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Lessons from the rise and fall of new atheism

New atheism should have claimed Dave Rubin as one of its own. So why has it lost its appeal? Paul vanderKlay takes a survey of the last 50 years of religion and atheism in the West.

Scott Alexander recently posted “New Atheism: The Godlessness that Failed” on his blog Slate Star Codex. He should have topped this with a picture of Dave Rubin sitting on the lap of a smiling Jordan Peterson. The concerns that both sides in the New Atheist civil war have over Jordan Peterson seemed vindicated by The Big Conversation event hosted by Justin Brierley with Dave Rubin and John Lennox.

When I heard that Justin was going to host a conversation between John Lennox and Dave Rubin I imagined we’d see something like Irish Kung Fu Panda vs. eager puppy. Lennox has the charm of a jolly, cuddly Panda but be can be alarmingly powerful and nimble as an apologist. 

Dave Rubin is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Intellectual Dark Web, he gets no respect. He’s often criticized for being an overly soft and agreeable host. Within a cast of low-in-agreeableness IDW thinkers and debaters like Ben Shapiro and Sam Harris, Dave Rubin seems always eager to tag along with the rest of the gang with his tail wagging furiously. I was expecting John Lennox to have Dave Rubin singing love songs to Jesus by the end of the evening. Instead, we saw the ghost of Emile Durkheim summoned by Jordan Peterson (more on her later).

The conversion of Dave Rubin

The discussion for most of the evening focused on the religious implications of Dave’s very public political conversion from left-wing progressivism to “classical liberal” libertarian. This gay-married comedian turned YouTube talkshow host should have been the poster-child for New Atheism. Rubin regularly portrays this political feud as a fight for the future of America between the Enlightenment tradition of liberty vs totalitarian progressivism. At both of the Jordan Peterson events I saw him open, Rubin declared that he believes “we’re winning”, framing the audience with himself and Jordan as a political-culture war insurgency carrying on the tradition of the American founding fathers.

Having a show that primarily focuses on religious discussions Justin asked Dave to talk more specifically about his faith journey. Rubin repeated his usual lament of being ostracized by political progressives but to his delight he’s found ready and willing audiences among church groups and political conservatives. Churches long condemned for intolerance are, in Dave’s experience, bastions of tolerance in contrast to universities bound by the dogmas of woke political correctness.

Rubin claimed to have formerly defaulted to a fashionable atheism but has recently been finding meaning in Judaism as related by conservative talk show host Dennis Prager. He repeated gave credit to the work of Jordan Peterson for this development in his heart. What he learned from Jordan Peterson was that in individual cases people may for a while walk away from inherited religious belief but in time these beliefs are foundational if a whole society is going to enjoy the kinds of liberties that the American founding fathers believed were so important for human flourishing.

If Rip Van Winkle had dozed off in America in the 1950s and awoke to hear Rubin’s earnest admonitions for liberty based upon a religious substrate he might have imagined that nothing in America had changed. A lot has indeed changed but Dave Rubin and Dennis Prager seem to continue to fit quite nicely in the religiosity of Cold War America if you can look past Dave Rubin’s same sex marriage.

Civil Religion in America

In 1967 at the high water mark of church attendance in the United States sociologist Robert Bella wrote the essay “Civil Religion in America”. It was the height of the Cold War turned hot in the jungles of Vietnam and the beginning the jitters that would become a moral seizure over the truth of that war. Bellah termed America’s amalgam a Civil Religion where the will of the Creator God was expressed by the actions of His chosen elected officials.

Bellah wrote “Behind the civil religion at every point lie biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations.”

America in 1967 had little idea how rapidly this Civil Religion would be doubted and disassembled. Vietnam went from a Holy Crusade into a shameful blunder and the trust in the good faith of elected officials would be crushed by Watergate convictions. Generals and presidents were men of privileged power who needed to be brought down by the true heroes of the age, reporters who doubted authority and exposed their corruption for all the world to see.

When Chuck Colson, Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man”, announced to his wife that he had become a born again Christian she wondered what they had been doing attending their Episcopal church for all those years. Singer Keith Green declared that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger. Whether it was Jesus or Krishna or the Buddha or the ascendant beings seen in a psychedelic trip, religion was something experienced in private more than performed in public.

The less institutional God of Ronald Reagan would be kept around long enough to witness the implosion of the Soviet Union even while Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer in her worries about Ronny’s declining vitality. The Moral Majority tried desperately to recoup the Civil Religion glory days but even the Billy Graham-converted George W. Bush would blunder into two more costly wars in the wake of attacks by Islamic fundamentalists.

The rise of New Atheism

Maybe it wasn’t just the institutionalization of religion that was the problem but religion itself! Perhaps all of this belief in God or gods was a mind virus that infected and distracted humanity from its real business which was eliminating wars, cleaning up the environment, and getting God, church and government out of the bedroom. New Atheism declared that reason and science would lead the way being able to deliver for us what was obviously good and helpful framed as self-evident “well being”. Can’t we all simply agree that every human being wants a full belly, a pleasurable sex life and a reliable broadband connection? If people want to read religious books they need to keep their beliefs and practices private and let reason and facts reign in public.

While New Atheism presented itself as the vanguard of a brave new godless world its godless evangelism was always a thinly veiled political move. It seems that New Atheists from across the English diaspora came together to defeat the proverbial 6-day-creationist, anti-gay, climate-skeptic, anti-abortion, anti-evolution Bible belt American conservative voter. Because the only kingdom that can come for atheists must come in the here and now defeating political conservatism was their great hope. They reasoned that if you mock, argue or bully conservative Christians out of their supernatural belief system you might very well be able to get them to switch political sides. Richard Dawkins, in a 2013 appearance on the Unbelievable radio program didn’t have a problem with the Christian and Jewish guests arguing for their individual beliefs. He was clear that the real target was that religious community standing in the way of political progress in red-state America.

Dave Rubin should have been a New Atheist trophy. Here was a young, charismatic, influential married gay man doing political commentary. He should be a living example of just how flourishing life could be by setting aside religious superstition, but things in the New Atheist eschatalogical narrative would take a surprising turn.

The fall of New Atheism

It all seemed to begin with women at atheist conferences not being treated in the way they desired. Many began to demand the inclusion not merely of atheism but “atheism plus” which meant atheism plus feminism, anti-racism, and social justice. Some of the original A-list New Atheists were apparently not nimble enough to keep up with the progress.

Almost overnight some celebrity New Atheists began finding themselves denounced for their non-religious moral insufficiencies or racism and sexism for calling out religious people of color. Religion couldn’t be to blame, it must be something else! What if it was not religious fundamentalism but rather endemic white-surpremacy and patriarchy working its way through the privileged halls of power. Weren’t the architects of these wars all white men and weren’t the victims of these wars women and people of color?

Atheism plus, it turned out, was able to form alliances with mainline and even evangelical religious communities in order to advance their political causes. Why destroy black, brown and progressive religious communities when they could potentially be mobilized in service of the progressive political agenda. What if religion itself could be employed!

This caused a deep split in the atheist community leading to what Peter Boghossian, author of the Manual for Creating Atheists recently called “The Great Re-alignment”. This piece is hosted, shockingly, in a conservative (no women in leadership here) Reformed blog The Aquila Report. Atheists who 10 years ago were decrying that religion IS the problem are now allying with opposing camps within religious traditions over competing strategies of what is wrong with the world..

This is how Scott Alexander can declare New Atheism to be the godlessness that failed. Religion itself seems too stubborn to really be rooted out of human consciousness. If you can’t eliminate it, harness it for the good you imagine.

We are all religious

I mentioned earlier the ghost of Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology. Durkheim, the son of three generations of rabbis came up with one of the most impressive definitions of religion.

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.

— Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Book 1, Ch. 1

The church of “New Atheism” has now split between “classical liberals” and “Progressives” and both sides are beginning to learn what Durkheim, and every generation of political leader before them have always understood. Religion is closer to the machine code of human beings and if political goals can be translated into religious terms you can mobilize a political movement.

For Dave Rubin that sacred Durkheimian thing is individual liberty and the moral community he looks for is a country. It is fundamentally a civil religion where those archetypes Bellah points out meet Jordan Peterson’s Jungian archetypes in an effort to preserve a world Rubin feels we are in danger of losing. Let the people have their religious stories and traditions as long as they defend the sacred.

On the other side of the new divide the sacred thing was liberation from traditional social oppressions. Atheism needed a ‘plus’ to achieve this and that plus could involve catechizing a generation as to the new rules of social transformation. Feminism and anti-racism are one and peoples of all faiths in the world are invited to this great party.

The two figures that will not play so easily into this picture are in fact John Lennox and Jesus Christ. Lennox shared his own story of faith. He grew up in the troubles between Protestants and Catholics over Northern Ireland. These were two expressions of Christian civil religion at war with one another. John bore witness to his father’s courage to offer employment to both Protestants and Catholics, a very dangerous thing to do in those circumstances. Rubin, born in 1976 was only old enough to remember the expressive individualism (another Robert Bellah term) version of American Civil Religion form the Reagan administration. Civil religions can in fact be terribly dangerous things as John Lennox knows well.

Both Lennox and a guy with a Jesus sign would continue to gently point to a first century Jew who was born into his own hot culture war of competing civil religions. The Roman Imperial cult and its Jewish collaborators were being challenged by a range of Jewish liberationists who wished to once again see, as Jesus’ disciples asked for in Acts 1, “the restoration of the kingdom to Israel”.

Anyone who wishes to recruit Jesus to support a particular governmental cause must contend with Jesus’ resistance to all such attempts. Nicodemus in John 3 tries to recruit Jesus to team Pharisee. He is stunned by Jesus’ demand that he be “born from above”. Pilate figures he can bargain with Jesus by promising an out from the obviously trumped up charges demanding his death. Jesus will simply not play ball with Pilate. Jesus will be recruited to no political cause. It is this obstinacy that will force the hands of those around him bringing his humiliating death on a cross, the Roman instrument of civil religious power.

Jesus simply would not be wielded by any partisan political cause. As the Apostle Paul put it, they battled not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. In the history of the church we have seen, however, that this radical non-partisanship is easiest to pull off when one has no political power to begin with. As democracy offers political power to the least of these, those who would wish to shape it look to religion to move the masses one way or the other. 

Come, let us reason together

The conversation between Lennox and Rubin goes very nicely ending the evening with a lot of well-wishing and invitations for Rubin to consider Jesus. Rubin has nothing against Jesus and is happy to keep accepting invitations from Christian conservatives but at this point he’s looking for religion to support the promotion of liberty in the political realm just as someone on the progressive side might look to religion to promote their vision of social justice. Jesus is seen as a particular brand of religion but the role of religion itself is finally political.

Civil Religions will form inevitably. Politics is to the “now” as religion is to the “always” and “always” is a terribly difficult time frame for human beings to navigate.

Dave Rubin happily goes to a non-affirming church in Costa Mesa and Jordan Peterson to anti-darwinian evolution Liberty University. All are well received regardless of positions on gay marriage or evolution. Peter Boghossian who in his “Manual for Creating Atheists” admonished his street epistemologists to “stigmatize faith based claims like racist claims”  now finds shelter amid Christians who won’t allow a woman to teach a man. It is a strange new world. What should Christians do?

Jesus, as John Lennox’ father bore witness to, risked danger to eat with both civil religion camps. Jesus, Peter and Paul would all be executed by Roman soldiers even as they also alienated first century Jewish liberationist factions in their own culture war. The Christian church that grew in the Roman Empire had the reputation itself for being cannibalist atheists because they worshipped no statues and seemed to eat their own God. They both resisted Imperial claims of divinity AND submitted to civic authorities. Christian communities should welcome Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson along with those from the other side of the new struggle for the civil religion of the West. We should sit down with them and reason together, but we must also remember that we have but one master and that master Himself was hated for not being a pawn of the Empire nor a factional liberationists. May we be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.

Paul vanderKlay is a YouTube vlogger and pastor in Sacramento California https://www.youtube.com/paulvanderklay 

Watch the full dialogue between John Lennox & Dave Rubin at www.thebigconversation.show 

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Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.

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