Mirror, Mirror on the Wall – Has New Atheism grown old?

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“Mirror, Mirror on the wall”. Most of us will have heard the story. Yet if by some obscure chance it has happened to pass you by, it goes something like this:

In a land not unlike our own, a beautiful queen reigns supreme, secure in the knowledge of her own unassailable, if isolated, beauty. Day by day she parades before the court, flaunting her supremacy to the courtiers. Day by day she compliments herself. “None can compare with me!” And if, inexplicably, audaciously, unthinkably, there should come a day when a challenge would be made to her beauty, there is always the mirror to be called upon.  In answer to the question, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the brightest of them all, the answer is always, reassuringly the same… “You are, O Queen.”

Certainly, most of us will have heard the story, or at least a version of it, so it will not surprise us to know that one day a challenge does come, indeed must come. We know that the mirror eventually betrays the existence of another, one more beautiful and bright, whereupon four huntsmen are swiftly released to eliminate the threat.  The narrative is both simple and elegant: every contender to the throne must be countered, criticised, condemned and swiftly removed, for no one in the kingdom is safe as long as “another” remains.

Yes, as I said, in a land not unlike our own; a land where secular atheism reigns supreme, a land where no one is safe as long as the threat of religion remains.

What seems strange to me is that no one in the new atheist camp seems to have read to the end of the script. The prevalent atheist assumption that with enough vigour, energy and pounding of horse hooves God will be silenced itself stands opposed by the very reason it espouses. Even fairy tales of long ago recognised its falsity. History surely indicates that every serious attempt to suppress religion has instead fuelled an eventual resurgence of that same religion.  Frustratingly for the new atheists, men and women just don’t seem to be able to live comfortably without God and eternity.

Recall China’s response to communist rule; instead of suppressing religion in general and Christianity in particular, China is now the scene of a vast reawakening of faith. While numbers are uncertain, it is estimated that its underground movements could make it the largest Christian country in the world by the end of the century.[1]

Similarly recall the atheistic ideology associated with the Soviet Union. Far from killing God off, Russian Orthodoxy is stronger now than it has been for over a century, and shows no sign of abating.[2] Embarrassingly for new atheism, it really seems they might have benefitted from a closer reading of the historical narrative before they opened the stable gates and released their huntsmen.

No amount of stick waving has been able to silence God; worse, their preferred tactic of launching ridicule and scorn at their opponents seems to have signally failed. Even some of their staunchest supporters have distanced themselves from the offensive, finding themselves embarrassed by the vitriol, lack of serious scholarship and sweeping generalisations they have employed.

Far from driving religion deep into the undergrowth, the new atheists are being forced to deal with the unwelcome news that “God” is not only alive and well but on the move. Unsettlingly for them, this “move” now seems to be coming closer to home. A new confident, assertive faith seems to be replacing the more traditional churches in Britain, in large part due to the surge of immigrants coming from the East who bring with them their own brand of religious fervour.

According to a recent poll by The Economist, by 2025, 800 million people worldwide will identify with Pentecostalism, branded Christendom’s fastest growing segment of revivalist Christianity.[3]   As documented by the BBC’s recent broadcast, “The Battle for Christianity”[4] faith in Britain appears also to be developing a renewed concern for radical social action and community awareness. Certainly the face of religion may be changing in the West, but as we all know, change is a sign of life, not death. No amount of campaigning atheism and missionary zeal seems to be able to stop the trend. It is not religion, but the new atheism, that seems to be growing old.

This is not to suggest that atheism is a spent force, looking only for a quiet spot in which to die. No, it will regroup and find new expression; one, I would suggest, that seeks to distance itself from the embarrassing crassness and noise of its Dawkinsian chapter. The four huntsmen have by and large failed, and in their place will come a more refined version of the same, happy to co-exist peacefully with other religious faiths, no less convicted but more polite and accommodating, willing to recognise the benefits of faith. “The hapless vicar struggling to keep the local alcoholic on the straight and narrow, the middle aged mum handing out food parcels, the church youth worker tramping the midnight streets with his committed band of street pastors, may all be misguided in their faith,” they will argue, “but who can seriously doubt  their benefit to society”?

Herein will lie the challenge of the next chapter for Christianity; to engage with tolerance and respect, but still to engage. For does not history teach us that it is easier to do battle with the aggressive foe than the conciliatory one? Even fairy tales recognise the insidious to be more dangerous than the overt. My fear is that the crowning challenge of the atheistic bus campaign “There probably is no god, so relax and enjoy your life” will be seen to be not outdated but insidiously prophetic. Those of us who embrace the Christian faith will need to be very careful that we ourselves don’t fall prey to its siren call. By all means enjoy your life, but by no means let that enjoyment cause you to relax and embrace the probability that you might never be asked to give a reason for the hope that you have. Why? Because as Jesus told us just before he ascended, that’s simply never been part of the narrative.

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