Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) caused a media sensation. Atheism had until then been seen as somewhat dull and pedestrian. Dawkins’s turbocharged rhetoric and eye for a headline-catching slogan proved irresistible to those looking for quick and slick answers to life’s deepest questions. The “New Atheism” became a media phenomenon, and propelled Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens to international stardom. These were sages, the new wise men who presaged a godless future.
There were, of course, some awkward questions about the New Atheism that never really got properly examined by the media. Surely it was significant that these four writers (sometimes known as “The Four Horsemen”, drawing on the imagery of Revelation 6) were all western, white, middle-class males? And what about the less-than-subtle misrepresentation of both individual religions, above all Christianity, and the category of religion in general? And what exactly was the New Atheism offering in place of religious faith? Yet these seemed trivial niggles back in 2006 and 2007, in the face of the relentless advance of the “New Atheism”. As Marilynne Robinson noted, more in sadness than anger, faith was shamed out of the public square.
Today, the New Atheism has faded, abandoned by most of its former supporters, and dismissed as little more than a cultural fad by philosophers such as John Gray. In 2019, the movement was pronounced dead by P. Z. Myers, a former “New Atheist” who was reduced to despair by the blunderings and unforced errors of the movement. His involvement with the movement was “the deepest regret of my life.” Within a year, the “New Atheism” had become a personality cult. Why did anyone allow Dawkins and Hitchens to lead it? Why were they treated as infallible authorities? Dawkins and others, Myers lamented, had become “oracles whose dicta should not be questioned.” Future historians of the movement have a rich body of evidence to sift in explaining why things imploded in this way.
Yet we now know that something else was going on, largely unnoticed in the background. I became aware of this as I listened to students from North America and Europe who came to see me in my office in Oxford, wanting to talk about science and faith. Some of them hoped to study the subject in depth at Oxford, but most wanted some advice on how to develop their thinking on these issues. I would always ask them to tell me their stories, so I could get a sense of where they were coming from, and what issues were important for them. And then a pattern emerged.
Time after time, these students would tell me that their interest in faith, or in the relation of faith and science, had arisen from reading the writings of New Atheists, above all Richard Dawkins’s God Delusion. They had expected these works to confirm their atheism, or at least to give them reasons to hold on to atheism if they were wavering. Yet the weakness of Dawkins’s arguments, the overreach of his rhetoric, and the trenchant and dogmatic tone of his prose had made them wonder if atheism was quite as secure and attractive as they had once thought. Their dissatisfaction with Dawkins launched them on a journey of discovery which led many to personal faith, and others to a new appreciation of the intellectual and spiritual significance of Christianity. They wanted to move beyond Dawkins, and now believed that Christianity had answers to their questions.
I was surprised by this. In conversation with Dr Denis Alexander, then director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge, I discovered that he had noticed a similar pattern. We began to wonder if we could bring together a group of people who would be willing to tell their stories of coming to faith through Dawkins. Some of those that we talked to, of course, wanted to avoid publicity about what they regarded as a private yet enormously important aspect of their lives. But gradually, we found our way to twelve people, men and women from five nations, who were willing to tell their stories in their own way and their own words. And so Coming to Faith through Dawkins came into being.
We were delighted by the enthusiasm of Kregel Publications, who caught our vision for the project, and have worked tirelessly to bring it to publication. These fascinating narratives tell of how Dawkins and occasionally other New Atheists created a longing on the part of their readers to explore and embrace Christianity. Each of these writers tells of how their lives were changed by Dawkins – though not, I think, in ways that might have been expected. It has been a privilege to curate these testimonies.
So what do these twelve essays disclose? What apologetic insights can we distil from these remarkable personal testimonies? Although many of these twelve writers discuss evidential and argumentative issues, this work is primarily a set of compelling and persuasive narratives of disillusionment and disappointment with the New Atheism, leading to faith in Christianity or a deeper realization of the richness of faith. Many readers will find that they resonate with these concerns.
Four apologetic themes recur in this volume. The first is a deep anxiety about the rhetorical overstatements and evidential overreach that is now seen as a hallmark of the New Atheism. If the evidence doesn’t prove you’re right, you have to turn up the rhetoric and be highly selective in your reading of history if you want to persuade folks you’re right. Many found themselves alienated by Dawkins’s haughty tone in The God Delusion, treating “faith-heads” as lower forms of intellectual life. Anikó Albert contrasts Dawkins as a “joyful and creative” scientist, yet an “angry and rigid” atheist. Yet it is not only Dawkins who is problematic here. As Ashley Lande points out, Christopher Hitchens offers a “polemical savagery” that ridicules the views of religious believers, while offering a smorgasbord of mere assertions in their place.
The second theme is the persistent misrepresentation of Christianity on the part of the New Atheists, and their failure to engage with credible Christian representatives. Peter Byrom, for example, notes Dawkins’s somewhat disdainful refusal to engage in debate with the leading American apologist William Lane Craig, whose mastery of the arguments for the existence of God was such that he would have shredded Dawkins’s attempts to debunk them. Why this evasion? One of the most common criticisms of the New Atheism in general is that they depict Christianity in ways that most Christians simply do not recognize. It’s easy to ridicule something when there is nobody in the room to call you out.
A third issue is the vulnerability of “scientism” – the deeply problematic assertion that science alone can offer reliable answers to the great questions of life. Dawkins’s “scientism,” on which his atheist apologetics is critically dependent, is uncritically asserted, and its obvious problems dismissed as being beneath serious discussion. Philosophical criticisms of this over-reach are brushed aside as inconsequential. Science proves its beliefs, we are told, where religion relies on “blind faith”. Sarah Irving-Stonebraker notes Dawkins’s inconsistencies in explaining the relation of science and ethics, and the difficulties this raises for “living well” without objective moral values. Andrew Gosler also notes this concern, while highlighting the internal contradictions of Dawkins’s earlier account of the “selfish gene”.
A fourth concern is the condescending tone of total certainty that saturates Dawkins’s prose. Many have found this to be the most unpleasant aspect of Dawkins’s polemical style, an attempt to conceal his evidential insecurity and obvious lapses in reasoning. Gary Wolf, the journalist who invented the term “New Atheism” in an article of 2006, saw this as the Achilles Heel of this new movement. “Contemptuous of the faith of others”, New Atheists “never doubt their own belief. They are fundamentalists. I hear this protest dozens of times. It comes up in every conversation. Even those who might side with the New Atheists are repelled by their strident tone.” This point is picked up throughout this collection of testimonies. Judith Babarsky, for example, points how that Dawkins regularly depicts religious believers as “wrong” and “stupid”, and atheists as “smart, educated and intelligent.”
Although there is an intellectual depth and sophistication to these twelve testimonies, their significance really lies in the compelling stories that they tell of disappointment and disillusionment with a worldview that seemed to offer certainty, yet turned out to be shallow and unsatisfying. Where Dawkins relies on evidential overstatement, bullying rhetoric and inaccurate representations, these testimonies are gracious, considered, and thoughtful. The New Atheism has imploded and faded; these essays help us understand why. They tell a better story and offer a compelling alternative.
Published September 11, 2023