Where some seemed to think that the so-called “Four Horsemen” would achieve final closure on the issue of God, quite the reverse seems to have happened. Cultural interest in God and religion has resurged, and the discussions are not leading to the conclusions that the New Atheism had in mind. It’s a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. There’s a lot more that needs to be said.
So let me begin by thanking Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens for causing this new cultural interest in God and religion. Their high-profile campaigns against faith have reopened both interest in and discussion of the big questions of life. I’m delighted that they have done so.
I’m not so sure that they will be pleased about the outcome. Instead of closing the debate down, they’ve opened it up. It has never been so easy to talk about God, or to find an interested audience for questions of belief, meaning, and ultimate significance.
It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s ferocious attack against the poetry of the seventeenth-century poet John Milton in the 1930s. He slammed Milton’s style in Paradise Lost at point after point. Eliot’s status as a poet and critic ensured that his views were picked up and circulated by the media and chattering classes. Milton was written off by many in the media as obsolescent and obscene.
Yet curiously – and, it seems, quite unintentionally – the force of Eliot’s barbed diatribe generated new interest in Milton. Charles Williams began his introduction to the “World Classics” edition of Milton’s poems with the remark, “We have been fortunate enough to live at a time when the reputation of John Milton has been seriously attacked.”
Williams thanked Eliot for getting the debate under way. But he had no doubt about the outcome of this debate. A new interest in Milton was causing everyone to re-read him. And Eliot’s judgements now seemed out of line with the reality. The foundations for the recovery of Milton’s reputation in the post-war era had been laid – curiously, by his chief critic.
The parallel with the New Atheism can hardly be overlooked. Cultural interest in the God-question has soared. The role of religion in society has become a hot topic. In both Britain and North America, there is new interest at the highest level in the role of Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) in promoting welfare and social cohesion.
No wonder that so many religious writers – including myself – begin our public lectures on the resurgence of interest in God by thanking Richard Dawkins for bringing about this new interest in these questions. They’ve got the conversation going. But it has moved on, taking new turns.
Interestingly, some of the most penetrating critiques of the New Atheism have come from secular writers, who are alarmed at its shrill tone, its palpable exaggerations, and its tendency to use ridicule in the place of evidence-based argument.
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