A new, kinder, gentler atheism

Mr. Harris isn’t the only one who has changed his tone. The atheist Richard Dawkins recently devoted an entire book, “The Magic of Reality,” to showing how scientific inquiry has made sense of the seemingly miraculous—from rainbows to the origins of the universe. The discoveries of science, Mr. Dawkins writes, offer as much wonder and life satisfaction as religious belief. The evolutionary biologist and atheist Olivia Judson calls “the knowledge that we evolved a source of solace and hope.”

Since when are these well-known atheists so concerned with consolation and connection, with solace and hope? Mr. Dawkins and his fellow atheists were famous for their zingers dismissing religion. The title of the late journalist and outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens ’s 2007 book sums it up: “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”

The kinder, gentler atheism echoes a striking shift in religious culture. Millennials—Americans born after 1980—were not even a gleam in their parents’ eyes in 1976 when Mr. Dawkins published “The Selfish Gene,” a textbook for the mainstream atheist movement. Millennials are a promising audience for atheists, as nearly a third of them are religiously unaffiliated (compared to 20% of all Americans, and 9% of those 65 and older), according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study. But millennials are much less interested in debates over evolutionary theory, which most see as settled, than in the puzzles of existence: Why do we experience beauty as transcendent and suffering as somehow wrong? What is our purpose?