Posted by: Ken Brown | March 27, 2008

The Religious Nature of The New Atheism?

I’m a couple weeks late on this, but I just discovered this wide-ranging critique of the new atheism by John Gray (HT: David Keen). I’m exceptionally busy at the moment, so I’ll just say that I think the article includes some good insights but it’s far from perfect. You can decide for yourselves; here are some excerpts:

For Dawkins and Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Martin Amis, Michel Onfray, Philip Pullman and others, religion in general is a poison that has fuelled violence and oppression throughout history, right up to the present day. The urgency with which they produce their anti-religious polemics suggests that a change has occurred as significant as the rise of terrorism: the tide of secularisation has turned. These writers come from a generation schooled to think of religion as a throwback to an earlier stage of human development, which is bound to dwindle away as knowledge continues to increase. In the 19th century, when the scientific and industrial revolutions were changing society very quickly, this may not have been an unreasonable assumption. Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest may still believe that, over the long run, the advance of science will drive religion to the margins of human life, but this is now an article of faith rather than a theory based on evidence….

The growth of knowledge is a fact only postmodern relativists deny. Science is the best tool we have for forming reliable beliefs about the world, but it does not differ from religion by revealing a bare truth that religions veil in dreams. Both science and religion are systems of symbols that serve human needs – in the case of science, for prediction and control. Religions have served many purposes, but at bottom they answer to a need for meaning that is met by myth rather than explanation. A great deal of modern thought consists of secular myths – hollowed-out religious narratives translated into pseudo-science….

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today’s secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values – on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason. In contrast, evangelical atheists have positioned themselves as defenders of liberal freedoms – rarely inquiring where these freedoms have come from, and never allowing that religion may have had a part in creating them….

The attempt to eradicate religion, however, only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms. A credulous belief in world revolution, universal democracy or the occult powers of mobile phones is more offensive to reason than the mysteries of religion, and less likely to survive in years to come. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote of believers being left bereft as the tide of faith ebbs away. Today secular faith is ebbing, and it is the apostles of unbelief who are left stranded on the beach.

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Responses

  1. “Today secular faith is ebbing, and it is the apostles of unbelief who are left stranded on the beach.”

    First, I like how you try to define the secular with words like “apostles” and “evangelic”. Is that a tactic to drag us down o your level and then beat us with experience? =P

    And to your comment I quoted above, I couldn’t disagree more. During the last 2 years I’ve felt more freedom to express my atheism in public that during the prior 30 years (and I live in the heart of the bible belt!). People who you would never expect are opening up to the conversation, and i view that as a very good thing. The tide definitely has turned, but not in the direction you think.

  2. Samuel Skinner
    I have a habitual need to link things to the Enlightenment or the Ionians, but I’m pretty sure the idea of progress came from that era- I mean this was the time when science first came into its own (following the scientific revolution- now you had equations; it was predictable and methodical), sanitation and medicine improved (first vaccines), democracy reappeared (US, France?)and people started to fight for the idea of human rights (the slave trade is bad- serfdom abolished, declaration of the rights of man and citizem). Heady times. Given the fact all these things are definately progress, I fail to see how they were wrong.

  3. Darron,
    I didn’t try to define anything; John Gray did, and as I understand it, he is not himself religious. I did say at the beginning that the article is far from perfect, but I don’t see how it is inappropriate to call someone “evanglistic” who seeks to convert the world to their view of religion (after all, the books Gray is reviewing clearly present atheism as “good news,” which is what “evangel-” means).

    I do agree that Gray is wrong that atheism is “ebbing,” but the claim that some atheists (like Dawkins and Dennett) write like reactionary fundamentalists is apt.

    Samuel,
    The enlightenment came out of a Christian context, and was built on that foundation (including a Christian-influenced re-reading of the classics). Science developed from a belief in the intelligibility and order of the universe, derived (for the earliest modern scientists) from their Christian faith. Likewise, the Enlightenment ideal of progress was indeed indebted to the Christian view that the universe is moving toward a good goal – a view that most of the rest of the world did not share.

    But while the Enlightenment was essentially a secularization of the Christian worldview, the good things you mention were not accomplished by the rise of secularism alone. Religious people and motivations had at least as much to do with the rise of modern science and medicine, democracy and freedom, as atheism did.

  4. Samuel Skinner
    So than you are an evangelical- in fact everyone who posts counts as one. After all we are trying to sway others opinions… great you just killed the words meaning.

    Let me get this straight- the enlightenment was a secular version of Christianity? “Head explodes”. Lets go over this slowly.

    Christianity- God loves humanity and sent is only son to die for use. Believe in him or burn in hell.

    Enlightenment- Using reason and science we can make a better world.

    There is about zero overlap. Seriously. As for religious people had plenty of reasons… sure they did- secular ones unrelated to their faith. What do you think the differance between Europe from 300-1600 and 1600+ is? One is poor and Christian, the other becomes incresingly secular and rich. I’m not sure is faith causes poverty or poverty causes faith- but I do know that as countries grew better of religion waned AND the clergy tried to stop it in many cases (lightening rods, disection, vaccines, astronomy, etc).

  5. Samuel,
    You are the one stripping the word of any meaning, not me. Here is a simple definition: “evangelical, evangelistic: marked by ardent or zealous enthusiasm for a cause.” Surely you won’t deny that Dawkins, Hitchens and their ilk fit this description? And yes, many bloggers do too, perhaps even me.

    As for your other point, you are blowing smoke. First of all, I never claimed the Enlightenment was “a secular version of Christianity.” I said it arose in a Christian context to which it was indebted in a number of ways. I even mentioned a couple of examples, which you ignored. You are simply caricaturing Christianity as nothing more than “believe in [God] or burn in hell,” so that you can attribute anything this-world focused as “secular” and non-religious.

    Sorry, but until very recently (long after 1600) the vast majority of Westerners have been religious, and it certainly has not been merely the atheists who were working for a better world. Consider that most of the early hospitals and universities were founded by Christians, or will you claim their motivations were “unrelated to their faith”? I’d like to see you prove that.

  6. Oops, I see that I did in fact say “the Enlightenment was essentially a secularization of the Christian worldview.” You were right to object to that line. I misspoke, but I stand by my explanation in the paragraph that preceded it.

  7. Samuel Skinner
    So… I’m an evangelical- and so is the Democrats and Republicans and the… you get the idea. If you apply evangelical to fervor, you kill the word. Great job.

    As for “Christian context”- that is just BS. The previous explosion of reason and science occured in Ionia- and the reasons for that also were entirely secular, not based on their religious beliefs. Extra money, an open atmosphere for questions, population growth, exploration, multiple nations- these describe both cases. The causes were secular and the same, although the vocabulary wasn’t.

    Caricturing Christianity? How? Isn’t that the only constant for Chrsitians over the past 2000 years? That there is one true god, that the bible is his word and that Jesus is his final prophet and that all unbeliever will burn? I’m pretty sure that is the bedrock- it has remainded the same.

    I like that “Hospitals and Universities were built by religious people”. Great- I never claimed the faithful were inhuman zombies. Still, I love how conservatives bring up this argument without realizing the hypocricy. I’ll give you a hint- the government puts up services and people don’t claim they are doing it to make a better world- because they got the money from the people they serve! Where do you think the churches money came from? Either from the peasents or from the lords who got it from the peasents. In addition there is societal needs argument- but I think you get my point.

    The Enlightenment is the opposite of Christianity- it is a reaction to the faith after all. It is an opposite the same way Republicanism is an opposite of the old regime or facism is an opposite of communism or egalitarianism is an opposite of racism or…

  8. Samuel,
    First, I’m sorry that you find the term “evangelical” so distasteful, but yes, it does rightfully apply to some of the more outspoken members of various political parties, among others. If you disagree, then provide your own definition, since you are so eager to preserve the term’s meaning.

    Second, even if your argument about increased wealth, etc. were 100% correct, it wouldn’t change the fact that this situation arose prior to the Enlightenment (if it was the cause), nor the fact the progress that followed was accomplished as much by the religious as the irreligious. Oh, and the ancient Greeks weren’t atheists either.

    Third, if you can’t see anything more in the history of Christianity than “believe in Jesus of burn in hell,” I’m not sure the point of this conversation. Jesus (and the rest of the Biblical writers) did say a few things you know, like love your neighbor as yourself, to name the most obvious example. Certainly the church has not always done a good job of it, but following his example of self-sacrifice has always been the real center of Christianity. Surely you won’t deny the connection between this and the founding of hospitals, aid organizations, yes, even liberal governments. And don’t object that Christianity has also been used to support tyranny; so has atheism (or would you prefer to forget Stalin and Mao?). Every idea can be abused, and every worldview includes disagreements and debate. But I am not the one trying to split the world into two neat categories, you are.

    Fourth, your snipe about conservatism is both a red herring and false. It is not hypocrisy to argue that social needs are best met through social channels, and tithes are freely given (at least in principle), while taxes are not. But I’m not a conservative of the sort you are criticizing anyway, not that it is relevant.

    Fifth and finally, your last statement is mere bluster. You ignore or dismiss every good thing the religious do in the name of their faith, then claim secularism as it’s opposite and cure – convenient.

  9. Samuel Skinner
    I don’t find the term evangelical distasteful- I just find people are using in an effort to say “atheists and fundamentalists are the same”.

    Technically the rise in wealth boomed because of trade, better farming and plunder, but that is neither here nor there. The dramatic growth was due to industrialization, which did occur at the same time as the Enlightenment.

    As for the Greeks, I know there were polytheists. I was talking about the Ionians. Although the various cities of Ionia were tyrannies, they invented the idea of free speech, the scientific method and a bunch of other cool things. Most importantly the came up with explaning the universe without referance to the Gods! First mention of evolution…

    Hmm… lets see. I was refering to something that hasn’t changed in two centuries. Although it is true that varies forms have different messages, that is central to all the groups that call themselves Christian. For every other idea you can find a Christian group opposing it. My point is that is an eesential requirement to be Christian.

    Also, claiming that Christianity was the deciding factor for the creation of all these things ignore history. Why didn’t they do it earlier? BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T INTERPRET IT THAT WAY! In short the book didn’t change, the people did!

    Oh! Stalin and Mao. They didn’t abuse atheism by the way- they were true atheists. You know why? Because everyone who doesn’t believe in god is an atheist. There is no other requirement. You can be bloody handed or a living saint- it matters not. Atheism is a label that should have no conotations (like black) but does only because of the inanity of our society.

    If you didn’t give tithes you burn in Hell. The church was rather clear on that.

    Hmm. How about Communism? Obviously we both agree Communism is false and harmful, but that doesn’t nullify the good things the party did, or the good that they did in the name of the Revolution. The fact is we ignore because we can find perfectly decent motives not based on their cause for their good actions, while only their cause can justify the bad actions the commited. The same goes for faith. We can find perfectly secular reasons for things people have done in the name of religion (Asoka the great being a great example), but they inevitably are perfectly justifiable with a secular viewpoint.

    Note that this is all irrelevant to the existance of God. God does not rely on his followers to exist-outside of D&D and other fantasy of course.

  10. Samuel,
    First, “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” are not synonyms (more like two points on a spectrum), but the point is not that all atheists are either one, but that these categories cross all groups. There are fundamentalists among the atheists just as there are among the religious. The kind of folks (for instance) who fill P.Z. Myers’ com-boxes with bile don’t get a pass on the fundamentalist label just because they are atheists. I don’t think Dawkins et al are quite fundamentalists, but they have become quite evangelical about their atheism, and they are at times as unreasonable about it as any evangelical Christian is about their faith.

    Second, to reduce Christianity to only what has never been disagreed upon is absurd; in that case even the things you mention are ruled out (hint: not all Christians have or do believe in hell). Is science to be reduced only to what has never been disagreed upon? Religion develops too, and that isn’t a bad thing. See here for more about that.

    Third, your comments about Stalin and Mao are exactly right; atheism itself says (almost) nothing about what kind of people they are. But that is precisely my point: there is no hard and fast line between the religious who “poison everything” (or are poisoned by their faith), and the secular who, if only they weren’t bogged down by the rest, would solve the world’s problems.

    Don’t you see that you are here agreeing with me and Gray against folks like Hitchens, that such distinctions are ridiculous and ignore human nature. People in every society – religious or atheist, wealthy or poor – can be good or evil, reasonable or unreasonable, or (much more likely) some combination of them all. Being secular or wealthy or anything else is no guarantee that one will be good, there isn’t even a correlation. Secularism is not the cure, neither is atheism, heck, neither is religion per se: the cure is in individuals choosing to do the right thing, living for something bigger than themselves, loving their neighbor (no matter where they may be) as they love themselves, etc.

    On the other hand, your claim that we can attribute the evil that people do to their communism, faith, etc., while attributing the good things they do to “purely secular motives” is to return to absurdity. Anything is justifiable from a “secular viewpoint” (just as, by the way, anything is justifiable from a “religious” viewpoint, if we fail to specify anything further about religion). Communism is itself a secular enterprise; the fact that it is a bad one does not change that, nor condemn all secularism as evil.

    Finally and more positively, your comment that “God does not rely on his followers to exist” is exactly right, and points to the deeper issue underlying this one: how do we define “good,” and what justifies the distinction


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