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Listening to the New New Atheists

07 September 2012


WHEN I read the enthusiastic report on "Atheism+" in the New Statesman, about how the New New Atheists have broken away from the ancient sexist boring dinosaurs of the old New Atheists, I thought: "At last! Atheism for the 17-year-olds of the world." If you had spent as much time as I have reading the comments on The Guardian's belief site, you would realise what a huge advance this would be over the Dawkins brand of atheism for your inner 14-year-old.

So I commissioned a piece on this for the online section, and the 900 or so comments came out as a perfect illustration of Peter McGrath's thesis: "The founders of Atheism+ say clearly that 'divisiveness' is not their aim, but looking through the blogs and voluminous comments in the two weeks since A+ was mooted, trenches have been dug, beliefs stated, positions staked out and abuse thrown.

"A dissenting tweeter is 'full of shit', while, according to one supporter, daring to disagree with Atheism+'s definition of progressive issues and not picking their side makes you an 'asshole and a douchebag'."

I remember that, when first I started reading the comments on The Guardian's site, I began to see my fellow passengers on the Tube as if they were weighed down by invisible rucksacks of hatred and anger, which might at any time explode - so much rage and despair concealed in apparently normal lives.

McGrath quoted a particularly choice piece from P. Z. Myers, possibly the most inexhaustibly aggressive of the main atheist bloggers:

"It really isn't a movement about exclusion, but about recognising the impact of the real nature of the universe on human affairs. And if you don't agree with any of that - and this is the only 'divisive' part - then you're an asshole. I suggest you form your own label, 'Asshole Atheists', and own it, proudly. I promise not to resent it or cry about joining it. I just had a thought: maybe the anti-Atheist+ people are sad because they don't have a cool logo. So I made one for the Asshole Atheists: A*."

Myers has now unfriended Peter McGrath on Facebook. Myers, incidentally, is a professor of biology, aged 55.

THE big religious story of the week was The Guardian's extract from Francis Spufford's book Unapologetic. I say this with care, because Francis is a friend of mine, and The Guardian my main employer.

The book is important in itself: a description from the inside of what it feels like to be a Christian and grown up, and to do so as if the world of churchy discourse had never existed (Features, page 19). In that sense, and in that sense alone, it's a bit like C. S. Lewis talking to the plain man in the pub.

What is news is that it should have got such a prime spot on The Guardian's Review front. Ten years ago, when the rhetoric against religion was in full tide, and sinister charlatans such as Sam Harris were taken seriously, you would have got good odds against such a thing happening.

Since then, the New Atheist movement, such as it was, has largely discredited itself in this country. This is partly because of Rowan Williams's palpable intellectual seriousness: even at his densest and most tangly, he leaves the reader with the lasting suspicion that there must be sense hidden there; partly, too, I think, a reaction to the Pope's visit, when the disparity between the crowds in favour and the crowds against was so immensely in his favour.

Mostly, though, it is a result of exposure to the self-righteous, pompous, and fanatical streak in the movement. I know at least one senior Guardian executive who was, so to say, deconverted from a benevolent view of the New Atheism by reading Richard Dawkins's speech at a rally against the Pope, which he was trying to get the paper to publish in full.

This doesn't mean, of course, that there is a following wind for Christianity. The sheep are not going to look up and say: "We are not fed: what liberal conspiracy has deprived us of the wisdom of George Carey all these years?" But, for the moment, Christian intellectuals have the glamour of novelty. They are not saying anything very predictable.

MEANWHILE, journalism marches on. A colleague at The Guardian draws my attention to the story of a woman in the Anatolian village of Yalvac, who not only shot the man who raped her, but decapitated his corpse and threw the head into the village square. "My daughter will start school this year," the woman declared. "Everyone would have insulted my children. Now no one can. I saved my honour."

How do we know this is true? I asked. "I found it on the internet," my colleague said, "in Turkish."

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