Craig and the Cheerfulness of New Atheism
Saints and Sceptics
Fresh from his debates with Lawrence Krauss in Australia, William Lane Craig has released some interesting interviews with the Centre of Public Christianity. In the first interview Craig argues that New Atheists should be more downcast; he gives two provocative reasons. The first is practical – New Atheism is on the wane. The second reason is philosophical: the New Atheism implies nihilism. I believe (alas) that Craig is unduly optimistic on the first point. However, on reflection, I agree with Craig that the cheerful nihilism of the New Atheists is neither attractive nor persuasive.
Is New Atheism in Decline?
The New Atheist movement has had its share of difficulties. It has experienced bitter schisms – the vitriolic character assassinations exchanged between traditional New Atheists and the followers of “Atheism+” put many a church split into context. Krauss did not fair well against Craig in their debates in Australia; Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens did not achieve more in previous encounters. Recently, Richard Dawkins has alienated some atheists with his rather insensitive tweets about Islamic culture.
Yet Dawkins’ tweets on Islam have been defended by eminently respectable figures like journalist Nick Cohen and broadcaster Stephen Fry. He remains an establishment figure – Prospect magazine declared him to be the most influential “world thinker” of 2013. His tweets might be risible, but they reach nearly three-quarters of a million people on a daily basis. Their sole aim is to undermine the cultural respectability of religion; they are not remotely interested in cultural respectability for themselves. Elsewhere, Craig has acknowledged the political savvy of the New Atheists.
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New Atheism’s arguments are weak and have not impressed academics who specialise in religion. That was never the target audience; this is a self-consciously semi-populist movement. New Atheists target those educated in science or technology, and flatter them into believing that they have attained the highest peak of intellectual endeavour. The movement provides secularists with a large, motivated core of activists. It has also radicalised the conversation about religion so much that an atheist can seem reasonable simply by acknowledging that Jesus of Nazareth was an historical figure and that insults have no place in civil discourse.
So, Alan de Botton can now begin a book about faith by asserting that “of course no religions are true” and yet appear open-minded simply because he does not find “any pleasure in laying bare the idiocy of believers in remorseless detail.” Thanks to the rhetoric of Dawkins and Krauss, such shameless, thoughtless, narrowed-minded secularism can appear to be the very paradigm of rationality. For all these reasons, New Atheism remains a significant movement, and I suspect that its effects will be felt for a generation or more…