Magazine article The Spectator

After the New Atheism

Magazine article The Spectator

After the New Atheism

Article excerpt

Secular humanism is recovering from it's Dawkinsite phase - and beginning a more interesting conversation.

The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God.

Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies. He's the Mary Whitehouse of our day.

So what was all that about, then? We can see it a bit more clearly now. It was an outpouring of frustration at the fact that religion is maddeningly complicated and stubbornly irritating, even in largely secular Britain. This frustration had been building for decades: the secular intellectual is likely to feel somewhat bothered by religion, even if it is culturally weak. Oh, she finds it charming and interesting to a large extent, and loves a cosy carol service, but religion really ought to know its place. Instead it dares to accuse the secular world of being somehow deficient.

The events of 9/11 were the main trigger for the explosion of this latent irritation.

There was a desire to see Islamic terrorism as the symbolic synecdoche of all of religion. On one level this makes some sense:

does not all religion place faith above reason? Isn't this intrinsically dangerous?

Don't all religions jeopardise secular freedom, whether through holy wars or faith schools? On another level it is absurd: is the local vicar, struggling to build community and help smelly drunks stay alive, really a force for evil - even if she has some illiberal opinions? When such questions arise, a big bright 'Complicated' sign ought to flash in one's brain. Instead, in the wake of 9/11, many otherwise thoughtful people opted for simplicity over complexity. They managed to convince themselves that religion is basically bad, and that the brave intellectual should talk against it. (This preference for seeming tough and clear over admitting difficult complexity is really cowardice, and believers are prone to it too. ) The success of five or six atheist authors, on both sides of the Atlantic, seemed to herald a strong new movement. It seemed that non-believers were tired of all the nuance surrounding religion, hungry for a tidy narrative that put them neatly in the right.

Atheism is still with us. But the movement that threatened to form has petered out. Crucially, atheism's younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins's disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he's also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it. For example, he has observed that a sense of gratitude is problematically lacking in secular culture, and suggested that humanists should consider ritual practices such as fasting. This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton. His recent book Religion for Atheists rejects the 'boring' question of religion's truth or falsity, and calls for 'a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts'. If you can take his faux-earnest prose style, he has some interesting insights into religion's basis in community, practice, habit.

And liberal punditry has softened. Polly Toynbee's younger sisters, so to speak, are wary of seeing all of religion as a misogynist plot. …

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