When did they arise?
Well, frustrated by the remarkable continuing power of belief in God in the world, they seized the opportunity afforded by the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Propaganda coup on a plate. "Here is what belief in God leads to" they argued. "Religion leads to violence". At the centre of the movement are men like Richard Dawkins and his book "The God Delusion."
What do they believe?
They say that faith is irrational, has a tendency towards violence and is undermined by science. But they believe these things in such a fundamentalistic way (i.e. they are right and everyone else is mad, bad or both) that they are looked down on by most scholarly atheists. The New Atheists reserve their greatest wrath for those in the general atheist movement that don't agree with them all the way - this is a classic characteristic of fundamentalism (there are only two categories of humanity: with us or against us). For this reason, many believe that New Atheism is a new fundamentalist religion.
What are we to make of "New Atheism"?
A number of thoughts come to mind:
(i) The idea that we are forced to make a choice between faith and reason (either/or) is as flawed as it has always been. Faith and reason have always gone together, both in Christianity and in science (anyone who has spent an hour as a professional scientist will know that faith is a key component of science; scientists not only have to trust one another and a great body of literature which they will never be able to 'prove' themselves (life is too short), deep down they often have to trust axioms particularly in mathematics, which are, well axiomatic. Add to all of this the underlying trust in human reasoning: why trust a faculty thrown up by chance natural selection?).
(ii) Does science have all the answers? Science is profoundly limited in the answers it can provide. Since by definition it deals only with what can be seen and tested, it is unable to deal with all things emotional, moral and metaphysical, from the existence of God to how you should live to the meaning of life (in other words, most of the really important questions of life). This is not a criticism of science, for we are all grateful for the insights it gives and the benefits its sister, technology, provides. It is just a statement of fact: science deals with one small part of created reality. For example, science describes a piece of music as a signal which contains a certain frequency spectrum. All very helpful when reproducing or recording sound, but one tiny slice of reality and irrelevant to the swelling emotions we feel when we hear Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings (or Adele's Someone Like You, if you prefer).
(iii) Does religion cause war? The horrendous major wars of the 20th century were not caused by religion. The truth of the matter is that there is something deeper in mankind (Christians call it 'sin') that is the root cause of war - not one's belief system. And in a recent book The Myth of Religious Violence, William Cavanaugh, says "I challenge as incoherent the argument that there is something called religion... which is necessarily more inclined toward violence than are ideologies and institutions that are identified as secular." (p.5).
(iv) Does science undermine faith in God? Not in the least; quite to the contrary it daily reveals the majesty and glory of its Creator.
If you want to know more about this latest fundamentalist movement try Why God Won't Go Away written by Alistair McGrath, probably the world expert on this new movement.
(b) We must never respond in kind. One of the characteristics of New Atheism is its hatred and vitriol against anyone who disagrees with them. "Nobody does nasty as well as the New Atheist websites" writes Alistair McGrath. We must ensure that our "conversation is always full of grace and seasoned with salt" (Colossians 4:6): how we say matters at least as much as what we say.
(c) We must thank God for his over-ruling power. This movement has made some people who were apathetic, interested. That is a good thing in an apathetic age. Satan always oversteps himself. In one case at least, Dawkins' anger against God was the start of one man's journey to Christ. Alistair McGrath recalls the incident in the book mentioned above:
"… I’d just finished giving a lecture in London early in 2010. A young man came up afterwards and asked me to sign a copy of my textbook Christian Theology: an introduction. I asked him what had led him to study theology. He told me that he’d read Richard Dawkins God Delusion a year or so earlier and it seemed so unfair and one-sided that he felt he needed to hear the other side. So he started going to church. After a while he found he could not sustain his faith in the parody when confronted with the real thing. He was converted to Christianity – joyfully and decisively. “"Without Dawkins I would never have given God a second thought” (p. 99)
Let us pray that there will be many more who come to Christ through their engagement with the New Atheism.