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New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?

Thanks to Benjamin O'Donnell for the link.

New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?

By Benjamin O'Donnell

A lot has been written about a group of recent best-selling authors that, back in November 2006, Wired Magazine dubbed "the new atheists". Principally, they are the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), the neuroscientist Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), the philosopher Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell) and the journalist Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great and The Portable Atheist).

These authors have not just sold a lot of books (over 1.5 million for the English language edition of The God Delusion alone). Dawkins runs a website with a lot of traffic and has started a charitable foundation in the US and the UK. Harris has smaller, but similar projects. Hitchens takes on all comers in his inimitably confrontational style. Google any of their names or the phrases "new atheist" or "new atheism" and you'll see a torrent of arguments, for and against. The "new atheists" are clearly trying to start and sustain an intellectual movement.

What is strange is that, when one actually reads them, one gets the feeling that the real target of the "new atheists" isn't religion at all.

ndeed, they all explicitly say they have little or no problem with deism, or Spinozian pantheism or what Dawkins calls "Einstein-ian religion". Harris, Dennett and Hitchens (and possibly Dawkins) have indicated that they wouldn't necessarily want to see the synagogues, churches and mosques emptied, though they would want to see them abandon their "metaphysical bullshit" (see this video towards the end).

It seems that the new atheists' real problem is with dogma, and specifically with the dogma of religious faith - with the belief that it is acceptable, even admirable, to believe propositions without logically sound reasons based on good evidence. They aren't really the "new atheists" at all, but the "new anti-dogmatists".

So, what's the problem with dogma?

The forms that dogmatically believed propositions can take are potentially infinite. One might dogmatically believe in the historical inevitability of a communist utopia, under which the State will wither away, after a brief but necessary period of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Or one might dogmatically believe in the existence of something called the Aryan race, in its inherent superiority to all other races, and in the inherent inferiority and perfidy of the Jewish race.

Or one might dogmatically believe that the creator of the universe called on one's religion to convert the world, or take it by force through holy war; that death in the defence of (or attempt to reconquer) lands so acquired is the greatest of all actions; and that such martyrs will go to paradise after they die to be attended by 72 virgin brides and joined in due course be all their family and loved-ones.

Or one might dogmatically believe that the creator of the universe condemns condom use as a sin.

What all four of these beliefs have in common is that there is very little or no evidence for them and there is much evidence against them. Yet all four beliefs have at times been passionately believed and acted upon by otherwise rational, sane and civilised people - often resulting in those people performing some of the most irrational, insane and barbaric acts imaginable.

The physicist Steven Weinberg has said that, left alone, "you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." If you change the word "religion" to "dogma" or "faith" you have my view - and the view I suspect people like Weinberg, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris are really getting at.

Thankfully, Fascist, Nazi and Communist dogmas have been so discredited that almost no one believes them any more. This is a development to be celebrated. But as the events of New York and Washington DC and Bali and Madrid and London demonstrate; and as demonstrated by the genocidally stupid anti-contraceptive policies of the Catholic church in Africa; and the homicidally stupid stem-cell policies of Christian churches in the US, religious dogmas are alive and kicking and at work in the world today.

Reason and evidence and empiricism and science and liberal democracy - in short, the forces of the Enlightenment - have discredited Communist and Fascist dogmas. Now, say Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, it is time for them to do the same to the dogmas of religious faith.
Isn't atheism just as dogmatic and dangerous?

At this point, a committed theist might point to the history of 20th century Communism and say that there is something about atheism that leads to barbarism, immorality and dictatorship. He or she might even say that there is something about atheism that leads to the very dogmatism that I and the "new anti-dogmatists" decry. But any theist who said that would have to explain the inconvenient fact that some of the most civilised, liberal and prosperous nations in the world are "atheistic", in the sense that a majority of their populations do not believe in God.

Take Sweden, for example. When polled, more than 80 per cent of Swedes say they don't believe in God and more than 40 per cent explicitly identify themselves as atheists. Yet Sweden has some of the lowest homicide, poverty, teenaged pregnancy and STD rates in the world. It is a functioning liberal democracy with high levels of wealth, very little social unrest and a near 100 per cent literacy rate.

And while Sweden is the extreme, the figures show that liberal democracies with low levels of theistic belief tend to be have high levels of societal health, and vice versa. Even in the heavily religious United States of America, the less religious a State is, the lower its rates of things like homicide, STD infection and teenage pregnancy tend to be. (See P Zuckerman, "Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns" in M Martin (ed), Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge University Press, UK, 2006), summarised here and here)

Clearly, a widespread disbelief in God is not incompatible with a healthy, happy, prosperous and civilised society. (Note I do not claim that atheism has caused these wonderful societies to be so wonderful. I cite these facts merely to show that atheism is compatible with social harmony.)

So, what is the difference between the slaughterhouses built by the Godless Communists of Russia and China and the civilised liberal polities built by the Godless progressives of Western Europe and elsewhere? The obvious answer is that Western European countries are liberal democracies committed to science and empiricism and reason, and freedom of speech and debate; whereas Soviet Russia and Red China clearly were not. It was not its atheism per se, but the illiberalism, the undemocratic nature, the dogmatism of Communism that made it the architect of so much 20th century horror.

The two Enlightenments

Another common criticism of atheists (particularly atheist scientists like Dawkins) is that they are robotic philistines, determined to destroy art, culture and community and reduce the world to a place of steel and chromium, spreadsheets and catalogues. But the really interesting thing about these new anti-dogmatists is their spirituality. Dawkins has written with such wonder and poetry about the natural world in books like Unweaving the Rainbow that he's been referred to as a "deeply religious non-believer" (and he is, after all, the man who once wrote an article entitled "Atheists for Jesus").

Hitchens waxes lyrical about the beauties of religious music and art, but insists we separate the transcendent from the supernatural. Dennett's Breaking the Spell devotes a great many pages to examining and praising the community-building and altruism-sustaining qualities of religious institutions.

Most radical of all, Sam Harris is a former seeker, a man who spent ten years in meditation retreats and with yogis and monks (including a stint as a bodyguard for the Dalai Lama). In the last chapter of The End of Faith, Harris argues that there really is something worthwhile and wonderful about the mystical experiences that lie at the root of most of our religions. These experiences are real and important and increasingly measurable by neuroscientists - but the truth about them is buried beneath mountains of "metaphysical bullshit". Harris extols the virtues of the contemplative disciplines at the same time as he is withering in his criticism of the ancient theology and modern "New Age" waffle that so often goes with them. What we need, argues Harris, is to take a ruthlessly logical and scientific approach to these ancient disciplines, to separate the wheat from the chaff (see also Harris' confronting article, "Killing the Buddha" (PDF 534KB)).

The new anti-dogmatists are children of the European Enlightenment. But Sam Harris, at least, is no stranger to that other meaning of the word enlightenment - the meaning that stands at the root of many of our religions. Reconciling these "two enlightenments" is a project where rationalists like Dawkins might join in common cause with ultra-liberal theologians like Bishop John Shelby Spong. But such a project is not a call for misty-eyed live-and-let-live compromise. Far from it. To get at the common core of truth that lies within both the religious and rationalistic meanings of the word "enlightenment" we need to be ruthless with obscurantism - whether it comes from orthodox theology, post-modern nonsense, new age silliness or naïve mechanistic psychology.

The baby and the bathwater

And here I return to my terminological criticism. This "spiritual" side to the new anti-dogmatism is not helped by the conflation of the terms "religion" and "faith". Dennett, as one would expect from a professional philosopher, has been by far the least sloppy in his use of the terms; but he is also the most subtle and least read of four.

Harris can slide between the terms "faith" and "religion", but his sophisticated treatment of spirituality makes it clear that his real target is the dogma of faith.

Dawkins and Hitchens are the two who most often conflate religion and faith in their use of language - and they are also the two most well known. In my view, this is unfortunate. As Dennett points out at length in Breaking the Spell, religions are social institutions that are very effective at providing community, solidarity and mutual support. But they needn't be based around dogma. By being sloppy in their language, I fear the new anti-dogmatists are driving away potential allies.



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