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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Beyond the "New Atheism"?

Caspar Melville has a blog post over at The New Humanist in which he analyses a "debate" held a couple of days ago, apparently in London, on the subject "Beyond New Atheism: where next for the God debate?" On this occasion, four people who agree with each other that the "New Atheism" is somehow dehumanising, flawed, and boring, exchanged reasons why the "new Atheism" is dehumanising, flawed, and boring. That's hardly surprising, given their starting points, but there you go. Melville adds that:

It is true that there was no New Atheist on the panel to defend the arguments, but Laurie [Taylor] did a good job of pressing the panellists on the claims made by Dawkins and others for the importance of not allowing an exaggerated sense of respect [to] stop you from making a strong atheist case, and the audience too were quite critical. Given the frequency with which science came up, all three [others] professed a love for science but [I] felt that some misused it, I was sorry we didn't have a scientist on the panel.

Well, I can't help wonder how this can be called a debate when all four speakers, including Melville, took essentially the same position on the "New Atheism" ... and there was nobody involved who was prepared to argue for a contrary view. Still, I wasn't there, so maybe the event wasn't as bad as Melville makes it sound. It sounds awfully like a handpicked bunch of people getting together to attack a bunch of other people who have not been invited along to defend themselves. That is hardly interesting or charitable or constructive. It's nice to be assured that someone asked a few pointed questions, but surely if you're talking about what is "beyond" the "New Atheism" it would be appropriate to ask for an opinion as to whether there is any such "beyond" - and what it might be - from someone who is more or less identified with the "New Atheism" itself. As there are plenty of such people in the UK, I don't understand why that was not done.

I could understand it if this had been a Christian event, and the discussion had been about how Christians should respond to their "New Atheist" opponents. Of course such discussions are legitimate. In this case, however, the discussion was about how to respond to a group of people who are, on the face of things, allies of the organisers. So why not ask them along? Someone must have been available to provide the missing perspective.

I actually have a difficulty with this whole "New Atheism" thing, i.e. with the label New Atheism. Why? Because much of what is being said by the core group of supposed "New Atheists" - Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens - is not new at all. These men are delivering familiar critiques of religion's truth-claims and social role that could be found in many books and articles published before the appearance of The End of Faith (by Harris) in 2004, the event that marks the beginning of whatever New Atheist movement might exist. What changed about that time was not the essential character of the critique. In part there was a restoration of business as usual, a softening of the taboo in middle class circles (and especially academic) against criticising religion.

Of more immediate impact was the greatly increased willingness of large trade publishers (not only specialty presses and academic presses) to accept books on the subject of religion from people with broadly anti-religious views. That, and the willingness of media corporations to use prominent atheist authors and thinkers as on-air talent.

These latter developments, in turn, reflect the commercial judgment that there's now a hunger out in the community for critiques of religion, a hunger that was not in evidence prior to the mayhem and mass destruction of September 11, 2001 ... and other events that have shocked many educated people out of their complacency about religion. Whereas religion had seemed benign, if not actually true, to many thinking people, the September 11 attacks, the widespread religion-based opposition to stem cell and therapeutic cloning research, the never-ending resistance to gay rights and abortion rights, the callous actions of the religious in the Schiavo affair, the Catholic Church's appalling insensitivity towards abused children, and the many atrocities perpetrated daily in the name of religion of one kind or another, all converged to create a sense that human religiosity has a dark side of cruelty, dogmatism, moral blindness, authoritarianism, and intolerance.

In such an environment, there was finally a popular market for the views of forthright critics of religion - not just Dawkins and the others mentioned above, but also AC Grayling, Michele Onfray (in translation), Victor Stenger, and others. As a result, the message is now going out more widely than ever before. Caspar Melville may well find it boring, because many of the arguments and conclusions are not very new. But at least two important points need to be made here.

First, this does not mean that the individual books, speeches, media appearances, and so on, are merely repetitive and add no value. "New Atheist" thought (i.e. atheist thought finally reaching a popular audience) is not monolithic, and the various relevant works are, indeed, adding value, even though they do so incrementally. Second, it's taking a very short-term view of things to think that the popular message is already stale after only six years. If the message is to have a strong impact, it will need to go out in forthright and persuasive ways for decades, until the "New Atheists"' issues, arguments, and conclusions permeate the popular culture and the lessons are widely absorbed into the consciousness of educated people. Talking in a jaded manner of "What comes next?" is just too impatient. It kind of misses the point that the New Atheism responds to opportunities that have only just, in the broader scheme of things, become available.

Naturally the core "New Atheists" have taken on projects that involve more than just advocating the merits of atheism. Richard Dawkins recently released a new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, which provides one of the most thorough defences of biological evolution ever published; Christopher Hitchens has written an autobiography, and is involved in numerous other projects (despite suffering severe health problems); Daniel Dennett also has new projects, including a study of priests who have lost their faith; and Sam Harris has written an important new book about the nature of morality, which is just about due for publication. If we want to know what comes next, we can do a lot worse than checking out what the original "New Atheists" are actually doing right now, and considering its value. All of these projects build on aspects of what has come before, as reputable intellectual inquiry almost always does, but each adds value.

Much more needs to be done, of course, such as producing new and better studies of religious freedom and the role of the state, and new and better studies of how moral restraint works, or ought to work, in the absence of God or anything supernatural. I'm working on both of those topics myself, but that does not mean that I need to deprecate the work of Dawkins and the others.

Towards the end of his post, Melville emphasises his right to disagree with people who are broadly his allies:

My not believing in God and being critical of religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation – all of which I am and will continue to be – does not mean I will agree with everyone else who doesn’t believe in God.

But surely that goes without saying! If not, let me spell out the point that disagreement on specifics is - always - not only permissible but valuable. Indeed, there are many specific points where I find myself in disagreement with one or another of the core "New Atheists". That does not, however, mean that it would be helpful or accurate for me to dismiss their work as crude, simplistic, and boring. Books such as The God Delusion and Breaking the Spell are not crude or simplistic, though there are good reasons why the former is aimed at the more simplistic forms of religion, and nor do I see what is boring about them. Of course, they are written for popular markets and are not as complex or compressed as strictly academic books on similar subjects such as those of Michael Martin or Graham Oppy. But the latter do not - so far - write books that are meant to be accessible to readers in the popular market.

Melville should by all means disagree with Dawkins, or whomever, on whatever points he thinks fit. Perhaps Dawkins' critique of the ontological argument is not satisfactory and could be improved upon; perhaps he has not done enough to show that certain liberal sorts of religion are harmful or implausible; or perhaps he needs to say more about the effects of various minds of religion on children. Or whatever. Let's hear the specific criticisms, if they exist, and also the improved or streamlined analyses of religion that critics such as Melville have to offer.

But Melville seems to think there is something "dangerous" about any degree of solidarity among people who are "critical of religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation". I'm afraid I can't see it. There is nothing especially dangerous about people organising in pursuit of a common cause, such as the one that Melville mentions. Indeed, it should be apparent that there's strength in at least some degree of unity. Once you do organise, to whatever degree, it makes good sense not to attack allies in an overly broad or damning way, or to organise seminars specifically designed to "other" them and treat them as deficient. Far better, when dealing with allies, to consult with them, treat them inclusively where at all possible, and discuss points of detail in an open, constructive manner. Of course, no one should have to sign on to a point that s/he disputes, but it's more productive to keep in-house disputes specific, detailed, and constructive (while keeping any manifestos broad and inclusive), and not to dismiss your allies' contributions in a way that assists with their demonisation.

In general, Melville seems to have lost his sense of strategic and historical perspective just lately. I hope he finds it soon.


Steve Zara said...

the callous actions of the religious in the Schiavo affair

Interesting you mention this. I had forgotten it, but I now remember the debate it caused and agree it was influential.

Greywizard said...

Excellent summary of the issues involved. I guess what I can't understand is why people like Caspar, or Norman, or Julian Baggini, can't see that the question of widespread and diverse opinions about atheism would not even be being heard if there had not been the so-called "New Atheism" phenomenon. Of course there's going to be diversity, and there's going to be debate. But Melville seems to suggest that this isn't happening. And it clearly is.

For example, the book by Paul Cliteur, which you blurbed, is (and I've just read it quickly for a first go) a good example of the kind of thing that needs to be done now, where we look seriously at how secularism works, and how it should respond to the growing insistence of religion to be recognised and respected in the public square. And your own new book is obviously going to be something in the same vein, taking us the next step in a more focused context. I have also just finished reading Hector Avalos' Fighting Words, about religion and violence, which is really a terrific book, because he knows the original languages, and can deal in a convincing way with questions of hermeneutics. So there's real ferment out there, and people have to stop trying to treat the seminal works of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc., which got the atheist voice into the mass market, as though they are somehow deeply flawed, so that the whole atheist project is flawed. Of course, the religious are going to play that game, and that's expected, but why should atheists agree?

There has to be room for debate and question, disagreement and restatement, otherwise we're not going to be much better than theologians, running round in circles. But to get opponents of atheism together to discuss where should the "New Atheism" go now is just asking for trouble, and Caspar Melville shouldn't be a bit surprised to find that he's just jumped into a hornet's nest. It's not a question of beyond the new atheism; it's a question of a continuation, continuing to build on foundations already laid.

steve oberski said...

These men are delivering familiar critiques of religion's truth-claims and social role that could be found in many books and articles published before the appearance of The End of Faith (by Harris) in 2004, the event that marks the beginning of whatever New Atheist movement might exist.

And none of the authors of recent criticisms of religion have ever claimed that their arguments are new and many go out of their way to cite their sources and historical influences.

So where does this misinformation come from ?

For someone trying to refute the arguments of atheism it is far easier to claim that this is just a new and passing fad with no real depth rather than engage in substantive dialog with atheists.

See how I've turned the whole accommodation thing around and pointed the blame back at the religious ? This is fun !

Rhett Talley said...

Melville could have a meaningful point in his boredom with what are "becoming" conventions in New Atheism. And yes there are tried and true. I am always amazed at how little appreciation is given to Thomas Paine's 200 yrs old, The Age of Reason, for kick-starting the whole anti-christian pamphleteering (now blogging) movement.

New Atheist do come across somewhat insensitive and incredulous that anyone could hold such obviously irrational and unfounded, even delusional beliefs. Others, philosophically, question the order of belief.

But I know some true believers and order as you will it is beyond question to them. And so as such I suggest this belief will have taken advantage of the plasiticity of the brain and sits now imprinted in the amygdala or as the neroscientists would advise.
We are adapted to believe the authoritative tenants of our tribal authority figures - indeed our lives in evolutionary history depended on it.

There is much new still to add to New Atheism. More research started by Trivers way back on self-deception will add value. More about the neuroscience of the in-love like aspect of diety belief (for example controlled experiments measuring, say,the oxytocin levels of those absorebed in prayer). And more anthropologically sympathetic views like those of Scott Atran are valuable.

So Melville has a point but perhaps he hasnt made it very well...

J. J. Ramsey said...

"There is nothing especially dangerous about people organising in pursuit of a common cause"

I disagree. That's not to say that organizing is necessarily a bad thing, anymore than fire is a bad thing even though it can be dangerous as well. However, there are pitfalls that come with organizing, such as groupthink. When one is organizing against a perceived enemy, there's a further temptation to get crude and simplistic (words which Caspar Melville, as you may have noticed, uses a lot), to distort the picture of the enemy into something at which it is easier to be angry.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, if you organise to support X and oppose Y you thereby run the risk of becoming too in-groupish and possibly too hostile. But it's not especially dangerous, not in the sense that Melville seems to mean. If he had merely said that we (whether "we" are humanists, forthright atheists, members of political parties, etc.) should always scrutinise ourselves for these bad tendencies, I'd agree with him.

That's something I sometimes say in talks, though the tendencies I have in mind are more the tendency that people have to want to impose their worldviews by force. When I spoke to the Crossway Conference, I told them that every person in the room, including me, should engage in ongoing self-scrutiny for that tendency.

But organisation to support certain things and oppose certain things is inevitable and often good. Melville seems to think that it is inherently bad or so dangerous that we should not do it. I think that's nonsense.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"But organisation to support certain things and oppose certain things is inevitable and often good. Melville seems to think that it is inherently bad or so dangerous that we should not do it."

What?! Where do you get that idea? It doesn't seem to follow either from his original "Beyond New Atheism?" article or his later commentary on his blog. He has certainly called dangerous the view that there is some kind of battle between "religious believers (all in one camp) and atheists (all in another)," but that's not quite the same thing. Indeed, his points seem to be utterly straightforward: the New Atheism has often been sloppy and lacked nuance in its treatment of religion, and assorted "followers" of the New Atheists (for lack of a better phrase) have come off as irrational.

Russell Blackford said...

He can call it that if he wants to, and set up a straw man, but I'd rather discuss what it actually is.