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Two posts on the New Atheism

April 17th, 2011 · 2 Comments

Two part series on the New Atheism.

I have commented at length on the New Atheists, and was one of the first to critique it, if you care to explore the archives.
To me, the question is simple: we have enough religious idiots already, another cult, that of the New Atheists is simply more confusion. The New Atheism is too reminiscent of Bertrand Russell, who was fascinating as an individual. But a whole cult of such is deadly dull, and dangerous to sanity.
Never underestimate Xtianity, nor judge it by the beliefs of its average adherents. Note that Axial Age proto-Judaism was already in decline and points to a stance as to ur-divinity in the refusal to use ‘god names’, retreating into tokens of silence like IHVH. Willynilly the nameless became a name in that token. And so it goes. But instead of ‘atheism’ a secularist might simply point to the reality that ‘god talk’ was not licensed in proto-monotheism via Israel. So we should not be surprised if the New Atheists, in perfect sophmoric revulsion, simply puck in pubic on the gibberish of two millennia.

I was never an explicit atheist, but always revolved around the category. The New Atheism energized a kind of evacuation from that position. I was always wary of the defining dogmatisms of atheism, theism, and agnosticism, although the latter is the only real option here, a very loose agnoticism, that can explore neo-theism and atheism in parallel, as a kind of dialectic.
The issue is completely pointless if the defining category of ‘god’ is not specified. We can move too easily between the theism of Xtians and the theism of the atheist (?) Spinoza, what to say of the atheism of Buddhists and Jains. What does it mean to be an atheist? The stance is as incoherent as the theistic.

I think that the emergence of New Atheism is too fixated on scientism, darwinism, reductionist neuroscience, and flaccid ‘humanism’. And the behind the scenes game of Nietzsche who confused absolutely everyone.
I think that the New Atheism is a demonic fiasco in the making, and that’s no fantasy. The demonic outcome of Nietzscheanism in Nazism (not to blame fascism on Nietzche!) is a warning. The atheist world of secularists never knew what hit them, and still doesn’t. The situation is complex, and can result in the same confusions that arise from blaming Darwin for Hitler. But the connections are there for Nietzsche and Darwin both.
To say that ‘god does not exist’ does not imply that demonic spirits do not exist. Beware. And, pace, Gurdjieff and or Mephistopheles, they may not be spirits! The New Atheist is a beautiful sucker to play with for the democially inclined.
Nietzsche, to me, made atheism unsafe at any speed, and his attempt to foment the destruction of democratic modernism in the context of atheist nihilism and eugenic fantasies of the ubermensch are grotesque, and force the implicit atheist (who can’t deal with Xtian or other ‘god’ nonsense) to find a new position.
Defending the New Atheism ad infinitum is what we are stuck with here. But a new approach is needed, perhaps a neutral study of the history of religion in a secular context, along with a reading of the classic literatures on religion in the Jain/Buddhist tradition, with their take on atheism.
It is also worth noting that there are many concealed atheists who have ‘moved on’, e.g. Kant’s near atheism followed by his de facto neo-theistic ethicism, or Hegel’s hidden atheism, with his dialectic of theism and atheism, etc…
The New Atheism is a dangerous oversimplification that will slowly but surely turn into an intolerant cult (already there in fact) with a completely ostrich attitude towards the complexity of man, and the history of religion. And the Nietzsche demonic will resurface sooner or later. It is significant that the New Atheists are totally ignorant of occult issues. Complete sitting ducks. When the time comes, duck.

The failure of Xtianity was almost complete, until the New Atheists came along. Now the New Atheists leave so many so exasperated that Xtianity looks good all over again. That should make everyone suspicious. What is going on here? The best thing that happened to Xtianity in decline was the New Atheism, to say nothing of Darwinism and scientism.

How I see the “New Atheism” – Part 1 of 2
Perhaps the first thing I need to say on this topic is that there’s really no such thing as the New Atheism – at least in a sense. The authors who have come to be known as “New Atheists” are not necessarily saying anything terribly new. To the extent that there is something new in their books, articles, speeches, media appearances, and so on, it builds in an incremental way on what came before. What’s really new is that people who criticise religion in a forthright way now have a very large audience interested in their thoughts. Prior to the last few years that was far less the case.

In Western countries, there’s a long tradition of intellectual critique of religious teachings going far back into antiquity with the writings of Epicurus in ancient Greece and Lucretius in ancient Rome. The intellectual classes of Europe and the West increasingly turned away from Christianity in recent centuries, or at least from the orthodox traditions of the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestantism. Obviously, much happened in between.

Throughout our lifetimes, there has always been a strong body of thought according to which holy books such as the Bible are not divinely inspired but are merely human constructions, traditional religious concepts of God are highly implausible, and key Christian doctrines such as those of the Trinity, sin against God, eternal punishment, and Christ’s sacrificial atonement seem unlikely or even incoherent.

Consider the 1980s and 1990s, however – the rather recent past. During those decades, you could have found plenty of material that criticises traditional religion, denying its truth claims and seriously contesting its moral authority. The sorts of secular thinkers I have in mind were likely not only to think that the claims about the world made by Christianity and other religions are false, they were also likely to deny that the Christian churches and their leaders held the high moral ground in social debates or that there was any reason to consider Christian priests, presbyters, pastors, or even the pope – perhaps especially the pope – to be moral experts.

However, during the 1980s these criticisms were seldom expressed in highly visible, highly public ways. You were most likely to see them in academic books and journals, in material published by what we can think of broadly as the rationalist movement, or, related to this, in monographs from relatively small publishers such as Prometheus Books.

The material was there for those that wanted it, but it was tucked away in the corners of the culture. That is what changed, and you can pinpoint the exact year when it changed: 2004.

Let’s start by looking at what actually constitutes the phenomenon of “the New Atheism”. It’s mainly that the sort of material that had existed for a very long time is suddenly popular. Large publishers are now prepared to accept books that criticise religion; powerful literary agents are willing to represent such books; in some cases, very high-profile writers are writing them; and the public is buying them in rather large numbers. Some of the most prominent books have sold millions of copies.

Tom Flynn, the editor of Free Inquiry magazine, has suggested that the first cab off the rank – the first of these recent books by a forthright, unashamed atheist to issue from a major publisher – was actually Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby, published in 2004 by an imprint of the giant publisher Macmillan. But the really dramatic breakthrough was later that same year, 2004, with The End of Faith by Sam Harris, published by W.W. Norton. This was a far more fiercely anti-religious book, aimed especially at Islam, and emphasising that religious ideas actually matter because religious adherents are motivated one way or the other to act in accordance with the teachings that they accept. Harris followed up a couple of years later with another book, Letter to a Christian Nation, which is very short and provides an easy introduction to how he and many others like him think about religion (particularly Christianity), and its role in modern society (particularly the United States of America).

In early 2006, the large trade imprint Viking published Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, which calls for religion to be studied as a natural phenomenon. Dennett goes out of his way to be conciliatory to Christian believers, and his tone is far from vitriolic, but he has often been dismissed in vitriolic fashion, which tends to create the feeling on my side of the current debates that, no matter how considerately and courteously you may express yourself, you are likely, if you’re a critic of religion, to be demonised. That’s a bit of a problem, and I’ll return to it tomorrow.

Then, later in 2006, Richard Dawkins published the best known of the so-called New Atheist books, The God Delusion, which was supported by large publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2007, high-profile journalist Christopher Hitchens added a much more aggressive book than Dawkins’ (The God Delusion has a provocative title and forthright passages, but is generally more moderate in tone than you might think). Hitchens’ book is called, provocatively, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. It was published by a new imprint, Twelve, which has considerable marketing power, and it became a best-seller.

In November 2006, prior to the publication of Hitchens’ book, a journalist called Gary Wolf published a piece in Wired magazine under the title “The Church of the Non-Believers”. In this piece he dubbed Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins “the New Atheists” and hyped up their hostility to religion, as opposed to mere disagreement with religious doctrines. Since Hitchens joined the group, the colourful epithet, “the Four Horsemen” has also been applied to Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens.

You can add in Michel Onfray, A.C. Grayling, Victor Stenger … and I should mention my own anthology, co-edited with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, which offers quite a spectrum of thinking from outspoken non-believers. It should be pointed out, however, that whatever books you count as “New Atheist” books … there are already far more books written to try to answer them (often sporting titles like The Dawkins Delusion, The God Solution, Beyond the God Delusion, Letter from a Christian Citizen and so on). Apart from these opportunistic or reactive works, there are many other books published every year advocating one or another form of traditional religious belief. These far outnumber books by the New Atheist writers and some of them outsell even Richard Dawkins.

So the publishing phenomenon of the New Atheism needs to be kept in perspective.

Still, something has changed. Large publishers are interested in the New Atheist books and some of these books are, as I said, selling in very large numbers. There’s a hunger in the population for these kinds of books and there’s also a vibe of people organising under the banner of atheism. These people are not extremists – they are not going to blow things up, take hostages, or conduct violent revolutions – but there’s a sense of many people being, frankly, fed up with religion.

Tomorrow, I want to begin by asking why that might that be so.


How I see the “New Atheism” – Part 2 of 2
I was saying yesterday that something has changed. There’s a sense of many people being fed up with religion, and large publishers are interested in books that relate to the public mood. But why the widespread hostility to religion at this particular point of history?

Part of it, of course, is a reaction to the events of September 11, 2001, and it’s notable that The End of Faith, the first of the very popular New Atheist books was largely focused on Islam. But surely that’s not the whole story. Every day there are terrible actions carried out in the name of one religion or another, and many people now see religion as having a dark side.

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence that even traditional forms of Christianity, which pride themselves on their love and compassion, have this kind of dark side. Much of the behaviour of religious leaders and organisations in Western countries fuels the perception that they’d rather use force than try to persuade people. In many cases, we see Christians, doubtless well-intentioned, wanting to get governments to impose their ideas on others who may not be Christians. You may say that it’s your democratic right to do this, and I’d agree with you up to a point. Only “up to a point”, because I think that might show a simplistic view of how democracy is supposed to work. In my forthcoming book on freedom of religion I’ll have a lot to say about this.

Meanwhile, even if it’s somebody’s democratic right to ask governments to endorse, promote, or impose, Christian viewpoints, there will inevitably, and quite rightly, be a response from people like me who strongly disagree with those viewpoints. We’re going to ask whether those viewpoints are soundly based, whether they really have the divine authority that is claimed for them, and so on.

If any of us involved in public debates claim to have some kind of special moral authority that comes from God or a holy text or a body of theological teaching … then there will, quite rightly, be others asking whether we really possess that sort of authority, whether God really says what we claim (or even exists), whether our holy texts are really divinely inspired, whether our theological doctrines are credible, and so on.

On the face of it, after all, the sorts of claims that are made by Christian and other religious leaders sound extraordinary and even arrogant. No one should assume, anymore, that people will simply accept that these religious leaders have a special insight into reality or that they hold the high moral ground in public debate. Many of us disagree, and of course we also have rights, notably the right to express our disagreement strongly and publicly.

That is what the New Atheists are doing, and even if you disagree with their views (in part or in total), what they are doing is legitimate.

We’ve seen many attempts to demonise forthright atheists as unreasonable or extreme or dogmatic, or as “fundamentalist” in their own way. If you look at it like that, you’re engaging in wishful thinking. The reality is that many people who are thoughtful, moderate, rather tolerant, not at all extreme in their thinking, are now suspicious of religion – not only of its claims to offer transcendent truths, but also about whether it’s even socially beneficial. That’s the message we should all take from the New Atheist phenomenon. The New Atheist books are successful for the simple reason that people want to buy them. And that’s because there’s a perfectly reasonable suspicion of religion’s dark side out there in the community.

I made some of these points when I spoke last September at the Crossway Conference – a conference of evangelical Baptists here in Australia – and they seemed to gain a lot of acceptance. The irony is that some religious people seem more willing to accept the legitimacy of strong criticism of religion than some atheists. I am amazed by the continuing attempts by many atheists and secularists to demonise the New Atheist writers and their intellectual allies.

There’s been a great deal of discussion of this phenomenon on other blogs just lately. In a sense, my thunder has been stolen. But I do find it extraordinary that we have so many atheist thinkers expressing what seems to go beyond disagreement with certain New Atheists on certain points (the kind of disagreement that you get from me all the time if I disagree with some specific thing that Sam Harris said or that Richard Dawkins said), and conduct themselves in a way that seems resentful and spiteful.

Surely those of us who wish to engage critically with religion are all better off as a result of the New Atheist publishing phenomenon. It has opened up opportunities for us, and all of the publishers that we might approach are now working in an environment where criticism of religion sells. That benefits academic presses and smaller trade presses that are publishing critiques of religion. The rising tide really is floating a lot of boats here.

I’d don’t know, but I suspect that Prometheus Books now sells more copies of its publications than ever as a result of the synergies that Dawkins and company have created. If they don’t, they must be doing something wrong, because this is now a very favourable market for them. And Christopher Hitchens even helped out with an intro to one of Victor Stenger’s books published by Prometheus. This is not a zero-sum game (and I certainly don’t see Stenger complaining).

Again, I can understand people wanting to disagree with specific New Atheist thinkers about specific points – such as my disagreement with Sam Harris about certain issues in moral theory. What I don’t understand is all the resentment. Apart from the unattractive emotions of envy, jealousy, and spite, the only explanation is that some of these folk who had established philosophical and historical theories are disappointed that what they see as incorrect theories are gaining greater popularity with the public.

Well, fine. But there is now a greater opportunity than ever to disseminate the “correct” historical and philosophical analyses, whatever they are. That can be done in a positive way – through actual books and articles – rather than through the unedifying spectacle of a long-running campaign of sledging on the Internet.

I haven’t descended to naming names here – the specific names are pretty obvious, but not all that relevant to the point I want to make. He (and it usually is a “he”) that hath an ear, let him hear.


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