Note: this is a very slightly revised version of a piece originally written for my personal Substack and published on 7 February of this year.

New Theism
Fiolent, Crimea, Black Sea. Cape Fiolent is home to St. George Orthodox Monastery. image credit: © Vyacheslav Argenberg. image under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

In December 2023, Ed West wrote for The Spectator about a phenomenon I have been interested in for quite a while: the rise of a new counter-Enlightenment that defends religion, and Christianity in particular, based on its social value rather than because it is true. West termed such defenders of faith(s?) the ‘New Theists’, a term that I like very much and which I shall probably use quite often from now on.  

The New Theists, says West, argue ‘not that religion is true, but that it is useful, and that Christianity has made the West unusually successful.’ Whether West himself is a New Theist, I do not know, though his article seems very sympathetic to the New Theist argument. I am going to take issue with that argument soon enough, but first, who are the New Theists? 

I am tempted to date New Theism to the publication in 2019 of Tom Holland’s book Dominion. Holland’s argument is that almost all of Western culture is essentially Christian, even the parts seemingly antagonistic to Christianity. Holland wants to claim everything from gay rights to science to liberalism to the Enlightenment itself and even atheism as an outgrowth of Christianity.  

(Notice that, even as he tries to hide it behind a disinterested scholarly facade, Holland is a latter-day champion of Christianity—he is especially keen on claiming all the nice bits of Western civilisation for the faith. Christianity’s many historical crimes are explained away as not being really representative of its essence.) 

Dominion has been very influential since its publication, as perhaps most dramatically demonstrated by Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s citation of it last November as a reason for her conversion to Christianity. But, as West rightly notes, this sort of argument has a long history. And in its current form, it precedes Tom Holland. As Adam Wakeling writes in the Freethinker

‘Perhaps no public figure has become more associated with this argument than Jordan Peterson. Peterson does not appear to believe in a literal supernatural being, but believes that the secular ethics of the modern west are based in Judeo-Christian values and it would be better if we acted as though the Christian God did exist.’ 

So, since Peterson seems to have really started publicly obfuscating on religion in 2017, perhaps that is a better origin date for New Theism. Holland, Hirsi Ali, and Peterson are just a few of the more famous New Theists, though Hirsi Ali is unique in having formerly been a New Atheist. There are plenty of others. Some are actual believers, some are not, and many are just Petersonian wafflers. 

New Theism, of course, is named in opposition to New Atheism.1 (I should say here that I pretty much consider myself an unreconstructed New Atheist.) West again: ‘Like New Atheism, [New Theism] largely involved unbelievers, and argued for the same western liberal tradition.’ I think New Theism is broader than West allows here—for example, Theo Hobson, another of its champions, is a theologian (and, incidentally, Hobson’s arguments for New Theism precede 2017). West’s third clause is also questionable, not least given Sam Harris’s interest in Eastern spirituality, but it is broadly true.  

Where West really misunderstands the relationship between New Theism and New Atheism is in New Theism’s much narrower focus: it is concerned only, or at least mainly, with religion as a social phenomenon. The New Atheists were concerned with both of the really big questions about religion: its truth and its utility. True, there were differences of emphasis. Richard Dawkins was much more interested in the God hypothesis, and Christopher Hitchens in the evils of religion. But they all dealt with both questions, while the New Theists are only really bothered about one of them. Hobson himself recently put it thus in a review of a book called Coming to Faith Through Dawkins2:  

‘This is the real flaw in New Atheism: it inherits a vague rational humanism that it has to pretend is natural, or common-sense. It’s an important task of Christian apologetics to point this out, to insist that the moral assumptions of our culture have Christian roots. But most Christian apologists fail to focus on this and get bogged down in tedious arguments about first causes, and try to make a rational case for God, and even the historical likelihood of the resurrection. Most of these contributors take this approach, some citing the apologetics of William Lane Craig and Alister McGrath (who is this book’s co-editor). 

To my mind, this is deeply unhelpful. It sinks to Dawkins’ level. A wise apologetics is minimalist. It calmly exposes the moral muddles of rational humanists, their weak grasp of the history of ideas. But it doesn’t overstate the role of intellectual argument in belief.’ 

And this is telling. The God argument has been lost; all that is left is the argument from utility. The near certainty of God’s non-existence has been apparent since long before New Atheism3, but it now seems that the argument has been given up entirely. New Theism, then, is a rear-guard action, a desperate attempt to salvage religion even when its core has been gutted and even as the number of its adherents dwindles by the day. It is also an insult to the truly devout, for whom the truth of religion is very, even supremely, important. I have recently had the misfortune to have to endure The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Ratzinger, and the happily deceased pontiff often made that very clear.  

Now, with the faith in tatters, the New Theists are often not even, or are barely, theists (and isn’t there something strangely postmodern about that?4). And they now spend most of their time proclaiming that Christianity is fundamental to Western civilisation. In so doing, everything institutional Christianity ever opposed until it was beaten into submission—liberalism, secularism, gay rights, free speech, to name a few—are claimed for Christianity! This argument takes some chutzpah, I allow, but it is essentially the theology of the consolation prize—and a sign of continued decline rather than rejuvenation. 

An important exception to the above is Justin Brierley, a believing Christian apologist who tries to convince his readers of Christianity’s truth while also championing it in the fashion of Holland and the other New Theists.5 His latest book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why New Atheism Grew Old and Secular Thinkers Are Considering Christianity Again, is an explicitly New Theist text, and I am surprised West did not reference it.6 Of course, the popularity of any idea is no guarantee of whether it is correct or not, but I think Hobson and Brierley are simply the latest in a long line of people wrongly claiming that New Atheism is pretty much dead (see footnote 1 for a note on Jerry Coyne’s rebuttals of this oft-parroted critique, among other ones). The secularisation of the world, even in America, continues unabated, however much the New Theists wish otherwise. I do not think that New Theism will reverse this trend or have the public impact that New Atheism had in its heyday, but it is well capable of causing serious confusion (and perhaps worse7) nonetheless.8

There is little point in me going into great detail on the very many flaws of Hollandaise Christianity9, since many others have done so already—and, I think, have done so decisively. I will just recommend pieces by Nick CohenPeter Thonemann, and Gerard DeGroot in addition to the Wakeling piece mentioned above (and also Wakeling’s recent book Why the Enlightenment Matters: The shift in our thinking that made the modern world). The books of Charles Freeman—particularly The Closing of the Western Mind and The Awakening—are also fatal to Holland (I discussed this, among other things, in an interview with Freeman for the Freethinker). I also recommend looking through Richard Carrier’s website, for, even when not discussing Holland directly, he does refute many of Holland’s claims (e.g. on the supposed invention by Christianity of charity and the concept of dignity). I will allow myself one lengthy quote from Thonemann, though: 

‘Mr. Holland’s argument about the continuing legacy of Christian sensibilities involves selecting one particular winding strand of Christianity—the one that happens to terminate in our present-day value system—as the “real” one. Mr. Holland postulates a golden thread of Nice Christianity, directly linking Jesus’ teachings with the civil-rights movement, the end of apartheid, #MeToo and so forth. When large numbers of actual Christians between Paul and Pope Francis turn out to have subscribed to Nasty Christianity (butchering Albigensians, incinerating sodomites and suchlike), Mr. Holland blithely comments that “the Christian revolution still had a long way to run.” This argument—that everything Nice in our contemporary world derives from Christian values, and everything Nasty in the actual history of Christendom was just a regrettable diversion from the true Christian path—seems to me to run dangerously close to apologetic.’ 

Perhaps Wakeling puts it most concisely: ‘According to Genesis, God created man in his image – yet the morality of the Bible is not humanist.’ (My emphasis.) Indeed—and it is very often anti-humanist, with its injunctions to slavery, rape, and genocide and its threats of eternal torture for nonbelievers.10

Secular liberalism has spent centuries defanging Christianity (one of civilisation’s most noble achievements, though the task is still incomplete). Christianity did not inspire secular humanism—and least of all did institutional Christianity, which, as Freeman notes, became an imperial and authoritarian structure in the fourth century. Once it became dominant in that period, it did not challenge slavery or wealth inequality or militarism, nor did it do any of the other nice things that it should have done if its essence was as Holland says. On Holland’s thesis, the millennium and more of Christian supremacy should have produced a paradise of liberalism and democracy long before the Enlightenment arose. The emergence of secular modernity has other roots, many of which predate Christianity by a long time and most of which were almost pulled up by Christianity before they had produced even the tiniest of shoots. 

To return to West’s apparently pro-New Theism article, a couple of small points of disagreement before we get on to the meatier stuff. West says that ‘Framed as opposition to religion in public affairs, [New Atheism] gathered much of its energy from fear of Islam following 9/11, although it was impolite to make that explicit.’  

Who said it was impolite? Given that the New Atheists frequently criticised Islam in their books, speeches, and debates, and that Hitchens deliberately inverted the Takbir in the title of God Is Not Great, and that some of New Atheism’s fiercest (and most unfair) critics were those who saw anti-Muslim bigotry in the work of the New Atheists, any implication that the New Atheists shied away from Islam is bogus (it is unclear whether West intends any such implication).11 

Second, West writes that ‘[r]ather than ushering in a golden age of enlightenment, the collapse of American Christianity gave rise to a new intolerance towards anybody who diverged from progressive opinion.’ Again, it is slightly unclear what West means in the full context. Does he mean that the New Atheists believed that destroying religion would ‘usher in a golden age of enlightenment’? If so, he is plain wrong. Hitchens, for example, wrote in God Is Not Great that “[r]eligious faith is…ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.’ No New Atheist claimed that the world would become an enlightened paradise after the demise of religion (which was unlikely or even impossible, anyway), or that religion was responsible for all the world’s ills.  

The point about the impossibility of fully throwing off religion is quite an important one, so I shall let Matt Johnson discuss it further. From his Quillette piece critiquing Konstantin Kisin’s argument against the New Atheists: 

‘The title of Kisin’s article is “The Atheism Delusion.” He now regards religion as “useful and inevitable.” The argument that religion is inevitable is one the New Atheists have always taken seriously: Hitchens described religion as “ineradicable”; [Daniel] Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell examined the ways in which religion evolves and survives over time; a central part of Harris’s career is channelling the religious impulse into secular forms of introspection and mindfulness; and Dawkins acknowledges that religion may reflect a deep psychological need among many people. Where the New Atheists part company with Kisin is over his argument that religion is useful—particularly in the third decade of the 21st Century.’ 

With that out of the way, on to the meat. West writes that ‘The atomising effect of secularism has become extreme. While America’s poor filled their God-shaped hole with drugs and alcohol, its rich did so with politics.’ By the final clause, I think West means to refer to Critical Social Justice ideology, or ‘wokeism’, as his following reference to progressive intolerance implies. But these are just unevidenced assertions. There are plenty of other explanations for atomisation, drug and alcohol abuse, and the rise of wokeism, and why should one prefer secularisation over all others without any evidence?  

Indeed, poverty, genetics, mental health problems, and the social environment are among the many more convincing explanations for drug and alcohol abuse than some nebulous ‘secularism’. They are certainly more concrete. The causes of the US opioid epidemic, which West perhaps has in mind here, also lie largely in the many structural problems of the American healthcare system itself. Social atomisation and alienation also have many alternative explanations, though I grant that the shared community offered by churches has been and is very important for many people. But there are other sources of community that do not require belief in mumbo-jumbo or come with the negative effects of religion (which, to my mind, outweigh those ‘shared community’ positives)—although we must do better at providing them.  

Most fatal to West’s argument here is the fact that the social woes he lists are positively correlated with religiosity, while the opposite holds true for secularism, as the sociologist Phil Zuckerman has copiously shown. Or, as I have put it previously: 

‘Though we can’t re-run the tape to produce a definitive answer to the question of whether religion has overall been good or bad for humanity, perhaps we can draw some conclusions from the state of our existing societies. Put very broadly, and with the caveat that the causation/correlation relationships are complex, the data shows that more religious societies are poorerless safe, and less happy while more secular societies are richer, happier, and more just. If religion is good for us, why should this be so? 

I would also argue more directly that nobody with even a shred of dignity or decency would wish to live in an extremely religious society. We have seen, and can see even now, what such societies look like, and it is not pretty. One need only look at the Muslim world or pre-Enlightenment Europe to see that where religion rules, tyranny and poverty are the norms. If you think religion is good for you, I invite you to consider living in a society where it reigns supreme; I think you will be rushing back to the decadent, post-Enlightenment, secular West very quickly.’ 

West, naturally, differs with all this, and might object that he goes into more detail in the very article I am criticising:  

‘[T]his period has also coincided with a proliferation of social science studies pointing to the benefits of religion – both belief and practice – on child welfare, social capital, individual happiness and most of all the suppression of anxiety, the cause of that modern-day “mental health epidemic”.’  

Fair enough, one might say: delusion does have its benefits. I can only repeat what I have already said: the negatives outweigh the positives, and these positives can all be gotten without the negatives. Religion might help with the problems West lists, but much better, I think, to provide adequate healthcare, housing, income, and the like.

The studies to which West points are also rather undermined by the data referenced above, which, among other things, suggest that as societies become more prosperous and more just, the need for religion, particularly to salve our social ills, evaporates. Perhaps religion has some benefits for the individual or the social group, but not so much as West seems to think. And is it not curious that religion is most popular among the destitute, the crisis-ridden, and the weary? It is almost as if the God delusion preys on desperation. 

In my previous article above, I also addressed the wokeism point: 

‘I know that the temptation to champion traditionalism and religion against the tide of Critical Social Justice (or, colloquially, and although it’s a term I’ve come to dislike, ‘wokeism’) is very strong. But consider: is championing another vile dogma really the solution? Of course it isn’t.12 (Besides, wokeism is hardly the greatest threat in the world today; jihadist Islam and the grotesque alliance of Trumpism with Christian nationalism in the U.S., are, I would argue, much graver ones.) The solution is to keep fighting for free, secular societies based upon reason and universalism and human rights. This fight, and the societies produced by it, count among humanity’s greatest achievements.13 Much better to go forward in this enterprise, rather than embracing religion (or wokeism).’ 

Matt Johnson, in the piece referenced earlier, has much more to say on the wokeism argument, including the following: 

‘The notion that we abandoned our old faiths and replaced them with the new alternatives is too tidy and simplistic. For one thing, the process of secularization has been gaining momentum for decades, long before the “Great Awokening.” For another, unlike the Pew researchers who ask respondents how their religious views have evolved over time, the critics of progressive dogma don’t provide much evidence for their claims about the ways in which religion is supposed to have been supplanted by this new faith. Isn’t it possible that many religious people identify with elements of progressivism? Black Americans are disproportionately religious and far more likely than their fellow citizens to support the Black Lives Matter movement (81 percent versus a national average of 51 percent). However, they’re less progressive when it comes to issues such as gay rights—black Protestants are considerably less likely than their white counterparts to support gay marriage. Young even admits that wokeness has “made converts within the established Churches, particularly the Church of England.” 


No matter how exhaustively the word “religion” is redefined, there’s plenty of evidence that secularization has taken place across the Western world. But there’s far less evidence for the opportunistic claim that this shift is responsible for the emergence of another socio-political movement. Those who say otherwise may have a “god-shaped hole” in their own lives, but they shouldn’t assume that everyone else suffers from the same affliction. More and more commentators are attempting to resuscitate religion under the guise of anti-woke politics, but they’re just exchanging one dogma for another.’ 

On the argument that the West (though I would prefer to say ‘liberal democracy’) needs Christianity to combat the various threats it faces, much could and has been said. Michael Shermer has expertly done so already, along the way demolishing the other tenets of New Theism, so I shall simply recommend his piece and quote the central point: ‘Atheism isn’t the alternative to the Judeo-Christian worldview, Enlightenment Humanism is.’ 

Towards the end of his article, West says some quite astonishing things. First, he argues that ‘At the very least, the act of being involved in the community and ingesting a message of forgiveness would act as social Valium.’ I think I have said enough to make this at least a questionable assumption. When I shared West’s article with Matt Johnson, he responded to me with an understatedly tart observation: ‘Yes, because the essential message of forgiveness has always made Christians more tolerant throughout the ages.’  

A ‘social Valium’, though! The land of Europe is barely dry after centuries of Christian bloodlust. And remember the horror inflicted upon millions of people around the world when Christianity had real power in the West. Even today, Christianity remains one of the most dangerous forces in the world. Indeed, the fields of Europe even now are soaked through with the blood spilled by Christians in the name of faith. In the context of American fundamentalism’s support for the disgusting Ugandan ‘kill the gays’ bill, I wrote last year: 

‘We all know what American Christianity has done to America itself of late—helped to elect and shore up support for the most vulgar and dangerous man to ever hold the office of president, Donald Trump.14 Christian nationalists were heavily involved in the January 6 coup attempt. And don’t forget that a slew of anti-LGBTQ bills are being introduced across the US as I write these very words (at least American Christian fundamentalists practise what they preach to others). Looking a little further back, Christianity was the core of the creationist/Intelligent Design movement, which tried its very best to inculcate American children with superstitious rubbish. Going even deeper into history, we find pietist Protestants banning alcohol, sharia-style, and the Bible acting as the bulwark of the case for slavery. And so on and so forth. 


In short, those of us who value secularism and humanism ought not to be complacent about Christianity. In its senescence, or senility if you prefer, it is as dangerous as ever. And American fundamentalists are among the most dangerous of all the followers of Christ. The disgusting bill that has just passed in Uganda is a chilling reminder of these facts. It should also harden the resolve of freethinkers worldwide, American ones in particular, to recognize—and relentlessly combat—the barbarism that Christianity is still very well capable of unleashing upon the world.’ 

For the Freethinker, and with reference to the dangers posed by other religions, I recently wrote

‘[F]rom Israel and Gaza to the US and India—not to mention the bloodstained steppes of Ukraine, where Orthodox-inspired and supported Russian troops are trying to destroy a young democracy [indeed, in March this year, the Russian Orthodox Church declared Putin’s assault a ‘holy war’]—religion, in various forms, remains one of the world’s greatest threats to democratic and secular ideals, and to the ideals of peace and freedom. How far we secularists still have to go! And perhaps it really is not too much to say that “religion poisons everything.”‘

Finally, I can’t help but note again how lame New Theism is. From world domination and supreme authority over billions of human beings and their eternal souls to a Valium faith. What a mighty fall for mighty Christendom!  

West’s true sympathies are, I think, revealed by his conclusion: ‘But Christianity is not some meditation method or get-happy-quick guide. It is a deeply strange idea. Which makes its triumph over the West all the more unlikely – dare one say, miraculous.’ 

One might as well say the same about any hugely influential religion that has ever existed (here one might instance the ‘miraculously’ rapid spread of Islam15) but that would be to ignore the very worldly and often grubby ways in which they gained power. As Charles Freeman notes in my Freethinker interview with him: 

‘One of the frustrating things about Dominion is that it does not mention the emperor Theodosius and his Council of Constantinople of 381, which fully declared the Trinity, and basically that said everybody who disagreed with its formulation of Christianity were ‘demented heretics’. This made Christianity into an authoritarian religion allied with the imperial Roman state.  … 

Holland is a distinguished classicist and a very good writer but in Dominion he completely missed the way in which Christianity was integrated into the authoritarian setup of the Roman Empire and how it developed very conservative, authoritarian views. Christianity became a very conservative force in a way that it did not need to be. Christianity was shaped by political and historical forces and could have taken a different path, as shown by the Quakers, who went back to the more radical, earlier forms of Christianity.’ 

There is not much miraculous about cosying up to state authority to expand your influence, as I think West would agree.  

I have gone on long enough, certainly much longer than I anticipated at the outset (and I apologise for all the long quotes, but they were necessary). This is a subject I am likely to return to in future, and it is an important one. Critical as I have been, West’s piece is very good. It is certainly stimulating, and it provides a useful framing of the argument. It crystallised some things I have been thinking about a lot, albeit from a rather different perspective. So I am grateful that he wrote the piece, and even more grateful that he coined what I think is a very useful term for the very un-miraculous and probably over-hyped resurgence of Christianity.  

To finish off on a more positive note, a couple more quotes, including another of my own. In arguments about religion there is always latent the question of meaning. What meaning can there be in a godless universe? From my Freethinker interview with the New Atheist ‘horseman’ Daniel Dennett, where I asked him that very question: 

‘Well, life is flippin’ wonderful! Here we are talking to each other, you in England [Scotland, actually, but it didn’t seem the moment to quibble!] and me in the United States, and we are having a meaningful, constructive conversation about the deepest issues there are. And you are made of trillions—trillions!—of moving parts, and so am I, and we are getting to understand how those trillions of parts work. Poor Descartes could never have imagined a machine with a trillion moving parts. But we can, in some detail now, thanks to computers, thanks to microscopes, thanks to science, thanks to neuroscience and cognitive science and psychophysics and all the rest. We are understanding more and more every year about how all this wonderfulness works and about how it evolved and why it evolved. To me, that is awe-inspiring.’16

And from my own piece on religion, quoted earlier: 

‘One last thing remains. There is the question of meaning. Without religion, without the supernatural, how can humans even bear to get up in the morning? I think I have obliquely answered this already: secular societies are happier. But I’d like to add that this, to me, is an impoverished view of humanity. Without delusion, it essentially says, what’s the point? 

Well, there is art, and literature, and science, and philosophy; there are friends and family; there is sex, and parties, and music, and love. What more meaning can you possibly need? If you need the supernatural to find the transcendent, I pity you. 

In the end, I can make weaker and stronger versions of my argument. At its strongest, I can say that religion is not just harmless but harmful. At its weakest, I can say that religion is irrelevant. Either way, religion is not positively good for us. We have no need of it. Humanity is weak and foolish, yes, but it also contains what Saul Bellow in his great novel The Adventures of Augie March so beautifully called the “universal eligibility to be noble”. 

I submit, finally, then, that the highest, noblest path that humanity can pursue is one without religion. We must face the uncaring universe with our chins up. Abandoning religion is not a guarantee of utopia (indeed, utopia is unattainable anyway), but it is a good start. We are mere apes, yes—but apes capable of art and science and love. Supernaturalism, which is the core of religion, is a distraction from, even a negation of, this most important and inspiring of truths. 

So let’s reject the false, dangerous delusions of religion, and be worthy of humanity—that is, of ourselves.’ 

In short: Christianity (and religion in general) is neither true nor particularly useful, and the New Theism is but a sputtering and desperate response to that fact. 

Update 9 February 2024: Charles Freeman writes to me to mention the splenetic David Bentley Hart as a forerunner of the New Theism and a critic of the New Atheism. Indeed he is both those things, though I did not have space to mention everyone who falls under those headings. I append this update only because Hart is a particularly obnoxious man, and his work is oft-trumpeted as a fatal knockdown of New Atheism. The ever-reliable Jerry Coyne once more makes nonsense of such claims.

Let me also add that, in his work, Freeman makes the very good points that Christianity’s Pauline disdain for philosophy and its extreme salvific exclusivism prevented it from being a vehicle for science and human rights almost from the very beginning.

This is as good a place as any for a further update. After I had written the bulk of this piece, I rediscovered a good passage from Bertrand Russell’s classic Why I am not a Christian that puts the point much better than I ever could:

‘You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burnt as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practised upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step towards the diminution of war, every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised Churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organised in its Churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.’

  1. I am more or less sidestepping the question of whether there is even such a thing as New Atheism. Many so-called New Atheists disavow the term altogether and see nothing particularly new in it (Jerry Coyne is a good exemplar here) or don’t regard it as a coherent movement in any meaningful way. I have some sympathy with these objections, but I think that it is a useful term nonetheless. Similar objections could be lodged against the use of ‘New Theism’, of course. But both terms describe real phenomena, regardless of whether there is anything new about them and however formal or informal they are as ‘movements’. 

    Incidentally, if you search ‘atheism’ or ‘New Atheism’ on Coyne’s website, he has done a remarkably thorough job over the years of defending New Atheism from its many critics, who never tire of pronouncing it dead or leading to ‘wokeism’ or being bigoted or whatever else. Critics dismantled by Coyne are as various as (but are far from limited to) John GrayFreddie DeBoerRupert SheldrakeSebastian MilbankMassimo PigliucciTim Stanley, and Julian Baggini↩︎
  2. By the way, this book’s trumpeting of former Dawkinsian atheists finding faith should be seen in the context of how many people lost (and never recovered) their faith thanks to Dawkins. I think if you tallied these numbers up, it would not even be close. ↩︎
  3. I have no space for that argument here, but many of the people I reference in this essay deal with it. I would also recommend Victor J. Stenger’s book The New Atheism (Stenger, incidentally, embraced the ‘New Atheist’ label and in his book on the subject enumerated what he saw as its key propositions). I shall just say here that ancient atheists in Greece and India came to this conclusion long before Christianity even existed and that there is not much to add to David Hume and Bertrand Russell and the rest. I think Richard Dawkins’ Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit (elaborated in The God Delusion and elsewhere) is unassailable unless you engage in theological hand-waving. Richard Carrier has made a similar ‘argument from specified complexity against supernaturalism’.

    This might be the moment to mention that I am familiar with a lot of what Jerry Coyne, in a deliciously condescending manner, terms ‘sophisticated theology’. It is, unsurprisingly, unimpressive stuff, full of hokum and special pleading and mere assertion (and Coyne mercilessly rips a great deal of it apart in his Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible). ↩︎
  4. And perhaps this is what really marks New Theism out as ‘new’. In that sense, it is perhaps more appropriately labelled than New Atheism. ↩︎
  5. Richard Carrier has laid waste at some length to Brierley’s apologetics, as propounded in Brierley’s 2017 book Unbelievable. ↩︎
  6. Note added 23 April 2024: I have just come across a good review of Brierley’s book in the New Humanist which has led me to reframe things slightly. Brierley and other genuine believers seem to be riding the wave of the barely-theistic New Theism, hoping that the popularity of obscurantist gurus like Peterson will give them an opening to win souls. This is unlikely ever to happen, as the New Humanist reviewer explains. As I say in note 8 below, I can see the religion debate becoming prominent again, partly because of the New Theists but also because of the resurgence of religious fanaticism—the continuing depredations of the Islamists, the Christian and Hindu nationalists, Tucker Carlson’s resurrection of creationism, etc. A moment for a new New Atheism, perhaps? ↩︎
  7. Vide the unfortunately named National Conservatism movement.
  8. On the other hand, I can envision a return to prominence of the religion question in public debate. It is certainly an important question given that religious fanaticism is undergoing a resurgence across the world. Perhaps we’re in for another New Atheist-type moment in the discourse. I still doubt it will be as prominent now as it was then, though, and I certainly don’t think that it will have much effect on secularisation. ↩︎
  9. Would using le Christianisme hollandaise be too pretentious? And yes, I know ‘hollandaise’ means ‘Dutch’ (or ‘Hollandic’) in French. I just like the sound of it, though given that the word ‘Hollandaise’ was applied by the French to the sauce during the Franco-Dutch war of 1672-78—that is, between Catholic absolutist France and a relatively (and I mean relatively) tolerant Dutch Republic, perhaps I could conjure some more substantial meaning into my little joke. In any case, only a teeny bit of fun at Tom Holland’s expense is intended. ↩︎
  10. I would also recommend Mister Deity’s less scholarly but funny and scathing video series debunking Dominion. In the last part, he makes a good point: if Holland’s work ends up winning more converts for secular humanist ideals, perhaps that’s no bad thing. Also, there have been several more recent pieces in the Freethinker tackling New Theism, including one by Jack Stacey, which also deals with Richard Dawkins and the ‘cultural Christian’ hysteria (on which more below). You can look forward to another anti-New Theism article by Matt Johnson soon. ↩︎
  11. And that provokes a thought: New Theism is largely about Christianity, not religion in general—another big difference with New Atheism. Both West and I, you will have noticed, switch between ‘religion’ and ‘Christianity’, when it is mostly Christianity under discussion. I, at least, also have religion tout court in mind, while West, I think, does not.
    New Theism is, to a large extent, a merely political movement (a conservative one, of course). It is also largely an exercise in apologetics containing assertions of Christian supremacy. All this makes it much less intellectually sophisticated than New Atheism (and, yes, I say that with a deliberate and disdainful nod to the critics of New Atheism who think it crude and philosophically naïve).

    I wonder if, in a few centuries when Islam has been tamed, we shall see similar arguments from its votaries and champions? Indeed, some Muslim apologists already claim that much of modern science is contained in the Qu’ran. Fatuously claiming pre-eminence in achievements that religion had little to do with is nothing new for its defenders.

    Incidentally, Richard Dawkins has recently spoken of his preference for Christianity over Islam. This is nothing new; he has called himself a ‘cultural Christian’ many times before (and his cultural affinity with Christianity is apparent in The God Delusion). But I do worry that in championing Christianity in this way, he misses the many ways in which the followers of Jesus Christ still pose a terrible threat to liberty and democracy around the world today. In fairness, I should say that he was specifically talking about the contemporary and very woolly British variant of Christianity. Nevertheless, it is worth restating that the solution to religious tyranny is the Enlightenment; it is not to be found in preferring an apparently softer religion over a more openly tyrannical one. That way only disappointment lies, and the noose will find its way back to your neck regardless. I think Dawkins would agree with all this, but I wish he would make it clearer. Still, and especially when he flirts with being a ‘Political Christian’ Ayaan Hirsi Ali-style, I do shake my head. I also agree with Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, who wrote in this magazine that Dawkins’s recent comments verge, if not quite on the chauvinistic, then on the anti-secular.

    Indeed, it did not take very long for the New Theists to pounce on Dawkins’s recent pronouncements. It should be said, though, that they have misunderstood him: he did not say that the West’s liberal values owe anything to Christianity; he merely said that he preferred Christianity today to Islam today and that he has an affinity for Christian, particularly Anglican, culture (music, cathedrals, and the like). He explicitly denied the New Theists’ central claim last year in his open letter to Hirsi Ali. ↩︎
  12. Here there was a footnote in the original piece: ‘On April 29 of this year [2022], Angel Eduardo wrote a very good piece for the Center for Inquiry blog on this very topic: ‘No, We Don’t Need to Go Back to Church’. In it, he puts the point very well: “Trading dogma for dogma is no solution at all.”’ ↩︎
  13. I might now emphasise here that Christianity had little to do with the formation of these concepts or the success of the Western world, which is better explained by other factors, as discussed in more depth by many of the articles referenced in this piece. ↩︎
  14. And they remain faithful to Trump, who is now more or less openly declaring that he will seek to destroy American democracy and rule as a dictator if he regains power in November. ↩︎
  15. Christian apologists used to argue that Christianity arose at just the right time to become absorbed and spread by the Roman Empire. Some of them probably still do.

    But one could make the same argument about Islam today: if the claims that it is the fastest-growing religion are even remotely true, perhaps Allah ensured that people from Muslim countries would be among the greatest beneficiaries of the age of mass migration. Perhaps he even made sure that there was such an age to begin with! All so Islam could spread across the world, even into decadent secular lands.

    Yes, that really is about the level at which religious apologetics operates. ↩︎
  16. Incidentally, Dennett accepts the point about the ‘shared community’ value of religion even more strongly than I do, as you can read in that interview. ↩︎
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