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Opinion: The New Atheism has now faded from view

29 September 2023

Public intellectuals are now taking belief in God and Christianity much more seriously, writes Justin Brierley

A PECULIAR thing happened in 2009. Atheists started to advertise God on the sides of London buses (News, 16 January 2009). The posters read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” But I was thrilled that atheists were raising the God question at all among a general public that was largely uninterested in religion (besides leaving the question tantalisingly unresolved by the use of the word “probably”).

The atheist bus campaign represented the high watermark of a wider phenomenon dubbed the “New Atheism”. This unabashedly activist form of anti-theism commanded much sway in popular culture by arguing that belief in God was irrational, and decrying religious practice as immoral.

Its so-called “four horsemen” — Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins — had each published bestselling anti-God books, and were fêted at atheist conferences and in its sprawling blogosphere. The New Atheism’s rallying cry of “science and reason” appealed to intellectually savvy Millennials who were looking for a cause to rally to.

Yet, ten years later, the New Atheism had faded from view almost as quickly as it arose. This was partly because the public lost interest (indeed, to many onlookers, it has started to look suspiciously religious). But the movement also unravelled internally. Once its adherents had agreed that God did not exist, and that religion was bad for people, it turned out that they could not agree on much else.

Fractures began to appear when feminists in the movement questioned why it was being led by a phalanx of straight, white men, some of whom had been accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour. Progressives advocated “Atheism +”, adding feminism, LGBT, race, and other social-justice issues to their cause.

Others were appalled at the idea of politically correct ideologies’ overtaking their movement for science and reason. Squabbles turned into outright warfare, as atheist leaders began to fall out with one another. Dr Dawkins ended up receiving more grief for his controversial tweets from secular peers than he ever did from religious people. It was the culture wars that ultimately sank the New Atheism.

The New Atheism had sought to tear down the last vestiges of the Christian story that once gave shape to people’s lives. But, by failing to erect anything meaningful in the place of God, the movement itself died. Science and reason are great for some things, but they will not buy a meaningful life.

IN THE wake of the dissipation of the movement, however, I have witnessed a new set of secular thinkers stepping on to the stages and platforms that once hosted the four horsemen. They seem to be drawing the same crowd of intellectually curious Millennials (and now Gen Z), but with a big difference: these thinkers are not dismissing God.

A prominent example is Dr Jordan B. Peterson, the popular Canadian psychology professor (News, 1 April 2021). While his “anti-woke” views tend to get him labelled as a right-wing political pundit, when he addresses audience of young men (and he will be speaking at London’s O2 Arena in November), he speaks for up to three hours on the way in which biblical wisdom can give meaning and purpose to life.

Louise Perry, the author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (Polity, 2022), is a similarly in­­tri­gu­ing character. She is a secular ad­­vocate of wo­­men’s rights, but her intel­lectual journey has led her to embrace in­­creasingly the Christian conclusions that chastity and mono­g­amous marriage are the best model for sex and relationships.

The historian Tom Holland, who co-hosts the popular podcast The Rest Is History, had his secular assumptions steamrollered when he began researching and writing about the ancient world (Features, 27 September 2019). In recognising how alien the values and practices of the Greeks and Romans were to his own belief in equality, freedom, and human rights, Holland realised that his moral instincts stemmed directly from Christianity. He has been reminding his secular peers about it ever since, in best-selling books such as Dominion: How the Christian revolution remade the world (Little, Brown) (Books, 13 September 2019).

THESE and other intellectuals are part of a movement that I have termed “The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God”. These thinkers might be at different places in terms of personal faith, but they are all talking about Christianity as an intellectual option for thinking people.

I have met many individuals who have walked through the door that these thinkers have opened. Whether it be my friend Dean, a former atheist, turned spiritually curious agnostic, who now attends church, or Oliver, a former agnostic, who, after discovering this new world of religiously open thinkers, has recently entered training for Anglican ministry, the atmosphere has changed.

Time will tell whether such trends in popular culture can stem the secularisation of the West. God knows whether the Church would be ready for an influx of refugees from the meaning crisis. But I believe that the tide is going out on the atheist world-view, and the returning “Sea of Faith” may yet be able to bring the Christian story back to our shores.

Justin Brierley is an author, broadcaster, and speaker. His new book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why new atheism grew old and secular thinkers are considering Christianity again, is published by Tyndale House at £17.99 (Church Times Bookshop £16.19); 978-1-4964-6677-8.


Listen to an interview with him about the book on the Church Times Podcast.

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