The so-called New (or “Gnu”) Atheism arrived at a time when fear, anger, and confusion over extremist religion had hit a fever pitch. Suddenly, people who didn’t pay much attention to religion—their own or anyone else’s—became intensely interested in religious criticism and debate; it was the perfect climate for a publishing storm, and that’s essentially how the movement began. It was also, of course, predated by thousands of years of philosophical atheism of some variety or another, but “new” atheism had something different to offer: while its proponents largely hailed from the same worlds as their intellectual predecessors—the arts, political journalism and activism, the sciences and academic philosophy—after September 11, these same people took the discussion to the popular press and a proliferation of internet outlets and well-organized conferences, debates, and meetings. And their expressions were uncompromising and polemical (though not “militant”—no shots were fired nor bombs detonated).
In the wake of over a decade of controversy unleashed by “new atheism,” a new film The Unbelievers (trailer above) follows two prominent scientists and stars of the movement–evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss—as they trek across the globe and explain their views. Dawkins and Krauss receive support from a cast of celebrity interviewees including Ricky Gervais, Werner Herzog, Woody Allen, Cormac McCarthy, Sarah Silverman, Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, and several more. The film’s website has no official release date (other than “2013”), but it does feature links to online buzz, both glib—Krankie snarks that the trailer makes it look like Dawkins and Krauss have packed in the science and started a band—and subdued; the evangelical Christian Post does little but quote from the press package.
These champions of reason-over-religion have always had powerful critics, even among those who might otherwise seem sympathetic (take Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton’s charge that new atheism is nothing but counter-fundamentalism). Then there is the host of religious detractors, many of them respected scientists and philosophers themselves. One notable name in this camp is famed geneticist Francis Collins, who headed the Human Genome Project. Obviously no denier of the explanatory power of science, Collins nonetheless argues for faith as a distinct kind of knowledge, as he does in the interview excerpt below from an appearance on The Charlie Rose Show.
The debates seem like they could rage on interminably, and probably will. I, for one, am grateful they can happen openly and in relative peace in so many places. But as the same sets of issues arise, some of the questions become just a bit more nuanced. British presenter Nicky Campbell, for example, recently presided over a large debate among several prominent scientists and clergy about whether or not all religions should accept evolution (below). While Dawkins and Krauss ultimately advocate a world without religion, the participants of this debate try to shift the terms to how scientific discovery and religious identity can coexist with minimal friction.
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness