The Book of Exodus begins with these ominous words: 'Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.' The words signal the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the people of Israel. Joseph had been one of the twelve sons of Jacob (also named Israel). His prudent government had saved Egypt, and by extension the people of Israel, who moved down to Egypt, from seven years of famine. But at the beginning of Exodus, we find Jacob's children in slavery to a king who knew not Joseph.
Now I don't want to make to much of the analogy I am going to draw with the opening lines of Exodus. At least, nothing quite so ominous. But it seems, in the course of four short years of teaching in an Introduction to World Religions class, I have witnessed the coming of a generation of students who do not know Richard Dawkins. The realization caught me by surprise, and got me thinking about what sort of cultural groundswell might be occurring.
Lecturing on Judaism four years ago, I used Dawkins' dismissive reading of the first chapter of Genesis as a counterpoint to what an original reader might have taken away from the text. I countered the Dawkins-take on so-called six-day creationist interpretation by observing that the only real expectation original readers probably took away from the text was that a week had seven days. Not five days, or six days, nor eight days, or ten days. Seven days: six on which people work, like God worked, and one of which they rest, exactly like God rested. Certainly nothing about the scientifically-verifiable beginnings of the universe, which was more or less meaningless at the time. My evidence? That's what is says the original readers were supposed to take away from the Genesis narrative in Exodus 20, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments. Before I gave my pious spiel, however, I asked how many people in the audience knew who Dawkins was. Out of a class of 50 or 60, a full third raised their hands.
When I asked the same question this semester, not one person in 50 raised their hand. A bit taken aback, I think I sputtered through an explanation of who Dawkins was and why he was significant. The life of an atheist, of course, is not exactly on topic in a world religions class. Tying the now irrelevant reference to Dawkins into a short discussion of the shortcoming of six-day creationism, I managed not to look too much the fool.
It seems today students of 18, 19, or 20 years of age did not know Dawkins. As far as popular intellectual discourse goes, it seems like Dawkins is all I've ever known. What changed over such a short period of time? In the broader scheme of things, popular culture has most likely chewed Dawkins up and spit him out. Which will happen to most everyone who courts the public eye for too long. With his one message about the delusions of faith, Dawkins was bound to be effective in short term, but would tire audiences out over the long term.
More tellingly, perhaps, the composition of the world religions class has also changed. My general impression is that the number of Caucasian students has declined in proportion to other ethnic demographics--especially Middle Eastern and Indian.
So the reasons why the popular discourse has shifted away from Dawkins' anti-religious messages may run deeper than mere generational shifts. For the first time in my life, many students come to religious studies are largely innocent of the lengthy 19th and 20th century arguments stemming from the Enlightenment tradition of against religion--specifically Christianity, to be sure, but religion more generally. I have caught myself a number of times using Western atheism as a foil in conversation with student, for example, in comparison to Buddhism or Hinduism, or in comparison to the charge of atheism brought against early Christians. Students are always polite, but I have left conversations wondering whether alluding to Western atheism was the best way to illustrate a point.
Prospects for the future are interesting. My intellectual battles, the intellectual battles of my teachers, and their teachers, and their teacher's teachers, may be nothing more than an antiquarian curiosity to the next generation of students. That's strange to think about. The Christian sub-culture in which I grew up and was educated defined itself over against a secular world, which was in its turn defined by nominal professions of faith and outright skepticism. The Christian sub-culture was animated by the myth of a lost Christendom, a place from which we came and back to which the faithful would have to bring the country, kicking a screaming if necessary. Growing immigrant communities, however, don't carry the same chip on the cultural shoulder that Christian communities do. They do not necessarily have the same suspicion of the secular public square, nor do they see the sort of tensions between religious life and public life that domestic Christian communities have internalized.
Perhaps I shouldn't underestimate the ability of Western academia to thoroughly inoculate the second of third generations in immigrant families against religious beliefs. At the same time, I fairly confident Christian communities will not abandon their suspicion of the secular public square any time soon. These are intellectual potentialities. What about the demographic numbers? Given the growing numbers of immigrants, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that immigrant communities are simply going to choose between one of Caucasian two solitudes.
I wonder, therefore, how debate about the nature of secularity is also going to change in the next few decades. For the last 40 or so years, the North American arm of the debate has increasingly been couched in winner-take-all terms. The character of the debate changes if there's more than one major religious participant (or two, if you count Judaism; or three, if you count Mormonism). The character changes significantly if one of the new participants is not a native Western European tradition.