The real debate about atheism is here already
By CASPAR MELVILLE - THE GUARDIAN
Added: Sun, 05 Apr 2009 23:00:00 UTC
Thanks to LWS for the link
What is Madeleine Bunting actually trying to say? Those of us who read her regularly, we happy few, are well used to hearing the argument that there is more to faith than the blind acceptance of unproven assertions, that religions add a layer of meaning all too absent in these materialistic times and that what the world needs now is love sweet love. So what does she add in her latest strike against the godless heathens?
She starts with a telling stat, and a very suggestive opening question: Fewer than 20 per cent of Britons know what is celebrated at Easter, promoting her to ask "What other system of belief has collapsed at such spectacular speed as British Christianity?" Now that is an interesting question, and one which to answer would require some serious historical, sociological and comparative research. Perhaps she was too busy for this, because instead of following this line she diverts into ungrounded speculation (that there will be a New Atheist party celebrating the decline of Easter) and snideness (Dawkins should pay the drinks tab with his "sumptuous royalties"). And thus she announces her real subject, not the resurrection of the Messiah, nor yet the story of how and why Christianity has tanked in the UK, but what is wrong with the arguments of "The New Atheists". This time she is mobbed up, wheeling out the arguments of "some of the country's finest minds".
Her argument is constructed thus.
* Its Easter, but most British people don't know WHAT THAT REALLY MEANS.
* The New Atheists will be celebrating this fact with their ill gotten gains from writing books which a lot of people buy.
* Luckily Madeleine and the FMs of her generation know what's what when it comes to religion, or rather don't know what's what except that they are absolutely sure of one thing – certainty is bad.
Passing swiftly over the details of the FMs case against the New Atheists (except perhaps to note that if John Gray is indeed 'uninterested' in the debate generated by the New Atheists he did a good job of stretching that uninterest over the more than four thousand word article he wrote for the Guardian last year to promote his book Black Mass) we arrive at Bunting's central contention – many clever people think that Dawkins and Hitchens in their certainty that religion is a bad thing overstate their case. The list of FMs she cites includes John Gray, Karen Armstrong, Alain de Botton, Andrew Motion, AN Wilson, each and every one united around a single, profound article of faith – that
Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens don't have all the answers. Who knew?
This is a very well worn path. But what is Bunting really saying? She's already told us that fewer and fewer know about or care much for Christianity, but that millions have bought The God Delusion. Is she saying that the New Atheists have brought about the decline of Christianity (now that would be an original argument)? Or that they don't matter at all? Surely the real issue here is what has happened to religion, and public attitudes to issues of faith? On that Bunting is bordering on the Arnoldian – people are ignorant and lack the requisite subtly of mind to truly appreciate faith that surpatheth all understanding. They know nothing of the apophatic tradition which holds that God is ineffable and beyond powers of description. Its true that Dawkins devotes little time to theological nicety, but isn't in perfectly legitimate for him to ask, on behalf of non-believers, what the mechanism is which might allow people to accept the notion of a powerful force in all our lives that is somehow "beyond description", what harm might be done in the name of such an entity when it is forgiven the duty of conforming to the rules of evidence to which the rest of us submit, and to ask why if faith is beyond description the major religions devote so much time and ink in describing it, and telling those who have it what they should do.
Bunting bemoans the fact that we have fallen for the "modern distortion" which made God "into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe." Are we blaming Dawkins for that too? Because, excuse me, but haven't religions had a little thing or two to say over the years about believing in God, and the requirement thereto?
But in the end it turns out its not all Dawkins fault. It's the Media that has "inflated" the debate and been "promoting the wrong argument". If that were true of course, this article would count as a prime example of debate inflation (I'll see your Oxford Professor with my Popular Philosopher and raise you a Poet Laureate) and the promotion of the wrong argument. And anyway what is to stop Bunting writing about the myths that sustain us in a post-religious world, or the decline in general literacy, without mentioning Dawkins once, if she wants?
The fact is the publication of The God Delusion and God is Not Great, and the other books which make up the New Atheists wave, have given a great boost not only to publisher's coffers, but to public discussions of religion, faith and belief. They have provided a powerful edge, both sharp and blunt, against which those who want to speak up for faith can push. If that were not the case why are they cited with such frequency by all these writers? It doesn't mean that Dawkins and Hitchens are necessarily right about everything, but to accuse them of failing to kick-start a proper debate is as wide of the mark as it is possible to be. Bunting anyway disproves her own cases by citing what she thinks are the good arguments which have been made as a response to those of Dawkins and Hitchens. What seems far more important to think through is why so many people are buying books like this now, as well as, uncomfortable as this might be for Bunting and the FMs, why so many more people are buying them than those of their critics.
As an interested party I welcome the lively debate triggered by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, polemical assertions, simplifications, theological uninterestedness and all. I've also greatly enjoyed reading counterblasts by Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton, and I've commissioned a few critical responses of my own. Crucially this has been an open public discussion, not confined to the seminar room or the seminary, but taking place on television, radio, magazines, in pubs and workplaces too. If the terms have sometimes been crude, the language has at the same time been accessible, and the positions clear and bold – welcoming and encouraging rebuttal and critical engagement. It doesn't matter if the books are completely right, after all the authors are only human. The result has been a huge fillip for our culture of debate.
In the end articles like this, for all their gestures toward the milk and honey of "love, commitment and loyalty", taste more like sour grapes.
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