The New Atheism, Myth, and History

The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion

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Nathan Johnstone
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , June
     309 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Although it is far from clear what is necessary and sufficient for a worldview to qualify as a religion, there is a huge debate about the dangers and advantages of religious beliefs: The so-called “God debate” is a tripartite discussion in the court of reason concerning the plausibility of religious and anti-religious worldviews.

The first part of this discussion involves the philosophical and scientific plausibility of worldviews that assume a transcendent deity exists which possesses the properties traditionally ascribed to God. Therefore, the first part of the God debate includes the philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God. The second part considers the theological claims of religious worldviews and the commonality that they are portrayed as being justified through divine revelation occurring in the history of humankind. The third part of the God debate neither deals with matters from a philosophical nor from a theological point of view, but concentrates on religious and anti-religious worldviews as historical and cultural phenomena that shape the way individuals and societies perceive the world. 

Whereas there is considerable literature on both the philosophical and the theological part of the God debate—that addresses the arguments in favor of and against the plausibility and adequacy of religious worldviews—there is a lack in scholarship critically examining the historical and cultural claims of both concerning the impact of religion and anti-religion on the course of human history. However, in The New Atheism, Myth, and History. The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion, author Nathan Johnstone observes this lack of scientific reflection is exasperating given that much of the critique of religions presented by the “New Atheists” is based on historical and cultural claims. Johnstone asserts, “[T]he focus of the God debate on scientific naturalism and justification for belief has overshadowed the fact that much of the New Atheist critique of religion is actually based in areas such as politics, sociology, […] cultural studies, education, criminology, literature and, of course, history” (3).

The New Atheism, Myth, and History intends to overcome this lack of critical reflection on the cultural and historical claims from a predominantly historical perspective. Although Johnstone does not attend the philosophical and the theological aspects of the God debate, and therefore does not argue philosophically or theologically for or against the plausibility of belief in God, he argues for a very clear thesis: that the New Atheists frequently misuse history, and the study of history, to polemically and unscientifically support their case against religion. Johnstone begins with the following observation: “Taken as a whole, the New Atheism identifies two competing traditions within the history of religion and its dissidents. First, religion is presented as universally malign, its fruits being subservience to superstition, the stifling of freethought and the promotion of genocidal violence. Second, New Atheists identify a counter tradition of virtuous scepticism that, originating in Antiquity, and barely surviving the Christian and Islamic supremacies, was ultimately to coalesce and flourish in the Enlightenment’s outright attack on superstition and in the unshackling of science” (7). Therefore, Johnstone deftly establishes—through a detailed, critical, and historical analysis of a variety of topics frequently mentioned in the God debate, such as witch-hunting, heresy, and the Holocaust—that “both traditions [identified by the New Atheism, BPG] are mythological” (7) and that the “broader conclusions drawn from them [regarding the atrocities of religion, BPG] unjustified” (7).

Ultimately, Johnstone concludes that the atrocities putatively executed in the name of religion require a more nuanced historical analysis than the naïve evaluation presented by the New Atheists, which posits religion, and religion alone, is responsible for everything bad that has transpired throughout human history. Nathan Johnstone’sThe New Atheism, Myth, and History. The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion is a must read for anyone who seriously seeks to engage in the debate concerning the historical and culture impact of religion on the course of history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benedikt Paul Göcke is on the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
January 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nathan Johnstone is a Specialist in Cultural and Religious History, and is the author of The Devil and Demonism in Early Modern England. He has taught history at Canterbury Christ Church University and at the University of Portsmouth.


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