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Ten years ago the notorious atheist bus campaign marked a high point for militant atheism. But now there's a new and more serious challenge to the Church, argues Heather Tomlinson
It’s been ten years since the infamous atheist bus campaign began, with its wishful title: "There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
The adverts demonstrated the confidence of the New Atheist movement at the time. Hot on the heels of the success of bestselling books such as God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, it seemed as though this strident version of atheism would become dominant in society.
Many Christians were afraid; their conversations about faith with atheist friends became more fractious, with difficult questions about the Old Testament and suffering being raised. Christians weren't always well prepared to give answers back then. This has since improved. Being forced to defend our beliefs isn’t a bad thing, so in that regard, we’ve actually a lot to thank Professor Dawkins for.
Ten years on and there’s a more disturbing cultural trend than the science-glorifying atheism of the bus campaign. It’s the divisive and inflammatory movement of “identity politics”.
It’s a complex phemonenon, as I explained in this feature for Premier Christianity. At its best, it highlights oppression or injustice in a way that the Church can support. However to do so blindly will lead to different kinds of injustice and judgement that go far away from Jesus’ message. For example, in the current climate many have been accused of sexual assault without evidence or trial yet still suffered the consequences.
At its worst, identity politics pits different social groups against one another, black vs white, female vs male, transgender vs feminist, rich vs poor. It encourages judgement and prejudice against those who are allegedly powerful - a white, straight man is deemed "privileged" though he may have experienced many power limiting experiences in his life. It provokes its followers to see antagonism within every social interaction.
Interestingly, though this movement is atheistic (the Church is usually seen as a "privileged" organisation, and a vehicle of "oppression"), it is often at odds with the New Atheists. Scientists such as Dawkins have been attacked for politically incorrect tweets, while fellow uber-atheist Sam Harris got into trouble for saying women didn’t buy his books due to an "estrogen vibe".
The identity politics movement is often at loggerheads with the science that New Atheists idolise. For example, when Jordan Peterson had his well-known clash with British journalist Cathy Newman, the core of their disagreement was a scientific understanding of psychology set against angry feminist ideology.
Identity politics is increasingly powerful, having taken over much of the media, academia and political discourse. Google employee James Damore lost his job for citing evidence that there are biological differences between men and women regarding technology. If "perpetuating gender stereotypes" can get you sacked, could it be that the identity politics brigade have the privilege and power at present, not any particular social demographic? Presumably discussing the Bible’s passages on gender wouldn’t go down so well in such an environment. Identity politics is often described as pseudo-religious. Facts, or an open-minded search for truth, seems less important than the ideology.
And this is where I think Christians can make peace with some New Atheists, who always talk about evidence. We both consider holding to truth a fundamental value, though we might look in different places to find it. In contrast, the more postmodern identity politics views its world through a pre-defined prism.
New Atheism led some people to search deeper for truth, and so ultimately find Christ. In contrast, a pessimist might think that identity politics could lead our society to take up arms against one another, as social groups see themselves as separate from others and are encouraged to fight for dominance.
Ten years on from the atheist bus campaign, we can see that ideological fashions are as fleeting as bell bottom trousers and shoulder pads. But the real truth never changes.
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