Sunday, August 12, 2007

Conflict between militant atheists and religious conservatives? Richard Dawkins on Superstition

Richard Dawkins's latest sortie against superstition (The Enemies of Reason, Channel 4 - see Wikipedia) will doubtless make for entertaining viewing. His focus this time - various alternative therapies and spiritual practitioners - is an easy enough target.

reposted from guardian
Richard Dawkins, TV evangelist

Atheism has never held much interest for sociologists of religion - until now.

Such forms of alternative spirituality may at times attempt to justify themselves in pseudo-scientific terms, reflecting the authoritative status that science enjoys in our culture. But this is usually only a veneer given to ideas taken from other esoteric sources, and it is not surprising that they do not stand up to scrutiny under Dawkins's steely gaze.

I doubt this will cause these alternative practitioners much loss of sleep. These therapies and spiritualities represent a reaction against a cultural mainstream of science and reason that is perceived as macho, reductionist and out of tune with nature, and they offer adherents the promise of special technologies and wisdom to bring them greater wellbeing. The experiences of an overstretched NHS and the lure of the natural and the organic make it easy to see just why alternative therapies and spiritualities have managed to carve a cultural niche for themselves. But they are not such a threat to the fabric of society as Dawkins suggests. The numbers of people for whom they hold great salience are small, and alternative therapies have made relatively little inroad into the NHS or the range of treatments covered by mainstream health insurance.

Dawkins is probably right to worry about the declining numbers of young people studying science at A-level and degree level. But this is not because young people are turning in droves to alternative spiritualities or degrees in homeopathy; it is because they are flocking to study law, psychology, management or business studies.

What is arguably more interesting about Dawkins's TV work is the sense in which his public advocacy of atheism is coming to look more and more like media-savvy forms of contemporary religion, particularly evangelicalism. One of the reasons evangelicalism has flourished in contemporary society is precisely the way in which it has used publishing, consumer products, educational resources, film, television and new media as resources by which its adherents can develop particular kinds of religious experiences, identities and social networks. Evangelicalism has proven more successful in surviving the secularising trends of the contemporary world than other branches of Christianity because it has been able to develop into a religious subculture in which likeminded individuals and groups support each other and sustain their particular vision of the world.

Evangelical subculture even throws up its own celebrities, who serve as focuses and role models for evangelical identities and aspirations; the Dawkins/atheism phenomenon is increasingly taking a similar form. Compare, for example, Richard Dawkins and his bestselling book The God Delusion with the celebrity Evangelical pastor Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose-Driven Life has sold nearly 25m copies.

In both instances, their books take on a greater cultural significance than simply being texts that transmit particular ideas and arguments: they become symbols of particular cultural identities, beliefs and lifestyles; their authors acquire celebrity status and a similar symbolic function, and the act of buying the book can become an act of religious/atheist identity construction - even if the book itself never gets read. Dawkins's website also echoes the ways in which evangelicals have embraced the internet as a way for disseminating ideas and educational resources, providing social networking tools, selling consumer products and appealing for funding.

Until now, atheism has never held much interest for sociologists of religion such as myself. The numbers of people identifying themselves as atheists in surveys have been a small fraction of the population, and atheist organisations have had relatively little impact on the wider cultural landscape. But this could be changing. The high public profile (and sales) of recent books by Dawkins, Richard Dennett, AC Grayling, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens suggests growing numbers of people may be being drawn to identifying themselves in opposition to religion.

Dawkins's declared interest in making atheism more publicly acceptable - exemplified by the sale of 'A for atheism' T-shirts on his website - demonstrates that this phenomenon is not simply about philosophical debates concerning the existence of God. The sheer ferocity of many of the atheist critiques of religion also suggests that we are not in the territory of reasoned debate, but witnessing the birth pangs of a new, anti-religious cultural identity.

We are now seeing a concerted effort being made to validate an atheist cultural identity through media and consumer products, just as evangelicals have already used these resources to consolidate their form of Christian identity in the modern world.

It is far too early to judge how successful this atheist venture will be. But the use of media by this atheist movement is skilful, and already Dawkins's website has more people registered on its social networking facilities than are registered with one of the most successful Christian websites, The Ship of Fools.

If it hasn't already done so, The Richard Dawkins Foundation could also conceivably attract some serious funding by private donors, providing it with the resources to extend its cultural reach. This emerging atheist movement may have some way to go before it matches the social and cultural influence of evangelicalism, though: it lacks the social networks that evangelicalism has in congregations and other special-interest organisations (including missionary organisations and NGO's); it lacks the regular rituals and special festivals at which evangelicals gather to rehearse their faith and identity; and it lacks the popular resources of evangelicalism (including the oft-derided practices of contemporary evangelical worship), which offer a powerful cultural technology for shaping mind, body and emotion in line with evangelical perspectives.

Two final questions. How can we explain this sudden surge of atheism as a cultural phenomenon? This can obviously be interpreted, in part, as a reaction to the perceived threat of Islam. Partly, in the US, it reflects an historical moment in which atheism may become somewhat more publicly acceptable in a culture in which religious affiliation has often been elided with being a good citizen and patriot. Perhaps it also reflects a moment of conceptual housekeeping, in which many people are clearing out ideas of an external deity that are becoming less and less popular in western societies but still hang around in people's consciousness, like (to use Ulrich Beck's phrase) zombie categories.

Finally, does any of this matter? To those of us who identify with liberal and progressive cultural movements, whether religious or humanist, there are potentially worrying trends here. The intensity with which new atheist identities are being forged through a hatred of imagined religious others is matched by the hatred felt by some conservative religious groups towards those they perceive as godless.

In the same way that global conflict emerged when American neoconservatives and radical Islamists found in each other the perfect enemy, so future conflict between militant atheists and religious conservatives may have the rest of us ducking in the crossfire. In this sense, while Dawkins's intentions are doubtless well meant, the rise of the atheist movement he symbolises could do more than the alternative spiritualities he disparages to threaten the fragile cohesion of our societies.

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