With this mixing of the waters in mind, Wired’s Gary Wolf set out on a fascinating journey to identify congregants in “The Church of Non-Believers,” and find out whether or not they could convert him. Like Holt and Robinson, Wolf is inclined toward science and reason rather than religion and faith. But was he ready to follow the call of the new atheists and categorically reject any notion of the divine? What he uncovers, with his unique approach to reporting, is that few people are willing to make such a commitment. At broody meetings around Los Angeles, Wolf found that, “Typical atheists are hardly the rabble-rousing evangelists that Dawkins or [Sam] Harris might like. They are an older, peaceable, quietly frustrated lot, who meet partly out of idealism and partly out of loneliness.”


The “faces” of the new atheism number half a dozen in Wolf’s cover story. Dawkins’ is the leading figure, joined by neuroscientist Sam Harris, who has an equally uncompromising distaste for religion. Others in the vanguard tend to make room for some level of spirituality, including scientist and Bad Religion rocker Greg Graffin and the irreverent comic duo, Penn and Teller. The most interesting character is Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett, who seems, according to Wolf’s description, much more cognizant of logic’s limitations in tackling faith. But none of these Godless priests are able to convert the scientifically inclined author to full atheistic belief. “Myself, I’ve decided to refuse the call,” writes Wolf. “The irony of the New Atheism — this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism — is too much for me.”


The only magazine to suggest a compromise or reconciliation was Seed. The November issue carries a cover story about E.O. Wilson, the Harvard entomologist who pioneered studies in biological explanations for social behavior. The headline begs, “God vs. Science. Can This Man Broker a Truce?” In his new book, The Creation, Wilson argues that the religious right should form an “alliance” with scientists because they are “uniquely prepared” to “save the creation.” Unfortunately, author Amanda Leigh Haag does not flush out the meaning of Wilson’s ideas. Most of the article is devoted to his past accomplishments and 1998 book, Consilience, which argued for the intermixing of various intellectuals disciplines. Leigh has good quotes from Dawkins and Dennett, but she does not begin to discuss the current “culture wars” until the end of her article and fails to explain exactly where and how Wilson fits in.


Seed also reviewed The God Delusion, delivering a more sympathetic critique than others. Author P.Z. Myers writes that Dawkins’ book is “a powerful argument,” and declares, “It’s going to be a classic.” It is not an unreasonable prediction. The new atheism has already set itself up as a distinct chapter in a very long-running dispute. Holt, though critical of Dawkins in the Times, concedes that his book proffers “a couple fresh arguments — no mean achievement, considering how thoroughly these issues have been debated over the centuries….” Indeed, the law of equal and opposite reaction has been driving this altercation for a long time.


The poet Lucretius, who would have been a contemporary of Jesus Christ, was an early atheist. In an epic poem about the nature of the matter, which hinted at atomic theory, he wrote, “Religion mothers crime and wickedness.” Romans persecuted Christians for another 350 years after that, until the decline and fall of the Empire gave way to a period of medieval religiosity. In the 18th century, romantic spirituality pushed back against Enlightenment rationality. Auguste Compte, in the mid-19th century, revived scientific opposition to religion, calling it positivism (derogatorily, other called in scientism). And shortly thereafter, the introduction of Darwin’s theory evolution defined the clash of cultures that has raged ever since.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.