On November 15 of last year, Mark Woods (of Christian Today) reported on an interview with Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias in which Zacharias stated that “Dawkins has had his day”. I was asked to share my thoughts on this article on a Christian theology Facebook page; I thought that I would share an edited version of that response here.
In the article, Zacharias implies that the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens) failed to answer questions about personal meaning. I agree that the New Atheists did not answer meaning questions.
Nonetheless, I do not think the New Atheists (excepting Dennett) intended to answer meaning-questions, at least in any sort of philosophically robust way. Each New Atheist author had their own idiosyncratic motivations, many of them political. For example, Hitchens’s God is Not Great is about the abuses of totalitarian regimes (the title being a reference to political Islam). As Anglican theologian Alister McGrath has pointed out, New Atheist authors are better compared to e.g. C.S. Lewis than to professional philosophers of religion or theologians.
Largely, what the New Atheists accomplished — at least in the American context — was a new public awareness of atheism and a new discussion of religion. In a sense, I think everyone interested in discussing religion — whether theists or atheists — benefited because it allowed for a renewed public discourse concerning God.
Zacharias seems to think that the New Atheists are waning in popularity because they were not sufficiently sophisticated. However, historically, the most popular orientations towards religion were seldom the most sophisticated. Deep religion often loses to cheap idolatry. Thus, if the New Atheists had been answering philosophically deep questions, I doubt they would get much attention for it. Dennett has some deep and interesting things to say about free-will, consciousness, and the evolutionary psychology of religion, but those ideas have never been popular — as far as I can tell — in New Atheist circles (popular as they might be among academics).
Zacharias produces a number of factual errors in his article. Here are a few.
He says that: “[The irreligious] would never mock Islam, for obvious reasons, or Hinduism, for fear of being culturally prejudiced.” The article was written before the recent Charlie Hebdo incident, but it sounds peculiar now. I look at my Facebook friends list and find that most of them have changed their profile pictures to images purposely disrespectful of Islam in order to defend the right to free speech over what they perceive to be Islamist extremism.
I look at secular student groups at colleges throughout the US. One of the more popular activities — both before and after Charlie Hebdo — has been “Draw Muhammad Day”. I look at the anti-Islamic material put out by Christopher Hitchens — the title of whose book (God is Not Great) was a direct parody of Allahu Akbir (Arabic: “God is Great”) and think about South Park episodes that drew controversy for their depiction of Muhammed. It is false that the irreligious never mock Islam or that the New Atheists were not concerned with it.
Many commentators on the New Atheists — such as McGrath — have expressed the view that New Atheism was a direct response to 9/11. This seems plausible; Dawkins has said that his publisher advised him that, post-9/11, the market would be good for an explicitly atheistic book; Harris begins The End of Faith with comments about Muslim terrorists.
This comment is especially odd in the wake of the recent shooting in North Carolina, where a member of the atheist community shot three young Muslims. Regardless of whether the shooter was ideologically motivated, the incident has sparked a new discussion of the prevalence of racist anti-Muslim sentiment among atheists.
Zacharias talks about the thinning out of Dawkins acolytes from his audiences. I do not know why there would be fewer Dawkins acolytes in his audiences; I’ve never attended one of his talks. I do know that Dawkins fell out of favor in my social circles because of an increased emphasis on social justice among organized atheists and an increased awareness that Dawkins’s public statements are antithetical to those goals. The problem with Dawkins seems to be that he is too conservative. I suspect that Zacharias is blind to this, either because he does not spend his time reading atheist blogs or because he wouldn’t see the new goals of the Freethought community as worthwhile.