Are the 'New Atheists' Actually Doing Anything to Stop the Ills of Religion?
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One shelf of my bookcase is now groaning under the weight of its contents. It's the God slot, and in the years since the publication of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion in 2006 and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great in 2007, there has been an addition every few weeks from enraged philosophers, theologians, historians and journalists, all trying to convince readers of the shoddiness of the New Atheists. Peter Hitchens's Rage Against God was the latest arrival last week.
So with Easter done and the Catholic church embroiled in one of the most shaming and tumultuous periods of its history, it seems an appropriate moment to reckon on the progress of New Atheism, and take stock of this curious and – in the early 2000s entirely unpredictable – publishing phenomenon. What have all these books, these tons of paper and felled forests achieved?
Well, the most obvious achievement has been a lot of sore heads. Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens convey the fury of Old Testament prophets, while their opponents struggle in various well-mannered ways to contain theirs. From my rough survey I would suggest those with philosophical training are the most irritated by New Atheism, while the journalists seem to enjoy the opportunities the row provides; Peter Hitchens explicitly does the "in sorrow not in anger" approach. What staggers the "philosophers" (I use the term loosely to indicate writers who use philosophical arguments) is the sheer philosophical illiteracy of Dawkins. As Terry Eagleton puts it in Reason, Faith and Revolution, "Dawkins's rationalist complacency is of just the sort Jonathan Swift so magnificently savaged". Several centuries on, it appears some have not quite grasped Swift's point.
Faced with such ignorance of centuries of philosophical thought, there are two options. Either start from the beginning – Charles Taylor's 800-page A Secular Age or Karen Armstrong's speed history of western thought, The Case for God – or go for clever brevity, elegantly skewering the argument in the style of Eagleton or John Cornwell's Darwin's Angel. The problem with both genres is they don't offer the kind of bestselling strident certainty that brought Dawkins such handsome financial rewards.
But perhaps New Atheism's publishing success is a case of winning a battle and losing the war. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge point out in God is Back that the main religions are currently experiencing massive expansion across most of the world. One of the biggest drivers of growth is China; by 2050 it could be the biggest Muslim nation, and the biggest Christian one. What numerous countries are now demonstrating from the US to Asia, from Africa to the Middle East and Latin America, is that modernisation, far from entailing secularisation, is actually leading to increased and intensified forms of religiosity. According to Micklethwait and Wooldridge, the future across most of the globe is going to be very religious.
To the sceptical European, this is a lonely and unintelligible prospect. So, scanning my stuffed bookshelf, which of these defenses of God are going to help explain this enduring appeal? Start with Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Myth: "we are meaning-seeking creatures" who "invent stories to place our lives in a larger setting … and give us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life has meaning and value". That helps explain why the bestselling religious book in the US is The Purpose Driven Life (the first chapters of which are published on the net as What on Earth Am I Here For?). The faithful are not mugging up on critiques of reason for an argument with New Atheism, but turning to religion to offer meaning and purpose.