If you can stomach more Gnu Atheist-bashing from fellow atheists, there are two new pieces. Both were inspired by Michael Ruse’s rants equating Gnus with Tea Partiers, which tells you what you can expect. One is by Jacques Berlinerblau at the Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication that for some reason is beginning to specialize in atheist-baiting. The other, largely a copy of Berlinerblau’s post, is by R. Joseph Hoffman at his own website The New Oxonian. Both level the same old charges at Gnus: we’re strident (though not usually as strident as these two guys, whose posts drip with sarcasm and invective), politically impotent, and motivated solely by a desire for publicity, fame, and money.
But they also level a new charge (I’m amazed at how many things we’re guilty of): we don’t know anything about the history of atheism!
In fact, what is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. They seem not the least bit curious to venture beyond an understanding that reduces atheist thought to crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism.
It is almost as though they believe that to the extent atheism has a history (i.e., that it has been hanging on the bough for several hundred years, probably longer if you go back to classical adumbrations), it is too easy to explain away its radical, exciting, and mind-blowing newness.
Well, maybe we’re not completely ignorant: many of us have read Hitchens’s excellent compilation, The Portable Atheist. But for Berlinerblau that’s not nearly good enough. We need to delve deeply into everything, and until we’re as educated as he is, we should just shut up:
Step one: Read a few major scholarly studies of atheism like Professor Alan Kors’ Atheism in France, 1650-1729: Volume 1: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief, or Michael Buckley’s At the Origins of Modern Atheism, or the somewhat graying study of Lucien Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais.
Step Two: Go back to Hitchens’ anthology and ask yourself this question: Have the texts assembled by Hitchens recounted a narrative of the development of historical atheism anything like the ones you encountered in the aforementioned studies (and a dozen other works I could mention)? I will leave it at that for now. Read the books, and then we’ll talk.
What amazing arrogance! Now not only are we supposed to be ignorant of theology, but we’re ignorant of atheism as well. Doesn’t the passage above remind you of The Courtier’s Reply? And the answer to both kinds of one-upsmanship is the same. How much esoteric history do you have to know to be convinced that there is no God? The important question, after all, is not whether we can pass muster in a Ph.D. exam on the history of religious and secular thought, but this: What is the evidence for god?
And that evidence hasn’t changed much over the years. The arguments of Bertrand Russell, for example, are still pretty good today, for the faithful still have similar reasons for their belief. Sure, theologians have concocted some new ones, including the “sophisticated” lucubrations of John Haught and John Polkinghorne, but to rebut them all you need to ask is, “Where’s the evidence?” And, as usual, after the dust settles beneath the fancy language, it all comes down to one thing: revelation. Arguments for “revelation” have been gussied up over time to evade demands for evidence, but in the main the counters to claims of revelation have remained the same.
So while it helps to know how to rebut more familiar brands of apologetics like the Ontological and Cosmological Arguments, one eventually encounters diminishing returns when you get to histories of atheism by the likes of Lucien Febvre. And you reach those diminishing returns precisely as quickly as you do when reading theology. After all, what’s important in dispelling religion is not familiarity with the history of atheism, but familiarity with atheist arguments. And even the Gnus admit that our arguments aren’t that new—but they have to be made for every new generation.
And what about the accusations of political naiveté, like this one by Berlinerblau?:
As for the New Atheists, they sell books and write op-ed pieces, but what have they accomplished politically? A few weeks back I pointed to a study that showed that not one (!) of the 535 members of the House and Senate self-described as an atheist. . .
. . .The problem is that the New Atheists don’t have the foggiest idea how to achieve their political goals. And one sometimes wonders if they are actually committed to figuring it out. At present, their preferred mode of activism consists of alienating liberal religious people who share their views on nearly all these issues.
True, the U.S. House and Senate don’t contain any vociferous atheists, but how many blacks were in Congress when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed? I grant that atheists aren’t nearly as organized as the civil rights movement, but I think we’re doing just fine, for our job now is doing the spadework for the day when it will be politically acceptable—as it is now publicly acceptable—to to proclaim one’s atheism in public. That, and constantly asking the faithful for their evidence, hoping that the next generation will notice that there isn’t any. Atheism may advance less by changing the minds of the faithful than by simply waiting for them to die off and be replaced by children who grew up in a climate less tolerant of faith.
Have we been effective? I think so. After all, there was a reason why books like God is Not Great and The God Delusion were best sellers—and it wasn’t just atheists who were buying them. And all of us know of religious people who lost their faith after reading the Gnus (see Dawkins’s “Converts’ Corner” or even my own site for testimony).
Both Berlinerblau and Hoffmann dismiss Gnu Atheism as a cynical marketing ploy:
I prefer to see New Atheism as a lucrative media platform, an agitation collective that permits a few dozen cross-promoting writers (and is there anything more amusing than One of Four Horseman giving a collegial shout out to the other Three Horseman?) to sell books and build professional networks. (Berlinerblau)
On the other hand, it is not clear that the EZs [New Atheists] are listening, at least not directly, to their critics, because their royalty checks and speaking fees are talking too loud. (Hoffmann).
But these guys fail to ask themselves why this “marketing strategy” has been so successful! Could it be that there’s a public out there dissatisfied with the false promises and false premises of religion, hungry for secular thought? After reading the diatribes of Berlinerblau, Hoffmann and their muse Ruse, one can be excused for suspecting that their Gnu-bashing is motivated largely by jealousy. Neither of those three will ever write a book that garners anything near the attention of The God Delusion. And none of them, professed atheists to a man, will ever have the influence of Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens.
In the end, Hoffmann is reduced to this:
But [New Atheism] has only itself to blame. It has been disrespectful if not downright dumb about its history and origins and rude to its conversation partners. Skeptics who have their doubts about religion are also smart enough (like Sartre’s aunt) to be skeptical of atheism. The recent upward trend in criticizing new atheism suggests only that it has boiled down to marketing strategies, and that people know it. People know that the shop window is empty.
Has he noticed that the success of New Atheism is due to the empty shop windows of more venerable institutions?