I have just read of two well-meaning, but ultimately wrong, academics in Germany who, in their study of the return of religion, and the return of criticism of religion, have aimed to paint a picture of what new atheism is by naming some well-known atheists in public intellectual life and academia.
Thomas Zenk and Ulf Plessentin, researchers in Berlin, have identified the new atheists to be a cross section of people including Richard Dawkins, Alain de Botton and Slavoj Žižek.
As someone (an atheist someone) who has dedicated a lot of time and writing about the new atheists, and how they are detrimental to atheism itself, as well as the study of religion, I almost flipped my lid when I saw Žižek's name in there.
The problem with the new atheists is always that they have been rather confused with their message. At once their books and talks are too ready to dismiss the stories of religion as so much hot air, but usually go to pains in trying to work them out and reveal their "truths" (or lack of).
This is what egged Terry Eagleton that time to start his review of Dawkins' The God Delusion with the memorable line:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the "Book of British Birds", and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.
But what really does define new atheism? I think Zenk and Plessentin could find a simple answer here, and I will offer it. Substantially, there isn't much new to new atheism. Atheism can be hostile to religion or not, and that has probably been the case since the time of man began.
Though when we talk about new atheism today we are talking about an intellectual movement, whose main movers and shakers were Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.
New atheism, if you will, was the marketing gloss applied atop their unoriginal ideas to sell books.
What characterised their position was far more interesting than their collective name; and that character was belligerence. Four years ago I wrote a small article for the New Statesman, part of which read:
Since the release of his bestseller ... Gone are the days of the professor dissecting halibut in front of an audience of pre-teens divided into those who are averting their squeamish gazes and those who can't for the life of them turn away. Now, even in his scientific capacity, Dawkins is belligerent.
Back then people accused me of saying nobody could criticise religion, even somebody as cool, calm and collected as that Richard Dawkins.
I think since his remarks on Muslims of late, people have been surprised by the "other side" of Dawkins, particularly the tweet that read: "Poor nice, moderate Muslims, how to cope with all this ridicule? Well, you could leave your religion. Oh I forgot the penalty for apostasy".
But it has always been there. What surprises me is that it was missed by so many - especially atheists.
Why I am not hostile to religion, to explain, is threefold:
- I think it is of utmost importance to recognise, and embrace for intellectual curiosity, the limits of our knowledge of the world. And this acceptance gives no primacy whatsoever to either atheism or religiosity;
- There is something unique and worthwhile in the stories and principles told in the world's religions, particularly (in my opinion) Judeo-Christianity. This is why Žižek is not a new atheist - he too sees why the Judeo-Christian legacy is something that should be embraced for its adherence to Pauline universalism;
- Atheism holds no monopoly over good in the world, nor does it signify anything at all, defined, as it is, in the negative (a-theist, not a theist).
New atheism can be seen to close down, if anything, an important, ongoing and timeless debate on religion and the meaning of life. Rather than promote sapient enquiry, new atheism sought crass answers to questions made of straw.
For that movement Darwin killed God, science existed apart from religion and all ambiguity about the structure and creation of the universe could be unearthed by the rationalists. A pity for them that this doesn't hold true; however good news for the real Brights.
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