It is a Saturday afternoon in 2009 and I am arguing with a street corner preacher. He has a collapsible flip chart with little plastic cups of poster paint ranged across the bottom. On the paper there is a half-dry diagram of a crucifix, the word ‘Jesus’ painted across its outstretched arms. He is speaking, but I’m not really listening. ‘But surely,’ I say, smirking and cutting him off, ‘if God can prevent suffering but chooses not to, then he cannot possibly be benevolent.’ Tomorrow I will go to the Alpha Course’s Christianity for Beginners seminar for the third time in a month, with the sole intention of making a nuisance of myself. I am eighteen years old.
I have just read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, and I feel bulletproof. I don’t know it yet, but for the next few years I will be insufferable.
The world of the 2000s feels almost impossibly quaint and distant to me now, but the anti-religious bestsellers in which the decade specialised felt positively revolutionary at the time. These glossy hardbacks weren’t marketed as Young Adult Non-Fiction, but it was in disaffected young white men like me that they found their most devoted audience. And it wasn’t just the books – the New Atheist movement coincided with the rise of Youtube as a major social media platform, and videos of Dawkins and Hitchens debating religious figures soon racked up hundreds of thousands of views. These videos were always framed in language that evoked bare-knuckle boxing or professional wrestling – an unremarkable appearance on an Australian panel show was uploaded under the title Richard Dawkins SMACKS DOWN Religious Fundamentalist. There was even a special word for Hitchens’ withering put-downs and plummy one-liners – The Hitchslap. The violence implicit in this language was absurd – just think what it would mean for an 80 year old professor to actually ‘smack down’ anyone – but I spent hours watching these videos all the same, always on the lookout for new rhetorical flourishes to lightly plagiarise.
It’s easy to kid myself that I was in it for the big ideas, but the truth is that I was in it for the spectacle.
I wasn’t the only one – one video titled Christopher Hitchens: The Best of The Hitchslap has almost 4 million views and consists entirely of context-free zingers. Even with good intentions, it’s difficult to explore anything when all you have are punchlines.
I cringe to think of myself arguing furiously about intelligent design outside Poundland, but the fact that I felt compelled to do so – sometimes even loitering in the city centre jonesing for marks – tells you all you need to know about the zeal I suddenly felt. The awkward truth is that Dawkins and Hitchens really had forced me to confront a big issue with which I’d struggled. In my early teens I spoke with a lisp and a stammer, and in a desperate attempt to make friends had fallen in with an after-school youth group run by the local Baptist church. I can still remember the names of all the leaders and the greasy smell of the snooker-table green carpet. I can still remember the nightmares I had after being taught that war-ravaged Afghanistan would ‘feel like Disneyland compared to Hell.’ More than this, however, I will never forget the awful silence that fell when a girl around my age was accidentally hit in the face with a foam tennis ball, and shouted ‘oh my GOD,’ before she could stop herself, nor the equally awful and mousy ‘sorry…,’ that followed.
Then there was the irresistibly charming young man who functioned as an unofficial mentor to us younger kids. He had a mean kwik-cricket spin bowl that could actually go around corners and was clearly being prepared to take on a leadership role of his own. But after he came out as gay, we never saw him at the group again. I don’t remember his name ever being spoken aloud after that. We all understood, and I remember thinking dimly that he was old enough to know better. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen. I don’t know if he quit the church or if he was expelled. Somehow, I hope it was the former.
This was the context in which I read Dawkins and Hitchens for the first time, and this was why I couldn’t just change my mind quietly. I realised while writing this that I never bothered to find out the denomination of any of the street corner preachers in whom I took such delight in interrupting. Is the Alpha Course affiliated with the Anglican or the Quaker tradition? I didn’t know – I still don’t know – and it didn’t matter. They were all Baptists to me.
This was how it went for a while. I jealously clung to my new convictions, but it was cringe that started my slow drift away from New Atheism. In The God Delusion, Dawkins had suggested that atheists rebrand themselves as – I swear this is true – Brights. I could just about shrug this off, but I could not shrug off the collective name that soon evolved for this little group of anti-religious authors. They chose to call themselves The Four Horsemen. I squirmed with embarrassment when I first heard this phrase – made so much worse by the fact that it was of Hitchens’ own suggestion. ‘What are you doing,’ I thought to myself, ‘you’re supposed to be cool.’ I felt like I’d come so far and had done so much for the cause, and my reward was a label that made me sound like a precocious moppet, and a groupuscule that sounded more like a Slayer covers band than a serious intellectual project. With the name The Four Horsemen irrevocably lodged in my brain, rhetoric that had once seemed daring and subversive started to look hyperbolic and plain silly.
Was it really necessary to use terms like ‘imaginary sky-fairy’ and ‘undead messiah’ to describe holy figures? And was it not a little odd that this new movement was fronted and admired almost entirely by white men with similar accents?
I must admit that this second question did not strike me as especially urgent at the time, but in retrospect New Atheism’s whiteness and maleness was its most defining feature. When women and people of colour did appear in New Atheist writing, it was usually in the well-worn shapes of stone-faced oppressors or of tragic victims. In a truly transcendent moment of cringe, Dawkins once suggested broadcasting pornography across Iran to ‘challenge institutionalised religion’ – possibly the most absurd illustration of The White Man’s Burden I’ve ever come across. I sometimes wonder if Dawkins had any particular porn in mind when he proposed this. He seemed to have done the hard thinking about it, after all. It’s often instructive to re-examine your breaking points, and The Four Horsemen episode speaks, of course, to the enormous privilege of my background. For a long time, I could overlook the narrowness of perspectives and the extremely paternalistic attitude towards women, but I could not forgive my beloved boys’ club for choosing a very silly name for itself.
The Big Cringe came when I met someone just like me. I was on a bus, and a few rows ahead was a man who didn’t trouble to keep his voice down as he rattled off a string of New Atheist talking points to a woman in the next row. He spoke as though he had learned his lines by heart. He spoke as though he was commanding the stage in a packed auditorium, not sitting in a worn-out stagecoach with condensation streaming down the windows. It killed me to see the other passengers cringing away from him, some even screwing their earbuds deeper into their heads to block out his voice. It was worse to see him interpret this silent discomfort – as all motormouths do – as a sign that he was winning. I wanted to throw myself through the rear window and run and run and never stop running. All at once I realised that I wasn’t a special talent fighting the good fight. I wasn’t a beloved public intellectual. I was just a noisy bore play-acting something I’d seen on a screen.
Hitchens died in 2011 from complications arising from oesophageal cancer, but his legacy lives on. And what a legacy it is – not a new age of enlightenment, but a host of new public intellectuals with a taste for performative cruelty. To watch alt-right figures like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro rise to online fame is to see the whole sorry New Atheism saga all over again. Videos of these two also get millions of views, and the language used to promote them hits the same emotional beats as those Hitchslap compilations from ten years ago. Jordan Peterson Destroys WHOLE PANEL on transgender pronouns. Ben Shapiro Crushes Smug Liberal. The politics are different, but the beats are the same – there’s always a white man, always a passionately-asked question (usually from a woman, often from a person of colour) and always a needlessly cruel answer with appropriate breaks for applause. It’s not a coincidence that Peterson and Shapiro also have large audiences of young white men seeking self-confidence and a purpose. If I were ten years younger, I’d probably be right there with them.
Is there anything worth salvaging from this? Well, maybe. For all their deformities, The New Atheists did introduce me to the radical style, albeit in its shallower contrarian forms. I do still think that, in some contexts, politeness is overrated. Even some of the smaller rhetorical tics have stuck around. I recently noticed that I often start sentences with a long and looping ‘well…’ and it gave me a pang to realise that I picked this up from Hitchens. It is also true that I’m a Christopher, not a Chris, and that I do not believe in god. Credit must be given where credit is due – if credit is the word I want.
I recently moved house and sorted through the stacks of books I’d acquired in the decade and change since my late teenage years. Here were the set texts for my master’s degree, most of which had uncracked spines. Here were the books gifted to me by friends long since vanished. And here, of course, were Dawkins and Hitchens, their pages dog-eared and spines disintegrating from so many thumbings. My cringe reaction was to throw them away – they felt like embarrassing school photos or books of teenage poetry. Even the blurb quotes had an air of adolescent gawkiness to them – Derren Brown described The God Delusion as his ‘favourite book of all time.’ I held the books for a long moment and thought of all the pointless, pointless arguments I’d had about religion. Arguments with people just minding their own business. Arguments with people who truly did not ask for it. I didn’t throw the books away. They now sit at the back of the bookcase alongside Martin Amis and Chuck Palahniuk, and it feels right to keep them in that space and in that company. There are limits to what can be asked of partially reformed zealots.