As you know if you’ve followed this site for the past two months or so, the media have taken it upon themselves to declare the end of the Era of New Atheism. The time of the Four Horseman is gone, they say. Dawkins is now irrelevant, and New Atheism is giving sway to a kinder, gentler movement that is not only less “strident,” but more friendly to religion.
I see no reason for this declaration save the desire of journalists to create a controversy where none exists, and their sneaking suspicion, based on living in religious countries, that there must be something good about faith.
If you want to see this “trend creation” in its full flower and ugliness, have a look at the new article by Theo Hobson in The Spectator: “Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new atheists” (subtitle: “Secular humanism is recovering from its Dawkinsite phase – and beginning a more interesting conversation”).
From the very first paragraph, you see that it’s a put-up job:
The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God. Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies. He’s the Mary Whitehouse of our day.
Dawkins is no more a joke than he’s always been to the offended faithful and accommodationists; he continues to draw huge crowds and The God Delusion still sells like hotcakes. What we’re seeing now is a pushback from journalists and faitheists who, dismayed at the success of New Atheism, have decided to declare it dead. But it won’t lie down.
Hobson goes on to argue that it’s ludicrous for New Atheists to heap such scorn on the kindly country vicar, a man just trying to do good and shepherd his flock. But maligning such vicars was never the object of New Atheism. Its intent was twofold: 1) to point out that the fact claims of faith are ludicrous and largely refuted (that is, God is an empirical hypothesis that’s been pretty much refuted), and 2) that much evil is done in the name of religion, and we’d be better off without any religion at all. Imagine no religion; we’d be like Denmark instead of Mississippi or Saudia Arabia. There are far worse fates.
The Spectator then names and anoints the leaders of the “new new atheism”, all of whom, it claims, share the view that religion is largely beneficial and has much to teach us. To that I say “bollocks.” Yes, perhaps the new new atheists say that, but they’re wrong. All the beneficial teachings of faith are inherent in humanism, and on display in secular countries like Sweden and Denmark. Here are what the Spectator sees as the new role models for atheists (Spectator quotes are indented).
A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it. . . he has observed that a sense of gratitude is problematically lacking in secular culture, and suggested that humanists should consider ritual practices such as fasting.
First of all, Baggini is not a “pop philosopher”; he’s far more serious than that, I think. But neither is he an atheist leader. He sometimes has good things to say, but lately has been less positive about religion, and at any rate doesn’t have either the gravitas or literary skills to replace any of the Horsemen or the new Horsewoman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (an undeservedly neglected New Atheist).
And really, Julian—fasting??? Did you really say this? Sorry, but I like my noms too much. I don’t see the value of fasting, nor do I see atheists fasting all over the world because of Bagginis’s suggestion. That’s a non-starter.
Alain de Botton
This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton. His recent book Religion for Atheists rejects the ‘boring’ question of religion’s truth or falsity, and calls for ‘a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts’. If you can take his faux-earnest prose style, he has some interesting insights into religion’s basis in community, practice, habit.
Seriously? “Pop-philosopher king”? Pop philosopher he may be, but de Botton is no king, rather a genuine figure of fun to serious nonbelievers. His call for atheist churches, services, and didactic artwork has been met with no practical response. Dear Spectator, Get serious. Yours, Jerry Coyne.
Zoe Williams and Tanya Gold
When Zoe Williams attacks religious sexism or homophobia she resists the temptation to widen the attack and imply that all believers are dunces or traitors. Likewise Tanya Gold recently ridiculed the idea of religion as a force for evil. ‘The idea of my late church-going mother-in-law beating homosexuals or instituting a pogrom is obviously ridiculous, although she did help with jumble sales and occasionally church flowers.’
I may not be paying attention, but I’ve heard of neither of these people. Are they seriously poised to replace Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris? But again, the Spectator completely mistakes the thrust of New Atheism. Who seriously claimed that liberal religionists wanted to beat homosexuals? What we did suggest is that many Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims, including liberal ones (i.e. Catholics) try to deny gay people their rights.
Andrew Brown and John Gray
A polemical approach to religion has swung out of fashion. In fact, admitting that religion is complicated has become a mark of sophistication. Andrew Brown of the Guardian has played a role in this shift: he’s a theologically literate agnostic who is scornful of crude atheist crusading, and who sometimes ponders his own attraction to religion. On a more academic level, the philosopher John Gray has had an influence: he is sceptical of all relics of Enlightenment optimism, including the atheist’s faith in reason.
Andrew Brown is a clown, and has played absolutely no role in the supposed “shift” in viewpoint. From the very outset, criticism of New Atheism has involved the Courtier’s reply: that religion is more complicated than people like Dawkins make out—that it has its good side and, at any rate, the Sophisticated Theologians™ show that religious belief is nuanced and that God is by no means either personal or intercessory.
I have news for these people; most religionists really do believe in a personal God, and many try to enact their superstitions into public policy. In fact, it’s only insofar that religion is political–that it intrudes into the public sphere or law–that we decry it. If people restricted their faith to their homes or churches, few of us would object.
As for John Gray and his criticism of “faith in reason”, I reject it. As Anthony Grayling has noted, no society has become dysfunctional because it relied too much on reason; I’ll add that plenty of societies have become dysfunctional because they tried to run themselves based on the tenets of faith. Have a look at the Islamic countries of the Middle East, or Ireland in the last few decades.
Hobson goes on, but I’ll let you deal with his lucubrations on your own. I’ll reproduce just one more paragraph, summing up his beef against New Atheists:
What, if anything, do these newer atheists have to say? In previous generations, the atheist was keen to insist that non-believers can be just as moral as believers. These days, this is more or less taken for granted. What distinguishes the newer atheist is his admission that non-believers can be just as immoral as believers. Rejecting religion is no sure path to virtue; it is more likely to lead to complacent self-regard, or ideological arrogance.
Insofar as atheism is now not seen as an immoral and unidirectonal path to perdition, well, that’s largely due to the New Atheists. The trope that “non-believers can be just as immoral as believers” is a canard, smacking of the accusations that Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin did their deeds in the name of atheism.
And, in fact, there is some immorality that is unique to religion, for that immorality derives from and is codified in faith. Marginalization of women, for example, is endemic in most faiths—certainly in Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, and Islam. Many Muslims kill and impose fatwas in the name of faith, and prevent women from getting an education. Catholics fight against the use of condoms and HPV vaccines, preferring people to die instead of copulate. Conservatism Protestants, Muslims, and many Catholics discriminate against homosexuals, and in fact being gay is a capital crime in some Islamic nations.
Rejecting religion may not be a sure path to virtue, but, given the above, it certainly helps. It’s not a tenet of atheism to turn women into chattel, persecute gays, teach creationism in schools, or stick their noses into people’s sex lives. To do those things takes religion.
Complacent self-regard and arrogance, my tuchas. Even if that were true of atheists, isn’t it better than inflicting palpable suffering on much of humanity, or preventing women from achieving their full potential?
The problem with people like Hobson, and his “heroes” of new new atheism, is twofold, mirroring in reverse the accomplishments of New Atheism. First, they fail to admit that the tenets of faith are false: there is no evidence for a god or any knowledge about the nature of said divinity, and so the conclusions about what God wants us to do are simply fabrications. Religious people are living much of their lives based on a lie. What implications does that have? Hobson ignores this important question, one raised by New Atheists alone. And, indeed, many people really do believe simple things; their faiths aren’t “complicated,” and they neither share nor understand the obscurantism of Sophisticated Theology™.
Second, while many liberal religionists aren’t directly inimical to society, many not-so-liberal religionists are. Should we ignore them or their injurious beliefs? Hobson, for instance, doesn’t deal with the problems of Islam and Catholicism. And those people are enabled by liberal religionists who, while doing no direct harm, nevertheless endorse the very superstitions that give rise to religious harm.
I’m not sure exactly what is motivating this journalistic animus against New Atheism, but I suspect it’s New Atheism’s very success, as well as the fact that many people have a “belief in belief”—a sneaking respect for religion and a condescending idea that although there’s no evidence for God, faith is still something good for society. This was suggested by a friend who wrote me after reading Hobson’s piece:
In just a few years we’ve moved from “I love Richard, but” articles, to “I’m an atheist, but religion is good and people need it” (the stupid people, not me).