To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose, or so the bible says. In 2010 I think its worth asking if New Atheism is still the right response, the right tone, for arguments about religion, writes Caspar Melville, editor of the New Humanist Magazine.
For half a decade «New Atheism» has been the dominant brand in unbelief. The maelstrom of comment, critique, claim and counter claim that has surrounded the publication of each new atheist book - most notably Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006), Sam Harris' The End of Faith (2005) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006). Christopher Hitchens God is not Great (2009) and Breaking The Spell by Daniel Dennett (2006) - has injected vitality into discussions of religion in contemporary life and been a very welcome stimulus to debate, as well as providing a fillip to the publishing industry.
THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN
In the dialogic tradition established by hip hop answer records, New Atheism's core texts spurred its own series of answer books, from comparativist ex-nuns like Karen Armstrong (The Case for God, 2009) to ex-atheist theologians like Alistair McGrath (The Dawkins Delusion, 2007) and culturally Catholic Marxists like Terry Eagleton (Reason Faith and Revelation: Reflections on the God Debate, 2009), to religious moderates like war correspondent Chris Hedges (When Atheism becomes Religion: America's New Fundamentalists, 2009), all queuing up to define the new atheist's portrayal of religion as a delusion, a poison and an anachronism as simplistic atheist fundamentalism.
But, for or against, for the past five years New Atheism has been the only game in town.
When in 2005 I took over as editor of New Humanist, an irreligious magazine with a more than 100 year history that could boast the past patronage of figures likeBertrand Russell, HG Wells and GB Shaw, it was clear that irreligious discourse could do with a shot in the arm - and it was this that New Atheism provided.
If the non-religious of the late twentieth century thought that religion was disappearing from public life as quickly as congregants from the pews of Anglican churches, the geo-politics of the first years of the new century put paid to that complacency with 9/11, the ill-thought through US-led crusade in response and bombings in Bali, Madrid and London.
In the political panic that followed, the British government scrabbled around to find 'partners' in the Muslim community, succeeding in boosting a succession of sinister self-appointed Islamic spokesmen like Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain into the limelight. Inspired by their success numerous other spokesmen and organisations claiming to speak for this or that faith group piped up, from Christian fundamentalists like Stephen Green of Christian Voice to the Hindu Human Rights Forum, keen to fight for their share of the airtime and express their outrage at every perceived slight to their imagined constituency. Any play, art exhibition, cartoon or TV broadcast deemed to be disrespectful to a faith became a fair target for believers ire, egged on or at least unchecked by a government desperate to keep a lid on home grown extremism by pushing an increasingly tarnished notion of mutual respect. In this atmosphere New Atheism seemed a rational indeed ethical response.
A RESPONSE TO THE PERCEIVED STRINGENCIES OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS
Dan Dennett's argument that religion had an evolutionary explanation but was rendered redundant by science; Dawkins' witty deconstruction of the faulty logic of arguments for a higher being; Christopher Hitchens' swashbuckling and erudite skewering of religious hypocrisy, seemed to strike exactly the right tone. For many this felt like a liberation - something Dawkins has tried to capitalise on with his 'A' campaign urging atheists to come out of the closet and declare their non belief - not merely from superstition but from the necessity to proffer respect to each and every "deeply held belief". New Atheism was also a response to the perceived stringencies of political correctness that had stifled public debate and let all kinds of irrationalities flourish uncriticised. If something is not true, or palpably false, asked New Atheism, why should I respect it? The howls of protest at New Atheism's perceived rudeness paid testimony to the (im)pertinence of the question.
But to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose, or so the bible says. In 2010 I think its worth asking if New Atheism is still the right response, the right tone, for arguments about religion.
At least this was a question we posed in a debate in London in September called 'After New Atheism - Where Next for the God Debate?', that brought together two philosophers and a novelist (Jonathan Rée, Roger Scruton and Marilynne Robinson) to discuss what they saw as the shortcomings of the New Atheist approach and consider how the whole debate might find another tone. I wrote about the debate for the Guardian website. I said I was bored with New Atheism and that I thought it could be simplistic and crude at times and that I thought it was naive to imagine that science alone held the key to the truth.
CALLED AN "ATHEIST BUT-HEAD"
The response was predictably vitrolic - hundreds of posts in the Guardian forums, and hundreds more on Richard Dawkins's site - many denouncing me for betraying unbelief, for being an "accommodationist" or, in the words of Richard Dawkins himself an "atheist but-head" (the kind of person who says "I'm an atheist.. but" and shies away from criticising religion). Ophelia Benson of the website Butterflies and Wheels argued (in an article for New Humanist) that I was contributing to a backlash: "when an army of opponents are often going well beyond scepticism into vituperation and hyperbole and outright misrepresentation, then more of the same kind of thing from people who are otherwise allies tends to exasperate." But I do think its time to move forward with this debate, and not because I think that God is any more likely to exist now than in 2006, but because a new approach might help us understand some of the questions that continue to fascinate about religion - has it really returned or did it never go away? Why is it so ubiquitous and tenacious? What does it mean to base your life around a 'truth' for which you have no evidence? As one of the more sensitive religion-debate watchers R Joseph Hoffman has written, "the debate about how God evolves or is biologically, genetically or mimetically engendered is not finally the same question as the question of the existence of God." New Atheism, though this is probably more true of Dawkins than of Dennett, seems only concerned with God's non-existence and not the fascinating - and often appalling - story of the evolution of religious belief, practice and organisation.
This may all come down in the end to the difference between atheism and humanism. Atheism is a simple non-belief in god, and non acceptance of the arguments for God, whereas humanism implies a commitment to the world, to humanity and to the future, which in turn implies a politics. The politics of New Atheism has always been obscure - hidden behind its apparent commitment to 'objective' science and reason. Dawkins says he doesn't know much about politics, Hitchens has an idiosyncratic post-Marxist neo-liberalism of his own and Sam Harris takes positions - for example on torture - that look suspiciously illiberal.
The problem with this disavowal of politics is that in appearing to float in some pristine realm above grubby politics, arguments about the essential evils of religion, the incompatibility of Islam and the West or the anti-humanity of Catholicism can too easily shade into cultural chauvinism and xenophobia. The recent Protest the Pope campaigns that greeted the Pontiff on his recent visit to the UK, noted Padraig Reidy in the Observer, carried troubling echoes of the long tradition of anti-Catholicism in Britain, a point underlined when the Protestant demagogue Rev Ian Paisley joined the protest in Edinburgh. In light of this Richard Dawkins speech at the London protests, where he traded Nazi insults with Benedict and dubbed the Pope an enemy of humanity, looked ill-judged at best.
WHAT DOES THE NEW ATHEISTS ACTUALLY WANT?
It may be impertinent, but we should ask what New Atheists actually want. Do they want to attack religious extremism? If so surely moderate people of faith should be considered allies, in which case their absolutist language and especially the notion that religious moderates pave the way for extremism, is self-defeating. Or would they really prefer if religion disappeared altogether? Sam Harris has recently argued that science can "send religion to the scrap heap", and Dawkins gives the impression that he feels if only the faithful read his books carefully enough they would shut up the cathedrals and renounce their former ignorance.
To many observers, myself included, this looks hopelessly unrealistic as well as arrogant. It also seems naive, as philosopher Jonathan Rée has noted "to think you can undermine religion by undermining religious theory is like thinking you could undermine literature by undermining literary theory, or thinking you can destroy capitalism by criticising political economy." I'm not even sure if it is desirable, since as the writings of Arthur Koestler, Mikhail Ryklin and Olivier Roy show, in the absence of religion humankind is perfectly capable of inventing other kinds of ridiculous and murderous ideologies in whose name to do their dirty work.
Politically there is clearly a very great deal at stake. Globalisation and immigration has forced our world together and more people in the world profess religious belief than not. We atheists have to deal with that and we humanists have to think about what we want. For my part this involves a stout defence of secularism - which protects all beliefs by privileging none - and an intellectual investigation of religion and faith as one of the great, ambivalent, human creations. In this I think that anthropologists and sociologists and philosophers, patient and detailed analysts of religious phenomenon - like Jonathan Raban, Gilles Kepel, Malise Ruthven, Ian Buruma, Mark Jeurgensmeyer, Eliza Griswold and Kenan Malik (none of whom are apologists for religion) - are going to be more help than those who imply that religion is simply a form of stupidity or argue, as Sam Harris does that science is all we need.
(First published in Fri tanke's paperedition # 4-2010. Read the Norwegian version here.)