“I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate,” Richard Dawkins said in 1996 to the American Humanist Association. Ten years later, in 2006, a ComRes poll found that 42 percent of UK adults agreed with this vitriolic statement. That is, two in five were not just nonbelievers; they thought all belief in God should be deliberately snuffed out.
This was near the height of the New Atheism movement—an angry, bombastic form of anti-religion that arose in the early 2000s. New Atheist leaders garnered millions from best-selling books and gained an influential following. At the time, it seemed that this would become the permanent state of secularism—that a lack of belief in God was necessarily joined with a bitter, trollish contempt for religion.
But things began to change. By 2015, some had begun to announce the death of New Atheism, and in 2020, 15 years after the ComRes poll, a new survey showed that only 20 percent of adults in the UK agreed that religious faith could be compared to an evil and intractable plague on society.
Nick Spencer—senior fellow at Theos, a Christian thinktank in the UK, and one of the coauthors of the new report—said the New Atheism era spawned an unprecedented scale of animosity against religion in the general public. But he concluded in a 2022 Theos report on science and religion that “the angry hostility towards religion engineered by the New Atheist movement is over,” with the UK public expressing a more balanced view of religion than during the height of New Atheist influence. Among the streams of contemporary nonbelief, more nuanced forms are on the rise.
As the New Atheist movement seemed to implode from within—due in part to its odd merger with the Far Right in the American culture wars—many secularists in the public square began to consider its leaders “a real embarrassment” who give “atheism a bad name,” says John Dickson, a Wheaton professor and public apologist who engages with atheists.
“Basically, the world has moved on and has rather left the New Atheism behind,” said Oxford theologian and apologist Alister McGrath, author of The Dawkins Delusion? “But that’s no cause for rejoicing, because we have new problems to worry about.” That is, the decline of the New Atheists’ particular brand of hyperbolic antireligious fervor does not necessarily signify a rise in religious faith or belief in God.
There has been an increase in the proportion of non-believers in the UK—already one of the least religious countries in the world, according to Gallup International—and also in the US, where prominent New Atheists such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett lived and worked.
“It doesn’t mean that religion is in a better place; it just means religion is in a different place,” McGrath said.
There are similarities and differences in how the nonreligious landscapes of the UK and the US have changed since the New Atheism era. Religion in both countries has declined over the past decade, and its recession looks poised to continue.
Although many “activist” atheists still publicly maintain staunch antireligious sentiments, a milder type of “temperate” atheist, who is more tolerant of religion overall, is on the rise. Another curious trend is the increase of “amicable” atheists, or secularists who become unlikely evangelists for the Christian worldview—including a number who eventually come to a full-fledged faith.
In England and Wales, the 2021 census showed that less than half the population identified as Christian, a sharp drop in the past decade—and over a third say they have “no religion,” making these “nones” the second-biggest religious group in the country. But Hannah Waite, a researcher at Theos, found that out of those who identify as nonreligious, only about half said they don’t believe in God.
A recent Theos report determined that these nonreligious respondents fall into three different groups. About a third of the UK nones are strongly atheistic and hostile to religion (“Campaigning Nones”), and these overlap with the activist atheists who span both countries. Another third of UK nones are generally atheistic yet accepting of religion (“Tolerant Nones”), and the remaining third are agnostic but spiritually open (“Spiritual Nones”).
In the US, the proportions are quite different. The US is more religious than the UK. Pew Research found in a 2021 report that self-identified Christians made up 63 percent of the population, down from 75 percent a decade prior. Just under a third of US adults (29%) were nones.
Working from GSS data, Ryan Burge, author of The Nones and political science professor at Eastern Illinois University, found that not all self-identified atheists would say they don’t believe in God.
Perceptions of religion in the two countries are also not parallel. The share of UK adults who believed “religions cause more conflict than peace” declined from 74 percent to 63 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to a British Social Attitudes study, indicating a slight warming trend. In the same survey, most UK adults said they had a positive view of Christianity and a positive or neutral view of other religious groups.
In the US, the public’s view of religion is more positive and more stable. A 2019 Pew report showed that a majority (55%) of Americans see religious organizations as a positive force in American society.
In both places, however, activist atheists view religion more negatively than other nones and the general public. In the UK, 24 percent of the population and 39 percent of all nones said they believed that “Religion has no place in the modern world,” compared to 89 percent of campaigning nones (78 percent of whom still agreed with Dawkins that religion is comparable to the smallpox virus).
In the US, a 2019 Public Religion Research Institute survey showed that 36 percent of the general public said they believed “Religion causes more problems in society than it solves”—compared to 88 percent of avowed atheists.
“There’s different factions of atheists, different groups,” Burge says. There are the “evangelical boogeyman” atheists who are old-school boomers associated with the Freedom From Religion Foundation—the ones who “read Nietzsche in college and became like a hardcore hippie liberal,” Burge describes.
Then there’s the American Atheists group, populated by a “younger, hipper, more socially active kind of atheist.” This group is known for posting billboards around Christmas time encouraging people to come out as atheists, and suing for the right to not be blocked from commenting on politicians’ social media accounts. And while the elder atheists are “a bunch of old, retired college professors” who are “happy to read their Dawkins and Hitchens books,” the younger ones are in some ways more radical, Burge says. “They don’t like each other.” Like the disunity among evangelicals, the divides between different atheist groups tend to run along generational lines.
Next-generation activist atheists are more present on social media and more likely to be politically engaged for far-left causes. They are also more outspoken in their attacks on evangelical Christians, Burge says. “They’re the ones really trying to push the agenda.”
These activist atheists think that religion (especially evangelicalism) is evil and immoral, Burge said. “That, for them, is like their reason to be. … They want less religion in society. They want their worldview to win out.”
Some of the most popular and well platformed among these younger activist atheists are exvangelicals, people who once considered themselves evangelical Christians but have since repudiated the movement.
According to Paul Djupe and Burge’s analysis of the General Social Study, former evangelicals may comprise up to 5.5 percent of the US population—a rate that has remained steady since the 1970s. Most exvangelicals aren’t atheists. Burge says that only about 6 percent of exvangelicals don’t believe in God.
But in recent years, this minority has had an amplified voice and outsized influence in the public square as a “nexus point” of interest for both evangelicals and atheists, Burge explains.
Some exvangelical influencers, like Abraham Piper, theologian John Piper’s son, do not identify as atheists but also say they do not believe in God. Tony Campolo’s son, Bart Campolo, identifies as a secular humanist. (Both have been profiled by The New York Times about their deconversions.) Others, such as the social media personality @Eve_wasframed, have built their platforms around being exvangelical atheists.
Burge believes American society is currently at “peak exvangelical” and that this backlash movement is likely to wane in the next five to ten years. “At some point you can’t be defined by what you’re not,” Burge said. “And also, as the number of Americans who were raised evangelical goes down, you’re talking to a smaller and smaller audience every time.”
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Any rise in religious belief can prompt greater antagonism toward faith, Spencer explains. That’s because atheism is a “shadow movement,” as he puts it—meaning “the bigger the shadow cast by religion” and its faith figures, “the darker and bigger the shadows” are of those who oppose religion. Not only did this happen with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Islamic extremism in the early 2000s, but the rise of religious nationalism has sustained the rhetoric of activist atheists, Burge says.
“Christian nationalism is being amplified by atheists … as ‘this evil thing we’re pushing back against’—and that gives them traction, online clicks, retweets, and likes, all the things they need to amplify their message,” Burge said. “Christian nationalists [have] become the perfect enemy.”
On the other hand, many past predictions of the death of God and religion have been followed by revivals of faith and belief in America. For instance, five years after the 1966 cover of Time magazine echoed Friedrich Nietzsche’s words with the question “Is God Dead?”, its 1971 cover story was “The Jesus Revolution”—and five years after that, Newsweek dubbed 1976 “the year of the evangelical.”
In any case, Burge says the growth of hardline atheism in the US has slowed and is not projected to expand much in the future—in part due to the homogeneity of the movement. Two-thirds of US self-identified atheists are men (68%), and three-quarters (78%) are white.
In contrast to activist atheists, a more temperate type of atheist thinker seems to have emerged over the past five years or so, explains Jim Stump. Stump is vice president of programs for Biologos, a Christian think tank in the US founded by Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health.
Instead of frontal attacks on religion as a “cancer” to society, he says, this “new wave” is more subtle. Whereas New Atheists say religion is dangerous “and we need to go out and combat it,” Stump said, some of these dispassionate atheists simply dismiss religion as “irrelevant.”
“There’s kind of a second wave of books that are coming out by people who are atheists and have no love of religion—but their approach is different,” Stump said. The 2011 bestseller Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, On The Origin of Time by Thomas Hertog, and many similar books offer naturalistic origin stories for humankind that account for the development of morality and religion.
While these temperate atheist authors may still be “anti-religion,” they are more likely to acknowledge reasons why so many people today hold to religious worldviews. Instead of relying solely on “hardcore scientism,” Stump says, this approach to atheism borrows from and blends with soft sciences like sociology, psychology, and natural history.
“They recognize that there are differences of values and that these are things that we’re not ultimately going to resolve through scientific arguments,” Stump said. Their works are popular, accessible, and engage in more charitable public discourse and modest claims about world religions.
The reason there’s an appetite for a more calm, cool, and collected brand of atheism—and the reason it is palatable to a wider audience than simply atheists—is because of the ever-deepening divides between ideological groups in our society.
“The tribal identity we have has become stronger and stronger,” Stump says. “And that, I think, contributes to this newer way of looking at these religions as though they are distinct people groups.”
This more circumspect atheist rhetoric has eclipsed the New Atheist dialogue in volume and popularity. Of course, the activist atheists are still out there, but their vitriol does not have as wide an audience as the New Atheists’ once did. This is partly because the internet can be so partitioned according to personal interest, Stump says.
The atheist content that’s likely to gain an audience among the general public today comes from those whose approach to religion seems fair-minded and polite, instead of unreasonable and vicious. It’s a “more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of different religions, rather than the New Atheist’s way of saying, ‘Look at all those religious people, aren’t they stupid?’” Stump said.
Image: Illustration by Danielle Del Plato
One of the most famous and frequent accusations New Atheists have launched at Christian theism was that it is anti-science and therefore anti-intellectual.
Dickson says the New Atheists brought this debate back to the forefront and gave it a “fresh energy.” Even though he reckons “the general public could not remember a single argument they made,” their rhetoric left people with the “general feeling” that “science versus God is a live issue.”
In fact, much of the general public in the US and the UK today still perceives a tension between science and religion.
In the UK, Theos’s 2022 report found that the British public are more likely to think that science and religion are incompatible (57%) than compatible (30%).
Similarly, in the US, a 2014 Pew poll found that 59 percent of Americans believed there often is conflict between science and religion, compared to 38 percent who said the two are “mostly compatible.”
However, Theos concluded that this sense of incompatibility between science and religion “seems to be a conflict of image rather than substance,” since the percentages were much lower when the respondents answered questions about specific religions, sciences, or scientific arguments rather than about science and religion in general.
It’s the same in the US. A higher percentage of people (68%) said that science did not conflict with their own religious beliefs. This finding aligns with Theos’s conclusion that although many religious people have no personal issue with science, they still perceive there to be conflict in general.
That is not to say that some atheists don’t still look down on Christians because of their sense of a conflict. Stump noted that in certain scientific fields, there is what he called an “academic elite” who find it hard to believe that a serious scientist could be a committed Christian. “It doesn’t quite compute to them. They don’t quite understand how you can accept all of science, but yet still hold on to this,” he said.
Some groups of American evangelicals do find their faith to be in tension with scientific findings like evolution and climate change, as well as with policies they see as aligned with science, such as abortion or vaccines derived from fetal stem cell lines. In the UK, however, there has historically been less perceived tension on these issues, even among those with conservative Christian beliefs—such as an orthodox interpretation of Scripture, a pro-life stance, and a traditional sexual ethic.
Biologos is seeking to reconcile the truths that can be known by science with the truth of the Bible, theological principles, and church tradition. One of its primary goals is to encourage believers who have a high view of Scripture and an interest in science.
“Science has been put on one side of the culture wars, and religion on the other,” Stump said. “The ultimate real-world impact that we’d love to see is that kids growing up in the church or going through school don’t feel that they’re forced to choose between the insights of today’s scientists and genuine religious faith.”
Christian thought leaders are pointing out that science and religion are neither the same nor completely separate fields of inquiry. Spencer borrows from Stephen Jay Gould’s idea that, as in a Venn diagram, science and religion are distinct “magisteria.” But in contrast to Gould’s theory that these magisteria never overlap, Spencer sees significant overlap in their authority—especially around “the question of the human.” His book Magisteria describes science and faith as entangled, rather than competing.
In fact, there is a burgeoning “science-engaged theology” movement—encouraging theologians to explore scientific topics through the lens of faith, and Christians in scientific fields to lend their expertise. The goal is to show that not only can science and religion correspond, but they can do so in many creative and generative ways.
This includes the initiatives of newer organizations such as Biologos and of older organizations like the John Templeton Foundation—founded in the 1970s and ’80s by a social philanthropist who saw the need for scholarship and dialogue among scientists, philosophers, theologians, and the general public.
Theologian and coauthor of Science-Engaged Theology Joanna Leidenhag says one of the goals of such efforts is to go beyond the traditional apologetic arguments and historic battlegrounds between Christians and New Atheists. Its leaders want to do the work of “employing science within constructive theology,” she explained, but “more carefully, more deliberately, and more conscientiously” than has been done in the past.
The other primary battleground between Christians and New Atheists—whether religion is good or bad for society—is also as relevant as it ever was.
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With the rise of Christian nationalism in the US, ongoing church and leadership abuse scandals, and greater awareness of Christianity’s historic participation in systemic marginalization, people of faith are having to combat as much criticism from the unbelieving world as ever.
The New Atheists left a lasting impact on the public consciousness, says Dickson, making it “respectable to be disrespectful” toward religion and shifting the burden of proof onto people of faith to show how religion could be good for society, rather than on secularists to prove why religion is bad for society.
Dickson, the author of Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, says that while believers should “concede that there’s such a thing as bad Christianity,” Christians can also highlight the beauty and goodness in how God has worked through the church and Christianity’s positive impact on human history.
In fact, some thinkers want to reclaim the term Christian humanism. They want to highlight the Christian values underpinning much of the humanitarian ideology that built Western civilization—concepts such as reason, dignity, and morality.
Spencer explains that “humanism is a Christian idea” because it involves a commitment to a concept of the human that is “utterly rooted in Christian thought and practice.” He says the term humanist “was absolutely in no way, shape, or form a non- or anti-religious label” until “it was increasingly appropriated by nonbelievers from the 1920s and ’30s onwards” and “relinquished by Christian believers in the postwar period.” After that, he explains, it became “a badge for atheists and freethinkers, or skeptics and secularists.”
“I talk to a lot of humanists, and I will irritate them enormously by saying, ‘Well, look, I’m a humanist too, I’m a Christian humanist.’ And they say, ‘Well, you can’t be, because humanism is atheism,’” McGrath said. “And I say, ‘Look … you are secular humanists, and you have hijacked the word humanist for your own aims.’”
As a historian, McGrath argues that figures like Isaac Newton and Erasmus of Rotterdam were actually Christian humanists. “Our dispute really is what we mean by humanism,” McGrath said. “Back in the Renaissance, a humanist was someone who, in effect, saw religions or God as” being key to “enriching and enabling authentic human existence.”
Some of the best apologists for Christian humanism today aren’t even Christian. That’s because, along with the decline of “angry” activist atheists and the rise of “temperate” atheists has come the advent of what we might call “amicable” atheists. Most of them do not believe in God, but, unlike the temperate atheists, they are publicly pro-religion and may even advocate for Christianity’s benefits for society.
For instance, Jonathan Haidt, author of the best-selling book The Righteous Mind, is a moral psychologist who considers himself an atheist but believes religion is good for humankind. In an interview for The Atlantic in 2020, Haidt said he “believes that religion is part of human nature, is generally a good part of human nature, and an essential part of who we are and how we became a civilized species.”
He also shares a critical commonality with Christians: believing there is a “God-shaped hole in everyone’s heart” that must be filled. Calling himself the “opposite” of the New Atheists, Haidt said he’s even gotten into some arguments with them for “defending religion against some of their charges.” He’s also spoken at various Christian organizations and universities, and was interviewed on The Russell Moore Show, a CT podcast.
Then there is Tom Holland, a historian and former liberal skeptic who wrote Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. Growing up with an Anglican mother and an atheist father, Holland once considered himself an atheist but now describes himself as agnostic. He even attends church occasionally, once encountering something akin to a spiritual experience.
Holland realized the values of Christianity were the reason the Western world moved from celebrating brutal societies—where might makes right and the strong dominate the weak—to honoring civilized societies where a universal human dignity is the ideal. Holland now champions Christianity as a benefit to human society, becoming a kind of apologist for Christian humanism while not yet claiming any faith of his own.
“I think that ultimately the power of Christianity is expressed most potently through its stories,” Holland explained in an interview with author Glen Scrivener. “Those stories don’t have to be literally true … for the story itself, in my opinion, to be true. … Some stories have such a power that you can surrender to them.”
And while amicable atheists like Haidt and Holland—along with Jordan Peterson, Alain de Botton, Douglas Murray, and others—became more tolerant and spiritually open to Christianity, some of them have “adopted” Christianity—in a purely cultural sense, not as followers of Jesus.
For example, Murray, a politically controversial UK figure, wrote The War on the West and describes himself as a “cultural Christian” and a “Christian atheist.” Or as Holland wrote in The New Statesman, “In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am … thoroughly and proudly Christian.”
But perhaps most surprising is the growing number of atheists who have come to embrace a full-fledged faith in Jesus.
This group of adult atheist converts to Christianity—along with many of their conversion stories—is catalogued in two books released this year: Atheists Finding God: Unlikely Stories of Conversions to Christianity in the Contemporary West and Coming to Faith Through Dawkins. The former explores what brought 50 skeptics to faith, while the latter highlights 12 intellectuals who said New Atheists were actually instrumental in their journey toward Christian faith.
Some notable atheists-turned-Christians in recent years are Stephen Bullivant (author of Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America); Josh Timonen (who was once Dawkins’s “right-hand man”); New York Times columnist David Brooks; and writers Martin Shaw, Paul Kingsnorth, A. N. Wilson, Leah Libresco, and Molly Worthen.
“Privately, I have had conversations with at least 15 men in the last year who are either now Christian or actively trying to be,” wrote the former director of Theos, Elizabeth Oldfield. “It’s possible that I’m seeing it now because of the backlash to the New Atheist movement. … Either way, I find it moving and hopeful.”
Justin Brierley, a public apologist in the UK and author of The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God, says that there is a “growing meaning crisis in the West,” a crisis Burge says America is “on the leading edge of now.”
“Once you lose the Christian faith as the overarching narrative in the West, people just latch on to other quasi-religious things,” Brierley says. “In the absence of the Judeo-Christian story, culture was basically coming up with lots of little stories about identity and purpose and meaning.”
Brierley was the host of the Unbelievable? audio show, where believers and atheists frequently discuss questions of faith. And in the past five years or so, he says he’s begun to have much more “nuanced conversations around faith and meaning” with many secular thinkers on air—discussing questions like the purpose of humanity and whether we can live in the absence of God.
In the wake of disappointment that the scientism touted by the New Atheist movement didn’t “answer people’s questions” and “get to the bottom” of things, Brierley says many atheists today are on the “quest for meaning and purpose” and wondering where to go in the absence of Christianity and religion. They’re asking themselves, “What sort of story do we live by?”
And in order to reach those who are seeking a greater purpose and sense of identity in community, he says, the church needs to avoid retelling the same lesser narratives proposed by either side of the culture wars. Instead, Brierley says, Christians need to get back to “this big story that God is telling—in which we can all find a place.”
This trend of activist, temperate, and amicable atheism spreading in the UK and the US highlights important insights for the future of Christian apologetics in a post-Christian age, where New Atheism is no longer a dominating factor in conversations about the existence of God. That is, for all the people who are leaving Christianity today, a great many are open to returning. But these seeking souls are looking for a faith deeply rooted in history and tradition that can answer the question of what it really means to be human.
It turns out that the Christian faith, when properly centered on God’s story and kingdom, still has the same ancient power to captivate even the most cynical hearts.
Stefani McDade is an associate editor at CT.
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Title: New Atheism Is Dead. What’s the New New Atheism?
Date: September 9, 2023 at 08:32AM