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← Battle of the New Atheism

Russell Blackford's Avatar Jump to comment 22 by Russell Blackford

Interesting article, but I have no idea what the last paragraph means. It seems to dissolve into a mass of tangential rhetoric (what on Earth do our "democratic values" have to do with it?), just when rigorous analysis is desperately required.

Going back to Gary Wolf's explanation in his post, for which I thank him, I'm afraid I'm not much wiser. The middle para is, with all respect, very woolly. It looks to me as Wolf has an emotional aversion to what he sees as strident attacks on religion, but is finding it very difficult to articulate some kind of rationalisation for it, so we end up getting all this stuff about Dawkins, etc., seeming to be absurd, vague comments about our own fallibility, appeals to democratic values, and so on.

No one has to be as up-front about opposing religion as Dawkins. There's no reason to feel uncomfortable if that doesn't suit you. But there's also no reason to denigrate those who are more comfortable with it. If religion is false, then many people are living their entire lives in the service of a non-existent deity. Now that is absurd. Perhaps some would lead very similar lives even without their theistic beliefs, but many would not - they are unnecessarily living in a way that does not suit them, and they will spend their whole lives in that situation.

Worse, religious believers typically want the rest of us to live in a way that cannot be justified on purely rational naturalistic grounds. On issue after issue - abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, therapeutic cloning - we see religious believers taking up positions with cruel consequences and no secular justification. Yet, these very same religious believers often claim some moral authority that they expect the rest of us to defer to - even as they act out of their socialisation in, and perhaps study of, a false belief system. It's no use insisting that they debate issues with us on purely secular grounds, because, as long as they retain their belief systems and the emotional legacy of those systems, purely secular grounds will not be accepted by them as a boundary to political and moral discourse.

It seems to me that we have no choice but to engage with the epistemic content of religion - actually to scrutinise and criticise its claims, and to deny its moral authority. We may not be able to eliminate religion from the world, but we can at least articulate our rejection of its authority.

In that context, what is known as "the new atheism" is absolutely necessary, and its appearance as a contemporary phenomenon entirely heartening.

Wolf does not have to be as forthright and active as Dawkins or even Dennett. But does he accept the intellectual and moral authority of religion or not? If not, then I think he should say so, clearly, and join with the rest of us who are saying this. Dismissing people as absurd or irrelevant is not a useful response. There is something very important at stake here, and I think that we all have to work out precisely where we stand on it.

Do we reject the intellectual and moral authority of religion, or don't we? When we do so, does Wolf stand with us or not? This is an issue that can't be fudged.

Thu, 31 May 2007 15:46:00 UTC | #43713