The movement that became known as the New Atheism was born in the smoldering ruins of 9/11. It was the horror of that scene, perpetuated by terrorists driven by a radical Muslim ideology, that convinced several atheists that the root problem was religion. Like secular versions of the biblical prophets of old, they concluded that they needed to speak out and denounce the dangers of religion with a new boldness and ferocity.
Sam Harris led the way in 2004 by when he published The End of Faith. That book exhibited a strident, anti-religious message which helped it become a bestseller. It also provided a template for the New Atheist's uniquely combative "scorched earth" attack on religion.
The bestsellers kept coming. In 2006 Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion, an anti-religious screed that went on to sell more than two million copies. Personally, I've heard countless atheists describe this book as instrumental in their deconversion: think of it as the atheist's version of Mere Christianity.
In that same year, Bobby Henderson published his own bestseller: The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was an extended satire of religious belief and practice which described a new "religion" focused on worshipping a pile of spaghetti. Henderson's point was that Christianity (and all religion) is every bit as absurd as praying to a plate of pasta. Even todaymany atheists will jokingly describe themselves as "Pastafarians" who worship spaghetti much as Christians worship God.
The assault continued for a few more years with additional leaders like Christopher Hitchens and Victor Stenger vying for social notoriety. But eventually as the novelty of atheists insulting religion wore off, the bestsellers stopped coming and the conversation moved on. Today many people believe New Atheism as a movement is passé.
But even if New Atheism no longer grabs the headlines, it has left behind a significant and very unfortunate legacy of incivility and anti-intellectualism.
Incivility was always a New Atheist hallmark. New Atheists assumed that religion is irrational and dangerous. And when something is irrational and dangerous, you aren't polite or respectful. Instead, you seek to discredit the danger in any way possible. If religion is the problem then you mock their religious leaders, lampoon their religious institutions, and berate their holy texts.
Examples are not hard to find. Richard Dawkins was a master of name-calling as he regularly dismissed religious people as "faith-heads". Comedian Bill Maher joined in with his documentary Religulous: as you can probably guess, the title was a portmanteau of the wordsreligion and ridiculous.
While many atheists no longer identify with the New Atheism, this disparaging attitude is still widespread. As a result, serious conversations with skeptics are often next-to-impossible because the atheist assumes the Christian is irrational, intellectually arrested, and perhaps morally suspect. The Christian is in effect dismissed as a grown-up Linus clinging to his religion blanket.
New Atheism has also left behind a deep and troubling legacy of anti-intellectualism. This may seem surprising: after all, New Atheists prided themselves on their commitment to reason and evidence. For a while, some of them even suggested calling atheists "brights" for their alleged love of the light of reason.
Despite that branding, the truth is that New Atheism has a deep and dark anti-intellectual impulse.
The basic problem is that when atheists begin with the assumption that Christians and other religious people are all irrational, delusional, and intellectually arrested, they lose any interest in understanding Christian beliefs with charity or nuance.
Probably the clearest example of this comes from Dawkins. After his bestseller The God Delusion was published, Dawkins was harshly criticized by Christian and atheist academics alike for his naïve and ignorant perspectives on theology and philosophy. (Dawkins is a biologist with no formal training in theology or philosophy.)
Dawkins defended himself against these charges in the second edition of The God Delusion. But it is the way that he defended himself which is so striking. Rather than resolve to invest time studying in the relevant fields in which he was clearly ignorant (e.g. hermeneutics, biblical studies; philosophy of religion; systematic theology), he instead dismissed the entire field of theology and related disciplines as equivalent to "fairyology": in other words, the study of mythical fairies.
Dawkins' point was that we don't need to study fairyology to know that fairies are ridiculous imaginary characters of childhood. By the same token, the atheist doesn't need to study theology to know that God is ridiculous and imaginary.
That response may have satisfied Dawkins and his New Atheist followers. But in fact, it amounted to nothing more than a smarmy defense of ignorance and anti-intellectualism.
The legacy of this attitude has been especially corrosive of Christian-atheist exchanges. Today I regularly meet atheists and other skeptics who have no background in the formal study of theology, church history, or the Bible, and yet they believe themselves adequately informed to opine on each of these topics. And why not if theology is just "fairyology"?! Moreover, when I, as a theology professor, point out how flawed and ill-informed some of their analysis is, I am dismissed as an intellectual snob.
So the New Atheist assumes that you must study science to have an informed opinion on science. But apparently, you don't need to study theology or philosophy or the Bible to have an informed opinion on those topics. Needless to say, there is a serious double-standard here.
With this kind of anti-intellectual attitude, the atheist is often inoculated against considering arguments for Christianity. As a case in point, last year I spoke to an atheist group in Tucson. After giving an introduction to my Christian beliefs and why I hold them, I invited questions from the audience. The first questioner asked simply, "How old were you when you were indoctrinated?" The man had completely ignored my entire argument and he wanted to know when I was "indoctrinated"? How ironic! Yet, that's the legacy of New Atheist anti-intellectualism.
So what now?
New Atheism may no longer be the movement it once was, but it has left in its wake a troubling legacy of incivility and anti-intellectualism. So how should Christians respond?
For starters, it needs to be emphasized that not all atheists have been influenced by the sad legacy of New Atheism. There are many atheists who are thoughtful, charitable, and respectful of religion and Christianity.
But what about those atheists who exhibit the characteristic New Atheist hallmarks of incivility and anti-intellectualism? How should we interact with them?
The first point is to choose your battles. If a person begins by mocking Christianity as irrational or absurd, it may not be worth it to get into a debate. To be sure, you can still have a conversation but it is usually best to avoid contentious topics when people are ready to dismiss you as a "religulous faith-head".
Second, if we conclude that such exchanges are worthwhile, we should follow the wisdom of 1 Peter 3:15: "Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope within but do so with gentleness and with respect."
Peter gives us two points here and they are equally important. The first is that we should always be prepared to give a reason for our Christian convictions. Given the intellectual obstacles that many atheists have against considering Christianity as a serious option, we should keep modest expectations and a measured approach.
For example, rather than defend the full authority and reliability of the Bible, you might simply provide historical grounds for the claim that Jesus was seen alive after the crucifixion. This may not say all you want to say, but it provides a foundation on which to build. In short, be prepared to focus on small gains as you gradually erode harmful New Atheist assumptions.
This brings me to the second bit of Peter's advice, that which concerns gentleness and respect. I love the way Dale Carnegie put it: to attract bees you need honey. When people are insulting and demeaning, don't respond in kind. Instead, reply with kindness and good humor, if at all possible. (And if not possible, just walk away!) To sum up, be the kind of person that other people want to agree with.
Finally, be patient. You are not likely to undo the damage of New Atheism overnight, but step by step we can all begin to make a difference.