What Is The Future Of Religion? Essays & Opinions
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Alister McGrath

Atheism, Rebooted

Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford

I used to be an atheist myself, the aggressive anti-theist sort. You know, the kind of guy that regards religious believers as mentally and morally degenerate and tries to browbeat them into cultural submission by the endless repetition of demeaning rationalist mantras. I moved away from all that after discovering Christianity at Oxford University. But I’ve always remained interested in atheism. My book, The Twilight of Atheism (2004), raised questions about the future of the movement, noting that its future might well depend more on the stupidity of believers than the virtues of godlessness.

Enter 9/11. See what I mean? Three of the canonical works of what we now call the “New Atheism” were written in response to that appalling event, which convinced many that religious people were both deluded and dangerous. Sure, we now see that event through a more sophisticated lens. We realize that it’s more complicated than we once thought. But at the time, most probably thought that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins were right on target. Religion was dangerous. Both religious ideas and religious people needed to be reined in and culturally isolated.

Yet tedium soon set in. The novelty value of the “New Atheism” wore off. Its slogans, once bold and brilliant, began to seem stale and tired. Its darker side became increasingly obvious—especially its dogmatism, which exceeded that of every religious person I know. It was easy for people like me to ridicule the “New Atheism,” given its hopeless overstatements and sloppy reasoning, neatly concealed behind a façade of proclaimed intellectual and cultural superiority. That was the time of the “Brights”—a frankly rather patronising self-designation for atheism, unwisely endorsed by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, which rather unsubtly implied that everyone else was dim. At least Christopher Hitchens repudiated this piece of arrogant nonsense. Hitchens openly criticized Dawkins and Dennett for their “cringe-making proposal that atheists should conceitedly nominate themselves to be called ‘Brights.’”

But the debate has now moved on. The “New Atheism” is yesterday’s fad. In its place, we find much more thoughtful and reflective accounts of atheism. At last, religious people have something serious and meaningful to engage with! Lex Bayer and John Figdor open Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart with a bold admission. The existence of a god or transcendent being can be neither proved nor disproved. Sure, it’s hardly news. But remember all that “New Atheist” smokescreen about not being able to prove negatives? At last, we have an open and honest discussion of the dilemma we face as human beings, when we can’t prove what we believe—but feel justified in believing it all the same. Atheism and religious faith are therefore both belief systems. Bayer and Figdor are absolutely right. When I converted from atheism to Christianity, I was very conscious of moving from one faith position to another, in that I couldn’t actually prove that either my starting point or end point were right. The tone of the book, and the substance of their argument, breathe realism and conciliation into what had become little more than a mindless recitation of slogans, dressed up as an argument.

But there’s more. Atheist Minds and Humanist Hearts makes a point that I tried to make repeatedly (and failed) in dialogue with leading “New Atheists.” Atheism too often defines itself merely by what it rejects, failing to articulate affirmatively what it believes and why. The book sets out to provide a generous vision of what atheists might believe, which moves away from the utterly tedious enumeration of the alleged deficiencies of theism to a positive articulation of values that might lie at the heart of an atheist or humanist way of thinking and living.

The book sets out Ten “Non-Commandments,” which are rather more interesting than the godless banalities set out at the end of Dawkins’ God Delusion. Instead of Dawkins’ rationalist platitudes, Bayer and Figdor set out principles—some moral, some epistemic—which they hold to shape a humanist ethos. Sure, halfway down the list we find the entirely predictable assertion, “There is no God.” But it’s way down the list. At the top, we find a statement I agree with wholeheartedly. “The world is real, and our desire to understand the world is the basis for belief.” I’d want to say more, but that’s the starting point for both my love of science and my delight in God.

Yet it’s the final “non-commandment” that sets the tone of this new discussion. The previous nine “non-commandments” are all recognised to be “subject to change in the face of new evidence.” If these guys mean what they say, that’s the end of the pontificating dogmatism of the “New Atheism.” It’s a firm recognition of the provisionality of belief, so familiar to any scientist, yet which seems to be airbrushed out of Richard Dawkins’ account of the scope of science. If I were to rewrite my Twilight of Atheism, I might even have to write a new chapter, which I would entitle “Return to Reality: Beyond the New Atheism.”

So what does the future hold? Nobody really knows, as everything is subject to happenstance and accident. But let me venture two reflections. First, this is a humane and gracious exposition of atheism, which oozes compassion, where its recent godless alternatives exude venom and hatred. I hope it gets taken seriously. It’s a potential game-changer, moving the discussion about God, belief, and ethics on to much more fertile territory. But as I discovered when researching the attitudes of “New Atheists” about five years ago, what seems to drive many of them is anger and antipathy, directed against those religious believers whose very existence calls into question the validity of the totalizing “New Atheist” metanarrative. If there’s to be a “culture war”, there needs to be a plausible enemy—someone you can loathe and thus fight. When compared to the aggressive dogmatism of the “New Atheism,” Atheist Minds and Humanist Hearts represents an opening of minds and softening of hearts.

Obviously, I disagree with them on many points. But I get the sense that my concerns would not be met with withering sarcasm, but with polite engagement. And that’s certainly refreshing.

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