Tuesday, 25 September 2012
Why I Am Not A New Atheist
A long time between updates, excused (I hope) by a combination of frantically typing up my masters dissertation and relocating to Strasbourg, France (a very lovely city, thank you very much). Above is a picture of the Strasbourg Cathedral, which I stumbled across yesterday whilst familiarising myself with the city centre. It's an immense and immensely beautiful piece of Gothic architecture - a testament to man's sense of awe with and inspiration from the infinite and, for me, highlights some of the reservations I have with what has has been dubbed the 'New Atheism' movement.
The New Atheism movement has been enjoying massive popularity over recent years, with bestsellers from intellectual heavyweights like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens bulwarked by treatises by lesser-known figures like Daniel Dennett, and has even made something of a superstar out of Sam Harris (who I recently wrote a fairly lengthy critique of). These books have provoked responses from the theological community and those responses have provoked their own responses, with those responses provoking other responses - proving true that if you want a comfortable dinner party, with conversations arriving at a satisfying cadence, you'd be best to avoid broaching the subject of religion. Much of what is said by the New Atheist movement is good to the point of truism - that scientific inquiry is preferable to uncritical dogmatism, that 'faith' is a vacuous concept, that the abandonment of critical faculties through invocation of the supernatural is at best intellectually dishonest. My issue with 'New Atheism' is not so much with its reiteration of these banal and profound observations, but in its characterisation of religious believers as savages or morons and in doing so, the departure from its own stated adherence to reason and rationality.
A case in point - this video by Pat Condell has been doing the rounds recently. It's an especially odious diatribe against the recent riots in Libya and Egypt, which equates Islamism with 'Naziism' [sic] and compares the brutal riots in the Middle East with 'us in the civilized world', who are - get this - being asked to 'censor ourselves' in the name of tolerance for 'some bearded buffoon or some bag-headed bimbo.' Usually you would expect adherents of an ideology which advocates a commitment to evidence to provide some sort of substance for such obvious prejudice, but as far as I can see the only substance Condell provides to his claims (aside from linking to news stories which simply state that riots occurred) is the allegedly preposterous position of the Turkish Prime Minister declaring that Islamophobia be labelled a crime against humanity. That's what the headline of the piece says, at least, but those stalwart few who actually clicked on the link might notice that the Turkish Prime Minister was actually making an historical parallel with Islamophobia and anti-semitism, and the only criminal law proscriptions he was advocating were relating to a direct, avowed incitement to violence, rather than mere offense of the religious sensibilities of Islamists. It's worth noting that 'us in the civilised world' have long held direct incitement or provocation of violence as a crime and so, whilst I can share the belief that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is wrong about its application to the 'Innocence of Muslims' controversy, there is underneath the bile a thoughtful debate to be had about what kinds of provocation and incitement warrant a restriction on freedom of speech, but there is none of it to be found in the New Atheist echo chamber, only outrage against the notion that someone would suggest that prejudice against a religion could lead to violence.
This lack of nuance is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the New Atheism movement. It only seems to come out of the woodwork whenever there is a story in the news which fits into its pre-scripted dialogue of savage, barbaric Muslims who only take time off between familial rapes to attend public beheadings. Maybe I'm overlooking some crucial part of the literature, but I've found that New Atheism as a whole has next to nothing to say about the Arab Spring and only sees fit to either warn that it is, in fact, an Islamist Winter (a lazy, meaningless phrase) and ignore all contrary evidence, such as the liberals in Libya's resounding victory in the first post-revolutionary election, or the anti-Islamist military victories against the Islamists in Libya or remain silent on the matter. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Pat Condell, et al are all depressingly quiet on these encouraging and inspiring yearnings for democratic governance in the Middle East and have not just nothing interesting to say on the matter, but nothing whatsoever. But give them the chance to write another article about violent Muslims in the Middle East and they jump at proclaiming that Islam is inherently at odds with liberal democracy, and anyone who suggests otherwise is a blind, wishy-washy, leftie. Now, it may be that these authors are right, but the unwillingness to address contrary evidence (type 'new atheism arab spring' into google and you find a depressing lack of results) and a doubling-down on positions regarding Islam which are contradicted by evidence arising from revolutionary Arab states does not demonstrate an adherence to reason and inquiry - it demonstrates dogmatism.
Which brings me back to the Strasbourg Cathedral. A particular theme among New Atheist writers is a characterisation of religion as merely an over-enthusiastic belief in fairytales, or a stubborn insistence on the sophistication of the Emperor's garments, but this characterisation is spurious and stifles debate about the true nature of religious belief. Nobody builds such monuments to mere stories - children don't build towers dedicated to Santa Claus. These buildings are a testament to the religious and spiritual experience; an evocation of man's relationship with the cosmos and the infinite. Sam Harris, in his better moments, has confronted New Atheists for their lack of sophistication on understanding religious belief, but he seems to take particular relish in poo-pooing the work of Scott Atran, one of the few people who has actually done a number of extremely rigorous studies on religious experience. New Atheism dismisses all religious believers as either cranks, fanatics or morons and it is in this brusque dismissal that I fear it becomes more about something else; a bourgeouis expression of intellectual and spiritual superiority over the less-civilised 'other'. Why do a significant portion of poor, uneducated Americans believe the world to only be 6,000 years old? Could it be that centuries of economic exploitation and marginalisation at the hands of corrupt, self-serving interests have left them with a distrust of all supposedly 'elite' manifestations, including the scientific establishment? No, they're just ignorant morons who think Jesus had a pet dinosaur. Could it be that Islamism has been seen as merely the only means of providing meaning and political expression to young, misguided Muslims in states which have been ravaged by colonialism and ruled over in recent years by corrupt despots? No, they're merely towelheads who spend too long reading the Qu'ran. I cannot abide such a simplistic and uncritical assessment of the sociology of religious movements.
The truth is that atheism is, at its core, essentially humble. Whilst many world religions pay lip-service to humility, the belief that the universe is designed with the human race in mind and the certainty with which religious believers assert the truth of their doctrine is really anything but humble. Atheism at its best merely awaits evidence and makes no judgment on the truth or otherwise of world religions, though harbors a deep-seated suspicion that none of them are correct. For that reason, atheism is the truly humble belief system. New Atheism, on the other hand, is aggressive in its insistence that religion must be combated rather than understood, and uses words like 'reason', 'rationality', 'free thought' and 'democracy' as if it held a monopoly on such terms. As Jacques Derrida observed, invocation of reason and human rights is not in itself a safeguard against theological certainty and one senses among New Atheists a lack of critical inquiry into the sociology of religions, in particular the doctrine of Islam. As Mark Sageman has noted, religious fundamentalists are not truly religious, since the history of religion is built upon interpretation, reflection and re-evaluation as opposed to mere literalism. Indeed, as any legal scholar or post-structuralist will tell you, true literalism is impossible since words are not themselves inherently representative of concepts and definitions change according to time and circumstance. The greatest sin of New Atheism is its insistence that a causal link exists between barbarism and scripture merely because the scripture, in some places, advocates barbarism. Of course there are riots in Libya and Egypt! The scripture commands it! And what of the riots in London, then? Were they indicative of the decadence of liberal ideology? Of course not, we frame riots in our own countries in terms of complex social processes or at the very least seek individual, as opposed to collective, blame. We would do well to afford the same courtesy to other countries when atrocities occur within their borders.
So I don't buy into New Atheism, not because I think religion makes correct claims about the supernatural, but because New Atheism offers nothing new in the way of understanding religion, it merely asserts its untruth. Nor does it seem adaptive to conditions which challenge its central tenet that fundamentalists are inherently barbaric; developments in the Middle East which suggest people in Arab states yearn for democracy are either ignored or treated with condescension and suspicion. In that sense, New Atheism seems more an expression of Western superiority, a form of aggressive cultural imperialism more interested in assertion than dialogue and it is for that reason that I am not a New Atheist.