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New Atheists in decline

04 January 2013

Religious arguments are gaining ground among secular philosophers, as theology achieves more intellectual credibility, says Angus Ritchie


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 stature.

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 tradition.

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 of faith.

Another internationally 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 purpose.

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.

Professor Dawkins's 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 thinktank.co.uk).


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