Sound and fury of the New Atheists
By ALISTER MCGRATH - THE TIMES (LONDON)
Added: Sat, 23 Apr 2011 08:24:23 UTC
Cultural discussions about the reasonableness of belief in God have gone on politely for centuries. The recent rise of what is now inaccurately called the “New Atheism” has changed all this.
Easter is a time for celebration and reflection for Christians. How do the Cross and Resurrection of Christ help to make sense of the ambiguities of our experience? How do they shape our understanding of the world, and our place within it?
For many Christians such traditional reflections now take place against an unsettling debate about the place of religion in public life. What disquiets people are not the questions but their dismissive and aggressive tone. Cultural discussions about the reasonableness of belief in God have gone on politely (if inconclusively) for centuries. The recent rise of what is now (inaccurately) called the “New Atheism” has changed all this — at least, in the short term. For the fashionable few, rubbishing faith has become a mark of cultural sophistication.
Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain to Harvard University, is one of many secularists to express alarm at the ridicule and contempt that he found in some recent atheist writings, such as Christopher Hitchen’s God is not Great (2007). Their aggressive anti-theism, he argued, set out “to shame and embarrass people away from religion, browbeating them about the stupidity of belief in a bellicose god.”
This tactic represents a move away from some older forms of atheism, which appealed to evidence-based arguments and insisted on respect for religious belief. Slick soundbites took precedence over what were often ponderous and inconclusive arguments.
As the New Atheist blogger P. Z. Myers noted, “the old school of atheism” was “really, really boring”. Atheism semed to have got stuck in the mud. No wonder so many people had written it off as dull and plodding. For Myers, the more outrageous the slogans, the better. That was the only way to grab public attention. He was right. Hyperbolic overtstatement triumphed where reasoned argument failed.
Some examples? “Religion kills.” “Religion poisons everything.” Believing in God is a “form of mental illness”. These breezy slogans shaped a popular cultural suspicion of religious belief and practice.
The New Atheism has certainly succeeded in getting a debate under way. God is back on the cultural agenda, drawing bigger audiences than before. Yet, as one of my atheist colleagues remarked, “Richard Dawkins got us all interested in the God question again. But we didn’t really think very much of his answers.”
Where some seemed to think that the New Atheism would achieve closure on the question of God, the reverse seems to have happened. Cultural interest in God and religion has resurged.
In the 1960s, as the sociologists William Bainbridge and Rodney Stark noted, “the most illustrious figures in sociology, anthropology and psychology” believed that they “would live to see the dawn of a new era in which, to paraphrase Freud, the infantile illusions of religion would be outgrown.”
A generation later political debate in western Europe — the most secular geopolitical region in the world — now routinely addresses such topics as how best to work with faith groups, and how faith may generate social cohesion.
Society has not bought into the New Atheism’s analysis of the intrinsically “pathological” role of religion or its “God is a delusion” soundbites. For the New Atheists it is obvious that religious extremism was behind 9/11, so why, they ask, did Barack Obama praise faith in his election campaign?
In 2009 the atheist Julian Baggini, author of the excellent Very Short Introduction to Atheism, made two fundamental criticisms of the New Atheism. First, it is characterised primarily by its attacks on religion, rather than by its own positive beliefs. Secondly, its exponents seem to think they have a monopoly on reason. It cultivates “the impression that only through stupidity or crass disregard for reason could anyone be anything other than an atheist.” For Baggini, belief is God is based on reason and evidence. So is atheism. The debate concerns which is the better explanation, not who is deluded.
Read on (There's a paywall but only the last paragraph remains. McGrath quotes Augustine in support of his claim that people have a need for God).
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