I was saying yesterday that something has changed. There's a sense of many people being fed up with religion, and large publishers are interested in books that relate to the public mood. But why the widespread hostility to religion at this particular point of history?
Part of it, of course, is a reaction to the events of September 11, 2001, and it's notable that The End of Faith, the first of the very popular New Atheist books was largely focused on Islam. But surely that's not the whole story. Every day there are terrible actions carried out in the name of one religion or another, and many people now see religion as having a dark side.
Unfortunately, there's plenty of evidence that even traditional forms of Christianity, which pride themselves on their love and compassion, have this kind of dark side. Much of the behaviour of religious leaders and organisations in Western countries fuels the perception that they'd rather use force than try to persuade people. In many cases, we see Christians, doubtless well-intentioned, wanting to get governments to impose their ideas on others who may not be Christians. You may say that it's your democratic right to do this, and I'd agree with you up to a point. Only "up to a point", because I think that might show a simplistic view of how democracy is supposed to work. In my forthcoming book on freedom of religion I'll have a lot to say about this.
Meanwhile, even if it's somebody's democratic right to ask governments to endorse, promote, or impose, Christian viewpoints, there will inevitably, and quite rightly, be a response from people like me who strongly disagree with those viewpoints. We're going to ask whether those viewpoints are soundly based, whether they really have the divine authority that is claimed for them, and so on.
If any of us involved in public debates claim to have some kind of special moral authority that comes from God or a holy text or a body of theological teaching ... then there will, quite rightly, be others asking whether we really possess that sort of authority, whether God really says what we claim (or even exists), whether our holy texts are really divinely inspired, whether our theological doctrines are credible, and so on.
On the face of it, after all, the sorts of claims that are made by Christian and other religious leaders sound extraordinary and even arrogant. No one should assume, anymore, that people will simply accept that these religious leaders have a special insight into reality or that they hold the high moral ground in public debate. Many of us disagree, and of course we also have rights, notably the right to express our disagreement strongly and publicly.
That is what the New Atheists are doing, and even if you disagree with their views (in part or in total), what they are doing is legitimate.
We've seen many attempts to demonise forthright atheists as unreasonable or extreme or dogmatic, or as "fundamentalist" in their own way. If you look at it like that, you're engaging in wishful thinking. The reality is that many people who are thoughtful, moderate, rather tolerant, not at all extreme in their thinking, are now suspicious of religion - not only of its claims to offer transcendent truths, but also about whether it's even socially beneficial. That's the message we should all take from the New Atheist phenomenon. The New Atheist books are successful for the simple reason that people want to buy them. And that's because there's a perfectly reasonable suspicion of religion's dark side out there in the community.
I made some of these points when I spoke last September at the Crossway Conference - a conference of evangelical Baptists here in Australia - and they seemed to gain a lot of acceptance. The irony is that some religious people seem more willing to accept the legitimacy of strong criticism of religion than some atheists. I am amazed by the continuing attempts by many atheists and secularists to demonise the New Atheist writers and their intellectual allies.
There's been a great deal of discussion of this phenomenon on other blogs just lately. In a sense, my thunder has been stolen. But I do find it extraordinary that we have so many atheist thinkers expressing what seems to go beyond disagreement with certain New Atheists on certain points (the kind of disagreement that you get from me all the time if I disagree with some specific thing that Sam Harris said or that Richard Dawkins said), and conduct themselves in a way that seems resentful and spiteful.
Surely those of us who wish to engage critically with religion are all better off as a result of the New Atheist publishing phenomenon. It has opened up opportunities for us, and all of the publishers that we might approach are now working in an environment where criticism of religion sells. That benefits academic presses and smaller trade presses that are publishing critiques of religion. The rising tide really is floating a lot of boats here.
I’d don't know, but I suspect that Prometheus Books now sells more copies of its publications than ever as a result of the synergies that Dawkins and company have created. If they don't, they must be doing something wrong, because this is now a very favourable market for them. And Christopher Hitchens even helped out with an intro to one of Victor Stenger's books published by Prometheus. This is not a zero-sum game (and I certainly don't see Stenger complaining).
Again, I can understand people wanting to disagree with specific New Atheist thinkers about specific points - such as my disagreement with Sam Harris about certain issues in moral theory. What I don't understand is all the resentment. Apart from the unattractive emotions of envy, jealousy, and spite, the only explanation is that some of these folk who had established philosophical and historical theories are disappointed that what they see as incorrect theories are gaining greater popularity with the public.
Well, fine. But there is now a greater opportunity than ever to disseminate the "correct" historical and philosophical analyses, whatever they are. That can be done in a positive way - through actual books and articles - rather than through the unedifying spectacle of a long-running campaign of sledging on the Internet.
I haven't descended to naming names here - the specific names are pretty obvious, but not all that relevant to the point I want to make. He (and it usually is a "he") that hath an ear, let him hear.