Stephen T. Asma in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
September 11 changed the God conversation. Atheism was always a reasonable alternative to theological glitches like the problem of evil, and of course God seemed increasingly unnecessary after Darwin’s revolution, but atheism was a relatively quiet and confident minority position. Like opera fans who know they’re right but don’t bother to evangelize the unsophisticated, atheists were generally too imperious to go to the trouble of public debate.
But after 9/11, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, nicknamed the Four Horsemen of the new atheism, showed us the first wave of atheist response: anger, retaliatory logic, and self-loathing about the failure of flaccid liberalism—our impending cultural suicide from too much naïve tolerance. Pugilistic Islamic fundamentalism was taken as a token for religion generally, and the excesses in this world of otherworldly metaphysics led the Horsemen to call for the end of faith altogether.
Academics slight the essential day-to-day comforts that keep religion, or at least its spiritual secular offshoots, relevant.
Recent books offer a second wave, with political, economic, and philosophical takes on religion and its surrogates. Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists (Simon & Schuster), Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God (Yale University Press), and Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World (Princeton University Press) are much more historically aware, and more comfortable with the persistent ebb and flow of Western religion, than were the Horsemen’s admonitions. But in focusing on seductive macrosocial and lofty theological impulses, the new books slight the essential day-to-day comforts that keep religion, or at least its spiritual secular offshoots, relevant. They also largely dismiss the powerful light that science can shed on spiritual longing. They don’t miss the forest for the trees; they miss it for the sky above the trees.