Radio Freethinker

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Saturday Stub: Old Complaints about New Atheism

Posted by Ethan Clow on August 27, 2011

Welcome to another Saturday Stub, where I take a quick look at something of interest to skeptics and freethinkers. Today, I wanted to discuss an article that appeared in The Guardian.

This article, The New Atheism by James Wood.

I warn you, it is not an easy read. There are many face palming moments and I found myself rolling my eyes and skimming through parts before stopping and literally forcing myself to read it concisely.

The article is a critique of “New Atheism” and if you don’t really know what “new atheism” is, you’re not alone. It’s a vaguely defined form of upfront and direct atheism. Writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett have all been characterized as “new atheists.” In addition, popular bloggers like PZ Myers, Greta Christina and others are also probably in the camp of “new atheism.”

If there’s a “new” atheism there must be an “old” atheism, right? Conceivably, that camp is made up of people like Paul Kurtz, Chris Mooney,  and Tom Flynn (even though he sort of isn’t)

Getting back to the article, it’s essentially a series of complaints lobbied at the “new atheists” particularly Dawkins, and it covers a lot of familiar ground. I would argue it rehashes a lot of the same old complaints that are always thrown at the feet of atheists as it were a mountain to climb, not an ant hill to step over.

Woods makes his first mischaracterization in his second paragraph writing:

“For these writers [the New Atheists] , and many others, “religion” always seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and the more relaxed or progressive versions of Christianity are not in their argumentative sights.”

When Woods is this clearly misinformed, it’s difficult to take him seriously. Dawkins and Harris and the rest are writing for a vast audience of people (mostly but not all) coming from similar cultural backgrounds. Fundamentalist religions are the most familiar and ultimately the target of their primary works. The reason is they think they are the most dangerous. If Dawkins had been born in ancient Greece, he might have written “The Zeus Delusion”

If Woods had done a bit more research he might have found some rather shockingly strident essays and books and material, written by “new atheists” about mainline religions. Buddhism, Hinduism and the like. Sam Harris, in a debate with Deepak Chopra (Does God Have A Future Debate) Harris makes the point that the God of the majority of people out there is essentially an invisible person, people pray to this invisible person and sometimes this invisible person answers those prayers.

A bit of research might reveal that atheists like Jen McCreight have talked and written a great deal on the “soft” religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. You can listen to Jen talk about that when I interviewed her in Kamloops (see here) She mentions how in Hinduism the wife is subject to her husband – which is faith based female oppression. In fact, both religions place women lower on the scale of “human-ist” Women are lower in the caste system in Hinduism and if you’re a bad Buddhist, you might get reincarnated as a woman.

Woods’ ignorance of the objections to Hinduism and Buddhism speak more about his own ignorance of those religions than the “new atheists.” Perhaps next time he’ll consider contacting the Tarksheel Society, an Indian Rationalists group that combats religious fanaticism, communalism, caste system, untouchability and superstitions; to get a better understanding of religious problems caused by Hinduism.

Woods also writes that:

“We know that people believe all kinds of things, as propositions. But how do they believe them? In this area, the New Atheism has nothing very interesting to say, except to wish away all such beliefs.”

Again, I must challenge him to provide evidence that “new atheists” have nothing interesting to say on this. Woods seems to be suggesting that “new atheism” has a lot to say about fundamentalist religions but in the face of passive “I believe because I want to believe” religion, there is nothing interesting to be said. This is wrong of course but Woods presses on. He suggests:

” There is a telling moment in The God Delusion when Dawkins speculates on why countless generations of people believed in God. How could belief in an illusion have persisted for so long? Dawkins suggests that we have evolved an HADD, a “hyperactive agent detection device”: “we hyperactively detect agents where there are none, and this makes us suspect malice or benignity where, in fact, nature is only indifferent.” His example of this elementary mistake comes from the episode of Fawlty Towers in which John Cleese’s car breaks down. Cleese gets out and starts hitting the car. This is an example of HADD, and by extension, of mankind’s belief in God. Now, do you really think that offering a minute from Fawlty Towers is an adequate analogy for millennia of religious belief?”

What a wonderful example to prove his point. He could have chosen the widely used example of imagine you are a primitive sentient on the plains of Africa. You hear a rustle in the bushes. Is it just the wind or is it a predator? Do you run in freight or do you check to see if it’s the wind? If it’s a predator, you’re now lunch. If it’s the wind, well you’re safe, until the next time you hear a rustle. Our very survival as a species has depended on us being able to assume agency when no agency is there.

Perhaps Woods should consider looking at religion another way. The ritualistic tradition of assuming agency where agency doesn’t exist. If I put a grape on a rock to appease the rock people so they don’t cause earthquakes, and lo and behold, no earthquakes occur. I might keep doing it. Perhaps I keep doing it for decades, and my children do so as well. Soon my whole tribe does so as well. Is there any reason to assume my grape keeps the rock people happy? Could another excuse be possible? The thing is, I’ve created a religion. In time, this religion might be believed by millions of people. It might be the source of strength for whole nations. Great. But what happens when my grape people meet the folks who put prunes on trees? Two traditions, each with a long heritage collide. (I hope Woods finds this interesting cause I sure do.)

Finally, Woods espouses the works fiction writers throughout history. In the works of Melville, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Jens Peter Jacobsen, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, to name a few, one will find deeper and more profound musings on religion and atheism. I don’t disagree with Woods on this point. Some of the greatest humanists writers wrote fiction.

What Woods fails to distinguish is the difference between drama and ambivalence. His article seems to suggest that the only true and respectable position to have on religion is to shrug your shoulders and go “oh well.” He confuses the dramatic licence of fiction writers, who explore the line between religion and science, faith and reason, belief and self-determination as an intellectual shrug of the shoulders as if the authors are saying “no one knows, oh well.”

I could write more but it’s Saturday.


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