Monthly Archives: August 2011

Voicing our disbelief

Russell Blackford stands up for the new atheism

In recent years, we have witnessed a flood of books, aimed at the popular market, issuing robust challenges to theistic religious belief. A rather puzzling expression, “the New Atheism”, has been applied to this body of work, particularly the contributions of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. They, in turn, are sometimes referred to, apparently with affection, as “The Four Horsemen”.

The most prominent books in this New Atheist flood are, perhaps, Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Hitchens’ God is Not Great. But then there are The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, both by Harris; The Atheist Manifesto, by Michel Onfray; Breaking the Spell by Dennett; Against All Gods, by AC Grayling; Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali; and God: The Failed Hypothesis, by Victor J. Stenger. The list continues, and the titles show that the authors mean business.

Why, however, do we need this “New Atheism”, and what’s so new about it? There’s a sense in which nothing is very new here, and a great deal of journalistic hype is involved. But there’s something to the idea, all the same. Here’s the deal.

Religious teachings promise us much. They offer a deeper understanding of reality, more meaningful lives and morally superior conduct, and such extraordinary (if illusory) benefits as rightness with a Supreme Being, liberation from earthly attachments, or a blissful form of personal immortality. It all sounds good, and if some of these teachings are rationally warranted it would be well to discover which. At the same time, however, religious teachings can be onerous in their demands; if they can’t deliver on what they promise, it would be well to know that. I take it, then, that there is an overwhelming case for rational examination of religious teachings. Even if reason can take us only so far, we ought to explore just how far.

But it might appear that scrutiny of religion’s claims is not an urgent task, at least not if the scrutiny is conducted in public, and especially not in modern, apparently secular, Western democracies. Hasn’t religiosity become rather unobtrusive since the bad old days when heretics were burned? So why is there any need to engage in strong, publicly prominent criticism of religious teachings, the organisations that promote them, or the leaders of those organisations? Perhaps rational critiques of religion should be available somewhere – maybe in peer-reviewed philosophy journals – but no great effort should be made to debunk religion in popular books, magazine or newspaper articles, media appearances, and so on. Or so it might be argued. In that case, it might be said, the New Atheism is unnecessary, and perhaps even undesirable. Why offend people, why stir up distrust and division, as the Four Horsemen seem to do?

I disagree. In the 1970s, or even the 1990s, it was possible to think religion had been declawed, and that further challenges to religious philosophies, institutions, and leaders were unnecessary. On this view, all the hard work had been done, and religion was withering away after the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, Darwin, and the social iconoclasm of the 1960s. Against that background, it became taboo to criticise religion in the public sphere; it was widely assumed that religion was retreating, in any event, and didn’t need to be fought anymore. Attacks on people’s “deeply-held beliefs” even smacked a little of cultural imperialism.

In the academy, bright minds in philosophy turned to other topics. Bright young atheists and sceptics were certainly not steered into philosophy of religion, which looked like an intellectual dead end.

But the situation now looks very different, even in the supposedly enlightened nations of the West. For a start, a revived Christian philosophy is well entrenched within Anglo-American philosophy of religion. More importantly, perhaps, religious organisations and leaders continue to exert social power. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. At various times, religious lobbies have opposed a vast range of beneficial, or at least essentially harmless, activities and innovations. Even now, one religion or another opposes abortion rights; most contraceptive technologies; stem-cell and therapeutic cloning research; physician-assisted suicide; and a wide range of sexual conduct involving consenting adults. We still see intense activism from the religious lobbies of all Western democracies, and even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian moral concerns.

The situation is far worse in the US, where religious conservatives regrouped with dramatic success during the 1970s and 1980s, establishing well-financed networks, think tanks, and even their own so-called universities. Slick attempts are made to undermine public trust in science where it contradicts the literal Genesis narrative; a rampant dominionist movement wants to establish an American theocracy; the recent Bush administration took the country some considerable way down that path; and the election of a relatively liberal president has produced hysteria on the religious right (polling shows that many American conservatives now believe that Barack Obama is the Antichrist). American religiosity is real, and there is nothing subtle or liberal-minded about its most popular forms.

Meanwhile, we are confronted every day by the horrors of political Islam, with its ambitions to extend sharia law universally and its ugly violations of human rights wherever it actually has power. Many critics of religion were radicalised by the traumatic events of 9/11 when thousands of people were murdered by terrorists. Islam doubtless has moderate and even liberal manifestations, but prominent, politicised forms of Islam take a hard line against secularism, modernity, and all forms of liberal thought.

In a different world, we might be content to argue that the church (and the mosque, and all the other religious architecture that sprouts across the landscape) should be separate from the state, and that discussions about public policy should rely on secular principles such as the Millian harm principle. More radical attacks on religion’s truth-claims and moral authority would be less urgent if the various sects agreed, without equivocation, to a wall of separation between themselves and the state. Unfortunately, however, they often have good reasons (by their own lights) to oppose such strict secularism. Many religious sects, including many mainstream Christian denominations, do not distinguish sharply between guidance on individual salvation and the exercise of political power. They may be sceptical about the independence of secular goals from religious ones, or about the distinction between personal goals and those of the state. Some groups do not accept the reality of continuing social pluralism. Instead, they look to a time when their (allegedly) righteous views will prevail.

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising – and totally justifiable – that atheists and sceptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be translated into socially-accepted moral norms, let alone into laws enforced by the state’s coercive power? When these questions are asked publicly, even with a degree of aggression, that’s an entirely healthy thing.

Atheists and sceptics should, no doubt, defend secularism. But if we are realistic, we will understand that the idea of secularism has little traction in societies where the authority of religion is considered legitimate and taken for granted. For many religious groups, moreover, secularism is not an attractive ideal. Advocating secularism and directly challenging the authority of religion should not be viewed as two alternative strategies for atheists and sceptics who wish to resist the political influence of religion. Rather, these strategies are mutually supportive and ought to be pursued in tandem. That is the lesson that we need to learn.

In short, there is plenty of reason to challenge religions and contest their doctrinal claims, not just as an academic exercise, but as a matter of real urgency. Atheists and sceptics should deny the authority of religious organisations and leaders to pronounce on matters of ultimate truth and correct morality. This will require persistent, cool argument, but also moments of outright denunciation or even unashamed mockery of religion’s most absurd actions and truth-claims.

We should never flinch from expressing the view that no religion has any rational warrant – that these Emperors really have no clothes – and that many churches and sects promote cruelty, misery, ignorance, and human rights abuses. Yes, there are liberal forms of religion, but whatever good will we might feel towards them should not make us hesitate to speak uncomfortable truths. In particular, we ought to insist that religious leaders are not our moral leaders, despite their affectations.

To a large extent, the New Atheism is merely the restoration of normal transmission. Earlier this decade, some philosophers, public intellectuals, and high-profile scientists, decided, for a mix of reasons, that enough was enough and it was time to break the taboo against explicit and popular criticism of religion. They were, in fact, not the only ones who felt that way: even before most of the New Atheist books appeared, I was starting to hear rumblings. People around me were beginning to say that it was necessary to re-engage in the public sphere with religion’s truth-claims. Nonetheless, Dawkins and the other Horsemen opened up a publishing market and sparked an important debate. Thereby, they performed a public service.

The current debate about the truth-claims, moral authority, and social value of religion is very timely. It reflects the cold fact that the struggle of ideas is far from over, and that this is, after all, a good time to subject religions and all their claims to sceptical scrutiny. Those of us who do not believe have more than enough reason to dispute the unwarranted prestige enjoyed by the many variations of orthodox Abrahamic theism (and, indeed, all other religious systems). The time has come, once again, when critiques of theistic religion must be put strongly, clearly, openly, and unremittingly. What’s new about the New Atheism is its restoration of some balance – that, and the sheer number of people who have come to the same realisation.

Of course, there has been a backlash, and not just from the pious. Terry Eagleton, for example, has sharpened his literary talons to attack the New Atheists – particularly Dawkins and Hitchens – in Reason, Faith, and Revolution. Throughout 2009, much of the blogosphere has been dominated by an acrimonious row about something that evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne calls “accommodationism”. This involves two ideas: first, that supposedly “moderate” kinds of religion (including Roman Catholicism) are compatible with science; and, second, that it is unseemly and ill-advised for science-minded people to criticise “moderate” religion even in a thoughtful and civil way.

Although I am not hostile to all religious people, no matter how theologically and politically liberal, I stand alongside Coyne in rejecting accommodationism. It is, I think, clear, that only the most non-literalist kinds of theology – together with rarefied views such as eighteenth-century-style deism – are philosophically compatible with the picture of the universe and ourselves that we see emerging from science. As it appears to me, the scientific picture is incompatible not only with fundamentalisms of various kinds but also with many supposedly “moderate” views that continue to postulate a loving, providential creator. When we challenge those views, we do not attack a straw man. We are challenging mainstream Abrahamic understandings whose adherents continue to seek power and influence.

It doesn’t help when opponents of the New Atheism attempt a silly and unfair tu quoque! riposte – or perhaps just try to wound feelings, express spite, or incite anger – by branding forthright critics of religion as “fundamentalist atheists”. This expression should be contested vigorously whenever it appears. A fundamentalist atheist would be one who believes in the inerrancy of an atheist text – perhaps one of the New Atheist books, such as The God Delusion – even in the face of results from rational inquiry. However, I have yet to encounter such a person, and in any event such a label has nothing to do with the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens and the other Horsemen. Let’s be clear that the word “fundamentalist” does not mean “forthright” or “outspoken”. To use the word so loosely involves overlooking what is wrong with fundamentalism in the first place, namely its dogmatic resistance to all the findings of science and reason (as when Young Earth Creationists insist, against all the evidence, that the Earth is only six to ten thousand years old).

None of this is to deny that some atheists show apocalyptic or authoritarian tendencies. They may wish to eradicate religion in a dramatic way within their own lifetimes, rather than merely contesting religious truth-claims (with more realistic goals in mind). Some may even be tempted to advocate state action in an attempt to impose non-belief. Unfortunately, all social movements attract people with these tendencies, and even very liberal-minded individuals should beware the siren calls to apocalyptic and authoritarian thinking. Exasperation can make such thinking seem attractive. For that reason, atheists should engage in a degree of mutual scrutiny (and, indeed, self-scrutiny!), as well as in scrutiny of religious claims.

Still, much of the adverse reaction to the New Atheism – much of the distaste, bemusement, and discomfort expressed even by many atheists – is ill-founded. It displays a foolish sentimentalisation of religious faith, and often a failure to appreciate the real-world problem of religion’s persistence. Critics of forthright atheism display a naivety about religion’s ongoing power and influence in the public sphere, all too obvious even in Western democracies.

There are now many people who do not believe in any God or gods, or in the truth of any religious dogmas involving supernatural entities and forces, and are prepared to say so in public. Many of them have interesting reasons for their views, and it’s valuable for all of them – for all of us – to speak up. It doesn’t even matter if we don’t all entirely agree in our thinking; in fact, the last thing we should want is the hardening of contemporary forthright atheism into a kind of quasi-religious sect with its own body of orthodox dogma. We should go on scrutinising religion from all angles, while discussing our own differences thoughtfully, carefully, and often.

In all, this is a good time for atheists and sceptics to stand up and start debating. There’s no time like now to voice our disbelief.

Russell Blackford is co-editor, with Udo Schüklenk, of the recently-published 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (Wiley-Blackwell).