Why the New Atheists Had to Fail
Reflections on Justin Brierley’s Book *The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God*
In a pivotal scene in my novel I Am Justice, the main character has this exchange with her boss:
“Everyone has to live for something. If they don’t, they end up like Andy, trying to obliterate themselves on drugs, or they end up like Scarlett, insatiably pursuing money and attention, or they end up like Dax, seeking some group or cause to give their life meaning.”
“I don’t buy that. Every person I’ve seen living for something? They end up taking orders from some psychopath. Me? All I care about is being able to sleep at night and look myself in the mirror in the morning.”
“But what gives you that?” I ask. “What gives you that sense that you’re okay?”
“Just knowing I don’t owe nobody nothing, and I did right by my own mind.”
“Not a cause but a code.”
I shake my head. “Something my professor says. If you live for a cause, you become a puppet. You become like the guy I left out there on that field or, hell, even Cadence, in her own way. But if you live for a code—that’s what gives your life direction and meaning.”
It’s a moral code that gives life meaning. And in our culture, religion is seen as the only solid foundation of a moral code.
In his new book The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God, Christian podcaster Justin Brierley recounts the rise and fall of the New Atheists. In his account, the New Atheists did not and could not offer a positive moral code to give people’s lives direction and fill them with significance. This explains, not only why they failed, but why the most thoughtful people today are turning to religion to save the culture and their own souls.
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The New Atheists, Brierley observes, became culturally prominent after 9/11, arguing that faith fueled murderous fanaticism and subverted crucial values such as science, reason, and progress. But despite its glorification of science, the movement had little positive guidance to offer. It was essentially a critical movement that tried to unite people around what it was against—religion. Consequently, the leaders adopted a negative, often condescending tone that grew tired once the initial shock and awe wore off.
Even more important, uniting around a negative disguised deeper moral disagreements among atheists that came to the fore in debates over social justice. Many in the movement became early adopters of the “woke” ideology, while others saw this ideology as opposed to reason, science, and free thought.
Up to that point, New Atheism had been largely united in agreeing that religion was bad and science was good. But it turns out that life is more complicated than that. Once the community discovered they held radically differing views about how life should be lived once religion has been abandoned, things quickly spiraled downwards.
According to Brierley, the collapse of New Atheism was inevitable. People need meaning, and only religion can supply that meaning. “[S]cience turned out to be a poor substitute for a savior.” Science, and reason more broadly, cannot defend an objective ethical code. And so, as our culture has become less religious, and as the Christian story that had given people’s lives direction and meaning has faded in influence, the result has been a “meaning crisis.” You know the narrative: God gave life meaning and the death of God unleashed nihilism.
But Brierley sees signs of hope. Thinkers like Jordan Peterson have made a compelling case that Christianity is useful in providing a moral foundation for people’s lives and for society. Thinkers like Tom Holland are demonstrating that even atheists embrace Christian ethics. One-time critics of religion are increasingly acknowledging the vital benefits of Christianity.
[P]eople need a story to live by, but the stories we have been telling ourselves in the last several decades have been growing increasingly thin and superficial. Meanwhile, a plethora of thinkers have been reevaluating the Christian story and showing how it continues to undergird our most fundamental moral and cultural instincts.
Brierley gets one thing absolutely right: insofar as the New Atheists were crusading against religion without offering a positive moral alternative, they had to fail. What he gets wrong is just about everything else.
I have already addressed many of the points raised by Brierley’s books. In “God Is Dead…But Which One?” I show how it was not the the loss of religion but the failure to defend a morality of reason that unleashed modern nihilism. In “Christianity’s True Moral Legacy,” I explain why Christianity does not deserve credit for moral ideals like individual rights and political equality, but does deserve blame for injecting the immoral ideal of self-sacrifice into the West. In “Other-Worldly Nihilism” and “Atheists, Stop Promoting Religious Morality,” I demonstrate why that ideal is immoral. And in “What is Effective Egoism?” I prove that there is a secular morality of reason—one that owes nothing to religion.
What I haven’t done is address head on the nature of our need for meaning—and how Effective Egoism is the only moral code that genuinely meets that need.
Our Need for Meaning
No one wonders if life has meaning when they fall in love. No one worries that life is meaningless when consuming soul-stirring art, or witnessing an awe-inspiring achievement, or hearing their children laugh, or immersing themselves in fulfilling work.
In these moments, all of us experience directly the fact that life is a self-justifying end-in-itself. It is worth living through for its own sake. It doesn’t need an external meaning because the living of life is rich in meaning.
But for many people, these moments are fleeting, and they regularly experience countervailing emotions of emptiness, loneliness, aimlessness, depression. They work at a job they hate, return home to an empty apartment or a loveless marriage, and wander through their days without a sense of direction. They lack fire, passion, serenity, joy. Such people do face a terrifying question: why bother?
There are others who do seem to have purpose and direction in life. The CEO who leads a billion dollar company. The singer whose songs top the charts. The politician or crusader for a cause who leads a following toward what he promises is a brighter future. And yet to get to know these people is often to find that lurking beneath the surface is a deep unhappiness. They seem to have everything worth having in life—and yet they still can’t answer the question: what’s the point of it all?
There is only one thing that can satisfy our quest for meaning—one thing that allows us to experience our lives as meaningful, not only in the highest moments, but each and every day: the quest to live up to a moral ideal.
Our Need for a Moral Ideal
“[W]e are innately meaning-seeking creatures,” writes Brierley. “Indeed, I would argue that we are innately religious.” We all worship something, there is “always some ultimate reality to which we give our allegiance.” This, he thinks, explains religion’s appeal—and it explains why, when people reject religion, they are compelled to look for substitutes, such as celebrity, conspiracies, or causes.
There is something right about this. We are innately meaning-seeking creatures, not because we are innately religious, but because we are innately philosophical. We cannot escape having a big picture perspective on the universe and our place in it. We cannot escape taking a stand on life’s fundamental questions:
Where am I?
What am I?
How do I know it?
How should I live?
Our answers to these questions are usually implicit, inconsistent, and inchoate. The science of philosophy exists to make our answers explicit and to examine them critically to ensure they are clear, consistent, and true. When philosophy fulfills its role, it leaves us with a powerful framework for making sense of the world—and a moral ideal to guide our actions in the world.
A moral ideal is our North Star. It tells us what is worthy of admiration, emulation, worship. It tells us what kind of person we should strive to become if we want to live the best life we can live. To dedicate our life to the achievement of a moral ideal is to experience life as meaningful—in our highest moments, our lowest moments, in every moment in between.
Religion supplies answers to philosophy’s questions, too, along with its own distinctive moral ideal. But religion is primitive philosophy. It gives answers, but not arguments. Its stories contain lessons, but those lessons are to be accepted on faith, authority, and emotion. As Ayn Rand put it:
Philosophy is the goal toward which religion was only a helplessly blind groping. The grandeur, the reverence, the exalted purity, the austere dedication to the pursuit of truth, which are commonly associated with religion, should properly belong to the field of philosophy.
It is philosophy’s job to give us a rational framework for understanding the world, and a rational moral ideal to guide our actions. Religion places meaning on the side of the irrational—and offers as its moral ideal, not the grandeur of human happiness, reverence for man’s mind, and the purity of man’s integrity, but an anti-earthly ideal that devalues man, the mind, the self.
Effective Egoism offers something far nobler.
Our Need For Effective Egoism
Brierley quotes from an interview he conducted with Jordan Peterson:
In our interview [Peterson] insisted, “You have a hierarchy of values. You have to, otherwise you can’t act, or you’re painfully confused. Whatever is at the top of that hierarchy of values, serves the function of God for you.”
This is true. And it is one of the most damning indictments of religion imaginable. To place a supernatural being superior to you in every respect at the top of your hierarchy of values is degrading. It means that you are by nature inferior—and it places your ideals outside of this world and outside of your power to realize. Religion turns idealism into a charade.
Effective Egoism is a morality for those who love this world, love their life, and take the achievement of their ideals seriously. An Effective Egoist regards his life and his happiness as sacred. At the top of his value hierarchy sits, not God, but himself. Not necessarily himself as he is, but himself as he might be and ought to be. His ideal is set by a vision of man’s highest potential—and by a commitment to realize that potential in his own life.
The formation of this ideal starts with the experience of admiration. As children, we are drawn to heroes—real and fictional—whom we seek to emulate. For me, it started with superheroes: He-Man, Batman, Superman. As I grew up, my heroes became baseball players, martial artists, and musicians. Ultimately, I found my heroes in historical giants like the Founding Fathers and in the novels of Ayn Rand and Victor Hugo.
Heroes help us project a life worth living. They give us a vision of who we could become and should become. And they provide the ongoing fuel we need to remain dedicated to that vision across the whole of our lives.
The job of ethics is to articulate the universal principles that make our heroes heroes—principles that we can use to forge our character and build our unique life. A life that is not a copy of our role models, but a distinctive counterpart. A life that is filled with a happiness so deep that we no longer wonder what gives life meaning—we know it in the marrow of our bones.
But our culture did not offer us a moral code worthy of our heroes. What we respond to in heroes is the sight of people who know how to live. What we were owed as children and young adults was a moral code to teach us how to live. A moral code that would provide a blueprint for living a truly human life: a life of reason, of purpose, of immaculate self-esteem. What we were given instead was the Christian moral code and its secular counterparts, which taught us to obey, to serve, to sacrifice.
Our heroes called on us to lift our head in pride—our moral code commanded us to bow our head in shame.
The New Atheists failed because they could not give us the moral code we deserved. And that is why Effective Egoism will succeed. Effective Egoism does offer a positive alternative to religion. It offers us a moral code that glorifies, not obedience and suffering, but independent thought, achievement, self-confidence, and joy. It is a moral code designed, not to warn us away from seeking our own happiness on earth, but to teach us how to build a self and a life that we love.
Nothing is more sacred than this process of self-creation—and yet it’s a process that Brierley treats with contempt. He mourns that, with the death of God, “we broker our own identity rather than have it handed down to us.” He thinks the problem with the mindless conformists who make up the woke cult and the Trump cult is their “expressive individualism.” He longs for (he quotes the author of Why Being Yourself Is a Bad Idea) the “security” of a world that provides us with a “predetermined order that tells us who we are.”
I, for one, will have no part in it. No one—not even God himself—gets to tell me who I am and who I will become. My life and my soul are mine to build.
And so are yours. May your love of life, your love of human greatness, and a pro-self moral code be your guide.
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective:
Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World by Ayn Rand
Causality vs. Duty by Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand
And if want the full case for egoism, you can buy my book Effective Egoism: An Individualist’s Guide to Pride, Purpose, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
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