In his 2006 Wired essay, “The Church of the Non-Believers,” journalist Gary Wolf coined the term “New Atheists” to describe the intellectual movement inaugurated by a quartet of thinkers who pressed for a militant revival of Neo-Darwinism in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks as well as in the surge in Evangelical Christianity that arose in response to the attacks in the United States.
Headed by Oxford evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins; neuroscientist, Sam Harris; Tufts University philosopher, Daniel Dennet; and gadfly leftist turned neoconservative journalist Christopher Hitchens, these “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism took aim at religious belief as a fundamentally outmoded and anti-humanistic program.
One of the core arguments of the New Atheists was that discoveries in science since the Early Modern period had gradually eroded Christian (and, to a lesser degree, Islamic and Jewish) theological explanations of the universe. Humans confidently living in the twenty-first century had a much deeper understanding of how the physical world operates, and, thus, religious explanations for how the world works were rendered null and void.
One recent film that serves as an overview of New Atheism—especially the kinder, gentler version that has emerged after the death of Christopher Hitchens in 2011 and which is championed in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature—is the 2019 film Ad Astra.
Starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones, Ad Astra tells the story of Roy McBride (played both brilliantly and, at times, weakly by Brad Pitt), an astronaut who is tasked with finding his father, Clifford (played by Jones), who had left earth in search of intelligent life and who now, his spaceship parked outside of the planet Neptune, was sending mysterious and dangerous energy blasts back to earth.
As the reader might already have guessed, the “science” elements of the movie, which, in Ad Astra, includes Brad Pitt in a spacesuit being launched through space debris by a rotating fan and then flying back to earth from Neptune in a rocket via the force of a nuclear blast, are annoyingly farcical, but Ad Astra, unlike Ridley Scott’s 2015 The Martian, is not about showcasing how the laws of physics actually work in space.
Rather, Ad Astra is profoundly influenced by the (anti-)theological, humanistic New Atheistic movement and contains a subtle attempt at debunking both Christianity as well as reshaping masculinity.
The principle message of Ad Astra is that any attempt for searching for intelligent life in the heavens is futile, and, in the words of Roy McBride, “Now, we know we’re all we’ve got.”
Roy’s words come as a response to his father Clifford’s claim that they must keep searching for someone out in the heavens. However, Clifford, despite his telescopic photographs of strange and new planets, did not find any other living thing in the cosmos, and, like his son Roy, he abandoned his family for the pursuit of science and, it is implied, God.
As Brad Pitt’s Roy narrates:
He captured strange and distant worlds in greater detail than ever before. They were beautiful, magnificent, full of awe and wonder. But beneath their sublime surfaces, there was nothing. No love or hate. No light or dark. He could only see what was not there, and missed what was right in front of him.
Ad Astra is a critique of ambition that seeks to conquer the stars through the exercise of the Western masculine will to power.
However, the film has a not too subtle critique of the desire to reach out and know God. The movie begins with two symbols. At the beginning of the film, Brad Pitt’s Roy falls from a space antennae that reaches out from the earth into space only to be rescued and rehabilitated by his fellow man. Likewise, at the end of the film, when Roy has returned to earth in his space capsule, a soldier reaches his hand out to help him in a humanistic parody of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam”on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
As he narrates in his final “psychological evaluation,” Roy seems content being transformed from the ambitious single minded adventurer to a kindler, gentler and more humanistic husband with his feet planted on the ground:
I’m steady, calm. I slept well. No bad dreams. I am active and engaged. I’m aware of my surroundings and those in my immediate sphere. I’m attentive. I’m focused on the essentials, to the exclusion of all else. I’m unsure of the future, but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live and love.
The message of Ad Astra, a film which appears to riff on the humanistic second wave of the New Atheists is clear: we must stop searching for a Heavenly Father and focus on those around us and become good New Atheistic humanists, going on coffee dates with our wives as Brad Pitt and Liv Tyler (who plays his wife) do at the end of the film.
The past year of traumatizing lockdowns, violent street fighting, and vitriolic political discourse has divided not only the nation, but the body of Christ into seemingly irreconcilable camps.
While both sides of the political divide have legitimate grievances, much of the anger and hatred directed toward one another is rooted in the vary pride, ambition, and will to power that Ad Astra critiques.
It is true that a just social order is, on one level, forged with strength, but a truly Christian social order is rooted in humility and, most importantly, a love of neighbor and God.