7 June 2011

My personal take on the "New Atheism"

Introduction

The purpose of this blog post is to clarify what I understand by the term “New Atheism” as has been banded about by various writers and commentators over the last few years. This is very much just a collection of thoughts that, by the process of writing, I am seeking to put in some sort of order myself. This is not intended as a critique on the movement (if indeed there really is such a thing), nor is intended as either an attack or defence of any group or individual. As ever, if you think I have made any factual errors then please correct me, and if you disagree with me, please let me how you disagree with me, so that I may have some food for thought. If you take any offence at this, it is unintended and I shall seek to clarify as far as possible any points which may have been poorly worded.

Before publishing this post, I did send this off to an atheist blogger who has written more about this than I. In respect of his wish to not have our conversation published verbatim, a paraphrase of his response is included as an afterword.

Background

This has come about from my recent reading of Alister McGrath’s recent book, “Why God Won’t Go Away: Engaging With The New Atheism.” Though it happened more out of coincidence than design, I also read Richard Feynman’s The Meaning Of It All recently, and some of the contents of this book and RPF’s take on the interaction of science prompted me to consider how his view of the relation between religion and science differed from some of the modern views.

The key question

To my mind, the key question must be “What is the difference between an atheist and a New Atheist?” In McGrath’s book, he doesn’t give a particular definition of what a New Atheist is or how they are demarked from other atheists. In the chapter on what’s new about the New Atheists, he talks about anti-theism (more on that in a bit) and spends a fair proportion of the chapter on the Brights. He refers to the 4 key texts (as he sees them) and draws from these a general ethos that typifies the approach, which is then further exemplified by a wider online community. But maybe it need not be so black-and-white. Are human beings not free to believe what they want? Though it may be helpful in terms of understanding how groups interact to be able to put labels on them, humans are far more than the sum of all the adjectives we can apply to them.

In my reading, I have never come across a statement of (dis-)beliefs of New Atheism which has wide acceptance. Neither in the form of a creed, or even a more corporate mission statement. I think perhaps the reason for this may lie in the idea that such statements are only needed for affirmative viewpoints, rather than negative ones. In this, I recognise I may be at odds with some atheists who would consider their worldview to be perfectly positive, but merely with an absence of one or a few factors that are otherwise present in another person’s worldview.

Without wanting to get bogged down in semantics, I propose that we let any disagreements there be put aside for now, in favour of obeying the Monty Python cloud god’s instruction to “Get on with it!”

The 4 manifestos

In McGrath’s book, he identifies 4 books as the key texts on which the New Atheism is based. In other words, they each act as a kind of manifesto. They are:

The End of Faith – Sam Harris
The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins
Breaking The Spell – Daniel Dennett
God is Not Great – Christopher Hitchens

Here, I must make a confession. I have not read any of them in full. My extent of reading these texts consists of reading extracts in other publications (usually reviews and counter-arguments) and one or two chapters in full, though not very recently. This is not because I refuse to read them, but merely because they are low on my priorities. If anyone thinks that I would do well to read them, then please feel free to buy one or all of them for me! However, I would present you with an equal challenge. That if someone wants to challenge my Christianity with these books, then you must allow me to buy you a book which may challenge your atheism. I think that’s only fair.

However, whilst acknowledging that I am not totally au fait with all their arguments, I do not consider myself ignorant of their views either. I have read plenty of other writings of theirs and watched debates or interviews in which they feature. In this respect, my order of familiarity is as follows:

1. Dawkins
2. Hitchens
3. Dennett
4. Harris

Science and timing

If there are no clear boundaries between an ordinary atheist and a New Atheist, are there are at least characteristics which may commonly be found in one but not in another? This is where McGrath comes back into the picture, as the central part of his book deals with the 3 key features he sees as being distinguishing: 1) the notion that religion is inherently evil; 2) that religion is incompatible with rationality and 3) that religion is incompatible with science.

McGrath gives an overview of why each of these 3 premises is at best, doubtful; at worst, false. My thoughts on these are summarised in my review of McGrath’s book. Of the 3, the one I am most interested in the supposed incompatibility with science. The main reason for this is because I specialised in science during my formative years, culminating a mathematics degree which included a large amount of physics. So as a Christian, when someone states that science and faith are mutually exclusive, I do tend to raise something of a quizzical eyebrow.

In his brief history of New Atheism, McGrath cites 9/11 as being one of pivotal moments in shaping the New Atheism. Sociologically, I think this a valid point, though in terms of the science argument, there is one interesting thing he fails to mention, and this seems not to have been particularly picked up on by any apologists that I know of. That was been the timing of the publication of The God Delusion with respect to the death of Stephen Jay Gould. Here, this is only my opinion, based on my view of events. This is where Feynman comes into it, as mentioned earlier.

In his lectures of 1963, which were transcribed and published as The Meaning of it All, Feynman (who, elsewhere, identifies himself as an atheist) states that he sees no conflict between someone being a scientist and having a religious belief. This is a similar line that was adopted by Stephen Jay Gould, the prominent evolutionary biologist and palaeontologist who sadly died somewhat prematurely in 2002. His notion of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (Noma – nothing to do with Nooma video series by Rob Bell) has been highly influential, if not universally agreed upon, in the understanding of the science-faith relationship.

Dawkins seems to be opposed the Noma idea (Google “Dawkins on Noma” and you’ll get the idea). The trouble is, Gould was a heavyweight figure, not only as a communicator like Dawkins, but also as a leading thinker in his field, which was dangerously close to Dawkins’ own research areas. It is one thing to fight critics like Terry Eagleton, Alister McGrath or Mary Midgely, but to take on Gould could have been seriously damaging for Dawkins, had The God Delusion been written while Gould was still around.

“New Atheism” as a sociological label

As people, we love to stick labels on others and try to understand groups of people by clumping them together. I think the label “New Atheism” is just another example of this. There may be great differences in the approaches and emphases between, say Dennett and Harris, yet they are still labelled as New Atheists. If we stay look at the other side of the coin, a term that is used quite frequently is “religious fundamentalist.” I don’t know of anyone who defines themselves as such, nor am I aware of a firm definition which segregates religious fundamentalists from other religious people. Yet I do see that there are elements of society where this description is apt, in spite of its hazy meaning.

As an aside, I do not think that the term fundamentalist is very close to its original meaning – those who subscribed to the ideas of the magazine The Fundamentals. For example, anyone who does not subscribe to the theory of evolution is often labelled as a fundamentalist, yet the writings of that particular magazine endorsed the work of Charles Darwin though they rejected the philosophical (over-?) stretching of his biology into a more general reductionism – which is the approach favoured more by Dennett with his “universal acid.” And since The Fundamentals was a Christian publication, it certainly then does raise interesting questions on the precise meaning of the term “Islamic fundamentalism” as is also often heard these days.

So with that in mind, does McGrath’s apparent unwillingness (or inability) to define New Atheism render his arguments null and void? I would propose not. Maybe, in time, those adherents to Dawkins & co. may adopt the terminology as their own – much as followers of the Jewish sect known as The Way later adopted the pejorative term Christ-ian. So who is a New Atheist? Well, I would be perfectly happy for it to be a self-defining term; if you want to call yourself a New Atheist, so be it. However, I find the main theme running through anything that is identified as New Atheist, is anti-theism. So rather than put forward either of the statements “I do not believe there is a God” or “I believe there is no God,” anti-theism has a more strident aim (some might say evangelical) of ridding the world of religious belief. Whether this be by force (as McGrath highlights in Harris' condolence of violence towards believers) or by persuasion, that is up to the individual. This view does actually crop up in McGrath's book, in pages 23-26. However, it does get rather drowned by the rest of the chapter and his critique on the Brights. Where I then disagree with the use of the word “New” is that this more aggressive form of atheism does not appear to be new. I have met and spoken with many people for whom the “four horsemen” simply put into print what they had been saying for many years previously.

Conclusion

I'm not a fan of sticking the New Atheist label on anyone who hasn't put it on themselves. By the use of the term, it seems to divert attention away from the real issue, which is the discussion of the claims to truth by advocates of and adherents to different worldviews. Where two worldviews differ, I believe each side should be able to provide a defence for their position, reasons why they do not agree with another’s and also that it is at least courteous to listen to one another's views, learn from them and, if necessary alter one's own views based on such discussions. Where anti-theists and religious fundamentalists alike fail, I believe, is in their apparent dogmatism which leads to an unwillingness to engage.

There is nothing so frustrating as trying to have a civilised conversation over a game chess, when you are in a room full of people shouting at one another with their fingers in their ears and pretending that that is a meaningful and productive conversation.

Afterword: A response from an atheist

As mentioned in the introduction, I did ask a knowledgeable atheist to give this a once over, in order to help eliminate any unnecessary errors or misunderstandings. What follows below is his response, though as he did not wish for a verbatim quotation, I have edited it a little. Any misinterpretations are therefore due entirely to me. Here is what he had to say:

The term "New Atheist" is rejected by some atheists, who claim the media did it. However, the term "New Atheist" is very much warmly accepted by some of the New Atheists. Notably Victor Stenger, if I recall correctly, and Dawkins himself.

There is also a separation that is sometimes made between the thought leaders in the field and those who follow them. The fans of the New Atheists have no generally accepted overall name. Some prefer to call themselves atheists. Others very happily self-identify with the "New Atheism" label. There is also the term Gnu Atheists for the fans, especially the American ones; see
this blog post of mine for details.

Others still happily self-identify with the
Gnu Atheist and the New Atheist labels; notably Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson and Russell Blackford.

The separation between New Atheism and atheism in general is a pronounced anti-theism on the New Atheism side.

You make an extremely interesting observation about the death of Gould in relation to the timing of the success of the New Atheist movement. It doesn't go as far as you hope, but it is definitely a factor.

I will be happy to write a review of Alister McGrath's book, once it arrives (I've ordered it). While I very much like McGrath as a person, I find his work on New Atheism is not comprehensive enough. You also miss the main success of the New Atheist movement is their MORAL argument against religion, i.e. in effect they are saying religion is incompatible with morality (i.e. you think science or rationality, but the underlying message is morality). Those counter-attacking the New Atheists have never really managed to deal with that one well. The only ones who have dealt with it well are atheists and agnostics (
Josh Rosenau, me, Jim Lippard, etc.)

Keith Ward wrote a book which I think dealt with this better than McGrath. Keith Ward, "
Is religion dangerous?" The problem is, Ward didn't manage enough take-home soundbites or any follow-up campaign, so he did not garner a very broad following.

I like McGrath, but I find his promotion of Christianity actually undermines his defence of religion against the New Atheists.

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