Over at Metamagician, Russell Blackford has a nice two-part post on what he sees as the defining traits of New Atheism, as well as his perceived reasons for its success (part 1 is here, part two here). I won’t repeat his analysis, for his pieces are short (for Russell!) and you should read them. I’ll offer only two tiny dissents. Brother Blackford claims that “there are some 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.” I’m not sure about that; which such books outsell The God Delusion, for instance? Is he thinking of The Purpose Driven Life?
More important is Blackford’s argument that one reason religion is bad is because (in the case of Christians), they “[want] to get governments to impose their ideas on others who may not be Christians.” I think that’s not so much an objection to religion itself as to the fact that religions engender bad political and moral ideas. After all, we have no objection to those who have nonreligious moral views “trying to get governments to impose their ideas on others who may not agree with them.” Think of opponents to abortion, the death penalty, and so on. This is what we all do, using the political process to foist our morality on others. The reason why I object to religion is not so much because religious people try to enact their morality per se, but because religiously inspired morality is much worse than secular morality.
Beyond this, I’d like to touch on two issues. The first is why there’s such strong opposition to New Atheism among fellow atheists. Blackford appears somewhat puzzled by this, but actually offers what I see as correct explanation:
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.
. . . 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.
But by all means let us name names, since I always think that if we’re singling out a group for disapprobation, it’s incumbent on us to give examples. After all, we’re not McCarthyites with a secret “list”. Here are some professed atheists who have been unusually (and I’d add unreasonably) critical of Gnu Atheists: Julian Baggini, Jacques Berlinerblau, Andrew Brown, R. Joseph Hoffmann, Jean Kazez, Chris Mooney, Massimo Pigliucci, Josh Rosenau, Michael Ruse, and Jeremy Stangroom. Several of these have admitted, explicitly or implicitly, that they’re jealous of Gnu Atheist success. (This animus often comes, as in the case of Hoffman and Pigliucci, from those who feel that they’re smarter and more sophisticated—or have more Ph.Ds—than the rest of us, and that we simply refuse to bow to their superior wisdom.)
And of course there are reasonable disagreements about whether some Gnu Atheist tactics are productive, or make us seem “strident”. But to me those arguments don’t explain the unusual vitriol heaped upon the Gnus by people like the above. There’s something in there beyond simply disagreement about tactics. And as for tone, well, check out the “tone” of Hoffmann, Rosenau, or Ruse. It’s often as strident as the tone they decry in New Atheists.
Finally, one thing that really peeves me about the anti-atheist atheists is their pose of Weltschmerz: “Oh this debate really wearies me; it’s just so boring!” Just this week I’ve seen it twice. Here’s Rosenau, for example:
While I was somewhat incommunicado, Templeton gave its award to Martin Rees, the gnu atheists pitched six sorts of fits, and various other inane things happened in the world. The tremendous opportunities for science outreach and education that I saw last week made all the petty BS that goes on between gnus and “accommodationists” (whatever that term means) look especially silly, so blogging has taken a back seat.
And Jean Kazez:
In the atheosphere, I notice much tussling these days, but it’s all pretty much putting me to sleep. Have there ever been martyrs to atheism….(see here and elsewhere)? Quick, someone tell me why it matters? All the inter-atheist warfare reminds me of Spy vs. Spy from Mad Magazine.
Ophelia Benson has translated this into regular English: “May I just say that I am better than these Gnu Atheists, so much better that I simply can’t stoop to mention them, except of course to point out that I’m too good to mention them, except of course to—wait—help. . . “ It’s curious that although New Atheists seem to bore these people immensely (Rosenau has made a cottage industry out of repeatedly saying he is too bored to mention them), they keep coming back to the issues over and over again, like a dog returning to his vomit (Proverbs 26:11).
Well, I don’t consider these differences trivial. Contra Kazez, I think they do matter, for they speak to the very things that have made New Atheism a success: our willingness to speak openly and honestly to the public about the evils of faith, and our unwillingness to pretend that we “respect” religion. And clearly, as Brother Blackford shows, the public is hungry for that kind of discourse. It’s also about whether we lie or dissimulate to the public, or cozy up to a faith that we don’t hold, to achieve aims like selling evolution to school children.
In short, the disagreement is about whether to speak a necessary truth.