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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’.

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