The New Atheism

Ian Cooper

August 2010


The term The New Atheism is one that Christians have had to get used to in the last few years, even if the ‘new’ connected to atheism seems something of a misnomer. The recent tragic news that Christopher Hitchens, one of the most biting and witty proponents of the New Atheism is probably dying of throat cancer has brought a renewed focus on what the New Atheists are saying. Seeing him on the net in an interview this August, having lost a lot of weight as well as his hair, still very much sticking to his atheist guns, is sobering stuff.


But if, we might ask, atheism is fairly old hat, why the term ‘new’? Quite simply, it’s been because of the slew of books coming out in the last few years attacking God and religion, which have been best sellers and which are characterised by a no holds barred approach. Belief in God is declared mad and bad. There has been no apology for their views. This is partly because the context of the books is Islamic terrorism and the perceived power of the religious right in the Bush years. But there has been no sign of the usual and now conventional, ‘you can have your views and I can have mine’. Instead it’s ‘your religious views are wrong and stupid.’ Interesting, in an age we have called postmodern, where truth had supposedly evaporated. It’s perhaps the vehemence of their views, which has caused one of the most interesting features of the debate, namely, the criticism they have attracted from intellectual heavyweights, who would normally be associated with the liberal secular community.


So who are these new atheists? There are four who are particularly well known. The first to kick off was the youngest, Sam Harris, who wrote The End of Faith (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006). He’s interesting as one who started an undergrad degree in English, then dropped out and became very interested in Eastern spirituality. When he returned to university, Stanford, he studied philosophy and then did a PhD in neuroscience at UCLA. It’s this that informs his approach. The mind is explained as a brain though he still insists atheists can be ‘spiritual.’


The other American of the four is Daniel Dennett. He is a philosopher and teacher at Tufts University and as a recreation, a passionate sailor. He is also the oldest and fairly recently had a new aorta following life threatening heart problems. When he heard that friends had been praying for him, he is alleged to have said, ‘and did they sacrifice a goat?’ His main book is Breaking the Spell (2006) and his main idea is explained in the subtitle, ‘Religion as a Natural Phenomenon’.

Richard Dawkins is perhaps the best known of the four, with a hugely impressive academic and literary career and the status of one of our most influential Public Intellectuals, the title now in widespread use. Certainly no one doubts his writing ability as a populariser of science. Even the titles of his books, The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable and Unweaving the Rainbow, to name a few, bear witness to that. However, his main attack on God and Christianity in particular came in his book The God Delusion (2006). This sold over 2 million copies but also attracted the most criticism from friend and foe alike, for example McGrath’s, The Dawkins Delusion? (2007)


The last of the four is Christopher Hitchens, English though now with US citizenship and like Dawkins from Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). He started life as a Marxist activist and admirer of Che Guevara and while on the left forged a very successful career as a high living and prolific journalist. Outraged at the pussyfooting of most of the left at Islamic fundamentalism, he became an unlikely ally of the neo-cons in the US and broke with most of his erstwhile left wing colleagues. However, he kept his Marxist atheism. For him religion, Christian or Muslim, was all of a piece and his main book in the debate, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) says it all.


If these are the best known of the New Atheists, what are they actually saying? Not a lot really. They are fairly conventional materialists, where nature is all that there is and which does, or will in due course, explain everything. And this is what annoys heavyweights like Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books or the reviewer in the New York Review of Books, who described the God Delusion as ‘middlebrow’. Their complaint is that there is no serious and sophisticated grappling with what the best religious minds are saying. They also don’t like the rancour against religion, as when Dawkins describes a Christian upbringing as child abuse. For them there is a kind of distasteful Darwinian fundamentalism at work, almost the mirror image of what the New Atheists are attacking.


So how should Christians respond? Have the secular critics done our work? It’s tempting to think so especially when you hear that Dawkins and Dennett belong to the Brights - A group dedicated to a naturalistic worldview - or when one reads of Dawkins organising children’s atheist summer camps! However, we should remember how many books these folk have sold. We should also be glad that truth still seems to matter to a lot of people. And that must mean that apologetics must matter to Christians. Tim Keller’s advice is not to react to their brickbats but rather unpick their arguments. So we must be able to defend the bible and, where we can, the church record. Since the attack is mostly based on science we must be scientifically informed and support Christian scientists. We need particularly to sharpen up on our rather confused views on origins. We might also start thinking of how to respond to Sam Harris’ latest book, which comes out this October, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Help. But right now, perhaps we should remember Christopher Hitchens in our thoughts and prayers.




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Ian Cooper, 04/10/2010