Oh dear, oh dear. Many of our erstwhile allies are defecting to the ranks of accommodationists where, embraced by the warm hugs of the faithful, they give raspberries to the Gnu Atheists. The most disappointing of these is Caspar Melville, editor of the very good British magazine New Humanist. I read it all the time. Two days ago, confessing himself “bored” by the GA, he wrote an article for the Guardian, “Beyond New Atheism,” that explains his defection.
I would have thought that Melville, in his wisdom, could at least present some good arguments for his change of position. But no, he recycles the same tired and fallacious tropes we’ve heard for a while:
1. The Gnu Atheists ignore theology:
Perhaps the classic New Atheist quote is Dawkins’s response to those who accuse him of dismissing theology from a position of ignorance: “Look,” he told Laurie Taylor, “somebody who thinks the way I do doesn’t think theology is a subject at all. So to me it is like someone saying they don’t believe in fairies and then being asked how they know if they haven’t studied fairy-ology.”
For someone to say this, and not qualify it, is completely bizarre, because it’s not accurate. Melville has certainly read The God Delusion and knows that, despite this quote, the book does address—and refute—all of the most important theological arguments for the existence of God. Yes, of course others like Karen Armstrong, Terry Eagleton and John Haught have suggested new and different views of God, but is it Dawkins’s business to address every argument ever made for God? Had he done that, the book would have been five times as long and less influential. More important, the “new” arguments for God are supported by exactly as much evidence as the old ones: none. It’s curious that people like Melville who make the Courtier’s Reply almost never suggest which important arguments for God are being neglected by the Gnus. Perhaps Melville can direct us to some of the other good evidence for God, Jesus, and Mohamed that Dawkins and Company have overlooked?
In the end, even the most sophisticated theology comes down to word-parsing, adducing no convincing evidence for God. Nor do the sophisticated theologians explain how they know their interpretation is correct, while all the different and conflicting things said by other theologians, and those of other faiths, are wrong.
When judging theology, I adhere to Hitchens’s Dictum: “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” Without proof, we needn’t take it seriously. And besides, the Gnu Atheists have certainly not ignored theology. All of them—Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, and even small fry like me—dismiss religious arguments after due consideration.
As for the rest of theology—whether Jebus turns into a cracker, whether Mary was transported bodily to heaven (and whether Mohamed got a ride up there on his horse)—well, what’s the point of discussing these if there’s no evidence for God in the first place? It’s like debating whether the Flying Spaghetti Monster is made of vermicelli, bucatini, or capellini.
2. The “religion” discussed by Gnu Atheists is crude and simplistic.
If, as Norman also argues, New Atheism can be over-generalising and crude in its response to religion, this is because it is a response to crude and nonspecific articulations of religiosity – what could be less specific than bombing a skyscraper, or cruder than Biblical creationism? . .
But in another interview, this time with a fierce critic of New Atheism, Terry Eagleton says: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” Put this way, Eagleton seems right. I agree with him, too.
The picture of religion that emerges from New Atheism is a caricature and both misrepresents and underestimates its real character. “Religion,” Richard Norman writes “is a human creation … a mirror which humanity holds up to itself and in which it sees itself reflected. Human beings attribute to their gods all their own human qualities – cruelty revenge and hatred, but also love and compassion and mercy. That’s why you can find a justification for anything, good or bad, in religion.”
Here Melville makes the familiar argument that beliefs in personal gods, Heaven, Hell, the Resurrection, and so on are “caricatures”. Presumably real religion is that represented by Eagleton, Armstrong, and their like: faith involving an apophatic deity or a god who doesn’t really do anything in the world, much less sending us to Heaven or Hell.
Let me enlighten Mr. Melville, at least about my country. According to a 2004 Gallup poll, 81% of Americans believe in Heaven, 70% in Hell, 78% in angels, and 70% in the devil. A Pew survey in 2008 showed that 60% of Americans believe in a personal god (with 71% “absolutely certain” of his existence) and 63% see their preferred religious texts as “the word of God.”
Want more? 74% of Americans believe in life after death, as do 61% of American Hindus. 62% of American Buddhists believe in Nirvana.
Now you could claim that all these people really believe in a metaphorical Hell, a metaphorical life after death (whatever that is), a metaphorical devil, and so on—but you know that’s not true. And I doubt that all those Muslims really believe in a metaphorical Paradise. I keep quoting these statistics, and accommodationists, whose ranks now include Melville, keep ignoring them. They pretend that everyone‘s faith is just like that of Terry Eagleton or Karen Armstrong. Pardon my French, but that’s a crock! I can’t take anyone seriously who asserts that Gnu Atheists address a form of faith that nobody holds.
Why Melville’s apostasy? Well, besides the fact that he’s bored—an admission that’s insulting to all of those who’ve worked so hard fighting for reason and against faith—he thinks that allying himself with the faithful will help us have newer and subtler debates on God. I have no idea what he’s talking about.
So the purpose of this evening’s event [a New Humanist discussion at the Royal Society of the Arts] is to see if we can find a mode of inquiry into religion, faith, belief and non-belief, more consistent with William than with Jesse James.
It might be that we will map out a new, specific, patient and subtle future for the God debate.
Good luck with that. Melville has faith that an alliance with the faithful will, by circumventing the “strident” new atheists, create productive “alliances with moderate religionists on specific topics – faith schools, fundamentalism, terrorism.” I see this as wishful thinking, for I doubt that an alliance between atheists and moderate religionists can do much about terrorism or fundamentalism. And do they really think that an alliance between atheists, Anglicans, Catholics, and liberal Jews will rid Old Blighty of faith schools? Don’t make me laugh.