Have the New Atheists over-reached themselves?

AC Grayling launches New Humanities College

Well there has been a lot of comment on the “University” that has been announced by AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins. It is to be called New College of the Humanities and will be based in London. Their idea is to create a college of the humanities that will give degrees in English, philosophy, history, economics and law. They have lined up a list of academics from both sides of the Atlantic and want to rival Oxbridge.

AC Grayling, an eminent Oxford philosophy professor, will be its first master. But then things have started to get a bit controversial. Firstly, the cost of the fees will be £18,000 per annum – twice the top level of the state universities.

Then although it is being touted as being staffed by top academics the truth is that some of them are but others (such as Dawkins) are more celebrity than major academics. Indeed also to be noted is that the line-up of academics only has one woman and all are white.

Then it has come out that rather than being degrees issued by their own university they will in fact be University of London degrees. Indeed rather than being a rival to Oxbridge it sounds more like a cramming school for London!

If you want a wonderful rant can I recommend Terry Eagleton (one of the top English critics) in the Guardian. It runs under the headline AC Graylings new private university is odious.

But there is another aspect that it seems most of the traditional media have so far failed to mention. That is the philosophical nature of the college. It appears that the college is likely to have a strong atheist ethos. The Church Mouse picked up this on his blog. He writes of some of the academics:

You see, the list of people involved in this reads like a who’s who of new atheist grandees.  AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins need no introduction, and figures such as Laurance Krass, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer and Steve Jones are all well known atheists, as well as academic titans in their own fields.  Perhaps the most intriguing individual involved is Roy Brown, former International Humanist and Ethical Union President, who will serve as a non-executive director.  He appears to have no background in education.

Then you have Giles Fraser, who taught philosophy at Oxford and is now a Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral tweeted:

Richard Dawkins in attack mode

Richard Dawkins

Now there is nothing wrong in having a college or university focussed on the teaching of atheism, especially a private one. But there are aspects of this that may well, I believe in the longer term, start to undermine the New Atheist mantra in the UK.

Firstly, with the hullabaloo about the fees they will be seen as aligning themselves with the elitist public school ethos. They are aligning themselves more closely with those that are privileged and can afford the fees – a bit rich when you think of the regular attacks on faith schools that emanate from the likes of Dawkins that faith schools cause segregation. I suspect most people will see that the wealth divide in colleges like this one even more starkly. They will see that many of the main names in atheism in this country are lending their names to a college that is in it to make a quick buck and not a research based university. This is especially true when many in this country are tightening their belts. To align atheism with privilege is a dangerous move for them.

Secondly, it is again rich when you think of the outcry about the Templeton prize this year where the Templeton Foundation was accused of trying to influence science by the back door that this group are doing it with their new college without being open about it. It is fascinating that in a humanities college that students will have to study Science and specifically:

The aim of this course is to develop an intelligent insight into central areas of science, principally cosmology, fundamental physics and quantum theory, evolutionary biology, genetics and human evolution. The course is designed to be taught to non-scientists, requiring minimal mathematical skills. Elements include:

Cosmology: origins and nature of the universe.
Fundamental physics: the standard model of the atom and the basic ideas of quantum theory.
Biological evolution: Darwin and subsequent empirical development of evolutionary theory.
Genetics: the building blocks of life.
Human evolution and dispersion.

Given the nature of many of those who will teach there it is an interesting and revealing selection. Again I think that trying to be less than open about their aims and objectives will lead to a weakening of their onslaught in this country.

Overall some of the leading New Atheists (I am deliberately separating New Atheists from other forms of atheists) have made a decision to be associated with an institution that is at best a flawed institution and over time I suspect may start to make people re-consider their adulation of them.


5 comments on “Have the New Atheists over-reached themselves?

  1. AndrewFinden
    June 7, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    To align atheism with privilege is a dangerous move for them.

    I wish I could remember who it was who said that Atheism is like designer drugs – something found mostly in circles of western elites.

    But then, they might just surprise us and get Francis Collins to teach a primer on genetics…

  2. Gerrarrdus
    June 7, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

    Now come on Will. We’ve all got to make a living, whatever our religious beliefs or lack of them.

  3. Will Cookson
    June 7, 2011 at 10:32 pm #


    That is one of the reasons that I suspect that they are keeping their “values” quiet is that they might fall foul of employment laws. Very ironic really.

    Gerrarrdus, well the Beaker Folk and Archdruid obviously do rather well!! Seriously though, Prof Dawkins isn’t short of a bob or two.

  4. johnm55
    June 7, 2011 at 10:46 pm #

    Humanities taught by scientists – it might just encourage a bit of critical thinking and proper examination of the evidence. I think that they should start with a faculty of journalism .

    • Will Cookson
      June 7, 2011 at 10:52 pm #


      Certainly agree with journalism! However, there is a huge agenda in this that I think that should be open and discussed. Science (and I speak as a mathematician) can be so limited. In an English course how would you look at the poetry of Milton or Keats through “evidence”? How would you read Shakespeare through this? How could you respond to the great works of western literature without an understanding of the biblical imagery being employed etc?

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