The new atheists were all the rage just a few short decades ago. They now seem to be a spent force. Indeed, the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse have undergone a few changes. One of them, Christopher Hitchens, died of cancer in 2011. Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett are still alive, as is Richard Dawkins.
I will speak to them further in a moment, especially Dawkins. But for a while there they certainly were taking the West by storm. I recall one day being in a major bookstore in Melbourne. It had a sign-up saying that these were its top five best sellers at the time (June 8, 2007):
1. God is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
2. The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
3. Romulus, My Father by Raimond Gaita
4. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
5. Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam by Michel Onfray
There you have it: three atheist titles and one whacko New Age title in the top five. Plenty of other major Western cities throughout the world would have featured similar lists of top sellers at the time. In 2021 Eric Metaxas said this about the group:
What marked their movement was the exuberance and fury with which they condemned religious faith, for they were not content merely to maintain God’s non-existence. On the contrary, they rather energetically denounced all religious expressions as irrational and as somehow “anti-science,” and therefore as intolerably vile and imminently dangerous, and in need of forceful eradication by whatever means available—whatever that might mean.
But their arguments have not stood up well, which will perhaps surprise anyone who recalls the showering sparks and billowing smoke that attended their cantankerous eruptions in many books and speeches and debates, through which they glowered steadfastly and unpleasantly, as though smiling might be taken as unseriousness.
Let me focus on just one of these volumes which was perhaps the most influential and successful of them all. In the 2006 volume, The God Delusion Dawkins made his shrill and often not very thoughtful diatribe against religion – primarily Christianity. I penned a two-part response to it at the time.
Plenty of others also made book-length replies, including Alister McGrath, John Blanchard, and Hitchen’s brother Peter. While the new atheists seemed to flourish for a while, it did not take long for their star to begin to flicker out. There were even other atheists who took aim at some of the writers and their books.
It is perhaps somewhat unfortunate that the former atheist and Marxist Alister McGrath released his book, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World in 2004 (Doubleday) – just before the new atheists burst onto the world stage in such a big way. Yet in 2007 he could write The Dawkins Delusion (SPCK), and by 2011 McGrath could ask, Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty? (Thomas Nelson).
Other volumes appeared discussing the short-lived new atheism. Eric Metaxas, quoted above, released Is Atheism Dead? (Salem Books, 2021), while last year Justin Brierley published The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God (Tyndale, 2023). As to that last volume, its closing paragraphs say this:
Christianity has been remarkably successful until now. It flourished in the East and then swept the Western world. It has dominated art, literature, and culture and left majestic cathedrals in its wake. The revivals of Luther, Wesley, and Whitefield transformed Europe and America before Christianity swept into Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the rest of the world.
From a secular perspective it’s possible to compare these high watermarks of the past with the current picture in the West and assume that Christianity, if not quite dead, is well on its way to being another relic of history. What the critics often fail to realize is that the crest of each new wave of Christianity had a trough that preceded it. History moves in cycles. Tides go out and come back in. I believe we are simply living at low tide in the Western world. Rebirth has happened before, and it can happen again.
Two thousand years ago a wandering rabbi stood on a beach and called a bunch of fishermen to put down their nets, follow him, and fish for people instead. Together they changed the world. Like them, I believe we are standing on the shores of human history, waiting for a tide that is about to rush back in. Perhaps now is the time to answer his call again.
But why did the new atheism seem to fizzle so fast? There would be various reasons, As noted, one of their members died – and he is no longer an atheist! And so many people were turned off by the sheer arrogance and ugly contempt they showed for anyone who dared to differ with them. Perhaps the epitome of this came from Dawkins claiming that those who saw the world as he saw it were “brights”. Good grief, that even turned off Hitchens and other atheists.
And the pompous attacks on subjects that were clearly not his forte, such as theology and philosophy, were often far too embarrassing to wade through. Dawkins’s areas of expertise were in biology and ethology – the study of the behavior of animals.
Thus his grandiose pronouncements on things outside of his major field of study prompted the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton to say this:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.
Various other reasons can be mentioned. Denis Alexander and Alister McGrath edited the book, Coming to Faith Through Dawkins: 12 Essays on the Pathway from New Atheism to Christianity (Kregel, 2023). In it a dozen stories are told by philosophers, artists, historians, engineers, and scientists as to why grappling with the claims of angry atheists like Dawkins actually led them TO God, and not away from him.
In their introduction, they offer five reasons why the new atheism appears to have been so short-lived:
First, Dawkins’s public attacks on religion, particularly Christianity, seem to have generated a surge of interest in exploring religious faith….
Second, many of Dawkins’s critics since the publication of The God Delusion have been leading atheist philosophers who were alarmed at the damage they thought his shrill and superficial engagement with life’s deepest questions was doing to the intellectual reputation of atheism. The British public philosopher John Gray, for example, ridiculed the banality, superficiality, and shallowness of Dawkins and his circle, who offered a “tedious re-run of a Victorian squabble between science and religion.”…
Third, Dawkins’s outlook on religion was deeply shaped by what now appears to have been an uncritical acceptance of the “warfare” model of the relation of science and religion, which dominated Western culture in the closing decade of the twentieth century, despite growing scholarly suspicions of its evidential foundation….
Fourth, the New Atheism’s certainties, though initially appealing to many, were soon deconstructed….
Fifth, the New Atheism began to show the same habits of thought and behavior that Dawkins had presented as characteristic of religious people and institutions….
Today, the New Atheism, of which Dawkins was a leading representative, is generally regarded as having imploded. . . . Many of its former members, disenchanted by its arrogance, prejudice, and superficiality, have distanced themselves from the movement and its leaders.
And the rest of this book of course offers real-life stories of just this: people once enthralled with atheism and Dawkins who have now seen the light, and have rejected that not-very-bright ideology they once so ferociously clung to. And even those close to Dawkins have had second thoughts.
Recently, his right-hand man and former close associate left his atheism, saying that he had put his faith in Jesus. One article says this in part about the shock news:
Josh Timonen, who helped launch Dawkins’ website and who traveled with him around the world, told apologist Ray Comfort in the new video that his atheistic beliefs began changing during the pandemic as he questioned everything he once believed. Dawkins, in his popular book The God Delusion, mentioned Timonen and thanked him for his work. Timonen’s name can be seen in multiple works by Dawkins, both print and video. “Jesus is who He says He is,” Timonen told Comfort.
That would have been a major body blow to Dawkins. And last but not least, with so many heavyweight public intellectuals such as Jordan Peterson, Naomi Wolf, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali either moving in the direction of Christianity, if not embracing it outright, this too is getting some of the atheists to pause and think – including Dawkins himself.
Just a few days ago he tweeted this: “Maybe there is still something for me to learn when it comes to religion. My dear friend and former atheist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has become a Christian. We will be discussing this at the inaugural Dissident Dialogues festival.” One is reminded of the words of another former Oxford academic and atheist. In his autobiography Surprised By Joy, C. S. Lewis said this:
“In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
And it’s a good thing too! Let me also briefly mention this: in a rather different arena, just this week we had headlines like this drawing quite a bit of attention, at least here in Australia:
“‘Gave my life to God’: Olympic swim champ’s shock religious conversion. Olympic champion Stephanie Rice’s recent Instagram videos, featuring tearful prayers and a baptism, showing her intense conversion to born-again Christianity, have left fans concerned.”
I am not concerned – I am thrilled. That is great news indeed. The truth is this: God is still alive and well, and he certainly is still at work in this world, including in the hyper-secular and God-allergic West. The atheist (whom God calls a fool: Psalm 14:1 and 53:1) can scoff and mock all he likes, but God will have the last word – and laugh – at all this. As we read in Psalm 2:1-4:
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
So many atheists have come to faith over the centuries. We need to keep praying for all the atheists and non-Christians I have mentioned in this piece. I have been praying daily for many of them. Why not join me in this?