I am getting so tired of going after the faitheists, atheist-butters, and believers-in-belief that I think I’ll take a break after this critique. Their comments are so similar, and so wrong, that one could guess that they’re simply copying and pasting the arguments of their predecessors—and without thinking.
The reason I want to post this critique is that the latest guilty party is none other than Reza Aslan, who’s become a darling of the religion-friendly and liberal media with the publication of his latest book on the inoffensiveness of Islam, No god but God, as well as his new bestseller on the life of Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. That new book portrays the saviour as an Iron-age Clint Eastwood, a revolutionary who asks the money changers, “Hey punks, do you feel lucky?”
A reader whose name I can’t recall (but thanks anyway) called my attention to a three-year-old essay by Aslan in the Washington Post‘s “On faith” column “Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett: Evangelical atheists?” You get the drift from the title. What disturbs me is that Aslan, who is supposed to be a thinker, and conciliatory, goes after the Horsemen with the fervor of Terry Eagleton and Andrew Brown, accusing them, wrongly, of the same old errors and misunderstandings. Aslan is a Muslim and a believer, so one can see the need to defend his faith—and all faiths—but he does it in a really trite and tiresome way.
The new atheists are, in effect, religious fundamentalists.
There is, as has often been noted, something peculiarly evangelistic about what has been termed the new atheist movement. The new atheists have their own special interest groups and ad campaigns. They even have their own holiday (International Blasphemy Day). It is no exaggeration to describe the movement popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as a new and particularly zealous form of fundamentalism–an atheist fundamentalism. The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore.
Exactly wrong; the New Atheists are precisely the opposite of fundamentalists. Instead of claiming we have the truth, we claim that we don’t have the truth about God, but that existence seems unlikely. In other words, the claim is a simple one: there is no evidence for the tenets undergirding religious belief. How can lack of belief denote a fundamentalist?
As for a “troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics,” why are we supposed to tolerate views that are not only wrong but harmful? As Peter Boghossian says, “People deserve dignity; ideas don’t deserve dignity.”
What “tolerance” should we have for the view, for instance, that women shouldn’t be priests, or that they don’t deserve an education? And the “sense of siege” trope is just wrong: the last thing that comes to mind when I think of Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, or Dawkins is that they whine about being marginalized. We all recognize we’re in the minority, but that just gives us resolve and purpose. These people are not whiners. Could anybody say that Hitchens gave off an air of being besieged?
The new atheists aren’t as serious as the old-style ones. Plus we don’t know our theology.
This is not the philosophical atheism of Feuerbach or Marx, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche (I am not the first to think that the new atheists give atheism a bad name). Neither is it the scientific agnosticism of Thomas Huxley or Herbert Spencer. This is, rather, a caricature of atheism: shallow scholarship mixed with evangelical fervor.
There is no real difference between “new” and “old” atheists in the arguments they make against God. The real difference is New Atheisms’s refusal to afford respect to religion, as well as its more science-oriented character, i.e., seeing God as an empirical hypothesis.
It is not less sophisticated than, say, Camus, to take believers at their word and ask for the evidence for their beliefs. What reasons do you have for accepting, say, Christianity’s doctrine that Jesus was the son of God versus Islam’s that he wasn’t—nor was he crucified or resurrected? This is the Eagleton ploy: but have you read Duns Scotus? I’ve read tons of theology over the last two years and haven’t found a single good argument anywhere for the existence of God. At some point you just give up and reject the whole premise of a divinity, as well as the revelation on which it’s invariably based. When you do that, you’re miraculously freed from having to deal with many of the other inanities of religion.
As for “shallow scholarship”, whose faith do we criticize: that of the Sophisticated Theologians™, barely embraced (or even known) by regular religious people, or the beliefs of most believers themselves? The Horsemen generally opt for the latter, though they do attack some of the Sophisticated Arguments for God. But absent good reasons to believe in God, one needn’t come to grips with people who are, as Anthony Grayling described John Polkinghorne and Nichols Beale, “members of the asylum”. (See also Grayling’s essay, “Can an atheist be a fundamentalist?“, which puts paid to Aslan’s claim that New Atheists are like religious fundamentalists.)
Religion is much more complicated than the New Atheists think. It’s not really about belief, it’s about transcendence.
The principle [sic] error of the new atheists lies in their inability to understand religion outside of its simplistic, exoteric, and absolutist connotations. Indeed, the most prominent characteristic of the new atheism–and what most differentiates it from traditional atheism–is its utter lack of literacy in the subject (religion) it is so desperate to refute. After all, religion is as much a discipline to be studied as it is an expression of faith. (I do not write books about, say, biology because I am not a biologist.) Religion, however it is defined, is occupied with transcendence–by which I mean that which lies beyond the manifest world and towards which consciousness is oriented–and transcendence necessarily encompasses certain theological connotations with which one ought to be familiar to properly critique belief in a god. One should, for example, be cognizant of how the human experience of transcendence has been expressed in the material world through historically dependent symbols and metaphors. One should be able to recognize the diverse ways in which the universal recognition of human contingency, finitude, and material existence has become formalized through ecclesiastical institutions and dogmatic formulae. One should become acquainted with the unmistakable patterns–call them modalities (Rudolph Otto), paradigmatic gestures (Mircea Eliade), spiritual dimensions (Ninian Smart), or archetypes (Carl Jung)–that recur in the myths and rituals of nearly all religious traditions and throughout all of recorded history. Even if one insists on reducing humanity’s enduring religious impulse to causal definitions, dismissing the experience of transcendence as nothing more than an anthropological (e.g. Edward Tylor or Max Muller), sociological (think Robertson Smith or Emile Durkheim), or even psychological phenomenon (ala Sigmund Freud, who attempted to locate the religious impulse deep within the individual psyche, as though it were a mental disorder that could be cured through proper psychoanalysis), one should at the very least have a sense of what the term “God” means.
Wrong all over. Many atheists were and are deeply acquainted with how religion works. Polls show, in fact, that atheists know more than believers about what’s in the Bible. As far as religion being a discipline to be studied, well, that’s been taken up by Dan Dennett and other religious scholars, many of them atheists. It’s perfectly fine to study the origins—evolutionary, social, and psychological—of how religion came to be, or how it operates, but that says not a whit about its truth claims. And most of the faithful actually believe those truth claims. It’s not the Sophisticated Theologians™, with their Grounds of Beings and Ultimate Concern gods, who damage the world, it’s their less sophisticated followers, who act on their religious morality, which itself rests on a religious epistemology of truth claims.
And as for our lacking a sense of “what the term ‘god’ means,” pray enlighten us, Mr. Aslan! What does it mean? Does it mean the same thing to Rick Warren as it did to Kierkegaard? Does it mean the same thing to John Haught as to Al Mohler? How people conceive of ‘god” is all over the map, but there is a commonality of how the average believer conceives of God—as an anthropomorphic and disembodied being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent.
The fact that so many cultures believe in a transcendent divinity is evidence that it exists.
Of course, positing the existence of a transcendent reality that exists beyond our material experiences does not necessarily imply the existence of a Divine Personality, or God. (In some ways, the idea of God is merely the personal affirmation of the transcendent experience.) But what if did? What if one viewed the recurring patterns of religious phenomena that so many diverse cultures and civilizations–separated by immeasurable time and distance–seem to have shared as evidence of an active, engaging, transcendent presence (what Muslims call the Universal Spirit, Hindus call prana, Taoists call chi’i, Jews call ruah, and Christians call the Holy Spirit) that underlies creation, that, in fact, impels creation? Is such a possibility any more hypothetical than say, superstring theory or the notion of the multiverse? Then again, maybe the patterns of religious phenomenon signify nothing. Maybe they indicate little more than a common desire among all peoples to answer similar questions of “Ultimate Concern,” to use the Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich’s famous phrase. The point is that, like any researcher or critic, like any scientist, I’m open to possibilities.
The big error here is the last sentence. It sounds so liberal, so conciliatory, to say “I’m open to possibilities,” but it’s a mistake. One should be open to probabilities, not possibilities. I’ve found, during my brain-numbing reading of theology, that the major error of theologians, here committed by Aslan, are that they mistake logical possibilities for probabilities. That, for instance, is the besetting sin of Alvin Plantinga. It’s as if our lack of certainty that god exists means that we should assume that it has at least a 50% probability. We must apportion our belief in phenomena according to the evidence, and there’s precious little evidence for god. (That is, by the way, how we live our regular lives. We don’t worry about the oxygen moving to the other side of the room because it’s a logical possibility, as it is. Rather, we go on our experience and the low probability that that would happen.)
As for the fact that something might be true because everyone believes it, that’s just dumb. There were lots of false beliefs and morals in the old days, and these are changing fast. That is in fact the point of Steve Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Just because humanity has passed on comforting superstitions over millennia is not itself evidence for the truth of those superstitions. One must always ask oneself, “Why do I think that? And how would I know if I were wrong?”
New atheists are mean to believers. And science has done bad things, too!
The new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence; if one is to blame religion for acts of violence carried out in religion’s name then one must also blame nationalism for fascism, socialism for Nazism, communism for Stalinism, even science for eugenics. The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid–the stock response of any absolutist.
No, the New Atheists claim that people of faith are deluded and misguided, not stupid. Who would call Terry Eagleton or Karen Armstrong stupid? They are misguided—guilty of wish thinking.
As for science being guilty of eugenics, yes, some scientists were racists or jingoists and pushed a eugenic solution to “the race problem”. But should you blame that on the methodology of science, or on the preexisting racism of humans? The racism was there; science just gave it one more reason to operate. After all, selective breeding (eugenics of animals and plants) long antedated the Nazis.
The new atheists, like religious fundamentalists, lack complete assurance about gods and should accept revelation as a source of evidence for God.
What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims–be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth–are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science. That may not be a slogan easily pasted on the side of a bus. But it is the hallmark of the scientific intellect.
What? Fundamentalists admit that metaphysical claims are unknowable? No way! They may say that some of them are beyond the purview of science, but, as Dawkins has said repeatedly, if there were scientific evidence for God, believers would hop on it like white on rice. That’s why there’s so much natural theology going on: people doing Biblical archaeology like looking for the Ark, arguing about the Shroud of Turin, adducing the “fine-tuning” of the universe, the “moral law,” or “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” as empirical evidence for God, and so on. If belief didn’t need evidence, those things wouldn’t be happening. The search for evidence for one’s religion is also the basis of intelligent design and scientific creationism. No, the faithful do not abjure science; it’s just that science gives them no evidence for their God. But they keep trying to find it, and assure their flocks that it is there.
The hallmark of the scientific intellect is reason, or rather rationality. We have confidence in a phenomenon in proportion to the evidence in its favor. I think that’s a good way to live one’s life in every respect, including one’s religion.
In the end, Aslan proves himself an unctuous and annoying person, but only because the “Aslan phenomenon” is symptomatic of one of our biggest social ills. As science and reason begin to erode religion, people are loath to let go of their comforting beliefs. And people like Aslan are always around to assure them it’s okay to have unevidenced beliefs—and make a few bucks doing so. I’m not accusing Aslan of being mercenary, for he seems like a sincere guy. What he is is an annoying but erudite species of accommodationist. He’s the opposite of the people kings used to keep around to remind them of their mortality. What religion needs now is precisely what the New Atheists provide: people who stand behind the faithful and whisper in their ears, “You might be wrong, you know. Look at the evidence.”