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A new generation is taking over the online discussion of god and faith, and mostly it’s a welcome change—improving the quality of atheist arguments. Many atheists, of course, have no interest in apologetics (aka the use of reasoned arguments to justify a religious view). To them, the non-existence of God is simply a given—an assumption or piece of background knowledge which may frame their life, but not something to be debated. In this way, they are similar to most religious people: most Christians, for instance, have no interest in arguing for their faith; it is just their identity, something to be lived into, not something to be justified.

But for those of us who like discussing faith – those who enjoy debates about the existence of God, arguments about fine-tuning, and analyses of divine hiddenness – it’s exciting to see a new generation of writers, podcasters, and YouTubers take the reigns. The discourse is moving on from the overly-polemical and adversarial period of the New Atheists and their opponents, and a more thoughtful, generous, and academically-engaged atheism is emerging—one which has been named “Atheology” by some leading voices.

What are the characteristics of this new discourse? In short, Atheology is intellectual, respectful, and apoliticial.

First, Atheology is engaged with the philosophy of religion. It is a striking feature of New Atheism that it was, in general, not interested in the academic literature in philosophy of religion, and instead took a polemical approach that packed a persuasive punch but lacked intellectual rigor. When the likes of Richard Dawkins considers philosophy of religion at all, it tends to be with an attitude of dismissal or even contempt, rather than serious engagement. This is unfortunate because philosophical defenses of faith have experienced a revival in the academy of late, and it felt (to this atheist philosopher at least) that our side was simply refusing to consider the strongest arguments for theism.

Atheology, by contrast, is unashamedly intellectual, and dives right into the densest academic literature on religion and faith. Rather than Hitchens and Dawkins, these authors are more likely to cite Paul Draper, Graham Oppy, and Gregory Dawes. All are philosophers of religion who are not widely known outside their academic circles, but who are finding a new audience among intellectually-curious YouTubers who want not just the loudest but the best defenses of atheism.

Second, Atheology prioritizes respect. In a refreshing departure from an online discussion of religion which is often acrimonious, Atheology emphasizes both intellectual and interpersonal respect for religious believers and their ideas. Instead of taking the New Atheist view that religious faith is delusional, or even a symptom of mental illness, a prominent thread in these creators’ work is the idea that there may well be something intellectually compelling about religious belief. They take seriously the fact that there are respected intellectuals who are religious, and who believe their religious views the best way to account for the evidence. Starting from that perspective, Atheologians encourage good-faith arguments in which all parties seek the best in each others’ views.

Watching this new content is markedly different from watching atheist content of yore: instead of the bombastic “owns” and grand claims of the New Atheists, here we have measured, thoughtful exchanges filled with technical philosophical terminology and reams of academic references. Atheology revels in its nerdiness, combining extremely rarified intellectual content with contemporary online culture in a weird new mashup. Never before have so many memes been created about such obscure philosophers.

The new Sonic the Hedgehog movie plus atheist philosopher Graham Oppy. This is a weird meme!

Finally, Atheology is oddly apolitical, and this is where things begin to fall down, for me. Despite the fact that religion is a powerful cultural and political force in the U.S.A. and across most of the world (much, in my view, for ill), this new discourse seems to resist the politicization of its discussions ruthlessly, viewing religion and faith as a purely intellectual enterprise, rather than as the basis for social movements with genuine power to affect people’s lives.

This is a problem.

As a gay man living in a conservative state, I am confronted daily with the negative impact of conservative Christianity, and any discussion of religion which fails to take into account its political influence seems deficient. It is only by viewing religion at an abstracted remove that one could contemplate, for instance, a discussion of the morality of abortion between two cis men, each of whom takes the other’s perspective. While abortion rights are under threat as never before this seems more than unwise. Indeed, Atheology seems an overwhelmingly white cis straight male pursuit—a strange and worrying feature, given the increasing diversity of the broader atheist and Humanist worlds.

I approach Atheology, then, with both enthusiasm and wariness. Enthusiasm because, as a philosopher, I enjoy the fact that the very best arguments for atheism – and for theism – are getting a wider hearing. I like that atheists are being asked to raise our philosophical game and recognize that the philosophical conversation is happening at a higher level than much popular atheist content appreciates. Engaging with the best arguments for theism is one of the best ways to improve our arguments for atheism, so this part of the Atheology project is welcome.

I appreciate, too, the respectful tone of this new discourse. In a deeply pluralistic world riven with intense disagreements over politics and culture, there is something refreshing in the scrupulously respectful, even mannered discussions Atheologians create.

Yet the politically-detached nature of these conversations worries me. Ultimately, religion is not just philosophical but political, and its political influence matters. In any discussion between broadly progressive atheists (as the primary Atheologians tend to be) and broadly conservative Christians about faith, at least one eye must be kept on the political dimension, since you can guarantee that the Christian participants are well-aware of the political implications of their view. While for many intellectually-minded atheists (particularly, it must be said, straight cis white men) discussions about religion might seem like a fun game, for those of us who have been harmed by religion the conversation can never be abstract.

This is a solvable problem, and with more political awareness and a wider range of voices, Atheology could become an extremely valuable part of the broader atheist discourse. Yoking a sophisticated philosophical defense of atheism with a justice-oriented humanism would be truly next level, and perhaps would make for some better memes as well.

Atheology-related YouTube Channels to Follow:

  • Real Atheology – the OG Atheology channel and the main booster of the name
  • Walden Pod from Emerson Green – super-thoughtful philosophical explorations from a naturalistic perspective
  • Majesty of Reason – seriously technical, seriously smart examinations of religious philosophy. Joe Schmidt is an Arsenal fan, too, which is baller
  • Josh Rasmussen’s Worldview Design – Josh is a Christian who I disagree with a lot. He is also extremely smart, thoughtful, and generous with his interlocutors

James Croft is a philosopher, activist, and Humanist storyteller. As Leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, he is professional clergy for one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. A...