New Atheists in decline
Posted: 04 Jan 2013 @ 00:16
Religious arguments are
gaining ground among secular philosophers, as theology
achieves more intellectual credibility, says Angus
IT HAS not taken long for
the New Atheism to become old hat. The term has been used to denote
the writers of a series of bestselling books published in the past
decade (among them Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and A. C.
Grayling). Already, the movement is under serious pressure from a
Church that - for all its recent upheavals - is showing signs of
practical and intellectual renewal.
From the start, the tone
of these anti-religious polemics suggested weakness rather than
strength. New Atheism is best understood as a response to the
persistence of faith, not its decline. This explains its tone of
increasingly angry bafflement at the fact that people continue to
believe and practise.
In the 1970s and '80s,
many atheists assumed that the intellectual case against theism had
been won decisively. They assumed that the wider culture would soon
catch up, and religion be relegated to a purely private domain for
a dwindling minority of followers.
The reality has been very
different. Since 1990, the profile of faith in public life has
grown, not diminished. "One Nation Labour" and "Compassionate
Conservatism" both affirm an important place for faith in public
life. And churches continue to play a central part in the struggle
for social justice, from Jubilee 2000 to the Living Wage Campaign
and local food-banks.
It is worth noting just
how much Professor Dawkins and his kind need to prove. To justify
the exclusion of religion from the public stage, they need to show
not simply that religious belief is open to question, but that it
is intellectually indefensible.
If religious beliefs were
things that people might reasonably disagree about (with credible
arguments on either side), it would be reasonable for religion to
have a significant voice in the public square. After all, it
represents the lived convictions of millions of British citizens.
It is only if religious belief is incapable of intellectual defence
that there is good reason to confine it to the private sphere.
It is the misfortune of
the New Atheism to have come about at a time when public theology
is having a renaissance. Part of this is due to the intellectual
credibility of the leaders of the worldwide Anglican and Roman
Catholic Churches. Many will disagree with the world-views of the
most recent Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams, or with Pope
Benedict. But they are clearly both men of huge intellectual
Thinkers such as
Catherine Pickstock, N. T. Wright, and David Ford demonstrate that
theology can be intellectually open and deeply orthodox. Each of
these writers transcends the false dichotomy between engagement
with the modern world and faithfulness to scripture and
The work of such
theologians is beginning to have an impact on secular disciplines.
Until recently, religious issues have been very much a minority
interest among philosophers. Most mainstream thinkers in the field
have written with a default assumption of atheism, only a small
minority engaging with the issue of whether this assumption is
correct. This is slowly beginning to change.
In October, Oxford
University launched a multi-million-pound research programme on one
aspect of the relationship between religious and secular
philosophy. John Hawthorne, Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical
Philosophy at Magdalen College, is the director of the project, New
Insights in Religious Epistemology. He is one of many agnostics and
atheists showing a renewed engagement with the intellectual claims
renowned philosopher has recently joined the fray. Thomas Nagel has
published Mind and Cosmos: Why the materialist neo-Darwinian
conception of nature is almost certainly false. As with
Professor Hawthorne, this development cannot be dismissed as
religious special pleading. Professor Nagel remains a convinced
atheist, and yet is advancing an argument of some significance for
philosophy and religion.
For him, our most
fundamental ethical convictions imply some kind of moral order -
something beyond our sentiments and the conventions of our culture.
He argues that evolutionary theory alone cannot explain how human
beings come to know about this moral order; how our conscience and
our intellect manage to reveal (albeit fallibly) what is truly
valuable and good. For this reason, although he is an atheist,
Professor Nagel argues that the world must have some intrinsic
Professor Nagel's view is
one that is held by a small number of philosophers. The majority
take the view that if the universe has a purpose, which points to a
personal God. Indeed, for Professor Hawthorne, this represents one
of the most significant intellectual challenges to atheism, and so
provides a good reason to take religious belief more seriously.
THERE are signs that this
changed reality is beginning to filter through to the New Atheists
- but it is a slow process. Earlier this year, Dr Williams and
Professor Dawkins discussed the origins of the universe at a packed
debate in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. If Professor Dawkins's
claims were correct, he should have been able to show theism to be
risible. Not surprisingly, most of the intellectual pressure was
flowing in the opposite direction.
response was to adopt a far more measured tone than he has ever
used in his published work. It provided a glimpse of what a more
reasoned engagement might look like between convinced atheists and
devout theists - an engagement that Christians have no reason to
fear, and every reason to enjoy.
Canon Angus Ritchie is Director of the Contextual
Theology Centre, in east London. He is the author of From
Morality to Metaphysics (OUP, 2012) and the related report
From Goodness to God: Why religion makes sense of
our moral commitments (www.theos