are saying that we need to recapture that and we are trying to throw it all out.[4]

Dr. Craig: Well, it was interesting that even Hobson says that the New Atheist will enjoy, even love, a cozy carol service. Dawkins has spoken of this, I think, as well. He enjoys going to a evensong service in an Anglican church, or around Christmas time, to a carol service. They are beautiful aesthetically. So they can appreciate the aesthetics and the music as long as they are willing to divorce themselves from the truth of the worldview that lies behind it.

Kevin Harris: Okay, wrapping up the article here, Bill, he says,

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. These days, this is more or less taken for granted. 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.

The sword cuts both ways, I guess.

Dr. Craig: Yes, again, I wish I were convinced that he is right, but what he wants to say here is that these new-new atheists recognize human frailty and fallenness and therefore they would say, not only can the unbeliever be just as moral as the believers, but he can be just as immoral as the believer. You are not to write off all evil and wrongs in the world to religion, as people like Christopher Hitchens were so ready to do. The unbeliever himself is often also the source of great evil in society and also needs to reckon with his moral frailty and fallenness.

Kevin Harris: But you also hit the same time this whole denying that there is any such thing as sin and wrongdoing. Just as an article we looked at in an earlier podcast, that’s just bad wiring.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, there is, I think honestly, Kevin, a kind of smug, self-righteousness among many atheists who think themselves too good and too noble to stoop to the sort of indignities and atrocities that are often laid at the feet of Christians. What this author is claiming is that the new-new atheists are quite willing to recognize and admit that atheists are often just as bad as believers in their moral behavior. I like the way he put it at the end of the article. He said, “The religious believer might say: we do not need humanism to tell us this,” - we knew that all along; but he says, “Indeed not, but it might not hurt non-believers, inoculated against all religious talk, to hear of it.” So he does think that this is a message that needs to be heard by non-believers because they have been so inoculated with the view that religion poisons everything, and that if we get rid of religion then we will have this idealistic utopia that John Lennon imagined in his song, Imagine.[5]



[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 July 9, 2013)

[2] 5:05

[3] 10:07

[4] 14:58

[5] Total Running Time: 18:36 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)