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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Friday, November 02, 2007

"The New Atheism rocks"

"The New Atheism rocks" is the title of an article I've just had published in The Australian Rationalist, published by The Rationalist Society of Australia. I'll provide the link when the article appears online.

I confess that I'm not completely happy with how this piece turned out - the editing was rather intrusive, and the first few paras have ended up in a form that I find disjointed, now that I see it in print (some of my paras were moved around). Still, I'd approved those changes thinking they would probably have been okay, and perhaps no one else will notice.

Worse, though, when I began to read I saw that somewhere in the process the Indian word "moksa" (as it appears in the manuscript as I submitted it, and also in the version that was sent to me for approval) had been changed to "motsa". This makes no sense at all, and causes me to look rather idiotic (like someone who is merely pretending to know a bit about Eastern philosophy, and getting it wrong). At that stage, I gave up my first try at reading it ... Fortunately, when I came back to it I noticed nothing else worse than one misplaced comma which was totally my own fault.

Still, the "moksa" --> "motsa" thing rankles. I'd like to know how this kind of glitch happens so often. Over the years, I've grown sick of editorial changes to my work that actually harm it, rather than correcting my occasional typos (such as misplaced commas) and suggesting improvements ... but this is what professional writers often have to put up with. On reflection, the best editor I've had in this respect may well have been Paddy McGuinness at Quadrant. He has a light, deft touch, and his tiny changes are for the better (even if his audience is a very conservative one). Paddy likes altering titles (actually, "The New Atheism rocks" was not my proposed title, either, but it's sort of growing on me); otherwise, anything by me that you read in Quadrant is almost exactly as I wrote it.

In any event, my New Atheism article advances what I consider a strong case that the publishing phenomenon known as, well, "the New Atheism" is a positive development, something to cheer for and celebrate. At a time when too many religious leaders are attempting to incorporate specifically religious morality into law, it is appropriate to ask what intellectual and moral authority they really have. Any such authority must be based on the religious traditions that all these pontiffs, preachers, and pulpiteers represent, and in which they've been trained, but the core truth-claims made by any and all religious traditions are - to say the least - highly doubtful. Religion is a very fragile platform for public policy: it isn't rock, you might say, and it doesn't rock. It's no proper foundation for government and law.

A sharp separation of Church and State might accomplish much, but this idea has its own problems and limitations, as discussed in the article. There are too many grey areas and too many parties that are willing to challenge various of the assumptions that are needed for the separation to work. It's worth defending - it's worth trying to build up the wall - but this is by no means a complete solution.

The time has well and truly arrived to challenge the social taboo against criticising religion, and, indeed, to subject religious claims to sceptical scrutiny from every relevant angle. To the extent that it is doing this - and not just within the academy, but in lively, entertaining books written for a popular audience - the New Atheism does ... yes, indeed ... rock.

7 comments:

clodhopper said...

It could have been worse....they could've put mocha which is, let's face it, nearly a latte!

Being a novice in the seminary of atheism, I am having to get my head round lots of new notions; the separation of church and state being one of many. I am trying to catch up by reading Locke and Mill etc and if you have better reading suggestions....rock on. Look forward to reading your artilic.

Russell Blackford said...

A dear friend of mine who won't be named once changed a reference of mine to "SoHo" (a place in New York) to "Soho" (a place in London). But that was a bit more understandable, even it did ruin my point.

I think the worst example was when all my entries in the 2nd edition of the Clute-Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction were listed as being by literary scholar Richard Bleiler (corrected in the CD-ROM version). I could tell many such war stories, but so can anyone else who does much writing for publication.

Blake Stacey said...

The term "New Atheism" continues to rankle me, actually: as I've said before, the newest thing about it is the number of books which have been sold. Secondarily to that, there is the rising sense of openness, transparency, community — yes, even urgency — which that publicity has fostered. Godlessness is not new, the arguments for it are not new, and the label coined by Wired Magazine makes the whole issue sound rather like a beverage.

"Now, from the makers of Science comes The New Atheism, the only energy drink with 1.21 jigawatts of godlessness in every gulp! Don't try to quench your thirst with Deism or Agnosticism — taste the full X-treeeme flavour of pure godless power! Stay up all night burning Bibles and boiling puppies!"

By Poseidon's beard, it's a rotten name. But, then, without a bestseller under my belt or even a gig writing for Wired, I'm not exactly a fellow whose opinion matters.

Russell Blackford said...

I agree with you to some extent, Blake. It's a useful bit of shorthand for what is going on, but the downside that I see is that the people concerned don't actually form a school. There isn't necessarily a lot that Dawkins and Hitchens would agree on if you looked at their political positions, for example.

Still, we need some expression for the publishing phenomenon - quite a lot of books appearing quite prominently, making a lot of money, etc. I think the expression is okay to refer to this rather than to a group of specific people (such as the supposed group of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett ... why not Grayling, Onfray, Adams, and Pataki, or whatever?).

In talking about horrible editing glitches that I've experienced, I should have added the time that Omega magazine published one of my first short stories - back in the 1980s, this was an upmarket glossy science magazine in Australia with a big print run, the local clone of Omni, and hence a terrific place to be seen. It even paid well: in 1985, ten Australian cents per word was quite a lot. Omega managed to transpose the order of two pages. This made the story totally incomprehensible, of course. However, at least they got the name of the author right.

I was expecting a few other war stories in the comments.

Blake Stacey said...

It's a useful bit of shorthand for what is going on, but the downside that I see is that the people concerned don't actually form a school. There isn't necessarily a lot that Dawkins and Hitchens would agree on if you looked at their political positions, for example.

Good point. I actually don't know very much about Dawkins' politics; my impression has been that he's moderate or somewhat left-of-center by British standards, which in the United States would make him a flaming Communist. He has said, for example, "I strongly believe in universal health care, I wish I wish it was available in the United States, I wish the British National Health Service lived up in practice to its theoretical ideals and I'd gladly pay more tax to that end." Also, he wrote of Alan Sokal,

He and his fellow 'cultural studies' and 'science studies' barons are not harmless eccentrics at third-rate state colleges. Many of them have tenured professorships at some of the best universities in the United States. Men of this kind sit on appointment committees, wielding power over young academics who might secretly aspire to an honest academic career in literary studies or, say, anthropology. I know — because many of them have told me — that there are sincere scholars out there who would speak out if they dared, but who are intimidated into silence. To them, Sokal will appear as a hero, and nobody with a sense of humour or a sense of justice will disagree. It helps, by the way, although it is strictly irrelevant, that his own left-wing credentials are impeccable.

That last sentence reads like the endorsement of a person who affiliates himself at least partially with the "left wing", but that's just my inference.

Still, we need some expression for the publishing phenomenon - quite a lot of books appearing quite prominently, making a lot of money, etc. I think the expression is okay to refer to this rather than to a group of specific people (such as the supposed group of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett ... why not Grayling, Onfray, Adams, and Pataki, or whatever?).

I rather like PZ Myers' coinage, "uppity atheists". We might as well be descriptive and refer to what actually is new!

Even "the New Atheists", however, has more dignity than "the Four Musketeers". I'll admit that much.

My first guess as to why we have four Musketeers is because those books have sold the most, over here in the US and A. Consequently, those who like to talk about the Uppity Atheist books without having read them (or having read them with their eyes closed), have a convenient meme to adopt. Once one reviewer says, "Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens", others pick it up and pass it along.

Perhaps the people who call atheism "just another religion" and attack Darwin's character because they believe scientists see him as a prophet speak of "Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens" because they think atheists need a tetralogy to parallel Matthew, Mark, Luke and John!

(My own canon would have to include Asimov, Feynman and Sagan, with epistles by Sokal, Nanda, Gonick, Avalos and Douglas Adams, to name just a few.)

Blake Stacey said...

Oops. I should have made clear that in the second Dawkins quotation, the antecedent to "he" was not Sokal but rather Andrew Ross, editor of Social Text and the unwitting victim of Sokal's parody. This is what I get for hitting "publish" instead of "preview".

It looks like I generate enough errors on my own without paid editors to help me. ;-)

J. J. Ramsey said...

"I rather like PZ Myers' coinage, 'uppity atheists'. We might as well be descriptive and refer to what actually is new!"

The catch with "uppity atheists" is that it describes atheists whose only offense is being forthright about their atheism as well as atheists who go beyond this and are obnoxious in subtle or not-so subtle ways. There is a real difference between the likes of Greta Christina, Jason Rosenhouse, and Hemant Mehta and the likes of Dawkins and PZ Myers. And, yes, I realize that these people do not see themselves as mutually antagonistic, but the difference is there. It is not an accident that it is the latter group tends to attract the "pseudofundie" atheists that Mr. Blackford discussed before. Calling them all "uppity atheists" sweeps that under the rug.