The New Atheists Paved the Way for Old Faith

How dogmatic opposition to the faith makes Christianity all the more appealing.

Do you remember the “New Atheism”? It burst onto the cultural landscape back in 2006, when Richard Dawkins published his bestseller The God Delusion. For a while, it seemed as if this high-profile, media-friendly movement would change the world.  The leading members of this group (often referred to as the “four horsemen” — Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and later Christopher Hitchens) declared that a new day had dawned in American culture.

In this new day, they thought, what they saw as the outdated absurdities and superstitions of religion would be thrown aside. The cultural tide had turned, and atheism would triumph.

Today, nearly 20 years later, the “New Atheism” has imploded, and is no longer a significant force in public life. It has faded from view, especially among students (I find that I now have to explain who Richard Dawkins is to younger audiences). Our culture has moved on, and sidelined this movement. So why did the movement fall apart? Why did it lose its appeal?

That’s one of the themes of a new book that I edited with my colleague Denis Alexander at Cambridge University. Coming to Faith through Dawkins consists of 12 personal stories by people — men and women, young and old – who initially thought that Dawkins was fundamentally right about life’s big questions, and then came to realize that his approach was simplistic and inadequate. Their common theme is disillusionment with Dawkins, and a reconsideration of the Christian faith as a result of their loss of confidence in his reliability as a critic of faith. We now know that the New Atheism acted as a gateway to religious belief for many people.

Alexander and I noticed that many people wanted to study the relation of science and religion because of their desire to move on from their initial uncritical enthusiasm for Dawkins’ views. Dawkins promised them a world of secure certainties and a rational approach to life — yet on closer examination, he offered them only another set of beliefs, rather than scientifically or logically secure certainties. Dawkins seemed to rely on rhetorical overstatements and evidential overreach in his messianic atheist apologetics, and often presented a misreading or misrepresentation of religious beliefs. Disillusioned, these people began to look for something better. They concluded that Dawkins’ arguments at best led to agnosticism, not to atheism. He overstated his case, used aggressive rhetoric to cover up the many obvious and deeply problematic gaps in his argument. The closer you looked at them, Dawkins’ “certainties” seemed to be little more than his own personal opinions.

This problem has been known for some time. Gary Wolf, the journalist who coined the term “New Atheism” to designate this messianic atheism back in 2005, was disturbed by its arrogant and dogmatic tone. “People see a contradiction in its tone of certainty,” he wrote. “Contemptuous of the faith of others, its proponents never doubt their own belief. They are fundamentalists.” Wolf could see the dangers of this overconfidence: “Even those who might side with the New Atheists are repelled by their strident tone.” That was certainly the view of our 12 contributors, who regularly expressed their unease about the arrogance of the New Atheism.

Each of these 12 contributors tells their own story of coming to faith though Dawkins — stories of false expectations, disappointment, and disillusionment with Dawkins leading to reappraisal of Christianity. Although Alexander and I edited this volume, our primary concern was to allow these 12 people to tell their own stories in their own ways, using their own words. The result is fascinating.

Looking back on things, the “New Atheism” can now be seen as little more than the anti-religious cultural prejudices of a bunch of old white Western middle-class males. Like our 12 authors, many of its former members became disenchanted by its arrogance, prejudice, and superficiality. These stories make it clear that the New Atheism not only failed to offer a viable alternative to Christianity; it also created a sense of longing for something better than Dawkins could offer. Paradoxically, Dawkins’ overstatements thus became a gateway to faith.

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