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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Crude, simplistic, and nasty - those horrid New Atheists (some more on Ophelia Benson's response to Caspar Melville)

Ophelia Benson says:

The conventional wisdom goes like this: new atheists are aggressive, strident, shrill, militant, and fundamentalist. Their atheism is itself a religion, Richard Dawkins is their saint, and science is their god. They think science can answer all questions and that atheism can prove that god does not exist. They want to stamp out religion entirely, and if they get their way there will be no more art, literature, emotion, love, morality, or beauty.

All of that, of course, is sheer caricature, but parts of it, and sometimes all of it, show up in newspapers and magazines with stunning regularity in the UK, the US, Australia and even Sweden, as I learned on a recent trip to Stockholm hosted by the humanist publishers Fri Tanke.

Useful well-conducted dissent – accurate, careful, reasonable – is vital for getting at the truth, and that kind of dissent among atheists is of course all to the good. But the backlash isn’t like that. It’s political: it’s angry, hostile reaction to a challenge to the status quo. Angry reaction doesn’t have much use for accurate and careful – angry reaction is trying to shut down the opposition, not make it better. If you don’t believe me, just Google a name or two along with “New Atheism” – try Michael Ruse, Andrew Brown, Madeleine Bunting, Mark Vernon, Barney Zwartz, Chris Hedges, Karen Armstrong, Chris Mooney, to name just a few.

I agree with all of this, but allow me to be more specific in response to the third paragraph. I am perfectly happy to dissent from the main "New Atheist" writers on particular points, even large and important ones. For example, I disagree with Richard Dawkins on various things. I think he underestimates the force of the Problem of Evil; I think he is unclear, in the end, about how the Ultimate 747 gambit is supposed to work, and I'm not convinced that it achieves as much as he seems to think it does (although I also think the "gambit" is insightful, and at the very least is worth careful and sympathetic discussion); and I don't think his account of the classic arguments for the existence of God is all that strong (although it perhaps doesn't need to be; he's just trying to give a sense of the arguments, including how problematic they are, to a popular readership ... and he does at least point to the more scholarly discussion by J.L. Mackie). I could doubtless think of other things to disagree on with Dawkins. But none of this means that I think The God Delusion is a bad book. Quite the opposite. Its a good book whose strengths and weaknesses are worth discussing.

Again, I'm rather sceptical about the way Sam Harris discusses morality, from what I've seen of his approach so far, and I think that, at the least, he expressed some points in The End of Faith and his now-notorious TED talk in ways that created confusion. I could probably find things to disagree about with Dennett and Hitchens as well. But none of this renders their work worthless. They have been producing good books and other work, and again the strengths and weaknesses of this body of work are worthy of discussion, especially by people who are, in effect, on the same side of the same struggle of ideas.

Of course we must remember that The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, The End of Faith, and God is Not Great are not holy texts. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens are not prophets. They are good writers who raise important issues, but they are most certainly fallible, and it's good to have debates about where, exactly, they may have gone wrong on certain points (as well as where they make strong arguments).

The trouble starts when the likes of - to borrow Ophelia's list - Michael Ruse, Andrew Brown, Madeleine Bunting, Mark Vernon, Barney Zwartz, Chris Hedges, Karen Armstrong, Chris Mooney, etc., start to construct a consensual idea that the body of work we're talking about is crude, simplistic, strident, and reckless. All this can soon add up to a widespread demonisation of individuals and books that deserve to be heard, read, and considered carefully. This sort of demonisation may even be effective: it feeds into a public perception of the "New Atheists" as not deserving to be taken seriously. Though most people have difficulty learning even the most elementary facts about religion, they can be assured, in effect, that the priests, pastors, and pontiffs know better and have clear answers to the points that the New Atheists are making. But in fact, that's not so; many of these points have no clear answers.

When someone is essentially on my side, as Caspar Melville obviously is, I don't ask that he agree with me on every point, or that he agree with, say, Dawkins on every point. Of course not.

It is, however, reasonable to expect such a person to treat his allies - such as Dawkins - as if they have something serious and valuable to say, and as if sweeping attacks on their credibility are probably not a good idea. Of course Melville may think that the New Atheist books are worthless, in which case he is quite entitled to say so, but I very much doubt that that's his position. His position is more likely to be along the lines that these books are useful popularisations, texts that are imperfect but also make good points, sometimes with considerable nuance and originality, as well as clarity and wit. That's also what I think. But it's always worth saying this rather than going out of my way - for the sake of drama or whatever - to trash books that don't objectively deserve it.

Melville is apparently unimpressed by this way of thinking. He seems almost contemptuous of the idea of solidarity with intellectual allies. He says:
As for being accused of letting the side down, you'd think I'd contravened the articles of (non)faith by holding an opinion. I suppose if you think that this really is some kind battle – between religious believers (all in one camp) and atheists (all in another) you could believe that, but I don't (in fact I think this is very dangerous view).

But this is a straw man! No serious person involved in these debates claims that there is a battle going on between all religious believers and all atheists. That would, indeed, be a dangerous view: it would mean, for example, that I would be involved in a battle on the same side as Stalin against a liberal Christian such as John Shelby Spong.

But you don't have to think anything as dangerous (and plain absurd) as that to think that there is something of a struggle of ideas going on between, on one side, secular political liberals who think it worthwhile being critical of what Melville himself calls religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation and, on the other side, people who resist or object to that kind of criticism (for one reason or another). People who belong to the first "side" don't have to agree with each other on all things, but they do, broadly speaking, have a common cause. Surely they would be wise to avoid sweeping attacks on each other's credibility, especially when those sorts of attacks are being made from many other directions by many other people.

Part of the problem is that Melville wants to hold Dawkins and other "New Atheists" to an absurdly high standard of decorum that few on the opposing side adopt. When Melville accuses Dawkins of being crude and simplistic, he seems to have in mind mainly Dawkins' snarky reference to some atheists as "but-heads", meaning that they identify as atheists ... but then qualify their atheism with all sorts of provisos that give solace to the religious.

Surely, though, Melville can understand that there really are atheists who do not oppose religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation. They are atheists, sure, in that they don't believe in any deities, but they are not involved in the struggle to oppose these things. I don't see why this point can't be made, or why it can't be made in a witty, pithy, somewhat snarky way. Asking Dawkins to take part in a struggle of this kind while unilaterally adopting a standard of extreme decorum that rules out ever making such robust comments, is naive, absurd, and damaging. If we are going to go around scrutinising ourselves and our allies to this extent, we have lost the struggle before we even start. We are committing ourselves to engaging in it with one arm tied behind our backs, and even to tying our allies' arms in this way if they are not willing to do so themselves.

No one is asking Melville to agree on everything with Dawkins or anybody else, but it would repay him if he'd reflect on what it means, at this point in history, to be opposed to religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation. If he is really committed to opposing these things, he doesn't  thereby have to agree on everything with every random atheist. Nor does he need to spend his time putting the steel-capped boot into kind, liberal Christians (whether it's John Shelby Spong or the many liberal Christians whom I know and consider friends).

It does mean, however, that he could consider not piling on when the credibility of his allies is receiving unfair attacks from many sides. It might also mean not being so upset if his allies fail to meet an absurdly high standard of decorum that no one involved in any struggle in the public sphere should ever have to accept.


TM said...

Excellent and wonderfully-written piece, Dr. Blackford. As always, your sober approach has brought forth much clarity.



Shane said...

Brilliantly written. I agree completely.

Rob Simpson said...

Hi Russell!

I haven't been following the back and forth closely, but I take it that there is an emerging divide between atheists who identify with the 'new atheist' camp and those who don't, and that people on both sides are now engaging in slightly snarky criticism of those on the other. Melville says that Dawkins and co are crude and simplistic. Dawkins says that atheists who try to appease religious believers are 'but-heads'. Both parties are taking a slightly provocative tone, but in the end they are just expressing (prima facie reasonable) criticisms of atheists who favour a different political tack to the one they favour. I assume that you don't think there really is an equivalence here, but I guess I'm not seeing what makes Melville's divisive rhetoric any more problematic than Dawkins' gibes about 'but-heads'.

(Let me say, though, that I always enjoy reading your thoughts about the politics of atheism, and the new atheism, and all this stuff.)


- Rob.

Bruce Gorton said...


Let me give you an example to illustrate what we are talking about:

From this article by Andrew Brown (Who says he is an atheist):


There was a picture of the pope holding a golden swastika, which the organisers apparently took down later, as offensive. I don't know why, since Richard Dawkins later published on his web site the speech he meant to deliver, comparing every Catholic in Britain to Adolf Hitler: "Adolf Hitler was a Roman Catholic. Or at least he was as much a Roman Catholic as the 5 million so-called Roman Catholics in this country today", although in the event he said something less gratuitously provocative: "Adolf Hitler was a Roman Catholic ... If the church wants to claim [5m Britons] as Catholics, then they have to claim Hitler as a Catholic".

Here is the passage that Andrew Brown took that quote from:

Adolf Hitler was a Roman Catholic. Or at least he was as much a Roman Catholic as the 5 million so-called Roman Catholics in this country today. For Hitler never renounced his baptismal Catholicism, which was doubtless the criterion for counting the 5 million alleged British Catholics today. You cannot have it both ways. Either you have 5 million British Catholics, in which case you have to have Hitler too. Or Hitler was not a Catholic, in which case you have to give us an honest figure for the number of genuine Catholics in Britain today – the number who really believe Jesus turns himself into a wafer, as the former Professor Ratzinger presumably does.

Dawkins employes provocative language, but at least he isn't a liar.

Ophelia Benson said...

To see "what makes Melville's divisive rhetoric any more problematic than Dawkins' gibes about 'but-heads'" it helps to notice the lack of specifics in what Melville said, along with the fact that articles of that kind - articles that just abuse "new atheists" in general without bothering to give particulars - are a dime a million.

Russell Blackford said...

The point about Melville's piece isn't that it's snarky at opponents. It's that it's an ill-advised and unnecessary way of undermining. Even by his own standards it's the wrong approach - or so I'd want to argue to him.

If some folks at the local church made a snarky comment about New Atheists and fans of Richard Dawkins, or if, say, William Lane Craig did so, I'd actually have no complaint about it.