Thursday, 14 March 2013

New Atheists? Or a Grumpy Man's War on Religion

Tis Lokee here once more...

If one follows the New Atheist trend, to be an atheist today appears to entail possessing a high level of arrogance, zealousness for criticism and a lack of sensitivity towards the issues.  

The last few years for me have been quite a journey in terms of grounding my philosophical thoughts, understandings and ideas within a workable framework.  A significant part of that journey was spurred by the lectures and texts of the men at the forefront of what has now become known as the New Atheist movement, the Four Horsemen.  After my initial excitement that there appeared to be capable thinkers in the public forum giving voice to opinions that had been bubbling under the surface, I found I was beginning to be uncomfortable with the force with which they were expressing their views. 

I, like many, cheer when New Atheists argue for the teaching of evolution rather than creationism in schools, jump for joy shouting “yes!” when they state that religion has no place in the laboratory or government and applaud when they aren’t afraid to point out the atrocious impact religious fundamentalism has, physically, intellectually and psychologically, on both the individual and group level. 

What sometimes leads me to stand back aghast is the wholesale criticism of religion and the positioning of those who are religious as intellectually inferior.  In fact not only do I stand back stunned, but I feel the need to separate myself entirely from the movement.  It seems that atheism, once a collective definition for people who have no belief in a God or who recognise that there is no evidence for a God, has now become a movement with an aggressive political agenda. Hooper (2006) states, “What the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”  Now while I see that stance as a necessary one when facing the dangers of religious fundamentalism, and the practice of rational argument is one I adhere to, it is the New Atheists’ conflation of religious fundamentalism with all believers, and the resulting heavy-handed criticism towards all religion that I feel uncomfortable with.  As Higgs (2012) is quoted as saying, "What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists…  Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind."  It is this fundamentalist attitude that has made atheism “no longer just a quiet and personal celebration of reason” but a pervasive movement that is quickly being overshadowed by a militant agenda to silence and suppress dissenting views (Panahi, 2012). 

While religion may not have a place in the fields of science or politics, it does have a place in the personal lives of its adherents.  Alain de Botton (2011), a well-known atheist philosopher, defends the practical parts of religion and encourages atheists to note, “there is something to learn from the example of religion -- even if you don't believe any of it.”  The failure to acknowledge the virtues that can be found in the religious beliefs of millions is a strategic choice that does more harm than good, namely it encourages intolerance.  It also has the potential to discourage people from looking beyond the surface of apparent religious conflicts to note what other variables should be taken into consideration, when attempting to find causes.    
Fruitful debate and discussion happens when both parties respect each other, or at minimum strive to see virtue in the opponent’s point of view.  When aggressive intolerance becomes the primary stance of New Atheists, any hope of progress is blocked and the atheist is immediately placed on the back foot.  A person finds themself on a figurative battleground fighting against an opponent, whose defense mechanisms are at their highest.  The best one can hope for is for both parties to walk away disgusted by each other and possibly slightly scarred by the insults that have been hurled back and forth. 

Dawkins and Dennett have both portrayed religious beliefs as a virus of the mind (Wright 2009).  When one hears or reads the word “virus” what springs to mind but parasites?  A virus implies a discernible negative effect on its host both mentally and physically.  While negative effects of religion can be found amongst believers, there is also significant evidence for the positive effects of religion, especially towards a person’s emotional well-being (Asma, 2011).

There are examples of religions whose purpose appears not to be to explain nature nor guide one along the moral path, but instead to provide adherents with the means necessary to practice discipline and introspection in the pursuit of psychological well-being external to the material world (Asma, 2011).   Buddhism is such a religion and one that has been acknowledged by many atheists to be an exception to the religions they denounce.  It is often referred to as a philosophy rather than a religion and one that resonates with many of the New Atheist ideals. 

Religion offers people a coping mechanism in a world that is undoubtedly harsh and troubled.  As Asma (2011) states, “Powerless people turn to religion and find a sense of relief, which helps them psychologically to stay afloat. Those who wish to abolish religion seek to pull away the life preserver, mistakenly blaming the device for the drowning.”  While such human vulnerability may be seen by some to be a weakness and it may indeed bring forth a response of disdain or pity from those who feel immune to such feelings, as emotional human beings, we all seek a sense of calm.  Some find comfort in reading, art, music, or sport, others find it in religion.  As Roger Scruton says, "The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation" and it is for this reason that one should note the virtue as well as the vice, when addressing the problems inherent within any particular religion.    

With that said, it is for this reason that world religions should be invited to the debate with due respect in the hope that through joint discussion and constructive criticism, what is malevolent within some religions can be weeded out, while not immediately dismissing that which is benign and, for some, an emotional necessity.  As Halla (2012) states, “While one can concede that religious doctrine formed the root of many vicious disputes and even wars, the New Atheists attack elements of religion that might actually prove useful to humanity—tenets we have no good reason to dogmatically reject.”   

After watching many presentations with one or a number of the Four Horsemen at the lead, an outcome such as that described above is becoming less and less likely because of their intolerant attitude to a topic that requires some care.  One only needs to join Dawkins’ Twitter feed to see an endless barrage of unkind remarks and extreme examples of religious intolerance.  I can’t imagine any sensible well-intended adherent of religion wanting to subject themselves to such an attack.    

Don’t mistake me here, I do agree with much of what New Atheism has to say on religion and there is of course a rationale behind their extreme stance, and that rationale is, to some extent, valid.  In fact, I would argue that it is thanks to the vigour with which Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris pursue religion that religion is in the foreground of contemporary debate.  Some like Blackford (2012) can even pinpoint the year, 2004, “that was the year when large trade imprints in English-speaking countries began publishing forthright, unashamed attacks on the truth of religious doctrines and the moral pretensions of churches and sects. Since then, some of the most prominent books, such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, have sold millions of copies.”

I can only hope that more deliberate, considered and respectful proponents of atheism come to the fore and steal some of the limelight away from the Four Horsemen, and thereby not only assist the debate, but ensure that Science and Secularism aren’t blackened by the negative actions of a few.  For if Wolf (2006) is right in that the New Atheists “condemn not just belief in God, but respect for belief in God,” and that they believe that “Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil,” what chance does rational debate have?   

List of References

Asma, Stephen, T.   (2011).  The New Atheists Narrow World View. 

Blackford, Russell.  (2011).  With friends like these: Atheists against the New Atheism

de Botton, Alain.  (2011).  Atheism: 2.0
Halla, Barbara.  (2012).  New Atheism:  Missing the Point. 

Hooper, Simon.  (2006).  The Rise of the New Atheists. 

Jha, Alok.  (2012).  Peter Higgs criticises Richard Dawkins over anti-religious 'fundamentalism'

Panahi, Rita.  (2012).  New atheists adopt the zealot's garb | Herald Sun

Stenger, Victor.  What’s New About The New Atheism? 

Wolf, Gary.  (2006).  My Friends I Must Ask You An Important Question Today:  Where do you stand on God?

Wright, Robert.  ().  The Trouble with New Atheists: Part II

Wright, Robert.  ().  Why the New Atheists are Right Wing on Foreign Policy. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to comment, but play nicely!

Sadly, the unremitting attention of a spambot means you may have to verify your humanity.