After tides ebb, they flow. Low tides are followed by high tides. This is the central metaphor in Justin Brierley’s new book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God. “In this book I will make a bold proposition—that Matthew Arnold’s long, withdrawing Sea of Faith is beginning to reach its farthest limit and that we may yet see the tide of faith come rushing back in again within our lifetime.”
In the latter half of the 19th century, the poet Matthew Arnold, on his honeymoon, was walking with his bride along the rocky shoreline of the English Channel as the tide was going out. The sound made him think of “the Sea of Faith,” which was once at high tide, “at the full” around the world. “But now,” he wrote in the poem “Dover Beach,” “I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”
But after tides ebb, they flow. Low tides are followed by high tides. This is the central metaphor in Justin Brierley’s new book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God. “In this book I will make a bold proposition—that Matthew Arnold’s long, withdrawing Sea of Faith is beginning to reach its farthest limit and that we may yet see the tide of faith come rushing back in again within our lifetime.”
In a time when church attendance and affiliation in the United States are plummeting, a phenomenon called, as in the title of a book on the subject, “the great dechurching,” that is a bold proposition indeed. Nevertheless, Brierley sees the tide turning in the failure of the New Atheists and in a new openness to faith that he sees emerging in contemporary thought.
Brierley is a British broadcaster with an extensive apologetics ministry and a presence on radio, YouTube, podcasts, the blogosphere, and, with his previous book Unbelievable?, in print. His modus operandi is to hold conversations about faith with prominent scholars, authors, and public intellectuals. He also hosts debates and discussions between atheists and believers.
This has given him a firsthand look at the rise and fall of the “New Atheists.” In the first decade of the 2000s, four authors came out with bestselling books that energized skeptics and brought atheists out of the closet. These so-called Four Horsemen were neuroscientist Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith (2004); philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell (2006); journalist Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great (2007); and biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion (2011).
These were “new” atheists because they did not just deny God’s existence in a philosophical way. They were forceful and aggressive. They argued that God, the people who believe in Him, and religion in general are evil. As Hitchens put it in the subtitle of his book, “Religion poisons everything.”
Atheists rejoiced that their convictions were being aired in the public square. It appeared that atheism had become socially acceptable. With the help of the internet, conferences, and even “atheist churches,” they began to think of themselves as the “atheist community.” And this great awakening for atheists was accompanied by a new zeal for evangelism.
In 2012, atheists organized a march on Washington, D.C., called the Reason Rally. In this “Woodstock for Atheists,” some 20,000 to 30,000 demonstrators heard from authors, bloggers, and celebrities, and listened to bands like Bad Religion. Richard Dawkins called on the crowd to confront religious people: “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!”
Meanwhile, it occurred to the community that they needed a better word for themselves, since “atheist” had a negative connotation, so they searched for something that conveyed their positive identity as the devotees of science and reason. So, with the approval of Dawkins and Dennett, many started calling themselves “Brights.”
Thus, the New Atheists became, in the language of social media, cringe. The arrogance, smugness, and condescension of the Brights turned off the general public, the supposedly “not bright.” And mockery and ridicule, which became the dominant rhetorical tactic of the movement, is not an effective way to persuade people, much less create converts.
The old atheists—the serious scholars and professional philosophers—disassociated themselves from the New Atheists. One of them chastised the Four Horsemen for engaging with unsophisticated fundamentalist preachers while being unwilling to interact with serious Christian thinkers like William Lane Craig.
Then, in 2011, at the World Atheist Convention, came “Elevatorgate.” One of the relatively small number of women in the movement gave a presentation on the inappropriate sexualization of women in the online atheist community. Afterward, as she was going to her room, one of the participants hopped on her elevator and sexually propositioned her! When she complained about the incident on social media, a large number of the Brights—including the most prominent of the Horsemen, Richard Dawkins—responded to her with characteristic mockery and ridicule.
Others came to her defense. Soon there was a cascade of sexual harassment revelations about other prominent atheists.
Elevatorgate led to a split in the atheist movement. One faction identified itself as “Atheism+”—that is, atheism plus social justice, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and other tenets of progressivism. Or, as Brierley calls it, an “atheism-with-moral-requirements.” Other atheists, standing on the principle of free thought, decried this woke agenda with its cancel culture, anti-scientific moralism, and suppression of individual liberty.
Atheists began spending all their time—and their extreme vitriol—in attacking each other rather than religion.