Coffee House

Move over, Dawkins. The atheist spring of the last decade is wilting.

19 April 2013

4:09 PM

19 April 2013

4:09 PM

I couldn’t get Richard Dawkins to reply to Theo Hobson’s excellent article on ‘the new new atheists’. Probably, he didn’t see my message. Or maybe he thought it beneath him. Or maybe like God he just doesn’t respond to all our entreaties. There’s no doubt, though, that Theo’s piece touched a nerve among the godless trolls of the web — just look at the comments section.

Theo must be on to something. The new atheist spring of the 2000s is wilting. Dawkins suddenly seems like a strange anachronism. In his place, a humbler and more honest atheism is emerging, led by brilliant minds like our very own Douglas Murray on one hand and Alain de Botton on the other. The new gentler atheism, also espoused by clever journalists such as Tanya Gold and Zoe Williams, admits the philosophical shortcomings of unbelief and recognises that religion has its merits. Amen.

Theo, being a fundamentally liberal and decent sort of Christian, welcomes the change. Not all religious believers, however, will be so sanguine. Yes, it makes for a more polite and interesting conversation. But at least with Dawkins, the believer knows where he stands. There could be something faintly patronising about Alain de Botton’s approach to religious belief — which is to say, more or less, ‘Well, yes of course it’s not actually true, or anything. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t jolly interesting.’

I’m more struck, though, by the similarity between the emerging atheism and a certain sort of liberal high-Anglicanism. Both have a strong English feel, a stress on manners and reasonableness, and an understanding of the limits of reason. Both are certain that they are not certain. Just as the Church of England has been called ‘the religion at the end of religion’ perhaps the new breed of secular humanists can be called ‘the atheism at the end of atheism’.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Genesis

    What a lousy article. Atheism is wilting? I just became a person who doesn’t believe in god(s), the paranormal and pseudoscience. It is more like religion is wilting away. I tried to go to my church and tell them to take my name of their membership. They told me, “Once a member always a member.” So, I have to fight in order for them to take my name out of their membership. I will go back again this year when I get the chance.

    The “growth” of religion is just babies being forced to carry on the delusion religion brings to children. I wished I was forced to learn reality when I was little instead of a delusion, all just to have to pick up the pieces of myself later in life. There are some religions that are not healthy for humans, and Christianity is not one of them. It is a huge cult.

  • Katie Graham

    The number of unaffiliated has jumped to 20%. Among those, the number who are atheist or agnostic is also on the rise. Among young people the numbers are even higher. It’s organized religion that is dying, friend. Even those unaffiliated who still cling to some sort of belief are sick of the BS they find in the US’s churches. Christianity is dying.

  • Calladus

    Maybe if you held your breath and jumped up and down until you passed out… THEN he might pay attention to you!

  • Thorfeil

    Idiot Freddy Gray: “The new atheist spring of the 2000s is wilting. Dawkins suddenly seems like a strange anachronism.”

    Reality: “Richard Dawkins named world’s top thinker”

  • saywhaaaa

    That other article got trounced in the comments section so it wins?

    That is pure troll logic.

  • Jake West

    Richard Dawkins named World’s Top Thinker by Prospect six days after you write this. You and Theo have SO MUCH cake on your respective faces. Oh, the irony, it’s too rich! I can’t stop laughing! Make it stop, make it stop! Just say you were trolling for hits, it will make it all go away!

    “There’s no doubt, though, that Theo’s piece touched a nerve among the godless trolls of the web — just look at the comments section.

    Theo must be on to something. The new atheist spring of the 2000s is wilting. Dawkins suddenly seems like a strange anachronism.”

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Make it stop, make it stop!

    Seriously, though, your evidence that “Theo is on to something” is that “Dawkins won’t respond to you,” a nobody, and that a bunch of people, or “godless trolls” as you called them, “commented” on the article?

    Hey guys, I was staring at my lamp and, uh, the light beams were going real fast ya know, and I, uh, well, I measured them with my eyes, and they were moving faster than the speed of light. Seriously, I can measure the speed of light with my eyes. Uh, what is the speed of light? Uh, it’s like 10,000 mph, right? No? What do you mean it’s over 600 million mph? No, I haven’t been smoking today. Seriously, I haven’t. No, I haven’t! No, I’m not going to calm down! Damn, I’m hungry…

    And no, I normally don’t troll, but since you called out the “godless trolls,” I figure, eh, what the heck?

    Oh, and here’s this:

  • Thorfeil

    Why would Dawkins waste his time responding to nonsensical drivel like that?

    Especially when Jerry Coyne has demolished it already:

  • William Peregoy

    ‘Well, yes of course it’s not actually true, or anything. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t jolly interesting.’

    That’s pretty much my whole take on religion for years..

  • DKeane123

    I haven’t heard of any of the people that are supposed to be replacing Dawkins. Also, I didn’t get the memo that atheism is wilting – did the religious recently come up with some evidence other than god of the gaps and it’s true for me?

  • John Jones

    What is emerging a new type of Chrisitian who does not go to church, doesn´t believe in or even care what the dogmas are and only attends the social events. Religion doesn´t matter anymore to most people.

  • Fred Scuttle

    We are all godless and that will always be so. Poor Freddy has been grievously indoctrinated with ancient fairytales.

  • SorryBadBeat

    If Atheism is wilting – it’s not a promising sign for society. There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of any kind of deity so I would take that notion to imply society is becoming dumber. This is of course not the case and many polls suggest otherwise. I’ve read a few articles that suggest – for good reason, that religion will not survive the internet…Why? Because you cannot keep the truth hidden on the internet. Good day nutters – try reading a book that isn’t two thousand years old and written by cavemen.

  • Maude

    I sent an e-mail to Alister McGrath asking him why he unleashed a new strain of swine flu into a pig sty. He has not answered. Clearly it stroke a nerve.

    Snark aside, I wish religious leaders had the tone of Richard Dawkins when criticizing atheists. Their arrogance is ridiculous, and getting in the way of any possibility of a discussion (and clearly there is a lot to criticize about atheists, I’m not sure why you need to make up a strawman). A bit of self-awareness would help, particularly using this cloak of humility.

    • Hugh

      Would you criticize Stalin for being an atheist? There are volumes to say about him and about the communist ideology, but atheism is a simple enough proposition about which there is nothing to say beyond whether it is true or false and why.

    • Jake West

      There is a lot to criticize about everybody. That’s the damn point.

  • John Taylor

    Richard Dawkins makes, I think, some good points against the design argument for theism. His writings have the great merit that they make quite clear what it is that he is saying. It is not fair to him to imply that he lacks an appreciation of the limits of reason; his commitment to reason shows in the manner in which he makes his case, namely, using reasoned argument. As for the point about being certain about not being certain, he has always maintained that he does not rule out the possibility that there is a God, though he thinks the probability is very low.

  • Secular Advocate

    Funny how everyone who writes for the Spectator seems to be more concerned with what is fashionable than with what is right. This is quite an interesting aspect of right wing “thinkers” – they all crave approval so earnestly – probably because being right-wing is basically just a state of neoteny where you still believe everything daddy told you and are furious to prove it true.

    Fortunately, Dawkins is more intellectually honest than that, which is why he is admired by people whose thinking isn’t required to match that of their peer group or their parents, depending on how badly suffer from the condition.

  • robert heggie

    yeeeeh…but god still isn’t real though eh? it’s not about how we might feel about that or how useful or otherwise religion may be, its just not true, so let’s start our discussions from that basis.

  • Costantino della Gherardesca

    Richard Dawkins might not be fashionable in 2013, but what the crypto-christian centre-left journalists forget is the link between knowledge and power. And religions, “fundamentalist” religions as well as “nice” ones, disinform the public and are an obstacle to the acquisition of knowledge. As a consequence only the privileged and the wealthy have access to information or a good education. Only the privileged have access to science. Therefore Dawkins might seem LESS democratic than the spiritual liberal, but in reality he is fighting for something truly democratic: the disclosure of information, the divulgation of knowledge.

  • Alastair Brookshaw

    What a silly little article. Someone writes an article that loads of people decry as a load of nonsense and your conclusion is ‘ooh, it must be right, since it touched a nerve’.

    Alternatively it was just a load of nonsense in the first place!

  • Hugh

    Atheism is the proposition that gods are mythical beings. That’s it. It may be true or false and that’s it. Whether those who take this position are kind, gentle or otherwise is neither here nor there.

    • Fergus Pickering

      No. Atheism is the proposition that God does not exist. Or is dead.

      • Hugh

        That’s a parochial view. ‘God’ is one of many gods. The list is endless but you’ve probably heard of Zeus, Thor, Vishnu, for example. What these different characters have in common is that they are myths. Believers make an exception for their own god or gods but non-believers don’t. They’re all mythological beings, without exception.

      • Fred Scuttle

        Atheism is a lack of belief in all gods. That’s it!

  • James Gibbon

    This piece and the other one really amount to nothing more than wishful thinking. It’s one thing to assert that this lovely, gentle yet somehow more patronisng new new atheism is “more honest”; it’s quite another to try to show why this might be the case. It isn’t.

  • andagain

    The new gentler atheism, also espoused by clever journalists such as
    Tanya Gold and Zoe Williams, admits the philosophical shortcomings of
    unbelief and recognises that religion has its merits.

    Except for the miniscule detail that they think it is completely wrong.

    But apart from that, they think religion has its merits…

  • CraigStrachan

    So the implication is that strongly-held or immoderate relgious belief is un-English?

    You know, I think I would agree. (As a Scots/Irish/American I find the sweet reasonableness of the English to be among their better qualities.)

  • Curnonsky

    Don’t tell anyone but Dawkins makes a very tidy living as the self-anointed Pope of Atheism. He will not be happy about anyone muscling in on his turf.

  • Samuel Johnson

    The focus and centre of religions is God. For de Botton to imagine that the ‘benefits’ of religion can be salvaged without God is absurd. Without God everything that he praises about religion – prayer, ritual, asking for forgiveness etc – becomes empty and meaningless. Who does one ask?

  • telemachus

    I was struck by Strac5’s contibutions to the Hobson debate
    “It’s not individuals that count, but mankind’s overall well-being.”
    On the face of it this might be thought the new atheism but in truth it is the discredited leftist philosophy that has given way to the caring current reasonable philosophy that can be paraphrased
    “Each and every individual counts and is a valuable contributor to mankind’s overall wellbeing”
    Such also were the teachings of Jesus

    • Simon Semere

      I don’t think Jesus ever said that once in his life.

      • telemachus

        Read Mark

      • Fred Scuttle


    • Nkaplan

      Including Hitler?

    • Fergus Pickering

      Of course it is individuals that count. Man’s over all welbeing is a meaningless phrase. Come on now. What does it mean?

  • dmitri the impostor

    Richard Dawkins’s qualification for providing the Ultimate Answer to Everything is a doctorate on the pecking patterns of chickens. Douglas Murray’s is a biography of Lord Alfred Douglas. You pays your money and you takes your chase.

    In a long life full of judicious inquiry and nodding wisdom, I have yet to find a metaphysical system with a greater claim to plausibility than the one I was taught in my first week at school. It was called The Hokey Cokey.

  • Gallafrey

    The point is God doesn’t respond to anything.

    • Chris Richmond

      God responds to everything as a spiritual being. If you pray for more money, God can have no response, if you pray to feel better about someones death, you will.

      • Wayne Conner

        So God cannot give you things in the physical world, he can only make you feel better? How is that nothing more than psychology?

        • Fergus Pickering

          I would have thought making you feel better was much better than making you rich.

          • Sporkfighter

            When you’re cold, hungry, or your child is dying of dysintary, a bit of cash would make you feel better. If your God doesn’t help with the extreme physical suffering in the world, it’s because He’s unable to help, He’s unwilling to help, He’s unaware, or He simply isn’t. The last explination fits all the facts quite well.

            • Fergus Pickering

              Oh don’t be silly. Think about what you just said for two minutes. I mean THINK.

              • Nick Brandt

                5000 children die each day from not having fresh water. Rain would help them, but it doesn’t come. Are they not praying the right way?

              • Sporkfighter

                Money to pay for heat, food or medicine wouldn’t make you happy if you were cold, hungry, or your child were dying of a treatable illness?

      • Calladus

        You’re completely right! When I had the flu, I prayed to be cured. And after 7 to 10 days, I was! OMG!

  • Adrian Drummond

    So what is your point?

    • Paul

      I think he’s saying that liberal Anglicans are basically atheists. Which some of us have suspected for some time.