The New Atheist movement, headed by its ‘four horseman’ of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet and Sam Harris, so influential in the early 2000s, has, I read, ‘fractured and lost its spirit’. 1
The author of that quote, Sebastian Milbank, a critic and editor and (I think) Blue Labour sympathizer, notes that part of the reason is that the political left has shifted. Back in the day of Peak New Atheist, the left (in Milbank’s telling) were happy to stand on science and observable facts and what worked rather than the religion-inspired dogmas of the right-wing. So New Atheism with its talk of reason and evidence, was a natural fit (regardless of the politics of the Four Horsemen themselves): a powerful alchemy: the trendy centre-left fused with a newly articulated atheism.
But as well as New Atheism splintering internally, the political left has headed towards (again in Milbank’s telling) ‘an ideology of “care”; ‘the lived experiences of victims’; ‘indigenous ways of knowing.’ Cruelly, it might be said to have headed for the touchy-feely and the subjectively felt instead of the proven, and may indeed have come to view science and rationality as a power-grab rather than a bipartisan quest for common truth and common good. This is bad news for New Atheists, who don’t have anything else to offer, don’t do touchy-feely at all, and who have been left becalmed by the fickle winds of the zeitgeist.
Then look at what the ever-thoughtful Peter Dray writes.2 He works for the Christian student movement UCCF and is a keen observer of changing trends in student life. He quotes the ‘Russian born satirist, author and political commentator Konstantin Kisin’:
The reason new atheism has lost is mojo is that it has no answers to the lack of meaning and purpose that our post-Christian societies are suffering from. What will fill that void? Religious people have their answer. Do the rest of us?
Dray goes on:
It’s this kind of existential questioning that characterises many students today. If there is no God and no purpose, and the universe is wholly indifferent to our lives, then what’s the point? How can we make sense of our apparently innate sense of justice? Where can we turn when we feel overwhelmed by life’s anxieties? Are we really happy to reduce love to an unfortunate side-effect of our evolutionary psychology?
He argues the key challenge (for those seeking to present the Christian gospel to students) is now ‘demonstrating the uniqueness of Jesus in a world of therapies.’ And he says, We should surely celebrate that today’s students are asking deep existential and personal questions that only Jesus can truly answer. To those with eyes to see, Jesus is clearly about to offer a weightier, more substantial hope – one which addresses us not just at an emotional level but which calls us to repentance and faith, and to life with the living God.
All fascinating stuff. A challenge for me personally, because the realm of science, logic, evidence and the common good is home ground for me. I would be quite happy to dialogue there with New Atheists. Jesus, I would argue with them, is the piece of rogue data you can’t ignore. If he rose from the dead, that upsets everything, even the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is everything.
But what is revealed by the new zeitgeist, if accurately observed in today’s students (which of course must only be patchily true), is surely the shortage, and the centrality, of love, and the golden shackles that bind together love and meaning in the human frame. These things are beyond reason and science and therefore beyond New Atheism and its parallel, Christian apologetic.
Jesus is the way and the truth and the life and God is love. All else falls before the grandeur of this.