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Meet the New New Atheists, Not Like the Old New Atheists

David Klinghoffer
Photo credit: Derek Story via Unsplash.

Jonathon Van Maren at Convivium puts his finger on an interesting phenomenon: the atheists and agnostics who are coming around to a pro-Christian view:

Not so long ago, the atheists who retreated to their Darwinian towers and bricked themselves up to fire arrows at the faithful wanted to be there. Their intellectual siloes were a refuge from faith because they didn’t want Christianity to be true. They hated it and thought we’d be better off without it. Like [Christopher] Hitchens, they were thrilled to find arguments that permitted them to reject it.

These atheists are finding the “Darwinian tower” less to their liking, and are laying down their bow and arrow. Not because they doubt their atheism, or evolution for that matter. As John West and others have pointed out, Darwinian atheism has a “corrosive” effect on culture. But the theory, like atheism more broadly, could still be true and its influence would be no less corrosive. 

Hitchens’s Time Capsule

I call this group the New New Atheists. We still have the loud and aggressive Old New Atheists around, folks like evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne who think we’d all be much better off without Christianity, or other faiths. But this seems increasingly like an old-fashioned position. Van Maren cites historian Niall Ferguson, philosopher Roger Scruton, writer Douglas Murray, social scientist Charles Murray, historian Tom Holland, and the famed Jordan Peterson as examples of agnostics or atheists who argue that the West without Christianity would be in serious trouble. 

Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Published in 2007, that now seems like a time capsule. From the perspective of 2021, the spitefulness of the title sounds reactionary. More of the moment is Douglas Murray, who provocatively called himself a “Christian atheist” in a fascinating conversation with blogger Esther O’Reilly on Justin Brierley’s podcast Unbelievable?

The view of people like this carries weight. Peterson has appeared to tremble on the edge of conversion, while withholding it from expectant observers for now. He may be a greater influence as he is. As O’Reilly points out, the fact of Peterson’s “not being a Christian… disproportionately tilts ears in his direction right out of the gate.”

Van Maren quotes Fergusson:

“I know I can’t achieve religious faith,” he went on, “but I do think we should go to church. We don’t have, I don’t think, an evolved ethical system. I don’t buy the idea that evolution alone gets us to be moral. It can modify behavior, but there’s just too much evidence that in the raw, when the constraints of civilization fall away, we behave in the most savage way to one another. I’m a big believer that with the inherited wisdom of a two-millennia old religion, we’ve got a pretty good framework to work with.” [Emphasis added.]

Arguably the West’s “inherited wisdom” can itself be explained in (loosely defined) evolutionary terms. Traditions don’t survive for millennia because they are unfit to guide a healthy culture. 

“The Constraints of Civilization”

These atheists are only recognizing something that no small number of Jews also see — Ben Shapiro, Dennis Prager, and Michael Medved, for example. They (and I) would agree with Fergusson that, “when the constraints of civilization fall away” — and in the West, that means Christian civilization — “we behave in the most savage way to one another.” Christianity is suited to the role of a religion for billions of people. Judaism, as I’ve pointed out, is not well suited to that role. William Lane Craig notes the paradoxical effectiveness of Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew, in “pointing people to Christianity.” Craig has said he was “flabbergasted” that in an interview, Shapiro invited him to offer his personal testimony as a Christian and did not really argue with Craig’s apologetic case. My instinct would have been to push back, but Shapiro was the wiser.

Something new, in any event, looks to be evolving, even if still on a modest scale. We’ve been encouraged by the responses to Stephen Meyer’s new book, Return of the God Hypothesis, from self-described agnostics, Brian Keating, Michael Shermer, and James Croft, among other scientists and scholars, a long way from the petulant jeering of the Old New Atheists. Perhaps Jonathon Van Maren’s observation helps to explain that too.