A good many silly things have been said about atheists over the years – and by them too, not least in recent times. In 1997 the misleadingly described ‘new atheist’ Richard Dawkins called faith ‘one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate’. It was a singularly obtuse thing to say in the shadow of the Holocaust. Yet it was of a piece with centuries of invective cast both by atheists and the equally strident defenders of faith who have long sought to inoculate humanity against them. Such militants need each other, it seems, and probably always will, which suggests that if atheism has a future, that will only be because religion does as well.
Nick Spencer, research director at the religion and society think-tank Theos, is well attuned to such ironies, and has written a book – at once empathetic and critical, sensible and balanced – that is not silly at all. Conversant with recent scholarship though writing for a general audience, he has