Have Dawkins and his atheist friends blown it?

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Two quotes spring to mind:

“I wonder if

Anyone looked at me, forty years back,

And thought, That’ll be the life;

No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide

What you think of the priest.

(Philip Larkin, High Windows, 1974)

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

(T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, 1925)


Almost forty years have passed since Larkin wrote High Windows. The poem is not, primarily, about religion, yet Larkin was making an implicit prediction based upon the prevailing circumstances of his time: religion was dying. It had waned in his own lifetime, and it would wane further still.

How had this been achieved? No Jacobins ransacked any church, this was a gradual revolution. The social and cultural mores of the Sixtie’s New Left had made religion redundant; free love reigned and deference to society’s appointed moral guardians dissolved. “Bonds and gestures pushed to one side Like an outdated combine harvester”, was how Larkin put it.

In ’79 Thatcher came along to restore the capitalist orthodoxy, but nobody tried to reignite the moral force of Christianity. As the West became rich once again religion continued to slide down our table of priorities. In the 90s the most contact we had with the holy was through our TVs; how we chortled at the benign antics of the well-intentioned and thoughtful, but ultimately bored protagonists of The Vicar of Dibley and Father Ted.

In 2003 Alastair Campbell stopped Tony Blair from answering a question about his faith in an interview with Vanity Fair magazine. ‘We don’t do God,’ he said. Nobody did. Those were some of the headiest days of New Labour’s Cool Britannia project, and the more we gazed uncomprehendingly at Islamic fanatics in the Middle East, the more righteous our own secular society appeared.

To most people, it seemed religion had been side-stepped by a cultural paradigm shift. Nobody had actually confronted Christianity head-on, with the result that it was allowed naturally to slip into irrelevance. Que T.S. Eliot quote.

It was Richard Dawkins who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. He just couldn’t hold it in. Like in the horror movies, Dawkins sneezed just as the serial killer was about to leave the room. The God Delusion of 2006 launched a full ideological onslaught against religion, and in particular Christianity.

Perhaps the rise of militant atheism was based on a false reading of history: after all, scientific breakthroughs meant that the ‘rationalist’ armoury had never seemed so well-stocked, and so many people paid scant attention to religion that it would have been easy for Dawkins to think he could count them on his team. Yet Dawkins’ attack put Christianity back on more comfortable ground: an ideological battle that people would listen to. It wasn’t the ideal road to recovery, but religion had become relevant again.

In this battle, two things have emerged in favour of Christianity of which few people previously took account. Firstly, there have been well reported instances of double standards in the treatment of Christianity as opposed to other religions; consider the casual way in which visitors to the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, 2009, were invited to deface the Bible, compared with the howls of indignation when an unknown and crackpot Pastor in Florida threatened to burn the Koran a year later.

Such incidents, alongside the prosecution of Christian Bed & Breakfast owners who refuse to rent out double rooms to same-sex couples, add to the perception that Christianity is a persecuted faith.

The second factor is that many atheists have turned out to be very annoying people; half class know-it-all, half crazy evangelical. An atheist’s arguments are generally laced with an undeserved sense of victimhood and as much fanaticism as any Christian.

These factors may not suddenly convert people to Christianity, but they will very probably make them hostile to the atheist lobby. A discourse which ten years ago was barely existent and hazy has suddenly become polarised and invigorated. Young converts to Christianity defend their faith with increasing intelligence and foresight; I noticed this during my university years when I was introduced through a good friend to many recent Catholic converts – indeed Roman Catholics have become some of the most articulate defenders of conservative values in the UK.

This is the situation in 2012. Christians feel persecuted, in Britain their enemies are more powerful and determined than they have ever been. Yet persecution can be an ally, and is certainly preferable to neglect. So let the ideological battle continue: at least they’ll go out with a bang.


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About Author

Matthew is a journalist based in Dungannon who blogs in his spare time. Educated at the Royal School Dungannon and the University of Cambridge, he recently completed his NCTJ Diploma at Belfast Metropolitan College. All views expressed in this column are those of Matthew alone.


  1. AC Grayling recently said a term like ‘militant atheist’ is a little like saying you ‘sleep furiously’. This really was one of the most bitter and illogical essays I’ve ever read. If secular societies are akin to militant Islamic terrorists why are they so keen to attack them.

  2. “An atheist’s arguments are generally laced with an undeserved sense of victimhood and as much fanaticism as any Christian.”
    As much fanaticism as any Christian? Really? 

    • As an agnostic, I’d totally agree that Atheists are as bad or worse as Christians in their fanaticism. Especially in the UK, where Christians aren’t as bat-shit insane as their US counterparts.  Reddit’s /r/atheism is one of the most fanatic, militaristic, arrogant forum’s I’ve ever accidentally stumbled across – /r/atheism was the reason I created an account on reddit – just to get their crap off my front page!

  3. I love when they us the term ‘Militant Atheist’ and apply to all atheists. We never hear the term ‘Militant Christians’.

    When was the last time you saw atheists protesting outside a church, mosque or synagogue, etc.? Or refusing to get on a bus (or drive one) because of a religious advert on the side?

    Yeah, *real* militant lol…

  4. Flawed argument…There are other aspects of life in Glasgow that display perfectly why Christianity has got to so wrong. (As an aside, the exhibition in Glasgow was withdrawn). I would also suggest that right-wing Christianity knows no better home than the southern states of the USA, and so to compare it with one of the more liberal British cities gives a great imbalance. Additionally your generalisation of atheists and their behaviour, deserves comparison to some members of the DUP, UUP and those middle class Catholics housed in North Down or Malone so as to prove that atheists do not have the monopoly on arrogance and self-delusion.

  5. ‘The second factor is that many atheists have turned out to be very annoying people’ – sorry Matthew but your article lost all credibility with this one line. In what way am I ‘annoying’? Shouldn’t you as a Christian turn the other cheek etc etc?Christian persecution is a long running theme and it is wheeled out every now and again in defence simply because there is no other justification for the intrusiveness of the Christian faith. As Dawkins rightly points out, the onus is on the Church and Christians to prove the existence of God rather than atheists to disprove it for the very good reason that whatever evidence we do have points clearly against the existence of a supreme being. Besides, the Catholic Church in particular has a long and prosperous track record of persecution and tyranny – I’ve heard of holy wars but never atheists wars.
    The rise of Christian fundamentalism in recent years, particularly in the United States, is nothing more than the death throes of a philosophy and institution that has run its course. The Babylonian, Sumerian. Assyrian, Egyptian and Mayan cultural and religious beliefs all went the same way and for the same reasons, human intellectual progress outgrew antiquated beliefs. 

    • Religion is a private choice in today’s world (actually, it literally has been a private choice for two millenia according to the evangelicals).  That’s not to say it hasn’t been forced upon us in the past, with the Established Church(es) and prior to a semi-formal separation of church and state.  it’s just to say that as soon as someone identifies themselves to me as EITHER a Christian or atheist, I can guarantee that they’re going to annoy me.

      The point being just as the majority of Christians are quiet moderates (who don’t bring the subject up in the street or picket Belfast Pride), the majority of atheists are quiet moderates as well and both groups are scundered by the fundamentalists on either side of the fence.  Basically any atheist who is prepared to argue with the public that God doesn’t exist is as fanatical as a Christian who is prepared to argue with the public that God does.  The rest of us want to keep our heads down and get on with the important things in life.

      Your whataboutery and self-identification as an atheist puts you firmly in the annoying category.  Maybe you had a hard time at school?  FYI, atheist wars include but are not limited to WW1, WW2, Manchuria, Korea, Vietnam, The Troubles?, The Falklands, Gulf War 1 & Gulf War 2.  Afghanistan was a Crusade, yes, but it was the one of the two invasions that had UN support beyond that religious fervour.

      Matthew has written a very objective piece here, albeit with an opinion on aggressive atheism that I happen to agree with.  Please note that his opening statements agree with your closing statements.

      • Ok first off, your use of the term ‘whataboutery’ is to be commended – credit where it’s due. I absolutely agree with your point about moderates on both sides of the theological divide, I don’t go around professing my beliefs (or non-beliefs) to anyone within earshot. In fact I can’t remember the last time I had any form of theological discussion with anyone simply because I know it’ll neither be objective or stimulating. My ‘self-identification’ here was to highlight the fact the writer was generalising in his assessment that ‘many’ atheists are annoying, in the same way you ‘self-identified’ as someone who dislikes aggressive atheists.

        I would disagree with the term aggressive atheist though. I’ve yet to be harassed on the street by atheists with signs, they have yet to appear on my doorstep, they haven’t infiltrated every facet of society to the same degree the church has (I’m talking particularly about my own area of west Tyrone). If writing a book and giving a few television interviews is as aggressive as atheists get then I do not have a problem with that. 

  6. Matthew Symington on

    Firstly I should say that I’m not religious, though I can see it might appear that way from this article.
    Ed Simpson and Briankeenanjr – I think the use of the term militant atheism is justified. This does not mean violent atheism, in the same way that if a politician states that we should ‘militate’ or ‘mobilise’ or even ‘fight’ against a particular force he is generally not advocating the use of violence. By militant I simply mean aggressive, assertive, forceful, uncompromising: all terms which could readily be applied to new atheism.
    Briankeenanjr – It’s a shame you found the article bitter and illogical, I can only say that I am certainly not bitter towards atheists or atheism, and did not intend to be illogical. I don’t think I ever said that secular societies are akin to militant Islamic terrorists.
    Arthur – Yes, really.
    Qdaboo2 – I certainly wouldn’t apply the term ‘militant atheism’ to all atheists, and didn’t do so in the article. I used the term once to say: ‘Perhaps the rise of militant atheism was based…’ Referring to one specific kind of atheism is the opposite of referring to all atheists. I hear the term ‘militant Christians’ quite a bit. It could justifiably be used to describe many of the Christian communities in the American South, in Africa, or here in Northern Ireland.
    Paul – I’m not entirely sure it’s relevant where these incidents took place. The point is the disparity in reactions to the desecration of two different religious texts.
    Cathal McQuaid – I’m in no position to say whether or not you’re annoying. I said that ‘many’ atheists are annoying, that doesn’t mean ‘most’ and certainly doesn’t mean ‘all’. Also I am not a Christian, or certainly not a very good one.
    The point about holy wars and atheist wars is a bit sweeping, in my view. It’s impossible to ascertain all the motivations and pressures which influenced the architects of every war there has ever been. I very much doubt that any war has ever been instigated entirely by one individual, and doubt even more that one individual has been motivated to take action by one single over-riding belief.
    You’re right to say that some belief systems are replaced or change irrevocably – the central point of my article is that the Christian belief system would probably have vanished much sooner if it hadn’t been for Dawkins and new atheism.
    Sorry for the mammoth response but I wanted to respond to as many points as possible. I appreciate all your contributions.

    • I didn’t mean for that to come off quite as hostile as it appeared. As I mentioned in the reply to Andrew Miller I am not, generally, a self-identifying atheist. It’s true that I don’t believe in a creator and have quite strong views on the purpose and effectiveness of the church within society, but I rarely air these views unsolicited or unprovoked. I was trying to make the point that even with the quantifier ‘many’ you are still generalising (unfortunately something I also did with my ‘holy wars’ statement), the last statistical evidence I could find from 2007 suggests that around 50% of people in the UK are non-believers, that’s a hell of a lot annoying people and I doubt half of them are class know-it-all’s.

      There’s a valid point to be made that some atheists are as evangelical as any religious fundamentalist, though the counter argument to this is that Christianity has such a monopoly over societal infrastructure, particularly here, and such a strong political lobby that just to get this opposing view across takes an awful lot of kicking and screaming. I would contend that when laws such as this (http://bit.ly/60NsEJ) are still being passed it’s right and proper that people kick up a fuss. You gave a couple of examples of Christianity being persecuted and honestly I would disagree with both; firstly, the artist asking people to deface the Bible was Jane Clarke, a minister with the Metropolitan Community Church, she actually asked for the display to be put inside a glass display case following protest whereas Pastor Terry Jones in Florida was simply being provocative. As for the Penzance B&B incident, the owner didn’t have a leg to stand on, at least not legally and speaking form a personal point of view. morally either.

      I’m not sure where this piece has come out of. As far as I’m aware there hasn’t been a swing towards Christianity in recent times or even a noticeable backlash against people like Dawkins. It might be true from your experience that young converts to Catholicism are great defenders of conservative values in the U.K. however the overall trend suggests atheism is growing among young people. A study by Penguin Books in 2009 found that two-thirds of people between 13 and  18 years of age didn’t believe in God, in fact 59% of them believe religion has had a negative impact on the world. It doesn’t exactly bode well for the future of Christianity, irrespective of militant atheists.

      • Matthew Symington on

        The reaction to the potential burning of the Koran wasn’t
        about who was doing it or where, somebody in Kent who threatened to burn the
        Koran would have had the same reaction. The point being made is that people are
        less afraid of offending Christians because the consequences are less severe,
        and as a result Christians in the West often receive more criticism than other

        Cathal – fair points. However I’m not sure Christianity has
        as much power as you suggest. Firstly there are many competing versions of
        Christianity and some of them disagree quite substantially, as we can only be
        too aware. So to refer to Christianity as a monolith which can co-ordinate a
        single and coherent proselytizing strategy is not accurate.

        I would also argue that non-believers who attack
        Christianity have much greater access to the media, certainly in the rest of
        the UK anyway. This is due to the relative novelty of their cause and the fact
        that Christianity is both woefully unfashionable and, for many people, fun to
        have a go at.

        It seems likely that a large number of young people don’t
        believe in God or religion, however my point was that religion was on its way
        to becoming an irrelevance in the UK before Dawkins dragged it back into our
        daily lexicon – it’s much more talked about than it was ten years ago. Not only
        this but because of Dawkins’ particularly forceful and unnecessarily
        patronising manner (frequently referring to religious people as ‘gullible,
        credulous fools’) he has alienated many people who might have supported him. Whilst
        more and more young people may not be religious, those who are religious are
        much better at defending their faith since they haven’t fallen into it
        complacently and have to defend it from criticism more often.

        Fundamentally I think we differ on whether or not there was
        a battle against religion that needed to be fought, and one that wouldn’t do
        more harm than good. In the UK I do not believe there was.

    • Southern States US is a hotbed of christian fundamentalism. Glasgow is not a hotbed of atheist fundamentalism (which in itself is quite an absurd notion). Comparing like for like normally helps to give an argument a decent foundation. You are quoting two completely irrelevant poems in order to make an absurd point.

  7. Religion has been thriving all over the world, except some parts of Europe, but the author seems to ignore this fact in order to imply that Dawkins, singlehandedly, was responsible for its resurgence. It’s not only wrong, it’s preposterous.

    The whole article is based on a premise that religion, particularly Christian religion, was quietly shuffling off this mortal coil, and disappearing into the fog with nary a whimper.
    If only this were true.

    In 2003, before Richard Dawkins wrote his book, George Bush went to war against Iraq. A big factor in that decision was Bush’s religious conviction.

    In 2005, the Kitzmiller vs Dover case came to a head, where evangelicals made a direct attempt to force Intelligent Design into American classrooms.

    In 2004, Karl Rove helped to mobilise millions of Evangelicals to ensure the re-election of George Bush. This was after a concerted campaign to politicise the Christian right-wing.

    And I haven’t even started on the rise of violent Islamism that had already created a rise in religious extremism among Christians.

    All Dawkins can lay claim to is to put down on paper what many people were thinking. Religion was making this world a more dangerous place, and it was all based on a bucket of lies. He allowed many people to declare for the first time that they did not believe the nonsense, and to feel justified in challenging religious fanatics on their dogma. 

    Religion has been in decline in many developed countries, but this decline has continued, and in some cases, accelerated in the last decade. This doesn’t sound like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory to me. If Dawkins wanted religion to disappear or be sidelined, it looks like it is happening. 

    If religious positions have become more extreme in the past few years, it is more likely because of the departure of more moderate people from their congregations, rather than any concerted attack by atheists on their privileges, now unjustified in societies where multiple religions, and none, coexist.

    If the author was trying to put across a rational, non-bigoted argument for his position, his attack on atheists as annoying and crazy completely undermines it. Calling people names only invites examples of bigotry from the other side of the fence.

    People will always be hostile when cherished views are challenged, particularly when the opposing arguments are more coherent and do not rely on appeals to authority, tradition or circular logic. While young Christians might defend their faith with vigour, I have not heard any prizewinning logical arguments coming from them.

    • Matthew Symington on

      Hi Colm,

      Whilst I think your point about Bush attacking Iraq because
      of his religious convictions is wrong, the points about evangelical Christianity
      in the American South are fair (although frequently exaggerated by Europeans).
      The article was dealing primarily with the UK, apologies for not making this

      I think you hit the nail on the head when you said: “Religion has been in
      decline in many developed countries, but this decline has continued, and in
      some cases, accelerated in the last decade.” If, as you say, religion
      has been declining for a while and particularly so since the turn of the millennium,
      then I can’t see why it was so urgent for Dawkins to go on the attack. If it
      was an attempt to put the final nail in the coffin then it seems to have failed
      rather spectacularly – as I say above, people are talking about religion more
      than ever.

      I have to take issue with your point that religion makes the world a more
      dangerous place, not because I necessarily disagree, but because beliefs of any
      kind – political, scientific, economic – are just as dangerous as religion when
      they are supported unquestioningly. Many of these are also ‘based on a bucket
      of lies.’

  8. Matthew, could you please clarify the phrase, “recent Catholic converts”? Back in my own time at Cambridge, when my youth was mis-spent in evangelical circles, a “Catholic convert” was someone who had been born into Catholicism but had now “seen the light” and become an evangelical. But I understand that nowadays evangelical Catholics can be more evangelical than the evangelicals, and a “Catholic convert” might therefore be a convert *to* Catholicism (except at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, of course).

    • Matthew Symington on

      Hi Frank, when I said ‘recent Catholic converts’, I was referring
      to a large group of young students with whom I became acquainted who attended the Fisher House Catholic
      chaplaincy in Cambridge. Most of this group had converted to Catholicism having
      been born in the Church of England or some other Protestant church.