As every middlebrow with a newspaper column or Radio 4 slot to fill agrees, a vulgar “new atheism” is sweeping Britain. The readers of Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman and Christopher Hitchens are, they tell us, crass because they do not appreciate the mystery of religion, the consolations of ritual and all the rest of it, and also dangerous because they are as fundamentalist in their criticisms of religion as the religious fanatics they criticise.
I could waste your time by pointing out that “new atheists” are not so different from old atheists – we still don’t believe in God, for instance – and add that the charge of moral equivalence would be easier to substantiate if atheists planted bombs on the underground. But space is short and the depressing truth about “new atheists” no one dwells on is that if they exist outside the imaginations of religious writers, they are never there when you need them. For if we had a vibrant atheist or secularist movement in Britain, it would now be tearing into this government for once again trying to ride the Islamist tiger.