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The New Atheist Movement is destructive

– The antitheism of the four horsemen is for me a backwards step. It reinforces what I believe is a myth, that an atheist without a bishop to bash is like a fish without water, Julian Baggini writes.

Text: Julian Baggini
Published: March 19. 2009

“What do you think about the four horsemen?” It's a question I often get asked, quite understandably, since I wrote the Very Short Introduction to atheism. That book provides no answer, because it came out before Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens unleashed their apocalypse. But surely I must have an opinion on the biggest phenomenon in popular atheism since Bertrand Russell?

The four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse. Artwork by Sissel M. Bergh.

Well I do, but it comes with one huge caveat: I have not read any of their books. That does not, however, disqualify me from having an opinion about them. Let me defend both apparently intellectually disreputable confessions.

Not reading The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith is perfectly reasonable. Why on earth would I devote precious reading hours to books which largely tell me what I already believe? These books are surely mainly for agnostics and open-minded believers. In fact, I think atheists who have read these books have more of a responsibility to account for their actions than I do my inaction. As the posters on the sides of British buses rather simplistically put it, “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” God's non-existence is a fact atheists live with, not something that they should obsessively read about.

But if I haven't read these books, surely I should have no opinion about them? I think you’d be less sure of this if you had read How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard (or even not read it). In any case, my opinions are not so much about these books as the general tone and direction the new atheism they represent has adopted. This is not a function of what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived, and the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews. All this, I think, has been unhelpful in many ways. In short, the new atheism gets atheism wrong, gets religion wrong, and is counterproductive.

How does it get atheism wrong? When I wrote my own book on the subject, I believed that atheism was widely misunderstood as being primarily a negative attack on religious belief, on which it is parasitic.

But this can’t be right. Imagine for one moment that atheism triumphs and belief in God is eradicated. On the view that atheism needs religion, then this victory would also be atheism’s extinction. This is absurd.

It is only because of historical accident that atheism is not widely recognised as a world-view in its own right. This world view is essentially a very general form of naturalism, in which there are not two kinds of stuff, the natural and the supernatural, but one. The forces that govern this substance are also natural ones and there is no ultimate purpose or agency behind them. Human life is biological, and thus does not survive beyond biological death.

Such a worldview needs defending, and a special name, only because for various reasons, it is not the one that most humans have adopted. But the view itself is true whether or not there are people who disagree with it. In a totally atheist world, we may stop noticing that it is a view at all, in the same way that most people do not notice that they believe objects exist whether we perceive them or not. But it would still be a view.

So in my book, I tried to articulate the grounds for this view with as little reference to the religious alternative as possible. The new atheism, however, is characterised by its attacks on religion. “There is a logical path from religious faith to evil deeds,” wrote Richard Dawkins, quite typically, quoting approvingly Stephen Weinberg, who said, “for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.” Hitchens goes so far as to explicitly say that “I am not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist.”
This antitheism is for me a backwards step. It reinforces what I believe is a myth, that an atheist without a bishop to bash is like a fish without water. Worse, it raises the possibility that as a matter of fact, for many atheists, they do indeed need an enemy to give them their identity.

A second feature of atheism is that it is committed to the appropriate use of reason and evidence. In order to occupy this intellectual high ground, it is important to recognise the limits of reason, and also to acknowledge that atheists have no monopoly on it. The new atheism, however, tends to claim reason as a decisive combatant on its side only. With its talk of “spells” and “delusions”, it gives the impression that only through stupidity or crass disregard for reason could anyone be anything other than an atheist. “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence,” says Dawkins, once again implying that reason and evidence are strangers to religion. This is arrogant, and attributes to reason a power it does not have.

This is most evident when you consider the poverty of the new atheism’s “error theory”, which is needed to explain why, if atheism is indeed the view evidence and reason demands, so many very bright people are still religious. The usual answers given to this are not good enough. They tend to stress psychological blind-spots and wishful thinking. For instance, Dawkins says “the meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.”

But if very intelligent people are so easily led astray by such things, then shouldn’t the new atheists themselves be more sceptical about the role reason plays in their own belief formation? You cannot, on the one hand, put forward a view that says great intelligence is easily over-ridden by psychological delusions and, on the other, claim that one unique group of people can see clearly what reason demands and free themselves from such grips. Either many religious people are not as irrational as they seem, or atheists are not entitled to assume they are as rational as they seem to themselves.

I also think the new atheism tends to get religion wrong. The focus is always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, its belief in personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the religious do indeed believe in such things. Indeed, I’m on the record as accusing liberal theologians of hiding behind their less literalist interpretations, and pretending that matters of creed don’t really matter at all.

However, there is much more to religion to the metaphysics. To give a non-exhaustive list, religion is also about trying to live sub specie aeternitatis; orienting oneself to the transcendent rather than the immanent; living in a moral community of shared practice or as part of a valuable tradition; cultivating certain attitudes, such as gratitude and humility; and so on. To say, as Sam Harris does, that “religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time” misses all this. The practices of religion may be more important then the narratives, even if people believe those narratives to be true.

The new atheism has also, I think, created an unhelpful climate for atheism to flourish. When people think of atheists now, they think about men who look only to science for answers, are dismissive of religion and over-confident in their own rightness. Richard Dawkins, for example, presented a television programme on religion called The Root of all Evil and has as his website slogan “A clear thinking oasis”. Where is the balance and modesty in such rhetoric?

For me, atheism’s roots are in a sober and modest assessment of where reason and evidence lead us. That means the real enemy is not religion as such, but any kind of system of belief that does not respect these limits on our thinking. For that reason, I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent believers, and isolate extremists. But if we demonise all religion, such coalitions of the reasonable are not possible. Instead, we are likely to see moderate religious believers join ranks with fundamentalists, the enemies of their enemy, to resist what they see as an attempt to wipe out all forms of religious belief.

Constructive engagement can yield good results. For example, in the UK, the Accord Coalition has been formed to resist the spread of religious schools. Its member include the Hindu Academy, a Christian think-tank, Ekklesia, and The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

It is sometimes argued that this kind of desire for engagement with moderates is dangerous, since the liberals merely provide cover for the extremists. I find this as unpersuasive as the argument that talking to democratic socialists only encourages the communists, or that negotiating with Fatah is a sop to jihadists. The best way to disrupt such continuities as there are between moderates and extremists is to encourage them to see the greater continuities they have with moderates they disagree with.

For these reasons, I am not happy about the public rhetoric of the new atheism, which has the most powerful effect on how people perceive people like me. Anyone committed to the proper use of reason and evidence should use both to see that this rhetoric matters, whether they like it or not, and modify their approach accordingly.

Julian Baggini is the author of the book Atheism - A very short introduction (2003). See Julian Baggini's blog. This commentary is written exclusively for Fritanke.no.

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