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. Fights broke out at conferences, with security having to intervene. Finally, conferences were canceled altogether, since organizers couldn’t agree on speakers.
As Brierley tells it, the New Atheism became a religion, with high priests and sacred texts, science as an object of worship, naturalism as the creed, regular gatherings of believers, then heretics and schisms.
But the implosion of the New Atheism was more than just an ironic farce. It revealed an important fallacy. The movement exalted science as the replacement for religion. But whereas science can tell us about physical reality, it cannot be a guide to moral values, as the atheist schism itself demonstrates.
The New Atheism had unintended consequences. “I thank God for Richard Dawkins,” says Brierley. “New Atheism has revitalized the intellectual tradition of the Christian church in the West.”
The church, he says, had been woefully unprepared for this frontal attack on the faith. “With the four horsemen at their heels, the church was forced to put down its tambourines and guitars and pick up its history and philosophy books again.” As a result, “Arguably, the last two decades have seen the greatest revival of Christian intellectual confidence in living memory as the church has risen to the challenge.”
But this was not primarily the work of the church. Secular scholarship and non-Christian thinkers began to see Christianity in a new, more positive light. Some of them became Christians. While Brierley’s saga of the New Atheism’s meltdown is the most entertaining part of his book, his account of this shift in perception is the most valuable.
Whereas the New Atheists insisted that religion is the source of everything bad in the world, recent historical research has proved the opposite. Classicist Tom Holland documented the casual and pervasive cruelty of the Greeks and Romans, who considered pity to be a weakness and who most emphatically did not believe in the innate human dignity of all. His book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World shows that beliefs such as the equal worth of all human beings and our duty to help the vulnerable cannot be found in the ancient world—or anywhere else, really, much less as a result of naturalistic evolution—and are unique to Christianity, which has spread them even to the secularists.
This has powerful apologetic implications. When the New Atheists bring up atrocities committed by Christians—at which the ancient Greeks and Romans would not have batted an eye—they are appealing to a distinctly Christian ethic! Those who criticize the ethics of the Bible are presupposing the ethics that the Bible has given them! Similarly, when progressives demand social justice, racial equality, the rights of women, and respect for the marginalized, they are drawing on the Christian heritage they tend to repudiate.
The New Atheists also blamed Christianity for suppressing science, which, after finally throwing off its shackles, has explained the natural world once and for all, making possible an enlightened society based on reason alone. Yet historians of science now acknowledge that Christianity, with its worldview of divine laws underlying creation, gave birth to and nourished modern science.
Moreover, contemporary science is running up against the limits of naturalistic explanations. Brierley cites the problem of DNA, the strands of amino acids that are fundamental to the most primordial forms of life, which are able to self-replicate according to some blueprint that results in the formation of diverse organs and species. “Where did the source code originate?”
Scientists agree that they don’t have a clue.
Nor can they untangle the puzzle of how the universe on nearly every level is “fine-tuned for life.” If a neutron were any heavier, stars couldn’t exist; if any lighter, they would all be black holes. The ratio of electrons to protons is precisely balanced, which enables matter to clump together rather than being repelled. If the fundamental force of gravity were minutely more, matter would collapse in on itself; if minutely less, matter would spread so thinly that stars and planets couldn’t form.
Big Bang cosmology has reintroduced the notion of a “First Cause,” reviving such favorite arguments of William Lane Craig: “Space, time, and matter coming into existence requires a first cause that transcends space, time, and matter.” That cause would have to be both powerful and personal, “to be able to choose to create.”
Then there is “the mystery and miracle of mathematics,” the foundation of science. How is it that the mental abstractions of mathematics—which themselves are examples of nonphysical reality—can accord so perfectly with the external world?
Brierley also sees a new appreciation for the Bible in contemporary thought. The higher critical assumption that the Gospels were written long after the life of Christ, allowing for long oral traditions and mythmaking, has been shot down by the discovery of early manuscripts and other evidence supporting their historicity.
The value of the Bible is also being rediscovered. Brierley discusses the “Jordan Peterson phenomenon,” in which the Canadian psychologist has attracted a huge following with his videos discussing Bible stories, which, he says, are so deep “they have no bottom” and which he presents as archetypes for life.
To be sure, some of these contemporary thinkers who convey a new openness to religion stop short of actual belief. Many would agree with biologist Bret Weinstein, who says that religion is “literally false, but metaphorically true.” But if some of the thinkers he cites stop short of faith, others, such as the novelist, former environmentalist radical, and ex-Wiccan Paul Kingsnorth, have taken the next step to a wholehearted embrace of Christianity.
But what does this new openness to Christianity on the part of serious thinkers have to do with the vast number of people leaving the church, most of whom are not serious thinkers?
As the authors of The Great Dechurching show, the decline in church attendance is not necessarily the same as a decline in religious belief. Only about 4% of Americans describe themselves as atheists, a percentage that, for all the efforts of the New Atheists, has changed little over the years. The vast majority of “Nones” still have religious beliefs of some kind. The book shows that even large numbers of orthodox, evangelical Christians have also stopped going to church.
One factor in dechurching may be the churches themselves. The past few decades of decline have been the same decades in which churches—both mainline liberal Protestants and evangelical megachurches—have been reinventing themselves in accord with secularist culture. The casualties of that culture went looking for an alternative—but couldn’t find one.
Brierley urges churches to prepare for the tide of new believers he sees coming by embracing both reason and the imagination; creating a community that counters cancel culture by being “a place of grace in a polarized, moralistic, and unforgiving society”; and “keeping Christianity weird,” as opposed to conforming to the culture or the entertainment industry.
He notes that many of the converts he interviews “have chosen to embrace ancient forms of worship and liturgy that major on mystery and ritual.” He quotes Holland, whose research led him to become a Christian: “I want mystery. I want weirdness. I want strangeness. That’s exactly what I want. I want everything that by and large, in its public manifestations, churches often seem to be a bit embarrassed about.”
“The crest of each new wave of Christianity had a trough that preceded it,” Brierley observes. For discouraged Christians laboring in our present trough, this book offers encouragement that the tide is starting to turn.