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

Friday, September 24, 2010

Ophelia Benson and Eric MacDonald on the "beyond the 'New Atheism'" debate debacle

Caspar Melville's pronouncements and the beyond-the-New-Atheism thing are being discussed over here and here. Apart from Ophelia's own trenchant comments, Eric MacDonald's long comments are also very worth reading - and there are plenty of other useful comments.

Do I agree with all the comments? No. As a matter of fact, I think that we should be getting beyond the "New Atheist" books that have been published so far in the trivial sense that we need to work on projects that add value to the debate. Up to a point, of course, the basic ideas do have to be repeated so that they are available to new audiences, and also to refine them and to refute counter-arguments as necessary. But there is plenty of room for secular thinkers to deal with relatively new topics. For example, at some point, I'd like to write a book about living in a world without objective values. This is actually a scarier topic for many people than atheism - some atheists are freaked out by it - but it needs to be addressed. So do issues to do with free will. Meanwhile, I'm working on a book about freedom of religion and the secular state.

There are books waiting to be written about many other important topics from a secular viewpoint. There are many opportunities to add value.

But that doesn't require denigrating the efforts of those who have had the limelight in the past few years, who have done much that is valuable - including, no doubt, much that needs to be examined, disputed, or considerably qualified. One of the things that separates secular people from adherents to the great monotheistic religions is that we have no holy book. We may respect the writings of, say, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, but that doesn't mean that we take them to be infallible. It's good to have a range of perspectives within secularism and rationalism. I can't and don't and won't object to reasonable disagreement.

I will, however, continue to argue that the publishing phenomenon that got labeled "the New Atheism" was not some kind of horrible mistake; on the contrary, it's important that religious doctrines, organisations, and leaders be subjected to thorough criticism - in some cases even to harsh criticism - and it appears to me to be an entirely positive development that such critiques can now find a popular market. By all means let's remember that religion is not monolithic, and let's not expect atheistic or secular or rationalist thought to be. But let's not make wild accusations out of boredom or fear of social division or just to be contrarian. Our allies and colleagues deserve far better than that.


Jerry Coyne said...

Well, I'm not sure we have to completely behind Dawkins and Company. After all, many of their own arguments simply recycled versions of discourse that went way back beyond Bertrand Russell!

I agree that new values needs to be added, but I see substantial value in repetition. Remember that the demise of faith will start in the young, who need to be exposed each generation to the old arguments.

ColinGavaghan said...

I have huge respect for Dawkins and Dennett (though a bit less for some of the other 'new atheist' superstars), but what I'd really like to see is some attempt to measure its effects. Did the anti-Pope demos, and the attendant publicity given to Dawkins, et al, actually aid our cause? Did they raise awareness of of the harm done by the RC hierarchy? Did they empower anyone to move away from, or speak out against the religion in which they's been raised? Or was the main effect actually to generate sympathy for the Pope, or hostility to (ahem) 'strident' atheism?

I suspect all of the above happened to some extent, but what were the main effects? If it didn't achieve anything useful, then we're as well to know that, and plan accordingly for the future.

This isn't to denigrate the genuine and heartfelt efforts of anyone involved, but if the aim is to effect change for the better, simply being right or well-intentioned is often insufficient (a lesson the political Left seem determined to ignore). Tactics matter too.

Moving on from the 'new athesism', for me, involves learning the lessons of its failures as well as its successes.

bad Jim said...

There are some opportunities for the aspiring Gnu Atheist popularizer. God's been done to death, but it's such a familiar issue that the dodges are part of our ancient heritage.

The heart and soul are another matter. A surprising number of people continue to associate the physical heart with emotion, and a large majority of Americans claim, however implausibly, to have souls.

A book with that topic may not seem as appealing to a philosopher as the prospect of bringing the Euthyphro dilemma and all its implications to a wider audience, but might sell better. It's probably all about the title. "One Life to Live" sounds catchy, but it's been done.

Piggybacking on Stephen Hawking's latest pronouncement doesn't seem particularly promising: "Nothing Explains the Universe Better Than God". Needs work.

"You Don't Have A Soul. Your Heart is a Muscle. Take Care of Yourself" seems marginally less appealing than like "I Lost My Soul and Found Happiness", but at least it wouldn't be filed with the vampire novels (though that might be better for sales).

Deepak Shetty said...

"For example, at some point, I'd like to write a book about living in a world without objective values. "
Is this the same as the book deal you mentioned?

Russell Blackford said...

@ Deepak - no, the book I am contracted to write is about freedom of religion and the secular state.

Deepak Shetty said...

Ah ok. Ill buy both :)