The Four Horsemen review - whatever happened to ‘New Atheism’?

Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris ... were the apostles of atheism as fearless as they thought?

Whatever happened to “New Atheism”? It was born in the febrile aftermath of 9/11, when belief in a deity – or, let’s be honest, specifically in Allah – seemed to some people a newly urgent danger to western civilisation. Sam Harris began writing The End of Faith (2004) immediately after the World Trade Center attacks, and it became a bestseller. There followed the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. The men toured vigorously, but they all met together only once, and this book is the transcript of what ensued, with new brief introductions by the surviving members, Hitchens having died in 2011. Contrary to the book’s subtitle, the “atheist revolution” was not sparked by this cocktail-fuelled pre-dinner round of chat and backslapping, which took place in 2007. By then the participants could already salute one another for the impressive sales of their books, boast about how willing they were to cause “offence”, and reminisce about how brilliant they were when they befuddled this or that bishop with some debating point.

In many ways the conversation already seems dated in its political preoccupations, particularly in the idea proffered by Hitchens that “holy war” was the greatest existential threat to civilisation. (There had been nothing holy about the cold war, which brought us closest to the brink of planetary Armageddon, and North Korea now is not a theocracy, but never mind.) “I think it’s us, plus the 82nd Airborne and the 101st, who are the real fighters for secularism at the moment, the ones who are really fighting the main enemy,” Hitchens announces with armchair-general relish. (The 82nd and 101st operated in Iraq and Afghanistan.) The other Horsemen agree eagerly that they are all very brave. In his introduction, Dawkins insists that “the atheistic worldview has an unsung virtue of intellectual courage”, which might indeed be unsung had not its adherents themselves been singing it for so long.

New Atheism’s arguments were never very sophisticated or historically informed. You will find in this conversation no acknowledgment of the progress made by medieval Islamic civilisation in medicine and mathematics – which is why, among other things, we have the word “algebra”. The Horsemen assume that religion has always been an impediment to science, dismissing famous religious scientists – such as Georges Lemaître, the Catholic priest who first proposed the big bang hypothesis, not to mention Isaac Newton et al – as inexplicable outliers. At one point Harris complains about a leading geneticist who is also a Christian. This guy seems to think, Harris spits incredulously, “that on Sunday you can kneel down in the dewy grass and give yourself to Jesus because you’re in the presence of a frozen waterfall, and on Monday you can be a physical geneticist”. Harris offers no reason why he can’t, except that the combination is incompatible with his own narrow-mindedness.

For these men, rationality is all on “our” side and evidence-free faith is all on “their” side. But faith is very much a movable feast: Hitchens himself, in his sad late persona as a useful idiot for the Bush-Cheney regime in the mid-2000s, notably kept insisting – in the face of no evidence – that Saddam Hussein had possessed a working nuclear-weapons programme, which proved that it had been right all along to invade Iraq.

For all that, Hitchens is plainly the most cultured thinker at the table. Without religion, would we have had the music of Bach or the paintings of Michelangelo? He’s not sure: “I can’t hear myself saying, ‘If only you had a secular painter, he would have done work just as good.’” Dawkins is more blusteringly confident: “What? That Michelangelo, if he’d been commissioned to do the ceiling of a museum of science, wouldn’t have produced something just as wonderful?” A museum of science! At another point Dawkins reassures everyone: “I have not the slightest problem with Christmas trees.”

Dennett, for his part, plays along with the tribalism – “We’re not going to let you play the faith card,” he says gamely – but you suspect his heart’s not really in it. In his introduction he reveals a more humane attitude – “I have known people whose lives would be desolate and friendless,” he writes, “if it weren’t for the non-judgmental welcome they have received in one religious organisation or another” – which explains why he was only ever really a semi-detached Horseman.

What did they all do next? Dennett let the subject lie and returned to questions of evolution and philosophy, most recently with his excellent 2017 book From Bacteria to Bach and Back. Dawkins became a leading social-media troll, with tweets such as this from last summer: “Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great mediaeval cathedrals. So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding ‘Allahu Akhbar.’ Or is that just my cultural upbringing?” In his introduction, Dawkins quotes some scriptural interpretation and asks: “Are professors of theology really paid to do this kind of thing?”, which suggests he has a bright future ahead of him leaving pointless online comments below newspaper articles.

The intellectual path followed by Harris is most balefully illustrative of the poisonous seeds that were always present in New Atheism. At one point here, the men admire themselves for their willingness to consider truths that might be politically dangerous. For instance, Hitchens says, if the notorious hypothesis of the 1994 book by Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve – that black people are genetically inferior in intelligence to white people – were true, it shouldn’t be ignored. Luckily, Hitchens hastens to add, that example is not viable. Later on, however, Harris brings up the argument again. “If there were reliable differences in intelligence between races or genders,” he begins, before Hitchens cuts him off dismissively. “But I don’t think any of us here do think that that’s the case.”

Hitchens might have been too generous. In 2018, Harris caused a storm by inviting Murray on to his podcast for a weirdly uncritical two-hour conversation. Murray, Harris claimed, had been the victim of a terrible “academic injustice” for the way in which his notions about the inherent cognitive inferiority of some “races” had been rejected by the scientific establishment. (Lest you worry about Murray, be reassured that he is still a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which is funded by the ultra-conservative billionaire Koch brothers.)

This is where the preeningly fearless insistence on entertaining uncomfortable questions can so easily lead. Harris ended up in the company of the “alt-right” and the so-called “intellectual dark web”, populated by people who portray themselves as valiant enough to say what you’re not allowed to say any more, and are constantly invited on rightwing talk shows to say it. For some, New Atheism was never about God at all, but just a topical subgenre of the rightwing backlash against the supposedly suffocating atmosphere of “political correctness”. In its messianic conviction that it alone serves the cause of truth, this too is a faith as noxious as any other.

• The Four Horsemen is published by Bantam. To order a copy for £8.79 (RRP £9.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Steven Poole

The GuardianTramp

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