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New Atheism and the Demand for Dogma

The notion that we abandoned our old faiths and replaced them with new ones is too tidy and simplistic.

· 10 min read
New Atheism and the Demand for Dogma
Richard Dawkins speaks at The Guardian Hay Festival 2007 held at Hay on Wye May 26, 2007 in Powys, Wales, United Kingdom. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

Remember “New Atheism”? In the mid-to-late aughts, public debates over religion suddenly expanded in scope and intensity. University auditoria, theaters, and even churches drew capacity crowds for public discussions about the existence of god and whether or not religion is a positive force in the world. Humanist and secular groups proliferated, particularly on campus and online, and a series of blockbuster books by authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens sold millions of copies worldwide, catapulting atheism into the mainstream. In their turn, these books inspired a constellation of other writers and intellectuals who believed that an explicit attack on religion was long overdue.

One of those writers was Konstantin Kisin. In a recent Substack article, Kisin explains that he was drawn to the New Atheists for their ability to “re-articulate the importance of Enlightenment values of truth, science and liberty from religious dogma.” He describes them as “daring, counter-cultural figures who could use their erudition, wit and refreshing honesty to effortlessly take apart the tired old arguments for a religious worldview.” He says they were “smart, charismatic and, above all, they were cool.” He adds:

The new atheists were exciting because they were saying something new, challenging the dogma of their day and speaking truth to power. Not content with proving that religion wasn’t true, they ventured further in attempting to prove religion was, at best, unnecessary and, more likely, harmful. To this end, Dawkins wrote The God Delusion in 2006, with Hitchens delivering God is Not Great the following year. The argument was no longer about encouraging religious people to calm down and leave the rest of us alone, it was increasingly that religion was inherently wrong and bad. It was around this point that I began to lose my faith in atheism.

So, after praising the New Atheists for the courage and honesty with which they confronted religion, Kisin declares that this combative approach was, in fact, the source of his disillusion. It’s a strangely uneven passage. Kisin acknowledges that the appeal of the New Atheists—what made them “daring, counter-cultural figures”—was their willingness to deconstruct “tired old arguments for a religious worldview” and fight for “liberty from religious dogma.” He’s probably right about this—it was difficult to be a fan of the New Atheists without seeing some value in their claim that religion is “inherently wrong and bad.” They aggressively violated social taboos that protected religion from forceful criticism. They described religion as a powerful engine of irrationality, a source of tribalism, hatred, and conflict, and a generally noxious force that (in Hitchens’s words) should be relegated to the “bawling and fearful infancy of our species.”

If Kisin didn’t like this sort of rhetoric, it’s difficult to see what he admired about New Atheism in the first place. As he explains his reasons for rejecting New Atheism—he now describes himself as a “lapsed atheist”—his rationale becomes even more opaque:

First, it was clear to me that to attempt to challenge Islamic extremism with facts and logic as Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris had done was to fail on purpose. Despite their efforts, most of the Western world today operates under de facto blasphemy laws which are enforced not by religious activists lobbying for censorship but by knife-wielding fanatics and suicide bombers.

It’s bizarre to criticize the New Atheists—and Harris and Hitchens in particular—for the existence of “de facto blasphemy laws” in the West, as it would be difficult to find two figures who were more vociferously opposed to self-censorship and liberal capitulation in the face of Islamic extremism in the 21st Century. And surely the New Atheists’ use of “facts and logic” to resist theocratic encroachments on civil society shouldn’t be a point against them. Given Kisin’s position on the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, shouldn’t he be a little more tolerant of the New Atheists’ unsparing criticism of religious violence and extremism? Instead, he writes:

The liberalism that the new atheists so enthusiastically espoused, the idea that we should be free to criticise, mock and satirise anything, including religion, only works when the Government is willing to protect you from the consequences. In seeking to liberate us from the tyrannical instincts of dogmatic Christians, the new atheists delivered us into the hands of a different and far more pernicious religious zealotry from which the ordinary citizen has no security at all.

Of course free expression in liberal societies is ultimately dependent upon legal and physical protections from the state. When homicidal theocrats bearing automatic weapons show up at the offices of Charlie Hebdo or an acolyte of Ayatollah Khomeini jumps onstage and repeatedly plunges a knife into Salman Rushdie, the confrontation with religious violence is no longer a matter of ideas, it’s a matter of law enforcement. Kisin’s argument recalls the line taken by British reactionaries who complained about the taxpayer-funded protection that Rushdie received after Khomeini first issued his fatwa in 1989—a cringing complaint Kisin understands well, as he has criticized it before. Kisin’s second sentence implies that the New Atheists’ attacks on Christianity somehow increased the threat posed by Islamic radicalism, but as noted, New Atheists like Hitchens and Harris were every bit as critical of Islam, if not more so.

The title of Kisin’s article is “The Atheism Delusion.” He now regards religion as “useful and inevitable.” The argument that religion is inevitable is one the New Atheists have always taken seriously: Hitchens described religion as “ineradicable”; Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell examined the ways in which religion evolves and survives over time; a central part of Harris’s career is channeling the religious impulse into secular forms of introspection and mindfulness; and Dawkins acknowledges that religion may reflect a deep psychological need among many people. Where the New Atheists part company with Kisin is over his argument that religion is useful—particularly in the third decade of the 21st Century.

The religious impulse may be ineradicable, but that doesn’t mean the level of overall religious commitment in society is stable. When Harris published The End of Faith in 2004 (the first of the major New Atheist books), membership in religious institutions among American adults was around two-thirds—a proportion that had collapsed to 47 percent by 2020. This means that the percentage of American adults who said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque fell below a majority “for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend” a few years ago.

Recent Pew surveys reflect this trend: since 2007, the proportion of Americans who identify with Christianity has fallen from 78 percent to 63 percent, while those who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” surged from 16 percent to 29 percent. The share of Americans who say they “seldom or never” pray has jumped from 18 percent to 32 percent, along with a corresponding decrease (58 percent to 45 percent) in the number who pray daily. While 16 percent of Americans said religion was not at all or not too important in their lives in 2007, one-third now say so. Meanwhile, the proportion who describe religion as “very important” is down from 56 percent to 41 percent over the same period.

There has been a similar phenomenon of secularization in Western Europe. Although the majority of Western Europeans identify as Christians, the prevalence of this identification varies greatly—from 80 percent in Italy to 41 percent in the Netherlands. Across the region, there have been significant declines in the populations who say they remain Christian after being raised Christian: 83 percent to 55 percent in Belgium, 79 percent to 51 percent in Norway, 92 percent to 66 percent in Spain, and large decreases in a dozen other countries. At the same time, the proportion of Western Europeans who are now religiously unaffiliated shot up: just 15 percent of Norwegians say they were raised unaffiliated, but the proportion who are unaffiliated now has risen to 43 percent. In the Netherlands, the increase was 22 percent to 48 percent; in Belgium, 12 percent to 38 percent; in Spain, five percent to 30 percent.

As traditional religion declines in the West, it has become increasingly fashionable to argue that new secular religions are taking its place: hyper-tribal and increasingly intolerant political factions; conspiracy cults like QAnon; the “transhumanism” movement (which looks forward to a day when technology will help us live forever); environmental movements that warn of apocalyptic consequences if their counsel isn’t heeded; and social justice activists who decry the original sins of racism and other forms of bigotry.

According to Kisin, the “absence of old religion seems to produce only a vacuum into which a new religion rushes in.” Kisin believes “old religion” is a bulwark against what he describes as the “woke warriors who think every problem in society is caused by an ‘ism.’” He argues that wokeness is a “new religion [that] has just as little regard for the truth as the old ones. That’s why Richard Dawkins who spent his best years arguing with creationists is now increasingly forced to explain basic biological concepts like the inability to change your sex by incantation on national television.”

Yet again, Kisin has picked a strange fight with the New Atheists. As he notes, Dawkins is decidedly anti-woke—he’s often critical of the language used by trans activists (which downplays the biological reality of sex differences), he argues that there’s no such thing as “Western” science (which is often presented as somehow racist or neo-colonial), and so on. Meanwhile, Harris is concerned about what he regards as the “woke capture” of major institutions, and Hitchens warned readers of his 2001 book Letters to a Young Contrarian that they should “have nothing to do with identity politics.”

By undermining traditional religion, Kisin believes the New Atheists opened the door to the emergence of new progressive dogmas. This idea is increasingly pervasive: “The rise of this new religion,” writes Toby Young in a recent essay for the Catholic Herald, “has coincided with the decline of Christian worship in the English-speaking world … which suggests it’s filling a ‘God-shaped hole.’” In his 2019 book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, Douglas Murray argues that the collapse of “grand narratives” once provided by religion has driven efforts to “embed a new metaphysics into our societies: a new religion, if you will.” Books like John McWhorter’s Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, Andrew Doyle’s The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World, and Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos make similar claims.

It’s true that contemporary progressivism has acquired certain religious characteristics: zealous adherents, rituals of excommunication, a concept of original sin (in the form of racism or other types of bigotry), and ways to atone for that sin (such as taking the knee). But the same could be said of many social and political movements throughout history. Godless communism, for example, has often been described by former adherents as a religious phenomenon—a 1949 collection of anti-communist essays by André Gide, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, Arthur Koestler, and Louis Fischer was titled The God That Failed. It isn’t easy to adjudicate what constitutes a secular religion.

The notion that we abandoned our old faiths and replaced them with the new alternatives is too tidy and simplistic. For one thing, the process of secularization has been gaining momentum for decades, long before the “Great Awokening.” For another, unlike the Pew researchers who ask respondents how their religious views have evolved over time, the critics of progressive dogma don’t provide much evidence for their claims about the ways in which religion is supposed to have been supplanted by this new faith. Isn’t it possible that many religious people identify with elements of progressivism? Black Americans are disproportionately religious and far more likely than their fellow citizens to support the Black Lives Matter movement (81 percent versus a national average of 51 percent). However, they’re less progressive when it comes to issues such as gay rights—black Protestants are considerably less likely than their white counterparts to support gay marriage. Young even admits that wokeness has “made converts within the established Churches, particularly the Church of England.”

Kisin, Murray, Peterson, and other figures who decry the religious aspects of contemporary progressivism are making an implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim: that the restoration of traditional faith would keep other forms of ideological commitment in check. But there’s a long history of Christian compatibility with a vast range of social and political movements—some good, some bad.

Many Nazis were Christians, and there were strong links between Catholicism and fascism in Europe during World War II. But some priests and other religious leaders resisted the Nazis, while the Western countries that fought fascism were predominantly Christian. In the early United States, Christianity was used to justify slavery. But John Brown’s Christian faith led him to wage war on slavery, and many early abolitionists (such as William Wilberforce) were evangelical Christians. During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and other leading figures in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference invoked Christianity to oppose racism and advocate for freedom and equality. But secularists like Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph were instrumental in this movement as well.

European powers rationalized their imperialist domination of countries in Africa and Asia with the belief that they were bringing Christian civilization to the world. The United States did the same in the Western hemisphere with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Yet many theologians in Latin America developed liberation theology in opposition to colonialism, racism, and other forms of oppression. Christianity is embraced by conservatives and libertarians who believe the Bible teaches thrift and personal responsibility. But it’s also embraced by progressives who think the central message of equality in the eyes of god is an argument for redistributive policies and greater support for the poor. The abandonment of religion isn’t a prerequisite for fervent commitment to any political cause or movement—including “wokeism.”

No matter how exhaustively the word “religion” is redefined, there’s plenty of evidence that secularization has taken place across the Western world. But there’s far less evidence for the opportunistic claim that this shift is responsible for the emergence of another socio-political movement. Those who say otherwise may have a “god-shaped hole” in their own lives, but they shouldn’t assume that everyone else suffers from the same affliction. More and more commentators are attempting to resuscitate religion under the guise of anti-woke politics, but they’re just exchanging one dogma for another.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson has written for many outlets and is the author of 'How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment' (Pitchstone Publishing, 2023)

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