Jen Gerson: Where have all the New Atheists gone?
I can't tell if this is a spiritual awakening, or if it's something else, and something more deeply and profoundly sad.
By: Jen Gerson
There was a side conversation between Jordan Peterson and Tucker Carlson that took place during the latter’s recent trip to Alberta that caught my attention. When asked whether he saw hope for the West, Peterson proclaimed his optimism.
“I see a realization dawning even in unlikely places that the core values of our civilization — and those are really Judeo-Christian values — are valid, true and irreplaceable,” he noted, listing several high-profile converts or “semi-converts” to Christianity of late, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, her husband Niall Ferguson, and commentator Douglas Murray.
“I think we're on the verge of a conscious metaphysical revolution that will reveal to us once again the profundity, depth, necessity and value of the core propositions that made the West free, prosperous and great.”
Carlson agreed, noting that the West — and the West alone — had proceeded for any length of time rooted in the unsustainable belief that there is no God.
“That's changing really fast and I feel it.”
Like so much of this kind of rhetoric, these claims are factually wrong while feeling intuitively correct. While more than half of Canadians still consider themselves some form of Christian, the share of us who align with that faith is in steady freefall — down from 67 per cent in 2011, and 77 per cent in 2001. Meanwhile, those who report no religious affiliation only account for about one-third of the population, but that has doubled in the past 20 years.
The trend lines are very clear, and they more or less parallel what we see in other developed Western societies.
In the contest between Christianity, and the formlessness of irreligiosity, the latter is looking more and more likely to win the war of Western civilization, and fairly soon at that. If the trends hold, the irreligious could match Christians in sheer numbers by around 2030.
And yet despite this fact, Carlson et al. are picking up on a thread that I think is true in a deeper sense: that even as more people dissociate from mainstream Christian religion, the air really is leaking from the tires of "New Atheism" — the aggressive and rather explicitly arrogant anti-religious movements nominally lead by the "four horsemen" of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, through the aughts.
Hitchens is now dead — peace be upon him. Dennett and Dawkins are getting on in years. Harris is still an atheist, though most of his public commentary on religion is focused on his objections to Islam. He is probably now just as well known for his Buddhism-tinged meditation app (which I rather recommend, by the way — hit me up for a referral).
Meanwhile, converts to Christianity do appear to be having a moment.
The highest profile of these is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Muslim apostate turned atheist infidel whose story of leaving Somalia to start a life in the West is both harrowing and heroic. Her unapologetic opposition to Islam has made her a figure both reviled and admired, depending on the quarter. And to that end, her latest religious conversion is following in a lifelong pattern of refusing to simply go along to get along.
In her essay on the subject, published in Unherd, it's not clear that Ali has converted to Christianity out of any sense of deep personal conviction that the religion's fundamental truth claims have merit.
"I no longer consider myself a Muslim apostate, but a lapsed atheist," she writes, acknowledging that she has much to learn about Christianity, and comes to the party with an eagerness to admire everything within it.
Rather, she seems to have been more convinced by the thesis put forward in Tom Holland's book Dominion, which argues that the liberal social mores she most values are irredeemably rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Further, he asserts that by denying or stifling that tradition, secularists, atheists and humanists aren't actually creating space for a rational and non-dogmatic society. Rather, they are contributing to a moral void that will inevitably be filled by oddball spiritual experiments and illiberal political movements ranging from QAnon to Wokeism.
"Activist atheists believed that with the rejection of God we would enter an age of reason and intelligent humanism. But the ‘God hole’ — the void left by the retreat of the church — has merely been filled by a jumble of irrational quasi-religious dogma," she wrote. "The line often attributed to G.K. Chesterton has turned into a prophecy: ‘When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.’”
I have to admit that, regardless of the truth claims of Christianity, I think this assessment is correct. The vision of a secular humanist society rooted in pure science and rational values is a beautiful and noble ideal every single bit as lovely in principle as every other utopian fantasy that will never come to pass.
We aren’t capable of creating a purely rational society because we aren't rational beings. We are just evil little monkeys throwing shit at each other, and we have to accept that about ourselves and learn to work with it.
Humans who seek to live together in a shared society need unifying moral narratives and worldviews. Atheism may be true, but strict materialism is insufficient as an worldview to meet our collective longing for identity, meaning and purpose.
Without this, we struggle to cohere as a community. We're left perfectly free and untethered by dogmas and tradition, but also atomized and isolated, utterly vulnerable to predatory political movements, hysterias, moral panics and conspiracies — anything to do what religion does, to fill the gap, to make us feel important and part of a tribe and alive and righteous. This is the freedom that is “no freedom at all.”
If this assessment is correct, the question before us isn'‘t "religion" vs. "no religion"; it’s "which religion?"
The answer doesn’t have to be Christianity, of course. But it is going to be something that fulfills the real human needs met by Christianity. And if these are the options, well, one has to concede that the Judeo-Christian values that eventually led to the most liberal and prosperous society in human history have some advantages over the alternatives.
I do understand the obvious counterpoint to this position.
As it was articulated to me by a friend: the things that people like Ali most value in Western society are the products not of religion, but rather opposition to that religion. No Pope decreed universal suffrage or the equality of men or free speech or the paramountcy of a secular rule of law. Those were the gifts of an Enlightenment that explicitly rejected the Church's authority.
This is true, but it fails to delete Christianity from the process of our own social evolution. Christianity had to exist as the prior condition for us to oppose in order to make those sweeping and radical changes, and there had to be something inherent to the faith itself — some capacity to appeal to conscience and thought — for reformation of itself to have occurred. Is Western society just a weird accident of history? Or was a liberal democracy the inevitable outcome of this particular faith's unfolding over time?
Hell, I don't know.
But Christianity appears to be ticking along, continuing to evolve, 2,000 years in. Dawkins can't even keep his Facebook page hopping after only 20.
The atheistic community proved to be no better able to avoid schism, either.
The rise of social justice movements — particularly those that privileged Islam as a faith professed by an oppressed class in need of special protection in the West — put new atheists at odds with one another.
Some aligned their secular impulses with broadly left-wing values that supported political positions like gay rights and racial justice. This group was always ultimately going to find the “four white, heterosexual men” to be, ahem, exceedingly problematic.
The other bloc saw in these social justice movements the same irrational and illiberal tendencies that drove them from organized religion in the first place. To an atheist with this mindset, Wokeism is totally indistinguishable from old-time religion, chock full of original sin, religious jargon, shibboleths, shunning and public confessions. A defanged, post-reformation version of modern Christianity — with its authoritarian impulses weathered by time — seems benign by comparison.
The pipeline from New Atheism to anti-Wokeism seems evident to me in hindsight. The people who were once mocking Christian apologists on YouTube 10 years ago are the same types who got really into Jordan Peterson — a man who isn't Christian, exactly, but is certainly Christian adjacent. (Dawkins’ response to Peterson’s theology is hilarious, by the way. He makes a point of noting how much respect he has for Peterson for standing up to woke progressives in defence of free speech, but then goes on to explain that he thinks Peterson’s entire religious perspective is confused “bullshit.”)
It would be incredibly bizarre to see the wheel turn, to watch anti-religious reactionaries became political ones, and in the end adopt the Christianity they once held in contempt in order to counter a more illiberal outgrowth.
This is where, I think, Ali has landed, save the Christian origin.
And as Dawkins noted in this interview, it's a very strange land to build a spiritual home. Accepting the necessity of a religion while rejecting its truth claims for purely strategic cultural ends is extremely condescending. It suggests that the intellectual class need not actually believe a religious belief in their heart of hearts, as long as the hoi polloi eat their dogma and broccoli for dinner.
And, well, yes.
Dawkins is correct.
But also, very much yes. Why would we expect high-IQ individuals to have the same approach to religion and spirituality as ordinarily intelligent humans trying to get on with their lives? Who said individual outlooks had to be compatible with collective ones? I’m sorry: I’m not trying to be a dick about this point because I do believe that every shit-flinging evil monkey among us possesses the spark of the divine and thus has an equally important role to play in the human story. But while we are all equal, we are not all the same. Our gifts, abilities and paths vary wildly from person to person. If this is true in every other sphere of human life, there’s no reason to think it would differ in the spiritual one.
This critique is also profoundly ironic considering its source. Dawkins is, perhaps, one of the most condescending men to have ever walked this earth and still figures prominently in a movement whose proudest hallmark is its lack of intellectual humility. Its sheer arrogance and certainty about the nature of the world and the supremacy of the tools we now had to understand that world was always one of secular materialism’s most compelling features. For any New Atheist to accuse anyone of condescension gets us deep into the Spiderman pointing meme.
But it does raise a new conundrum. How do you cope with the realization that: "I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive," as Ali puts it, as a pure and devoted materialist? What happens when one comes to the conclusion that a religion that is probably not literally true may also be a necessary evil?
I can't tell if this is a spiritual awakening, a re-illusionment — if such a thing is possible after passing through the gates of disbelief and skepticism. Or if it's something else, and something much more deeply and profoundly sad: a disillusionment not with God, but with humankind itself.
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