The New Face of Atheism (And It’s Not Dawkins!)

Atheism has a new face. Just for the record, I am not speaking about the “New Atheists,” who burst on the scene after 9/11 and have been the public face of atheism for the past dozen years. The “four horsemen” of atheism—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett—helped launch and inspire a (then) “new atheist” movement.

But times have changed. If the recent low turnout for the Reason Rally is any indication, this brand of atheism may be fading. The “new atheists” still do exert considerable influence in culture (including Hitchens, who died in 2011), but there is a “new face of atheism” that is becoming much more important today. Rather than a top-down movement such as characteristic of the “new atheism,” this is a bottom-up movement, more like the church.

Characteristics of the New Face of Atheism

While I do not have an official name for this new movement, I will simply refer to it as the “new face of atheism.” There are a few characteristics that seem to set it apart:

1. More balanced approach to the church. The “new atheists” set themselves apart by their vitriol against all forms of religion, and specifically Christianity. Hitchens, for instance, famously said that religion poisons everything. He held no punches and critiqued even the most beloved religious figures, such as Mother Theresa. And Dawkins famously criticized the God of the Old Testament for being “the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”

But the new face of atheism has a different approach. Their goal is not to eradicate any vestige of religion. In fact, at times, some even have positive things to say about the church in general and Christians in particular. While they are certainly critical of religious practices and teachings, they seem more interested in creating secular communities alongside the church than entirely silencing the church (although when it comes to politics, it may be a different matter).

2. Emphasis on community and rituals. The “new atheists” made their mark distinctly through intellectually critiquing religion. Using science, philosophy, theology, history, psychology and more, the “new atheists” aimed to discredit religion and to usher in an entirely secular society. I don’t believe their critiques have been successful. In fact, I respond to their main attacks in my book Is God Just a Human Invention? But the point is that they aimed to use reason to undermine religion.

In contrast, the new face of atheism aims to create secular communities that rival the church. The growth of atheist churches, for instance, is evidence of this emphasis. Many aim to co-opt positive aspects of church, such as community outreach, inspiring messages, fellowship, song singing, and other communal rituals typically associated with religion. The goal is for people to experience the kind of community often found in church (without God, of course), but also to reach more people with a secular message that meets both the heads and hearts of non-believers.

3. Less emphasis on apologetics. Reason was the primary tool of the “new atheists.” They rationally attacked religion and reveled in their intellectual superiority to “ignorant, dangerous religious folks.” Daniel Dennett even suggested atheists should change their name to “Brights.”

In contrast, the new face of atheism does not lead with the intellect. While they do reject the truth of Christianity, and frequently raise objections to the faith, they seem to focus more on the heart than the mind. This is not meant as a critique, but a recognition that they are less interested in debating theology than in simply helping people in the here and now. They are driven more to help people find community and meaning in their present lives than discussing the second premise of the cosmological argument. In fact, some even question the importance and relevance of the big questions of life.

Representatives of the New Face of Atheism

Since it is more of a bottom-up movement, the “new face of atheism” has many more leaders than the “four horsemen” of the “new atheism.” Two stand out to me as good representatives of this movement:

Ryan Bell

Bell is perhaps best known for being the pastor who lived a “Year Without God.” He was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor for nineteen years before becoming an atheist. He now heads up an organization committed to helping people de-convert from religion. He blogs, podcasts, counsels, and is aiming to build a safe community for people who have left religion.

This past Saturday, Ryan and I had a public conversation about God and atheism atChurch Everyday. Justin Brierley was the host, and it will air soon on the popular radio show Unbelievable. While much could be said about the event, my point here is to highlight how Ryan brings a new “face” to atheism. He is likeable, smart, kind, gracious, and fun. While he does have some similarity to the “new atheists,” overall he brings an entirely new (and much more appealing) face to atheism today.

Bart Campolo

Bart Campolo was a Christian evangelist who launched Mission Year. Now he is the humanist chaplain at USC. I first heard Bart speak in the mid 90s when I was a student at Biola. He instantly struck me as smart, funny, and deeply committed to advancing the gospel. He has encouraged me multiple times along my journey, and in fact, I volunteered an entire year at the Dream Center, a church in the inner city L.A., because of his prompting.

Rather than creating a secular community that hosts debates, discusses philosophy, and aims to actively eradicate religion, he is developing community for people who don’t believe in God. In fact, when we met last year up at USC, he shared with me how he’s essentially applying many of the principles he learned in the church, and from ministries like Young Life, to the secular world. And it seems he’s having considerable success.

How Should We Respond?

The point of this blog is not to offer suggestions for how Christians ought to respond to the “new face of atheism.” Maybe I will tackle that issue in a future post. For now, the point is to recognize how the secular landscape is changing and to encourage Christians to begin thinking through how we best proceed.

But I do have to make one point: Given that many atheists today are emphasizing community more than reason, it may be tempting to consider apologetics and theology passé. But this would be a colossal mistake. If experiencing community is the primary reason students embrace Christianity, then many will abandon faith when they experience community elsewhere. What will really help a student hang on to their faith is when they believe Christianity is true, and have reasons to back it up. And for that task, apologetics is indispensable.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.


Resources for Greater Impact:

Free CrossExamined.org Resource

Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.

Powered by ConvertKit
30 replies
  1. Bob Seidensticker says:

    I agree with you that apologetics seems to be less important among atheists at the moment. That’s a shame for me personally, because I’m an atheist who enjoys apologetic arguments.

    I wonder why. Maybe most active atheists are beyond apologetics and wonder what’s next.

    Reply
    • Louie says:

      Bob:
      I think it is more simple than that. They just don’t want to hear the arguments, much like a politician does not want to hear the arguments against them. They simply keep banging on the drum, and hope it will just go away. Like Obama does with all his problems.

      Reply
      • Kyle says:

        And yet here we are replying to your arguments. If you have exhausted your religious repertoire of arguments and need to delve into political that is a fun one too. What problems do you think Obama is trying to ignore?

        Reply
    • Andy Ryan says:

      More like vegetarian sausages. The idea is to take a concept you think has value and remove an element you think is unnecessary.

      Reply
        • Andy Ryan says:

          Right, just like a meat eater might wonder what the point of a sausage is without meat. People get lots of things out of church going – it’s unimaginative to think that worship is the only part of it. You see no value in the community aspect? That’s a shame. Studies show that singing in a group releases serotonin. It relaxes people, makes them feel good.

          So yes, a worship less church makes a lot of sense. Obviously you see no value in removing the worship part, but to say ‘there’s nothing left without worship’ is dead wrong.

          Reply
          • Andy Ryan says:

            You said “A worshipless “church. Makes about as much sense as a screen door on a submarine.”

            If you think I’ve misrepresented you by paraphrasing as ‘ ‘there’s nothing left without worship’ then please feel free to explain.

            Just saying “Too bad I never said that” doesn’t address any of the points I made, it doesn’t correct any misrepresentations I may have made, and it doesn’t clarify your point.

          • Josef Kauzlarich says:

            I think it comes down to what is meant by the word “church.” Is it meant to represent the Christian church or any assembly of people? I’m unsure the root of the word and how it has been developed over time. I think currently it is assumed to be used in the Christian tradition. Unsure why atheists would want to use this word for their gathering places.

          • Kyle says:

            Tax exempt benefits that Christian churches enjoy. Same treatment and respect with regards to the first amendment. Tons of reasons why atheists might.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            I agree with Kyle – there are many reasons. Let’s return to my ‘vegetarian sausage’ analogy. You could say the word sausage has to denote meat, but the word has other associations. If we say vegetarian sausage we think of a shape, a texture, perhaps a mouthfeel. Using the term ‘veggie sausage’ does get across a meaning quickly and easily. This reminds me of when people suggested that instead of saying ‘gay marriage’ or ‘same-sex marriage’ that we should come up with a completely new term. But ‘gay marriage’ makes point quickly and easily. My young children grasp it very easily. You know when mummy and daddy got married? Well two men or two women can do that too.

            So, secular church? You’ve got a bunch of people assembling in a building, probably on a Sunday for about an hour, perhaps singing songs, maybe a guy or woman giving a four-minute speech on some subject, a sense of community, etc. You could come up with a different word for it, but ‘secular church’ or ‘atheist church’ gives you a decent idea of what it’s about.

          • Josef Kauzlarich says:

            Ok. I get it. I see strategic uses for using the word church. But it doesn’t seem like a respectful thing to do. It dilutes the traditional Christian orientation of the word. But I also realize speech is free.

            Also, why church and not mosque? Or temple? Because Christianity is the dominant religion in the west?

          • TGM says:

            Given the cultural influence of Christianity and the antipathy of Americans to Islamic culture, I should think it rather obvious, Josef.

          • Josef Kauzlarich says:

            TGM, ok then. Just the most readily available, easiest for the culture to understand what it is all about. Very strategic. Still think it’s a bit disrespectful. Atheist Temple of the Cosmos would have worked to I think. Or something else. But what I think matters little.

          • TGM says:

            For what it’s worth, Josef, I’m not particularly fond of the use the ‘church’ either. I think it’s a bad idea precisely because non-belief should not be associated with belief structures. There is a collection of organizations out there that identify themselves as Sunday Assembly. This seems a fair compromise. Ironically, it is outsiders who are calling it ‘atheist church’.

  2. Mark says:

    Dictionary.com Definition of “church”:

    noun

    1. a building for public Christian worship

    2. public worship of God or a religious service in such a building

    Atheism = no religion, no God, and certainly no worship of Him, therefore:

    Three strikes, you’re out

    Reply
    • Andy Ryan says:

      Dictionaries just reflect popular current useage – they are descriptive, not prescriptive. Definitions change, evolve, move on. So arguing by dictionary doesn’t get you far. Further, you’ve still not addressed any points anyone here has actually made. Do you have any better arguments or is that it?

      Reply
          • Mark says:

            Just wondering…

            Why would anyone who professes atheism want to be associated with even the idea of “church”?

            Curious….

          • Andy Ryan says:

            We already addressed this above. Satisfy your curiosity by reading, or perhaps by searching for their mission statement. At any rate, from other people’s comments here it seems that it’s more religious people giving it the ‘atheist church’ label rather than the attendants, so perhaps take it up with them!

  3. James Archbold says:

    I don’t believe in the easter bunny .I have many friends who also sincerely, don’t believe there is an easter bunny…The world has nothing to fear from us.

    Reply
  4. Steve says:

    If we understand god is a metaphysical proposition, then we’ll understand that what we mean by “true” when it comes to god-talk is that something said matters. it is existentially relevant. it resonates.

    apologetics, if ventured through an epistemological examination, is only good for the theist, in that they will eventually find a rational limit to waste god can be described. however, in the end good is a term, a narrative term about humanity. atheists realize this and they also don’t see that narrative as necessary, and i agree with with very much here too that some narratives are grotesque, making god and humanity monstrous.

    it seems to me the atheist is ideologically understanding christ better than most christians. first, if belief entails action, then creeds cannot be central to christianity since none are actionable statements. meaning that the difference between the sentence “there is a snake just over there” and “jesus is the son of god” is that i can act on one. the former means i can respond a result of thinking it the case, where as the only response i can have with the latter is “isn’t that nice for jesus”. second, atheist seem to be compelled to human well-being. if one holds to scripture, grace (god’s presence in the world) and faith (pistis: persuasion, draw to the good) are salvation; that is because all humanity are icons of god and through conscious resonating with and because of grace, participation with the good, which is ontologically god, man is transformed through these literal sacramental encounters. third, given creeds can only function as community binding, such as some fraternal oration opening a meeting of the masons or collegial greek organization, and since the very classic narrative of christianity given doesn’t entail to the incredibly new idea that christianity has something to do with propositions (smacking of gnosticism and enlightenment ideology), then secular humanists may not be persons needing to be saved at all.

    The ancient ideas about salvation … do not in themselves place us under any critique, except in so far as, in their own way, they posit the criterion of Jesus as final source of salvation. Anyone who fails to see this distinction is proposing not Jesus Christ but one particular bit of religious culture as the norm of Christian faith — and ceases to be faith in Jesus of Nazareth … In him we find final salvation, well-being. This is the fundamental creed of primitive Christianity.

    (Edward Schillebeeckx, ‘Jesus: An Experiment In Christology’, pg. 23.)

    In our times, an authentic faith in God only seems to be possible in the context of a praxis of liberation and of solidarity with the needy. It is in that praxis that the idea develops that God reveals himself as the mystery and the very heart of humanity’s striving for liberation, wholeness and soundness. The concept of that mystery, which is at first concealed in the praxis of liberation and of making whole, is only made explicit in the naming of that concept in the statement made in faith that God is the liberator, the promoter of what is good and the opponent of what is evil …

    (Ibid)

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *