A writer for The Critic makes bizarre argument for why New Atheism is dead

June 17, 2022 • 9:15 am

Reader Daniel brought this article to my attention. It’s from The Critic; and when I asked about the site, Daniel responded:

It’s a print and online magazine – pretty big in Britain now, though quite a recent arrival on the scene. Nick Cohen has written for it I think – though it skews more right.

Nick Cohen is on the left, of course, but that’s irrelevant for this piece, which Daniel said was “very strange”.

In fact, “very strange” is a huge understatement. “Incomprehensible” is a better adjective: the piece is a total mess, conflating politics with atheism, science with politics, and with a thesis that’s simply made up, supported by wishes rather than evidence. Click to read it; it’s not long. (Reading time: Until you need a Pepto-Bismol.)

The thesis, that New Atheism is in effect dead, is hardly new: Salon regularly proclaimed it starting years ago. What’s new is Milbank’s explanation: that the “movement” has fractured, with one moiety moving Leftwards into progressivism and another moving to the Right, with both bits abandoning all the tenets that “New Atheism” had when it was started by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Dan Dennett. And those tenets were a trust in the power of science and rationality.

My first claim would be that “New Atheism” was never really a “movement”, but simply a rejection of gods in the tradition of Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche, Ingersoll, Mencken, Russell, and so on down to the atheists of our day. There’s a list of contemporary NAs too, and I’m on it, quoted this way:

[Coyne] confesses to impatience with the New Atheists, remarking: “[H]ow much is there to say about a movement whose members are united, after all, by only one thing: disbelief in divine beings and a respect for reason and evidence. What more is there to say?”

I don’t remember saying that, but I certainly don’t have impatience with New Atheists, but with those who characterize it as a coherent “movement.” It’s not even an ideology, but an absence of belief in gods. Now there are certain traits of some New Atheism that make them differ a bit from Old Atheists, the most prominent being its reliance on science and evidence as a reason to reject gods, and its vociferous antitheism (though not all New Atheists are that vociferous!) Yet even Old Atheists like Bertrand Russell had science-oriented objections to god.

But let’s grant that there is a group of people sharing this disbelief and also a respect for evidence. Is that form of New Atheism dead? I would say “no”: it’s been absorbed into the mainstream, with the result that the West is becoming ever more secular. The books of the Four Horsemen sold like hotcakes, and America (and especially Europe) became more secular. “Nones”—those who profess no formal religion—not constitute the fastest-growing “faith” in the U.S. No more “New Atheist” books are being written now simply because we don’t need any more. All the arguments have been made, and the books did their job.

On to Milbank’s muddled argument. He argues, correctly, that faith in reality, science, and materialism is characteristic of New Atheism. But, he argues, Left-wing “New Atheists” have transmogrified into full Wokies, having given up science for the “feelies”.  Have a look to see how he conflates “New Atheism” with “The Left”, though most Leftists wouldn’t call themselves New Atheists:

The great battles, we were told, were between moderate, rational liberals who just wanted to agree on objectively observable facts — we knew how old the earth was, and it wasn’t created 8000 years ago; we knew the climate was changing, and that humans were causing it. It was wild-eyed religious conservatives who put ideology before observable reality. But insisting too hard on the importance of genetics today gets you drummed out of academic institutions by the left, not the right.

Not that the left has wholly given up on the imprimatur of scientific authority — you will find scientific expertise wielded on behalf of the climate or trans rights or drug policy on a regular basis. But there has been a clear rhetorical and conceptual shift. Where once the left stood for cool-headed rationalism, taking the emotion out of how we punish criminals or police drugs, and asking “what works?”, it now embraces an ideology of “care”. Peer-reviewed papers are as likely to take on board the “lived experiences of victims” and “indigenous ways of knowing” as they are data-driven approaches. Environmental policy is less “2 minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock” than it is “how do I lower my carbon emissions as a vegan who likes holidays to Thailand?”

He’s talking here about the Progressive Left, not those who were (and are) New Atheists. Not only is Milbank a bad thinker, but also a bad writer.

Here he refers to the “old” New Atheists like Hitchens:

Anyone who had the ill fortune to cross swords with this type quickly discovered their curious bushido. The warriors of atheism would deploy strange sophistic arguments, saying for example that there were no atheist beliefs — or for that matter a thing called “New Atheism”. An atheist was “just someone who didn’t believe in God” (despite all being identical stormtrooper-like clones). Above all, they would never, ever, ever stop arguing with you. Having the last word was a way of life, a matter of honour.

Sorry, but it’s the religionists who wouldn’t stop arguing. After all, for the one book on atheism by Dawkins, The God Delusion, there were about a dozen responses by believers—responses Richard calls “fleas”. And what is this with “stormtrooper-like clones”? That’s just a slur, and a hyperbolic one.

It’s clear that Milbank mainly dislikes the New Atheists because they were hard on religion, though he won’t admit it. He’s particularly nasty towards those who criticize the oppressive tenets of Islam (I guess he never heard of New Atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali). Here’s he’s talking about the dissolution of New Atheism:

But there were always tensions. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens in particular were both strongly associated with hostility towards Islam — a feature of right wing politics. Dawkins was more of an equal opportunity offender, but his rhetoric against Islam was scarcely less ferocious. The very male and rational world of New Atheism was never a fully natural fit for the rising influence of sociological disciplines steeped in subjective emotion, postmodern philosophy and a strong sympathy with (often highly religious) ethnic minority groups.

This, he says, explains why New Atheists on the Left became woke. And yes, some New Atheists became woke, but not any of the famous ones I read (have you read the three remaining Horsemen lately?), but I’m not aware that this hypothetical change made them believers. How many of them re-embraced God after they got woke?

So, after mistakenly saying that New Atheism split between Leftists and Rightists, with both fractions abandoning what characterized the genre (yes, people got less vociferous, but that was simply because everything had been said), Milbank calls out the Atheists on the Right, too:

Much of what New Atheism embodied has now migrated rightwards. The young rationalist male of today is watching Jordan Peterson videos and listening to the Joe Rogan podcast. Dawkins himself is now an “anti-woke” figure. The people that are most furiously applying evolutionary psychology to human relations today are incels — with concepts like “hypergamy”, “assortative mating”, “alpha” and “beta males” popularised online by lonely young men looking for explanations as to why they can’t get a date.

As a movement, New Atheism has fractured and lost its original spirit. Its afterlife on the right sees it allied with pseudo-mystical Jungianism, veneration of the nationalist mythos, outright neopaganism and strategic alliances with religious conservatives. Another portion has moved leftwards, embodied by the “I Fucking Love Science” woke nerd of today. Where once nerd culture was marginal, it is now the dominant commercial force, and it is forcefully allied not with rationalism, but progressivism.

Incels? What does that have to do with New Atheism?

This is bogus.  I’m a rationalist male, as are many readers of this site, and from what I read I don’t see much love for Joe Rogan or Jordan Peterson (Peterson, by the way, happens to be religious). As far as I can see, the New Atheists of yore haven’t moved rightward, but stayed where they were politically, but reacted (rationally) to the irrational rise of Wokeness on the left and the rise of the insanity of the more extreme Right.  To characterize New Atheists (who, after all, are still with us) as advocates of Jung and Jordan Peterson is, as the Germans say, “Wahnsinn.”

I want to give on more quote from Milbank just to show what a bad writer he is, piling one slur atop another. Here he’s saying what happened to Left-wing New Atheists, of which I’m one:

The nerd of yesteryear railed against the hysterical right blaming D&D for satanic ritual murder (yes, really) and accusing violent video games of inspiring school shootings. Now however, the Rick and Morty-watching, comic book convention-attending, board game-playing geek is an enthusiastic supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, and bearded, pot-bellied podcasters take breaks from reviewing the latest superhero franchise to pontificate about police violence and women’s representation. His heroes are not Dawkins (though there’s lingering affection and shared canon there), but Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s not religious, but he’s a gentler sort of atheist, one who can spare a tear for the plight of Palestine and cheerfully celebrate his friend’s tasteful same-sex ceremony in a suitably enlightened Evangelical church. Science, this sort of character can assure you, is firmly on the side of every progressive cause and opinion.

He’s talking about Wokeism here, and conflating it with New Atheism. Is there any reason to believe that New Atheists are more prone to become Wokies than are gentler “old-style” atheists, or than believers? Moreover, the atheists I know do NOT use “science” as a reason to buttress progressivism. Rather, they (and I) see positive changes in morality as a result of philosophical and moral thought. “Is” does not tell us “ought”, and although science can be used to buttress moral stands, it does not tell us, for instance, that same-sex marriages are absolutely fine. Moral considerations do that.

At the end of his piece, Milbank goes completely off the rails and argues that all the New Atheists have now become solipsistic, selfish materialists. And he adds another sympathetic comment about religion. Get a load of this!:

New Atheism is dead, but the materialism that underwrote it lives on more powerfully and subtly than ever. The curious sort of pugnacious integrity has gone, replaced with a far more pragmatic and amorphous spirit appropriate to the age of liquid modernity. The New Atheists were perversely very concerned with questions of metaphysics and epistemology, whereas a newer generation of materialists of both left and right are concerned only with power, not capital “T” Truth. In many respects the neoconservative and New Atheist moment of the 2000s was, however perversely, the last gasp of idealistic, traditionally religious politics that prioritised truth over power, and imagined that society was united by a shared rationality and sense of the common good. But they also served to destroy the civilisation of which they were the final embodiment — and have left only sophistry and cynicism as their legacy.

That paragraph is a mess, and not even wrong. For here Milbank he conflates two forms of “materialism”: one being a form of greed and desire for money and “things”, the other being “materialism” as naturalism: the view that all things must obey the laws of physics, and that there is no divine intercession.  The claim about new atheists being concerned with power and not truth is pretty much a lie.

Here’s a diagram Milbank gives (click to enlarge), supposedly showing how New Atheists have changed their views about science from a method to ascertain truth to a method to confirm what you already believe:

A lot of New Atheists were scientists or science lovers (see this list), and I don’t know any who have moved from the left to the right diagram.

In the end, Milbank’s article is a bunch of slurs against New Atheists, who don’t deserve (or warrant) this kind of attack. But we needn’t take it seriously because he can neither think nor write.

I think “New Atheism” is a bit of a cyclical phenomenon. The arguments against gods are made, and people either accept them or reject them. Given the movement of the West towards secularism, we have more of the former than the latter, and society becomes more secular.

From time to time, after people haven’t been exposed to the arguments for disbelief for a generation or more, they need reminding, and we’ll get a resurgence of atheism. And the ratchet will click once more towards secularism.

People like Milbank or the writers at Salon love to proclaim that New Atheism is dead, but it still refuses to lay down. The only thing missing are the best-selling “New Atheist” books, which were a passing episode that won’t be repeated for a while. In fact, maybe, when the U.S. becomes as secular as Northern Europe, they need not be repeated—at least in the West.  Those who still need New Atheist books and arguments are the hyperreligious and largely Muslim countries of the Middle and Far East.

h/t: Daniel

40 thoughts on “A writer for The Critic makes bizarre argument for why New Atheism is dead

    1. Ha! That says it all. The Critic has occasionally published decent articles, but I shudder at any magazine that publishes Milbank’s.

    1. I can’t find the source but I distinctly remember Peter Hitchens being described as “the answer to the question of: what if Christopher Hitchens had been dropped on his head as a child?”

  1. It strikes me that Milbank is conflating the New Atheists with folks like PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson etc — the ones that huffed off to the woke left after Elevator Gate and have sat there ever since, fuming in irrelevance.

    The Slymepit closed down last year due to this irrelevance (where’s the sport in poking fun at has-beens?). Milbank’s article inadvertently puts the nail in the coffin.

    “My name is PZmandias, king of kings:
    Look on my woke, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    1. Opheila Benson doesn’t really fit your list, since she had a massive falling out with wokeness and the others on your list over woke gender ideology.

      Though she still aligns somewhat with woke ideology on issues of race.

      1. She was happy to be one of their fiercest attack dogs until the other dogs turned on her. One of the few things I respect even less than online political attack dogs who constantly go after others is people who do it until they get attacked by the very people they were happy to be associating with, and then suddenly have a very convenient epiphany that they’ve been oh so wrong! She went after a ton of people, many of them of little to no note. She was part of that PZ Meyers orbit until they threw her out, and those people have been bordering on or outright harassing so many people for so many years.

  2. Milbank is a lightweight and doesnt deserve the space devoted to him. What deserves more analysis is exactly what motivates not just believers but liberals and agnostics to get so peeved about Dawkins and Harris in the first place. Why are their knickers in a twist? Is it because these guys have hit the nails on the head? Is it because they see the non-stop spread of secularism and the diminishing of religious belief and practice? Is it because they themselves are subconsciously
    nonbelievers but not ready to be intellectually honest, i.e. they are seriously confused? What seems clear is that these critics of atheism are sorely uninformed about science in general, and still hypnotized by religious leaders who insist that a moral life is possible only through religion. Any understanding of evolution would indicate that since the emergence of humans, a social species, moral and ethical codes, especially regarding aggression, have evolved in the absence of religion.
    The original Greek gods didn’t preach morality; that had to wait for Christianity. But they did preach
    about the consequences of human errors and transgressions, something we today refuse to confront when it comes to saving the planet and its systems and life forms. Milbankian gadflies are forever with us and don’t deserve the time wasted to rebut them and their illogic and invective. And to ignore the atrocities of Islam is not a matter of scorning other cultures but of measuring that religion against the well established universal values we learned from both evolution and the Enlightenment.

  3. Milbank needs to get out more. My guess is this terrible article came out of a Twitter argument that went bad. It is true that talking about science now gets you immediately labeled as a Righty by the knee-jerk Twitterati but the rest of his article is him falsely extrapolating from that.

  4. The distinction between “new atheism” or “old atheism” atheism or any atheism are in fact absurd. Atheism is the absence of belief, and how can there be different names for a void, something that is not there? There are many different reasons why atheists reject the idea of a god, and these reasons are based on the different irrational beliefs termed religions.

    1. and how can there be different names for a void, something that is not there?

      Ask the religionistas who invented dozens of different shades of naming and meaning for the empty set that is “god”. Particularly, ask the polytheists.

    2. There are multiple forms of atheism because, as you point out, there are different reasons for not believing in “God” and this often entails different commitments and beliefs about religion and the religious. Someone who rejects the existence of God because belief fosters cruelty might need a different term than someone who rejects it because the concept is muddled and unnecessary.

      It wasn’t New Atheism vs Old Atheism, but New Atheism vs Accomodationist Atheism. Accomodationism holds that there is no conflict between science & religion, and that faith isn’t a problem — the problem is people using faith to excuse what they would do anyhow. The New Atheists disagreed.

      1. Are there really different forms of atheism? Only if one can choose not to believe in God. But that’s really God-denial. If you don’t believe in God because there’s no evidence, then there’s really only one kind.

        1. Not all atheists think there’s no evidence for God. Some think there’s evidence, but better explained by other theories. Some don’t care one way or the other about evidence, but consider the idea repugnant. And some atheists don’t believe in God because they find the topic boring, or don’t want to be like the people who do believe in God.
          I used to attend both skeptic and atheist conventions. Skeptics seemed to be more uniform as skeptics, but with different specialties or interests. Atheists looked to me like more of a mixed lot.

      2. Not surprisingly, the Accomodationist Atheists were also the ones who spewed the most venom toward the “New” Atheists, accusing the latter of the very incivility, viciousness, and ad hominem they were guilty of.

        Nor is the conflict new. Back in the 18th century Accomodationist deists like Voltaire and Frederick II attacked the works of genuine atheists like Baron D’Holbach, whose “System of Nature” was the “God Delusion” of its time.

        What makes the Accomodationist Atheists so nasty toward unrepentant atheists? I think the Accomodationists genuinely miss religion and wish they could believe. Therefore tview themselves deep, profound people and become violently angry at unbelievers who don’t feel their anguish or acknowledge the supposed tragedy of life without religion.

        The Accomodationists cannot bring themselves to truly believe in the idiocies of religion, but they feel society—i.e. “the little people”—still need God, otherwise society will crumble. So they view “New” atheists as dangerous and act as if Richard Dawkins has plans to dynamite every cathedral in sight. I’ll be glad when the Accomodationists dwindle and die out.

        1. Given the marked increase in the belief that words are a form of violence and that criticizing someone’s cherished belief is a form of dehumanization, the spirit behind Accomodationism seems to be having a Renaissance.

      3. Yes I would agree that was the environment that New Atheism came up in. It was the reason for all the books that came out. I was trying to figure it out and you nailed it exactly.

  5. OK…! Well, Milbank had me chewing through the indigestion medication before the end of the second paragraph.

    What do the terms “biological reality” and “objective truth” conjure for you? Or how about “freedom of speech”, and complaints about “orthodoxy” suppressing “scientific inquiry”? In current political debates you’re likely to think of the never-ending trans controversies, or rightwingers complaining about the lack of free speech in workplaces and university campuses.

    In other words they’re now “conservative” coded terms, and if you hear someone using them you can make educated guesses about the rest of their beliefs.

    Much as trans rights activists would like to portray the spread of gender critical beliefs in the UK as being funded by American right-wing evangelicals, that just isn’t true. And it is by no means only conservatives who decry the stifling of debate on campus, especially with regard to the trans rights debate. Professors Jo Phoenix and Kathleen Stock were both hounded out of their workplaces by mobs accusing them of transphobia. (Prof. Phoenix’s employment tribunal case against the Open University is scheduled to begin in early October.) Absolutely none of which is in any way related to the decline or otherwise of New Athesim, of course.

    By the time that I got to his snarky description of atheists as “being identical stormtrooper-like clones” I was giving up on antacids and heading to a dark room for a lie down. To use the technical term, “what a load of disconnected and ill-argued baloney”.

    1. Extremist trans rights activists should also acknowledge the spread of their beliefs as being funded by American “evangelists” for the cause. I’m disappointing that the UK is no longer an independent center of thought, but rather an echo-chamber of America.

      1. I believe that US trans rights activists refer to the UK as TERF Island, which I’m happy to take as a compliment. Fingers crossed that some fresh Employment Tribunal case outcomes will soon give employers serious cause to stop drinking the kool aid when it comes to the overprioritisation of trans rights over those of women.

    2. I just stopped reading it after a while since it was so dumb and it was pissing me off. Apparently the argument is that NA’s moved on to occupy every left and right nook and cranny that appeared after NA stopped being buzzed about. What an incredibly stupid idea!

  6. “Anyone who had the ill fortune to cross swords with this type quickly discovered their curious bushido. The warriors of atheism would deploy strange sophistic arguments, saying for example that there were no atheist beliefs — or for that matter a thing called “New Atheism”. An atheist was “just someone who didn’t believe in God” (despite all being identical stormtrooper-like clones). Above all, they would never, ever, ever stop arguing with you. Having the last word was a way of life, a matter of honour.

    These eccentric souls venerated the big beasts of New Atheism: Christopher Hitchens their John the Baptist, Richard Dawkins their messiah, Daniel Dennett a font of Solomonic wisdom, and of course Sam Harris as a militant crusading Richard the Lionheart, putting the terroristic Saracens to the sword.”

    Jesus, hyperbole much, Mr. Milbank? Go sit in the shade a spell, before you hyperventilate.

    1. These people are beyond rationality. If you have been taught all the religious nonsens of a religion starting at age six, and if you never get out of this intellectual trap, it is very difficult to return to rationality. My father was thoroughly brainwashed by the Jesuits, starting in elementary school, high school and a Jesuit university. He only realized at age 50 that all this catholic stuff was utter nonsense. I realised this myself at age 10, after I was able to read “Mecky im Schlaraffenland” (we had moved to the German speaking part of Belgium). I was stuck in a catholic high school run by mostry idiotic priests, and at the final exam the pervert black-frocked director asked me during an oral exam which books I had read. I mentioned “La Religieuse” by Diderot, and he screamed “you are flunked!” . Fortunately we had a final state exam which saved me. This was Belgium during the 1960s, now all this has changed (except the imans who are taking over and brainwashing the immigrant youth). Belgium is now mainly atheistic.

  7. The guy appears to be a Tom Wolf wannabe, trying to wittily ridicule his subjects with clever language. The difference is that, until Wolf went off the rails in his Darwin book, his observations could be incisive. Milbank is just making stuff up, having failed to make any effort to actually understand who he’s writing about. He’s a lazy writer.

  8. I’d like to enlarge on Jerry’s observation that no ” more ‘New Atheist’ books are being written now simply because we don’t need any more.” While not disagreeing with his observation, I think it’s worth noting that the young atheists have moved online and are doing a great job of carrying on the tradition of both the Old and New Atheists using the most popular media of our present age. I’m thinking particularly of the YouTubers TMM, Cosmic Skeptic, Genetically Modified Skeptic, Rationality Rules, Paulogia, Gutsick Gibbon, and Dee the Humanist, among others. In fact, I first learned about Jerry from the YouTube channel, The Agatan Foundation.

    1. I think the concept of “New Atheism” was post hoc anyway. It just so happened 4 people wrote books appealed to some sort of zeitgeist. What happened after was a combination of a movement and a lot of capitalization for individual gains on that movement and the idea of New Atheism. I don’t really think it died because perhaps it was all never real alive in the first place. Or maybe I’m just horribly cynical.

  9. The distinguishing characteristic I associate with the “New Atheism” is the tendency to proselytize. Ditto for some forms of Christianity—e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormonism. All of these factions remain alive and well, but clearly one can be either a Christian or an atheist without attempting to convert others to one’s point of view.

  10. Sounds like a muddled view of New Atheism. Seems the author has mixed up all the hacks, who glommed onto something and attended conferences so they could talk about being atheists, with actual public intellectuals.

  11. Zealous activism distinguished New Atheism from older atheists, who were more philosophically inclined and content as a fringe group, though they probably disliked being associated with communism and racism. I recall complaints from these older guys when New Atheism appeared. I was a fresh Dawkinsian convert and dismissed them. How could they not see the promise of a new age of rationality? Religion was behind most wars and obviously responsible for the backwardness of Red State America. New Atheism could never organise people as well as religions, but it absolutely offered a utopian vision to people like me and I confess that I wanted to convert people (alas, I was too shy).

    I broke with it after Elevatorgate.

  12. My goodness, the prose alone is enough to put me off anything else the author could ever produce. He seems to fancy himself some kind of profound voice, but his style is just turgid and bloated.

  13. I was comforted when ‘new atheism’ came along, as I saw it as an indication that the world was becoming more liberal and informed. As for my jumping on the bandwagon of ‘new atheism’ – I’m 75 and since my childhood have regarded the all-powerful invisible fairy thing as a fantasy, unfortunately officially condoned by governments. There’s nothing ‘new’ about atheism, it’s just become more socially acceptable to publicly eschew creationist mythology. The successes of science in improving human life has much to do with this change in attitude.

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