Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The New Atheists loathe religion far too much to plausibly challenge it

Monday, May 7, 2007 | Reason : Commentary | print version Print

Document The New Atheists loathe religion far too much to plausibly challenge it

by Madeleine Bunting

Reposted from:,,2074075,00.html

Anti-faith proselytising is a growth industry. But its increasingly hysterical flag-bearers are heading for a spectacular failure

It's an extraordinary publishing phenomenon - atheism sells. Any philosopher, professional polemicist or scientist with worries about their pension plan must now be feverishly working on a book proposal. Richard Dawkins has been in the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic since The God Delusion came out last autumn following Daniel Dennett's success with Breaking the Spell. Sam Harris, a previously unknown neuroscience graduate, has now clocked up two bestsellers, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. Last week, Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything was published in the US. The science writer, Matt Ridley, recently commented that on one day at Princeton he met no fewer than three intellectual luminaries hard at work on their God books.

This rising stack of books has prompted screeds of debate, flushing out all manner of belief and unbelief in blogs, reviews, essays and internet exchanges in the US. The Catholic columnist Andrew Sullivan has just concluded his exchange with Sam Harris on the net, while the philosopher Michael Novak recently took on the whole genre of New Atheism, or neo-atheism. Surely not since Victorian times has there been such a passionate, sustained debate about religious belief.

And it's a very ill-tempered debate. The books live up to their provocative titles: their purpose is to pour scorn on religious belief - they want it eradicated (although they differ as to the chances of achieving that). The newcomer on the block, Hitchens , sums up monotheism as "a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few non-events". He takes the verbal equivalent of an AK47 to shoot down hallowed religious figures, questioning whether Muhammad was an epileptic, declaring Mahatma Gandhi an "obscurantist" who distorted and retarded Indian independence, and Martin Luther King a "plagiarist and an orgiast" and in no real sense a Christian, while the Dalai Lama is a "medieval princeling" who is the continuation of a "parasitic monastic elite".

This kind of vituperative polemic sounds a tad odd this side of the Atlantic.
where have we heard 'tad' before?

Apart from an ongoing anxiety about Islam, the British are pretty phlegmatic about religion. Church attendance continues its steady decline and the Christian evangelical boom has never taken off. The whole New Atheist publishing phenomenon is like eavesdropping on a blistering row in the flat next door: one's response alternates between fascination and irritation, but is it really anything to do with us?

What's clear is that this wave of New Atheism is deeply political - and against some of its targets even a devout churchgoer might cheer them on. What they all have in common is a loathing of an increasing religiosity in US politics, which has contributed to a disastrous presidency and undermined scientific understanding. Dennett excoriates the madness of a faith that looks forward to the end of the world and the return of the messiah. What Dawkins hates is that most Americans still haven't accepted evolution and support the teaching of intelligent design; according to one poll, 50% of the US electorate believe the story of Noah. He argues that "there is nothing to choose between the Afghan Taliban and the American Christian equivalent ... The genie of religious fanaticism is rampant in present-day America."

Harris similarly draws an analogy between Muslims and the American Christian right: "Non-believers like myself stand beside you dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well - by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service of your religious myths and by your attachment to an imaginary God."

This is popular stuff - a plague on both your houses - on both sides of the Atlantic after a war on terror in which both sides have used their gods as justification for appalling brutality. But it tips over into something much more sinister in Harris's latest book. He suggests that Islamic states may be politically unreformable because so many Muslims are "utterly deranged by their religious faith". In a another passage Harris goes even further, and reaches a disturbing conclusion that "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them". This sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition. As one New York commentator put it, we're familiar with religious intolerance, now we have to recognise irreligious intolerance.

The danger is that the aggression and hostility to religion in all its forms (moderates are castigated as giving the fundamentalists cover for their extremism) deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged recently in the science/faith debate. The durability and near universality of religion is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking, one of Britain's most eminent evolutionary psychologists acknowledged to me recently. Scientists have argued that faith was a byproduct of our development of the imagination or a way of increasing the social bonding mechanisms. Does that make religion an important evolutionary step but now no longer needed - the equivalent of the appendix? Or a crucial part of the explanation for successful human evolution to date? Does religion still have an important role in human wellbeing? In recent years, research has thrown up some remarkable benefits - the faithful live longer, recover from surgery quicker, are happier, less prone to mental illness and so the list goes on. If religion declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?

This isn't the kind of debate that the New Atheists are interested in (with the possible exception of Dennett, who in an interview last year was far more open to discussion than his book would indicate); theirs is a political battle, not an attempt to advance human understanding. But even on the political front, one has to question whether all the aggression isn't counterproductive. Robert Winston voiced increasing concern among scientists when he argued in a recent lecture in Dundee that Dawkins's insulting and patronising approach did science a disservice. Meanwhile, critics in America argue that the polarisation of the debate in the US is setting the cause of non-deism back rather than advancing it.

Dawkins is an unashamed proselytiser. He says in his preface that he intends his book for religious readers and his aim is that they will be atheists by the time they finish reading it. Yet The God Delusion is not a book of persuasion, but of provocation - it may have sold in the thousands but has it won any souls? Anyone who has experienced such a conversion, please email me (with proof). I suspect the New Atheists are in danger of a spectacular failure. With little understanding and even less sympathy of why people increasingly use religious identity in political contexts, they've missed the proverbial elephant in the room. These increasingly hysterical books may boost the pension, they may be morale boosters for a particular kind of American atheism that feels victimised - the latest candidate in a flourishing American tradition - but one suspects that they are going to do very little to challenge the appeal of a phenomenon they loathe too much to understand.

^^^^ Comments ^^^^^^

4. Comment #38160 by Caesar Best on May 7, 2007 at 6:27 am

"In recent years, research has thrown up some remarkable benefits - the faithful live longer, recover from surgery quicker, are happier, less prone to mental illness and so the list goes on. If religion declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?"

Screw that! Firstly I seriously question these findings, but if that was true, I'd still rather live a short life in freedom than a long one in the prison of religion.

"but one suspects that they are going to do very little to challenge the appeal of a phenomenon they loathe too much to understand."

Oowh, I understand. Atheism comes from understanding, not ignorance.

7. Comment #38167 by Paul Nettleship on May 7, 2007 at 6:56 am

 avatar"The books live up to their provocative titles: their purpose is to pour scorn on religious belief"

And why not? That is all infantile beliefs are worthy of. Anyway, the purpose of the books is to educate primarily. Clearly too late for this catholic journalist though.

9. Comment #38170 by mikehicks55 on May 7, 2007 at 7:02 am

Ms Bunting seems to believe that Atheists shouldn't be as passionate about their "disbelief" as the religious are about their faiths.

As a former Catholic, I have lost count of the number of times I have been seen ripe for conversion to another denomination, or now, back to Catholicism. I have friends at the moment, members of an evangelical group, who have taken me to their functions and attempted to brainwash me into the "happy clappy Jesus" mentality.

Atheists, by comparison, tend to have a live and let live attitude. I occassionally point out to religious friends apparent follies in their beliefs, but usually only as a rebuttal if I'm asked why I don't believe in God.

I can't believe that free thinkers will ever be as confrontational as many fundamental Christian groups; when was the last time atheists went door to door, or stopped anyone in a busy shopping centre in an attempt to convert any one to their way of thinking?

And as has been said many times, when did anyone carry out an act of terrorism in the name of atheism?

Whilst the "herding cats" metaphor is still as applicable as ever, if nothing else, the recent "publishing pheneomenon" has allowed more people to feel they can stand up and say "I am a cat!"

12. Comment #38174 by Robert Maynard on May 7, 2007 at 7:09 am

 avatarBy proof, I wonder what she means? A scanned copy of a receipt for TGD? Three photos of yourself, first with a Bible, then The God Delusion, then nothing, and ..a smile? Do some religions have membership cards/certificates they could tear up for demonstrative purposes? :P

I see "New Atheism" as taking the same course as feminism and the gay pride social movements. Dawkins has said as much himself, that this activist attitude must be taken, if not to
"turn everyone" atheist, at least to just get it out there, and plough the issue into the social consciousness, to "raise consciousness".
Like feminism and homosexuality, the best way to counter a prevailing attitude of 'don't ask; don't tell' is basically to go "hysterical" for a few years. It's never necessarily an organised push, I don't think, so much as a critical mass of blossoming solidarity and community.
In the aftermath, once your foot is in the door of social awareness, and your stance is acknowledged as common and respectable, it's ripe to become sheltered by the progressive consensus, stereotypes are slowly eroded, and you are then in a position to pursue changes to any social policies that made your life a secret hell before you found you weren't alone (such as workplace discrimination, twisted educational reform, or undermining the first amendment)

Total (or even mass) deconversion will probably not be a reality anytime soon (especially in America), but that doesn't make the activism of "New Atheism" any less desperately important or worthwhile, for the general welfare and legitimacy of atheists as equal citizens of the world.

15. Comment #38179 by youmemeyou on May 7, 2007 at 7:20 am

I'd say that positive scientific works have done more to supplant my theological superstition than philosophy. If the non-existent 'religion of atheism' has nothing to offer (being absent), atheists do not lack.

23. Comment #38194 by Keinen_Gott on May 7, 2007 at 7:46 am

Let the 21st be the century of a new enlightenment; the century we all, as a race, realised that we must get rid of all forms of religious dogma if we are to survive each other. If this is not so we all will surely die in some form of a religious war or genocide. I can see in the not so distant future a war called WW3(christianity vs Islam). Let us all hope that this is not so.

29. Comment #38206 by Grandt on May 7, 2007 at 8:09 am

I've always found it hilarious when 'believers' claim that atheists don't know about religion, and as such shouldn't comment on it.


If we are not to comment on religion, 'believers' should refrain from commenting on scientific topics.

Somehow I don't think that that is going to happen though.

38. Comment #38216 by troodon on May 7, 2007 at 8:42 am

"Yet The God Delusion is not a book of persuasion, but of provocation - it may have sold in the thousands but has it won any souls? "

Minds....well, that's different

40. Comment #38218 by scooternyc on May 7, 2007 at 8:52 am

 avatarI find the implication of there being a "debate" so absurd it's laughable. There is no debate when you challenge the religious of our world with providing scientific evidence to their claims.

In all other areas of our world and our lives we expect the scientific method to provide us with the strongest foundation for proving of hypothesis which have created more comfort throughout the years based on these proved theories, which create products, cure illness, conserve resources, etc.

To make the claim that god exists or that the bible is the word of god is nothing more than fiction as we all know, until the accusers bring forth their evidence of fact to such a claim.

My answer to any person these days who brings up this so-called "new religion of atheism" is simply: " you have no proof of your claim, otherwise you would have presented it; the time of conscious raising is at hand and religion's time has come for extinction".

People want to continue to argue for which I simply reiterate, "Where's your proof?" A book that authenticates itself is not proof. Ignorance of science on your part in understanding the world, in which we live, is not proof. Your "personal experience is not proof.

God is a placebo – filled with nothing with nothing to offer.

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