The New Atheism is dead, or so maverick writer Freddie deBoer argues in his recent provocative Substack essay. But that doesn’t mean the New Atheists lost. On the contrary, he thinks they won by losing.
Every day religion recedes a little bit more into the background as ordinary people, religious or not, abstract religious meaning in their lives to the point where it’s hard to know how you would begin to define why the distinction between believer and nonbeliever actually matters.
DeBoer argues that this receding has, ironically, been hastened by the replacement of New Atheists with voices who are more friendly towards traditional theists, like social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Unlike Dawkins or Hitchens, Haidt isn’t out to take away anyone’s deeply held religious faith. In fact, he’s happy to work together with Jews and Christians, because as he argues in books like The Righteous Mind, in his view religion is a beneficial evolutionary accretion — grounded in literal falsehood, of course, but to a pragmatic end.
DeBoer himself is no Christian, or a religious believer of any kind. Far from it: He’s an avowed atheist Marxist! But that “of course” offends him on the Christians’ behalf, because he perceives it as “a more grievous insult to sincere Christians than Christopher Hitchens could ever come up with.” At least Hitchens respected Christians enough to challenge them to a fight, rather than letting them go with a pat on the head.
Stephen Meyer couldn’t agree more with Freddie deBoer. In conversation with him, I raised this very sociological question, pointing out that some might argue he is beating an already dead horse by using writers like Dawkins as a foil in Return of the God Hypothesis. Meyer conceded that sociologically, Dawkins may indeed be passé. But the stakes are still just as high. The questions have never gone away, and churlish as he was, like his fellow New Atheists, Dawkins had a knack for asking them well. “These guys have the requisite zeal to challenge those beliefs head-on, and therefore, they force the really important discussion about what does the evidence actually say pro or con for theism versus materialism?” Meyer is one of those Christians deBoer is irritated for, who’d rather go at it hammer and tongs with a Hitchens than engage with “materialists who merely condescend to theistic belief, who pat you on the head and say, ‘Well, that’s nice for you.’”
Another name that came up in our conversation was Bret Weinstein, a biology professor who became famous for standing up to a woke mob at Evergreen State College and subsequently becoming a professor in exile. Meyer and I share an admiration for Weinstein, but we find his attempt to “save” religion lacking in the the same way deBoer finds Jon Haidt’s attempt lacking. Weinstein’s personal coinage is that religion is “literally false, but metaphorically true.” For example, if an island tribe believes an ancient spirit is stirring the waters to cause a tsunami, they will escape to high ground and survive, which is the really important thing, whether or not the whole “ancient spirit” business was so much superstitious nonsense.
But was their belief “true,” though? Well. What is “truth”?
The God-Shaped Hole
This is really just Stephen Jay Gould all over again. Gould famously proposed the idea of “non-overlapping magisteria,” or NOMA, where you can neatly partition your beliefs into the “scientific” on one side and the “religious” on the other, and never the twain shall meet. But our friend Freddie is unconvinced that it’s so easy as all that:
[T]he meaning and rules for life which people so often praise in religion in the abstract stem from the very supernatural elements which people are now so eager to do away with. Yes, religion provides psychic comfort in an unfriendly world, but it does so because it imposes sense on senselessness through the existence of one (or many) who literally determine what sense is. Yes, religion helps guide moral decisions, but it does so because it posits an entity from whom unerring moral precepts flow. Yes, religion helps rescue people from feelings of meaninglessness, but it does so because it tells people that they have a specific moral purpose that is defined by a creature of infinitely greater wisdom than ours. Yes, religion soothes the sick and elderly, but it does so because it tells them that they will soon be joined with a maker who will grant them some sort of eternal reward. You take away the supernatural element, as so many now seem eager to do, and you’re kicking two legs out from under a three-legged stool.
Thank you! Just so! Indeed, it’s all very well to acknowledge, like Haidt does, the Pascalian “God-shaped hole” in our hearts. It’s all very well to say that religion is “part of human nature.” But as deBoer puts it poignantly in a previous essay, you can’t worship a God-shaped hole. If you go to Mass or synagogue looking for nothing more than a vague religious “fix,” while quietly congratulating yourself that you’re not like those silly fundamentalists who don’t know how Science works, that fix will only last so long. The journey “will be an aimless and likely short one.”
It doesn’t look like deBoer has plans to climb aboard the God hypothesis train himself any time soon. But at the very least, he recognizes why people should care where that train is going, and why it matters that it’s not just making an aimless circle. We can certainly shake hands with deBoer on that point, even as we cordially invite him to reconsider the destination for his own journey.