Atheists' reductionist 'megalomania' rejected
By John Cornwall
November 14 2018Ten years on from their peak, the confident assertions by the ‘Four Horsemen of Atheism’ that science would soon be able to answer the Big Questions have been blown apart – not, primarily, by theologians, but by scientists. John Cornwell reflects.
am Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett: they called themselves the Four Horsemen of Atheism. Staunch allies against God, they proclaimed themselves champions of Reason and Science. A common denominator was the slogan “religion poisons everything”.
The so-called New Atheism movement began in 2004 with the publication of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris, an American neuroscientist, and it culminated in 2007 with the late Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. In between came The God Delusion by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and Breaking the Spell by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. A decade on from the high point of the Four Horsemen’s fame and notoriety, it is an apt point to review the long-term impact of the New Atheism.
A profound weakness on the part of all four was immediately evident. Three at least of the Horsemen could speak with confidence on science, but all were astonishingly ignorant about their perceived target – theology. As Terry Eagleton wrote in a scalding review in the London Review of Books, from which Dawkins never quite recovered: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”
Another glaring weakness was a lack of rigorous historical analysis of the roots of violence. They signally failed to take into account the social and political components of instances of alleged “religious” violence.
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John Cornwell is Director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge.
This article, with the title ‘The New Theism’, first appeared in the 15 September 2018 edition of The Tablet: The International Catholic News Weekly. It is reproduced with permission of the Publisher. See www.thetablet.co.uk