New case for Christianity rises from the ashes of new atheism
“Christmas will not be Christmas without gifts,” growls Jo at the start of Little Women. But 2020 proved him wrong. Thanks to Jeff Bezos and his merry bunch of delivery elves, for many people, sending and receiving shoals of gifts was one of the few remaining Christmas consolations – and it was terrible. With millions sentenced to solitary confinement, even the softest cashmere scarf or the silliest party sweater turned out to be a hollow mockery when the donor was abandoned, teetering on the other end of one. Facetime call.
I can’t help but feel that there is something missing this Christmas too. Across the country, anxious families are renegotiating their plans, with “hawk-dove” clashes as bitter as those found at an average Cabinet meeting. Carol’s concerts and Nativity plays have been canceled, depriving children of formative rites of coming of age.
Although vicars are more optimistic this year and most churches are no longer off limits to their congregations, believers and non-believers are voluntarily forgoing centuries-old rituals. For many of us, an extremely secular Christmas turns out to be a pale imitation of reality – for some it barely resembles Christmas.
I reflected on this last week, on the 10th anniversary of the death of writer Christopher Hitchens. Not all of his ideological positions have stood the test of time, but his witty, barbed wire, and gloriously versatile writing – on everything from Harry Potter to Hillary Clinton – certainly did.
Like many teenagers of this era, I was first drawn to Hitchens through his alluring anti-religious iconoclasm. He was at the forefront of “New Atheism”, a movement that became mainstream in the 2000s and 2010s with the publication of books such as The illusion of god by Richard Dawkins, The end of faith by Sam Harris and Hitchens God is not great.
The “Hitchslap” videos, featuring “The Hitch” eagerly demolishing an inarticulate mullah or a naive Bible Belt pastor, have gained cult following. In 2009, Humanists UK reached what was perhaps the culmination of this brand new anti-religious evangelism with an advertising campaign on London buses. âThere is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life, âtheir posters proclaimed.
It was a movement that abhorred all manner of religious influences – Hitchens called himself not only an atheist, but an anti-theist – and carried away its followers with strident maxims and deterministic philosophies. If the cause of human suffering is irrationality, they argued, and religion is inherently irrational, then a world devoid of religion must be superior and believers intellectually stunted to have adhered to the idea of ââGod. For smart people, the New Atheists often had a decidedly inept way of engaging with the opposition – something James O’Brien’s knack for identifying stupid antagonists to oppose.
Questioning things can spark a host of new ideas and send you in exciting and unexpected intellectual directions, but venturing too far into the new atheist’s hole was becoming unbearable. Soon, according to Dawkins (and I, circa 2009), you accuse your kind CofE mother of behavior amounting to child abuse for getting you baptized. It’s not for nothing that this bombastic form of disbelief has attracted know-it-all teens – there’s something alluring about the idea that you’ve stumbled upon an eternal truth that those around you are too much. difficult to grasp.
Given its unique importance, it is remarkable how the New Atheism has evaporated as a mainstream school of thought since then. Arguably, much of it is simply due to the death of Christopher Hitchens; The new atheism has never quite recovered from the loss of its most elegant and articulate defender. The age of social media has also not been a friend to the more casual wing of the movement. At best, Twitter can provide a platform for rigorous debate; at worst, a digital siege to watch your old heroes get intellectually dirty in public – think Dawkins tweeting that mothers with Down’s syndrome should ‘abort and try again’, or AC Grayling’s transformation from acclaimed philosopher to grand chief of the remaining extremes.
But I wonder if Christianity’s anti-theistic “scorched earth” view has also given way to a new form of religious identification – one that is cultural, if not necessarily spiritual. In his recent bestseller Dominationhistorian Tom Holland has argued convincingly that whether we realize it or not, we in the West are all heirs to millennia of Christian tradition, a legacy that cannot be so easily dismissed.
In contrast, Sir Roger Scruton argued that it is much easier to destroy traditions than to build new ones, and the sudden loss of the familiar can trigger deep alienation. Enduring Christmases as miserably secular as anything the New Atheists could imagine provides salutary proof.
The âFollow the Scienceâ prescriptions for dealing with the pandemic further highlighted the limits of a purely ârationalistâ worldview and the importance of having a holistic view of our physical and emotional needs. Pure reason – if such a thing is even possible – cannot by itself provide all the answers, nor replace the magical, the numinous and the prospect of hope.