Are the New Atheists Mellowing?


Well, not so new anymore. More like Gen X-hausted Atheists. Tired of the bellicosity and superficiality of so much of the Dawkins/Dennett/Harris type. Smarter, perhaps. At least about life.

Atheism is still with us. But the movement that threatened to form has petered out. Crucially, atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it. For example, he has observed that a sense of gratitude is problematically lacking in secular culture, and suggested that humanists should consider ritual practices such as fasting. This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton. His recent book Religion for Atheists rejects the ‘boring’ question of religion’s truth or falsity, and calls for ‘a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts’. If you can take his faux-earnest prose style, he has some interesting insights into religion’s basis in community, practice, habit.

And liberal punditry has softened. Polly Toynbee’s younger sisters, so to speak, are wary of seeing all of religion as a misogynist plot. When Zoe Williams attacks religious sexism or homophobia she resists the temptation to widen the attack and imply that all believers are dunces or traitors. Likewise Tanya Gold recently ridiculed the idea of religion as a force for evil. ‘The idea of my late church-going mother-in-law beating homosexuals or instituting a pogrom is obviously ridiculous, although she did help with jumble sales and occasionally church flowers.’

You’re never going to get a revolution off the ground with that attitude!

In light of the utter failure of the Jesus Seminar to elicit anything other than ridicule, and the eye rolls Dawkins & Co. beget, I have noticed a mini resurgence of another brand of foolishness: the God Who Wasn’t There crowd. You know: there never was Jesus to begin with. He’s a fictional character constructed by some preternaturally gifted first- and second-century mythicists who had nothing better to do than invent a man-god, perhaps for fun but I doubt for much money.

But when even Bart Ehrman goes after you for your ignorance, what hope is there?

I can respect an honest skeptic. Someone without a religious sensibility and who is convinced that the miraculous is little more than wishful thinking and the detritus of a prescientific age. Someone who asks, If there is a God, wouldn’t He have done a better job of sorting out all the pretenders? Or of getting even His true followers to agree on something?

I’ve known people of this sort who were nevertheless not hostile to religion per se or unaware of its virtues. Makes for less-interesting debates, I’ll grant you. But there’s so much left for us to argue over. For example, who puts corn—corn I tell you—in pasta sauce? That’s just not right…

By the way, and not totally off topic: Have you all seen the video of Marvin Olasky interviewing Rosaria Butterfield? Or perhaps read reviews of her book (or just read her book)? Amazing story, and a primer on how to approach people you are tempted to write off as around-the-bend lost and possible treat with a not-so-thinly-veiled contempt. Lessons here for everyone.



One thought on “Are the New Atheists Mellowing?

  1. This is an amazing video. Just more proof for our sinful, doubtful selves that faith comes by hearing, or reading as it were, and that no one is beyond the power of the Holy Spirit to reach. This made me think of the GLBT community in a much different light. Would that every church reached out to this community as hers did.


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