Jolyon Charles Leslie Agar. Journal of Critical Realism. Volume 11, Issue 2. 2012.
Atheism is not a new phenomenon but has been a fairly constant feature of human thought for centuries. To be sure, the vast majority of philosophers throughout the history of the discipline have accepted what Keith Ward refers to in his recent response to the increasing polemic of atheism as ‘the God conclusion.’ This is the contention that there is ‘a supreme spiritual (non-physical) reality which is the cause or underlying nature of the physical cosmos’ and that this reality should be placed firmly at the centre of our reflective thinking about human life and knowledge. But the history of philosophy, especially in the last five hundred years or so has been punctuated by notable thinkers who have advanced the opposite thesis, that reality is fundamentally nonspiritual. Writers such as Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud all agree that the God conclusion is simply untrue. Feuerbach, for example, thought that our obsession with God was nothing more than a displaced projection of ourselves and our needs onto an imaginary supernatural realm. Marx agreed but identified social and economic reasons why we cannot recognize these ‘God qualities’ as our own. Nietzsche’s position perhaps could be more accurately described as anti-theistic rather than atheistic as such because although he shared Feuerbach’s and Marx’s general scepticism about the ontological and epistemological certainties that religion offered he was more concerned with the impact that these erroneous ideas had on our well-being. He thought that the monotheistic faiths in particular were dehumanizing and repressive. They were dangerous to our mental and even physical health, and we would frankly be better off without them.
This last point is the dominant feature of the so-called ‘new atheist’ movement that has taken such a hold on much of the popular consciousness in Western societies. New atheists tend not to share the anti-foundationalism that informed Nietzsche’s own attacks on the certainties of faith because they think that Enlightenment ideals of secular humanism and science are the keys to accurate reflections on the universe and our place in it. But they do share his concerns about its morality. That is, the proponents of new atheism, led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, think not only that the philosophical basis of religion—the God conclusion—is wrong but also that religion itself is extremely bad for our health. In Dawkins’s The God Delusion we can detect an unmistakable Nietzschean attack on religion that singles out the Yahweh deity of Jewish scripture as especially vile when he says:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving controlfreak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Christopher Hitchens in God is Not Great sees in the persistence of religion into the so-called ‘age of reason’ the greatest threat to the civilizing achievements secularity has brought us since the Enlightenment when he tells us that ‘[a]s I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all hard-won human attainments … Religion poisons everything.’ And Sam Harris in The End of Faith is of the view that religious tolerance is no longer a viable option in an age of weapons of mass destruction:
Our technical advances in the art of war have finally rendered our religious differences—and hence our religious beliefs—antithetical to our survival. We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbours believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation, or any of the other fantastical notions that have lurked in the minds of the faithful for millennia—because our neighbours are now armed with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that these developments mark the terminal phase of our credulity. Words like ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ must go the way of ‘Apollo’ and ‘Baal,’ or they will unmake our world.
That such vitriol is enjoying so wide currency in lay society is of concern to those who do not see religion in such black-and-white terms. Amarnath Amarasingam’s edited collection of essays, Religion and the New Atheism, reflects a general concern among many within the academic world not only that new atheism offers unsophisticated and uninformed analysis of religion but that there is a distinct lack of rigorous academic treatment of their ideas (pp. 1-2). By bringing together scholars from a variety of disciplines that one would think would have plenty to say about the new atheist phenomenon (religious studies, sociology of religion, sociology of science, philosophy and theology) the aim is to place it in a wider context of scholarly discourses about atheism itself. The result is a collection of essays that not so much gives primacy to discrediting the limited scholarship of new atheist literature (although there is plenty of powerful critique to be found in its pages) but demonstrates where we can place new atheism in relation to generally more informed and intellectually rigorous debates about religion and atheism.
Critiquing New Atheist ‘Straw Men’
Robert Platzner, for example, attempts to draw parallels between the rise of a secularist and atheist counter-tradition within Judaism—‘a trajectory of disbelief that can be traced from Spinoza to contemporary advocates of a “godless” Judaism’ (p. 12)—and much of the new atheist attack on the foundations of the Jewish faith. Platzner focuses in particular on Harris’s explanation for the persistence of virulent forms of anti-Semitism in Jewish teleologism and its ‘chosen people’ myth. For Harris, Jewish persecution can largely be explained by ‘their refusal to assimilate, for the insularity and professed superiority of their religious culture … It seems little wonder therefore that it has drawn so much sectarian fire. Jews … believe that they are the bearers of a unique covenant with God.’ In line with new atheism’s rather simplistic scientistic interpretation of modernity generally, Harris dismisses moderating influences within Judaism that have been equally critical of this so-called superiority complex. The rise of ‘moderate’ religion (i.e. interpretations of scripture that seek to make them compatible with the current body of scientific and moralistic knowledge) is the result of religion being dragged almost kicking and screaming into the modern world:
The only reason anyone is ‘moderate’ in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought (democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, and an end to cultural and geographic isolation, etc). The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt.
Platzner, on the other hand, argues that the growth of a Judaistic secular counter-tradition is something taking place within its structures (p. 12). He identifies a progressively radical humanism in the writings of many scholars: the ‘monistic materialism’ of Spinoza (p. 13); the ‘proto-atheism’ (p. 15) and humanisms of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and Richard Rubinstein. He also notes the decisive turn against its theistic roots in the post-Judaism of contemporary writer Douglas Rushkoff, which represents the ‘final negation of Judaism’ (p. 20). Although Rushkoff’s polemic is almost identical to that of Harris, Platzner’s analysis reveals the poverty of the latter’s rather perfunctory attempt to locate the dynamics of this evolution in an external and superior force of Enlightenment science and secularism. Here we have evidence that some of the most powerful criticisms of religion’s core metaphysical and ethical beliefs result, not from an externally located rationality characteristic of ‘the hammer blows of modernity,’ but from rationalistic processes of internal reflection within these religious traditions themselves.
A similarly compelling account of the poverty of Harris’s dismissal of moderation within theism—this time in relation to his attack on Islamic thought—can be found in Rory Dickson’s discussion of the often fractured relationship between Islam and the West. Harris presents statistical evidence in the form of questionnaires about attitudes towards suicide bombing among Muslims in several countries conducted in 2002 to support his claim that endemic to Islam itself is a ‘thoroughgoing cult of death.’ Given the identification of such a religiously induced socio-pathology he concludes that ‘the sun of modernity sets even further over the Muslim world.’ Dickson draws on important literature which suggests that such anti-Westernism is more closely correlated to Muslim opposition to specific Western political policies than to the ideological principles various Western countries such as the United States and Britain espouse (pp. 43-5). Indeed, far from being an intrinsic manifestation of the faith, suicidal terrorism is more of a twentieth-century phenomenon (pp. 45-7).
Harris, in other words, takes aim more at a target of his own construction that has little or no resemblance with either Judaism or Islam (or presumably Christianity). Far from providing an accurate analysis of any of the monotheisms, Harris’s tirade is typical of a key new atheist strategy of demolishing a straw man, whereby religion becomes an easy target purely because it has been made so in the interests of an anti-religious agenda rather than due to intrinsic deficiencies. A similar example of a straw-man argument focuses on the ‘God concept’ of monotheistic metaphysics that the new atheists delight in attacking. Jeffrey W. Robbins and Christopher D. Rodkey argue that the traditional arguments, based on epistemological and ontological considerations for the existence of God—what they call theological theism (p. 27)—are easy prey to the new atheistic counter-arguments for His non-existence. What makes theistic arguments potentially even more dangerous to the interests of the case for religion than even the new atheist’s straw men is the fact they are part of mainstream theistic discourse itself. Accordingly, they draw upon the resources of panentheism within radical theology to argue that God must not be seen ‘as a religious substance … an object among other objects’ (p. 27), but rather as being-itself. That is, the only defensible conceptualization of God is as an ontological category sui generis that also panentheistically projects and grounds all that is (p. 29); a God beyond existence that is thereby not amenable to scientific evidential scrutiny of the sort new atheism undertakes. Conceived in such terms, the intemperate polemics of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens are merely the ‘flipside of theism, with neither side understanding the true nature of belief’ (p. 32). Accordingly, epistemological and ontological atheismare essential aspects of the wrongheaded theistic concept of God. Paradoxically, Paul Tillich and Thomas Altizer thus turn atheistic arguments to the service of their radical theological discourse. For example, Altizer’s God enjoys an originally transcendent position of ontological completion and invariance and negates Himself by becoming immanent in human history (p. 31). Nietzsche’s ‘death of God’ is utilized to prove that the Deity of theological theism cannot and does not exist. The result is that ‘a God that is no longer transcendent, totalitarian over all that is, taking sides with political entities with power, or being thought of as a cosmic Santa Claus is not so easy to argue away with traditional arguments against God’ (p. 31). In many respects, Robbins and Rodkey expose the intellectual poverty of new atheism, not just in that the latter’s epistemological and ontological armoury is in fact an indispensable contribution to a radical theological defence of God, but also in that the main components of this defence pre-dates new atheism by decades. Delving into the radical theological tradition quickly reveals that there is very little that is ‘new’ about new atheism: it is, on the contrary, largely a rehashing of old arguments.
Robbins and Rodkey’s analysis of radical theology is not without insight into its possible weaknesses, not least that its deconstruction of theistic metaphysics is predicated on a postmetaphysical interpretivism (p. 32). By linking it explicitly to the postmetaphysical death-of-God thesis, panentheism becomes the basis for taking seriously belief in God as constitutive of the lived traditions of the faithful. Tillich’s utilization of atheism in order to revalorize faith must be seen in the historical context of the crisis of Christendom in the aftermath of the Holocaust that gave birth to a re-invigorated secularized culture (p. 34). This is all well and good it seems, but Robbins and Rodkey identify another important paradox to the atheism-theism relationship here. By embracing postmetaphysics, radical theology has not only ‘liquidated the philosophical basis of atheism’ (p. 32) but also inadvertently re-valorized uncritical and irrational faith structures such as fundamentalism as it simultaneously demolishes them. By disarming irrationalist beliefs via the intellectual traditions of theological theism we also divest ourselves of some of the most powerful admonishments of those same beliefs offered by moderate philosophies and theologies such as those offered most recently by Terry Eagleton and Alister McGrath. Thankfully, panentheism does not necessarily have a reliance on epistemological relativism and accordingly Robbins and Rodkey present Tillich’s critique of theological theism as more of a ‘template for radical theology’ (p. 33)—just one example of how religious thought can appropriate the insights of atheism in the construction of a re-invigorated system of belief after the death of God.
Radical Theology, Panentheism, and Realism
Given such prospects for radical theology, it is a shame that Robbins and Rodkey make no mention of panentheistic systems of thought that retain critical potency, such as interpretations of G. W. F. Hegel’s philosophy of religion undertaken recently by Robert Wallace11 and John W. Cooper. Hegel’s panentheistic credentials lie in his conception of ‘true infinity.’ In accordance with an in-depth analysis of Hegel’s Logic, his key ideas of finitude and infinity are grasped as intra-related rather than oppositional categorizations of being. As Wallace demonstrates, finite being (i.e. materiality) is self-transcendence, and infinite being (which includes Hegel’s concept of God) is finite being’s act of self-transcendence. For Hegel, the act of selftranscendence is the means whereby finite things achieve the status of being, by demonstrating themselves to be beings-for-themselves (i.e. not definable in simple causal terms as distinct from and in opposition to other material objects). Similarly, God is only transcendent if He can demonstrate that His Being is not dependent on an oppositional relation to materiality, because to do so is to invoke a limitation to His Being. To grasp God’s transcendence of the world we must therefore dispense with any notion of His opposition to the world. The result is God-beyond-God—the God with ontological grounds all His own or what Hegel would define as being-for-itself.
In this way, the transcendence of God of traditional theism is reconciled with His immanentization characteristic of pantheism. The truth of traditional theism is that materiality is real only in its relationship to God (i.e. its self-transcendence). But if theism has got it right about the nature of finite being it has got it wrong when it comes to the concept of God itself. Indeed, one might say that the fruits of atheistic critique contained in radical theology that are detectable in Hegelian panentheism consist in Hegel’s contention that theism embraces an incoherent concept of God. That is, as merely transcendent, God is defined as oppositional to Creation and thus, according to the logic of true infinity, limited. A being limited in this way cannot be truly infinite but rather spuriously so.
By being a philosophy of religion that is entirely premised on the demonstration that its key categories are necessary properties of reality we have a form of panentheism that avoids collapsing into a critically impotent interpretivism. Indeed, with Hegel we see a clear effort to retain the importance of ontological realism despite the panentheistic eschewal of ‘old-fashioned’ metaphysical categories of being and substance. Here we have precisely the sort of thing contained in Robbins and Rodkey’s caveat about the capacity for panentheism to operate without epistemic relativist presuppositions. The centrality of subjectivity and discourse to Hegel’s Logic occurs within the context of finitude’s act of self-transcendence towards the ‘beyond,’ an act which thereby presupposes key ontological implications. There is nothing, therefore, irrealist in his postmetaphysical agenda. Indeed, in this we see something of the force that energizes true infinity—the negation of the negation—to be found in the radical theological idea that God is affirmed in His denial. Atheism’s (and theological theism’s) key metaphysical concepts of ‘quality,’ ‘quantity,’ ‘substance,’ ‘necessity’ and so on are interconnected with those of true infinity: ‘subjectivity,’ ‘negativity’ and ‘freedom.’ The ‘truths’ of new atheism are paralleled by Hegel’s identification of the partial truths of traditional metaphysics. At work within the idealism of true infinity is thus a commitment to uncovering a higher reality and in this regard Kenneth Westphal has identified the epistemological realist thread at work in Hegel’s idealism.
Ryan C. Falcioni’s critique of new atheism is premised on the Wittgensteinian contention that religious truth claims can only be grasped discursively. Accordingly, he feels that the so-called ‘God hypothesis’ that features heavily in both new atheist and much of the mainstream theistic literature is a completely invalid enterprise. That God is a hypothesis and therefore subject to evidential investigation is captured perhaps most clearly in the work of new atheist Victor Stenger when he invokes Popperian criteria. In God: The Failed Hypothesis he says that ‘the gods are human inventions based on human concepts. Whether or not we can say that if the God people talk about has anything to do with whatever objective reality is out there depends on the empirical success of the models that are built around these hypothetical entities.’ Stenger, unsurprisingly, believes that such models have been thoroughly falsified in the sense that empirical testing has yielded no corroborating evidence. But, for Falcioni, when believers make statements such as ‘God exists,’ rather than making a putative truth claim around which scientific ‘models’ may be built, they are merely sharing a superficial grammatical structure with valid scientific questions about material reality (p. 215). The former is not a hypothesis because ‘it is not a claim about an object in the world that may be discovered or proven through an objective investigation’ (p. 216). In other words, science and religion make truth claims about two radically different kinds of reality, a move that is reminiscent of the eminent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s wish to protect theology from the intrusions of science by claiming that the two disciplines are concerned with radically different subject matters. Science busies itself with the study of the empirical world—facts and theories about matter—whereas religion captures ultimate questions of meaning and moral value that transcend this realm of facts. Gould accordingly coined the phrase ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ (NOMA) to describe this mutual respect between epistemologies. Unsurprisingly the new atheists have little time for what Dawkins has disparagingly called ‘truth heckling.’ Stenger, for his part, rejects this idea by presenting a ‘theory of God’ and insists that ‘the observable effects that such a God may be expected to have are still testable by the normal, objective process of science.’
I have to say that, although I am no great fan of new atheism, I do have some sympathy with at least the idea that scientific rationality has a lot to contribute to the ‘God question.’ We have already observed the dangers associated with untethering religious ideas from their rationalist moorings or disarming ourselves of key intellectualist arguments against fundamentalism. To invoke NOMA is simply to invoke oppositional categorizations of being whereby God and materiality are discreet domains, inquiries into which require different forms of rationality. For Falcioni, religion requires ‘a different type of rationality, one that is internal to (or better yet, seen in) religious lives and practices’ (p. 217). But surely something is to be said for the idea that we are, rather, talking about the same rationality in the sense that investigations into the nature of material reality may involve the incorporation of questions regarding transcendence as a legitimate way to make sense of what we discover. Our understanding of the nature of materiality may also involve (for some people at least) a ‘vertical dimension.’ I have given an example above of Hegel’s concept of the self-transcendence of matter. In such circumstances the body of scientific knowledge (if incomplete and limited) becomes of considerable interest to theologians and philosophers of religion. What I am talking about here is, of course, natural theology, which is a tradition of thought that includes Augustine and Aquinas. It is once again experiencing a resurgence in the writings of prominent theologians such as Alister McGrath. I agree that God cannot be reduced to being merely a scientific hypothesis—to do so would commit us to an impoverished and limited definition of His Being—but to reduce Him to the status of a discursive construction is similarly impoverishing and, if it is conceived as a strategy to protect religion from attack, I would argue, ultimately self-defeating.
The position Falcioni takes is not a new one but has been a long-standing tactic by many religious people. It is obviously borne of the desire to protect religion from precisely the sort of assault it is currently facing at the hands of the new atheists. But it seems to me that this is a curious way for the defenders of religion to approach the issue. What it effectively requires is that we deny the idea that religious experience may be the result of the faithful’s experience of some higher non-material reality. But by denying the primacy of religion’s truth claims what religion is supposed to be about instantly dissolves and all we are left with is merely its status as a discursive construction, an epiphenomenon of cultural contexts of linguistic meaning. I find it hard to see how this reduction of religion to a ‘fundamental descriptive fact about religious life’ (p. 219) protects religion from opposing truth claims because it does away with its own before battle can even commence. I also find it hard to understand why it is a popular position for some believers, because it is predicated on the descriptivist dissolution of the ‘aboutness’ of religion while protecting that of science. And on top of this, it immediately renders religious belief vulnerable to the spectre of fundamentalist distortions. The intellectualism that demands that religions adhere to rational standards of epistemology and ontology is a necessary bulwark against fundamentalist irrationalities, as we have seen. And so it seems to me that the articulation of this descriptive rationality is less a strategy of resistance to new atheism and more an admission of defeat, because it demands that the faithful perform a kind of spiritual lobotomy which can only leave religion immeasurably weaker. There is almost an unconscious admission that scientific rationality is indeed a cold house for God and so we need to desperately formulate an alternative (and frankly vastly inferior) form of rationality in response.
Epistemic Absolutism: New Atheism and Fundamentalism
To say that science and religion speak about the same reality is not, however, without its drawbacks, as William Stahl demonstrates in his comparison of the epistemic standards in fundamentalism and new atheism. Despite their obvious mutual antipathy both movements have a shared reasoning—the absolute truth of their respective philosophies. Both groups display what he calls a ‘Cartesian anxiety’—the insistence that, unless we can find a single fixed foundation for our knowledge, humanity will forever be engulfed by intellectual and moral chaos (p. 99). The so-called ‘crisis of meaning’ of late modernity has created precisely such a vacuum, which both religious fundamentalism and new atheism have sought to fill, albeit from radically different epistemic foundations. Protestant fundamentalism is the radical attempt to re-ground science and socio-political morality in inviolate and secure epistemological foundations. Paradoxically, the same intellectual ambitions are behind new atheism—an intemperate attack on the epistemological and moral foundations of religion from an essentially radical Enlightenment scientism. Both traditions, Stahl tells us, are obsessed with forging an empirically robust set of first principles in which moral and socio-political thinking are nourished. For the fundamentalists this is achieved by constructing a return to the political theology of scriptural literalism and for the new atheists on an extreme interpretation of the scientific rationality and secular humanism of the Enlightenment. To these epistemic first principles empirical evidence is normatively infused—creationist ‘science’ and the obsession with a scientistic refutation of the God hypothesis respectively (pp. 99-100). The absolutist character of these epistemes stands in stark contrast to the means whereby this evidence is amassed as revealed in the very unscientific and random way the new atheists collect proof of the evil that religion can produce in human beings or the tendency for fundamentalist preachers to cherry-pick scripture in the service of their political agendas (pp. 103-4). To compensate, Stahl identifies a Nietzschean ‘will to power’ that sustains both epistemes and explains their common support for Anglo-American neoconservatism (pp. 106-8). Indeed, Stephen Bullivant’s insightful exploration of the sudden popularity of new atheism in the UK and US might help us to understand this latter point. Its consonance with American post-Cold-War patriotism explains why new atheists tend to support some of the most controversial aspects of US foreign policy and exhibits much of the ‘neocon’ agenda generally (pp. 119-20).
What Stahl very effectively demonstrates are the negative political implications that can result from enclosing an episteme within an inflexible absolutist straightjacket. Just as fundamentalism is sustainable only via an approach to scriptural rationality that demands a concomitant political extremism, so new atheism is similarly hamstrung by wedding itself to a vulgar scientism. Mainstream theological opinion has it that the fundamentalist take on scriptural revelation is predicated on a questionable rationality. Similarly, Dawkins, Dennett et al. attain intellectual nourishment, not from the epistemological underpinnings of mainstream science itself, but rather from a radicalization of the scientific project that suffers from various pathologies, not the least of which is the Cartesian anxiety.
Stahl’s point that new atheist scientism mimics a radical Enlightenment truncation of rationality is an important one, not least for recent attempts to re-think what we mean by secularism. The so-called ‘spiritual turn’ by Roy Bhaskar is instructive here. In Reflections on MetaReality, for example, Bhaskar rails against the tendency of philosophical modernity in general to embrace a shallow empirical realism, with the result that what is deemed judgementally rational is greatly diminished. Upon such irrealist foundations secular modernity has flourished. Indeed, he undertakes an immanent critique of his own critical realist system which was generally susceptible to such secularist readings for the philosophical dualism it presupposes. Instead, metaRealism deepens and widens the scope of the rational by positing spirituality and transcendence as the fundamental constituents of key emancipatory normative values that were previously the unchallenged domain of secularism. Examples of such secularist approaches to critical realism are especially evident from the radical left. Bhaskar’s metaRealism endeavours to re-acquaint this tradition with its spiritual roots.
One detects resonances of the Cartesian anxiety in Bhaskar’s critique of the tradition from which new atheism draws most of its influence: classical modernity. Here we see that the source of liberalism’s false/abstract universality, centered on the ego-non-ego dichotomy, is also a key feature of its contribution to disenchantment, because the aspects of being that are invisible to or ‘transcend’ induction or deduction include transcendent spirituality—precisely the terrain that Bhaskar wishes to re-claim.
Michael Ian Borer examines another interesting manifestation of this interpretation of new atheism as scientific fundamentalism in his placement of the movement in relation to traditional accounts of secularization. One of the three major theses that Borer identifies in new atheism is a restatement of the idea that the dynamic of secularization is provided by the rise of superior scientific beliefs. It is the rather straightforward argument that ‘religion is trampled beneath the wheels of modernity’s science- and technology-fuelled juggernaut’ (p. 128) with the consequence that religion loses both its social significance and individuals are encouraged to become increasingly psychologically independent of it. That this is a questionable definition of ‘secularization’ should be obvious enough. A more sophisticated explanation is that provided by Charles Taylor. He points to a ‘revisionist’ school of thought that questions the linearity of the process of modernity and sidelining of religious belief. He calls the linear account ‘subtraction theory,’ i.e. that religion and the epistemologies of modernity are irreconcilable and mutually antagonistic forms of knowledge. The rise of worldviews that are more or less sceptical of traditional religion is, to be sure, partly fuelled by the rise of ‘naturalistic’ explanations for the origins of the universe provided by these new sciences, a process Taylor calls ‘disenchantment.’ Taylor cautions us against eliciting the binary opposites of the science vs. religion thesis from this because disenchantment is not the same thing as a threat to religious belief. Rather than having an undermining effect, he tells us, modernity may be said to create new possibilities for restructuring and reformulating religion in ways that ensure its continuing relevance to a significant number of people.
Contrasting these definitions of secular processes is a useful means of uncovering the fundamentalist credentials of new atheism. Taylor’s approach suggests that there is no direct causal link between the rise of science and the decline of religion’s popularity. What science does contribute to secularism are, as Borer suggests, ‘the foundations for an alternative, non-religious worldview’ (p. 135). In line with their extremist interpretation of Enlightenment the new atheists do not take from this what I think Taylor does, namely that science opens up new options for belief that include atheism as well as restructured traditional religions (e.g. theism) and entirely new faith structures (e.g. new age religion). Rather, new atheists insist that ‘science is not simply another worldview among others; it is the worldview, the one that breaks the spell of our historically conditioned “need” to believe in God’ (p. 135). In this they line up with their religious fundamentalist nemeses in an inflexible assertion of epistemic absolutism. Indeed, they even adopt the stance of ‘the minority outside, ironically paralleling the tactics and patterns … of American Evangelicals’ (pp. 135-6), even adopting the term ‘brights’ in preference to ‘atheists.’ This merely serves to underline their status as an elitist and embattled minority struggling to resist the much greater forces of evil arrayed against them. For Borer, their scientism is their new religion and Darwin their patron saint. And, of course, he identifies the paradox of the new atheist definition of secularization: their very presence in undertaking this war against religion is evidence that the latter is very much still a strong presence and an attractive option for a huge number of people seeking to make sense of the world (p. 137).
Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith contextualize the minority status of new atheism in the United States in terms of the scepticism and at times open hostility to atheism that has historically characterized American society with a specific emphasis on how atheism is represented in the media (especially the internet and social networking). The self-perception of the proponents of new atheism that it is an embattled island of reason in a sea of irrationality has been heightened by a definite sense of an anti-atheist bias in the mainstream media (p. 151). There is even evidence of an ambivalent reaction to their writings within the established American secularist and atheist community (pp. 141-6). However, for Cimino and Smith the confidence with which Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett have proclaimed these ‘taboo’ beliefs in their books and media fora in the face of such ingrained opposition and scepticism has had significant socio-cultural implications for atheism in terms of consciousness-raising and atheist and humanist identity-formation. It is not so much that new atheism has helped to convert formally religious people to atheism as that it has encouraged pre-existent atheists to have more confidence in expressing their beliefs in such a religious society, especially by exposing just how widespread discrimination and hostility to atheism is in the US. But Cimino and Smith identify that alongside these positives for new atheism sits the irony that, participating so visibly in electronic media (especially internet media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) that blur the line between traditional spheres of public and private, Dawkins and co. are threatening to undermine their own objective of keeping religion out of the public sphere. Rather than protecting the principles of public reason gleaned from the Enlightenment from the private realm, where free rein may be given to emotional and irrational forms of belief, new atheism may in fact be having the reverse effect (p. 153).
Additionally, Cimino and Smith argue that this consciousness-raising goes well beyond a concern for mere equal rights as evidenced in the aggressive evangelicalism of the new atheist polemic (p. 154). It seems that this risks divorcing the movement from secular humanist values by dissolving atheism into precisely the kind of Nietzschean will-to-power nihilism we noted above. It seems that we can also detect this weakness in the movement in the position taken up by the likes of Dawkins and Harris on the issue of religious education. Jeff Nall undertakes a comparative study of atheist and Christian parenting literature. He focuses particularly on new atheist and what he calls ‘revolutionary Christian’ (essentially evangelical) approaches (p. 184). What unites both disparate groups is their failure to live up to the stated aims clearly evident in wider (i.e. more moderate) atheistic/humanistic and Christian approaches of instilling a due sense of humility into children. This is humility towards the universe, in the case of atheism, and God, in the case of Christianity. The failure of the extremes stems directly from their respective epistemic absolutisms. In the case of new atheism, Nall focuses particularly on the accusation levelled by Dawkins (2006) and Hitchens (2007) that the religious instruction of children is nothing short of child abuse (pp. 191-2). Instead, a child’s education should be based entirely on the essentially scientistic idea that it is only scientists who are competent authorities on matters of truth. One detects in Nall’s discussion a critique of the empiricism and positivism that sustains new atheism, viz. that our conceptions of the truth are not self-axiomatizing but contain ‘inescapably subjective qualities’ (p. 192). These epistemological failings explain the general absence of a democratic pluralist spirit in new atheist discourse, in common with its evangelical Christian adversary. Recognition of democratic pluralist principles would be an important step in overcoming the paradox in both movements of promoting values of humility, courage in their awareness of being outside mainstream opinion and tolerance, while adopting epistemological positions that are more likely to engrain the value of slavish obedience.
New Atheism, Science, and Naturalism
Steve Fuller questions whether new atheism can regard itself as compatible with a consistently atheistic interpretation of science at all. He distinguishes between Atheism (capital ‘A’) and atheism. The latter is the result of the Enlightenment appropriation of theological rationality, the attempt to ‘recast theology for scientific purposes’ (p. 64), which has resulted in secular humanism, among whose principal adherents, Fuller argues, are Enlightenment Deism, Hegelian and Feuerbachian humanism and even Comtean ‘post-Catholic positivist religion’ (p. 63). As such, ‘atheism … retains all the key metaphysical assumptions of monotheism—including eschatology, soteriology, and theodicy’ (p. 63). Atheists, on the other hand, ‘give up the theological game entirely; they do not continue trying to draw the rational wheat from the superstitious chaff of religion’ (p. 63). For Fuller, the new atheists are ‘merely dumbed-down versions of Hegel and Comte’ (p. 64) (i.e. atheists with a small ‘a’), demonstrated in Dawkins’s adaptation of the theistic ‘design’ metaphor in his conception of nature as a ‘blind watchmaker.’ The kind of atheism Dawkins embraces is one infused with the ‘crypto-theological’ (p. 66) zeal that humanity has within its grasp a complete understanding of reality against which our ‘progress’ as a species can be measured. There is a distinctly utopian thread that energizes Dawkins’s insistence that science alone can provide the answers to humanity’s most pressing concerns. This is the engine that sustains science as he understands it, not as residue of a monotheistic ethic, but in evolutionary terms, as ‘the means whereby organisms transform the environment to their reproductive advantage’ (p. 69).
There is an inconsistency here for Fuller. On the one hand, the scientific desire to conquer disease and famine and the technological advances in medicine and agriculture (for example) that have resulted can be explained in these terms—the maximization of our selective advantage. But Fuller contends that to think in these terms is not strictly Darwinian. Darwin’s own opinions suggest a much greater scepticism about the utopian potential of appropriating natural selection for humanitarian purposes. As he lost touch with his early Christian roots, Darwin increasingly came to espouse the view that there was nothing particularly distinctive about humanity in natural history. That is, he began to see humans as ‘just one amongst many animal species destined for extinction’ (p. 71), what Fuller describes as Atheism—a form of non-belief that is shorn of utopian humanistic ‘crypto-theist[ic]’ (p. 76) origins in the Enlightenment.
Accordingly, it is Atheism that removes the ‘Abrahamic scaffolding of secular humanism … in pursuit of a consistently Darwinian ethic’ (p. 74), an ethic which ‘appreciates the full measure of human self-restraint that would be demanded were we to live consistently Darwinian lives’ (p. 73). This echoes the call of Peter Singer for an ethic de-coupled from the humanist moorings of atheism, where we acknowledge our unremarkable existence in nature and our morality consists less of superiority over other species and more of responsibility not to use our cognitive capacity to disrupt the natural ecological system. To be sure, when practised, this ‘strict species egalitarianism’ (p. 76) has rarely appealed to scientists, mostly because its strict application more often than not would discourage scientific activity (e.g. research into intensive agricultural activity to alleviate natural famine). Indeed, it is the new atheist’s ‘secular version of the theological justification of science’ (p. 76) that has sustained science and the humanistic desires that lie behind it. Atheistic Darwinian ethics therefore cannot explain why science is so popular and we invest so much financial and emotional energy in its success.
That this ethic is not a feature of the new atheist agenda has been aptly demonstrated by Daniel Dennett’s ascription of irreducible intentionality to human cognitive capacities (the beliefs, hopes and desires that lie behind agency) which he calls ‘intentional systems.’ It seems that an adequate understanding of our motivations to ‘do’ science relies on taking an emergentist approach to human consciousness whereby an underlying humanist ethic that pre-dates the secular and atheist revolutions can be identified and defended as irreducible to straightforward genetic structures of our current state of species evolution. Emergentism explains the persistence of the ‘Abrahamic scaffolding’ regardless of whether science is elaborated within theistic or atheistic paradigms and may indeed help us understand how much of the impetus for some of our most important scientific discoveries (especially those in the so-called ‘dark ages’) occurred firmly within an explicitly theistic philosophical setting.
The problem that I see with acknowledging this as the ethic sustaining the scientific enterprise is that it is incomplete (at least as Fuller represents it) in the sense that as it stands it still leaves the door open to socio-biological readings of cognition. This is evidenced, for example, in Dennett’s and Dawkins’s own rather curious concept of the ‘meme’—cultural replicators analogous to gene replicators that human beings use to adapt to their environment in ways additional to simple genetic mutation. Their intellectual capacities are such that—via technology and sophisticated social organization such as language—they can imagine new ways of interacting with the world around them. Invoking his famous ‘cranes’ metaphor to explain Darwinian evolutionary processes for all species, Dennett identifies memes as evidence of the irreducibility and special status of human consciousness when he says that ‘we now have cranes of more general power than the cranes of any other species.’ The problem is that I don’t think that this is enough to distinguish atheistic from Atheistic ethics because this recognition of our cognitive uniqueness is compatible with the strict species egalitarianism that Singer calls for. Recognition of our capacity for ‘memes’ may just be all the more reason for us not to utilize them in ways that are to the detriment of other species. We should refrain from conceptualizing our cognitive capacities and their implications for culture in terms of an abstract theory that reduces the immense complexities of the phenomenon to what is nothing more than an abstract analogy of genetic replication and transmission. What makes humanity genuinely unique, rather, is that cultural values and norms arise as the result of a profoundly dialectical and concrete interaction of biological, psychological, social anthropological, political and economic factors. This would require, in particular, investigations into the role of praxis in the evolution and emergence of human species-powers and posit labour activity as the basis of an intra-action with nature that is truly unique to the species. These species powers are, in short, both emergent from and a key causal ingredient of the environment in which we live. Once grasped in this way, we can move beyond the rather reductionist view that human cognition is merely the product of our adaption to a purely external physical environment upon which the Atheistic ethic is based.
Dawkins has attempted to draw out some of the ethical implications of his concept of the meme by linking it to what is known as ‘out-group altruism’ (OGA)—helping those who do not belong to one’s own ‘group’ without expectation of benefit or reward. Gregory Peterson’s chapter contests the new atheist assertion that religion does not support this fact about human behaviour and indeed can be antithetical to it. He argues that Dawkins’s reliance on memes is due to an admission that ‘biological explanation has reached its limits’ (p. 167) and is little more than a rhetorical device to retain the explanatory primacy of biological evolution in relation to OGA, when perhaps he would be better employed looking for alternative explanations for this type of behaviour. As Peterson correctly points out, the scientific evidence in support of the idea that OGA can be accounted for in terms of the new atheist interpretation of Darwinian theory is, to put it mildly, shaky (pp. 164-9). Far from the link between atheism and OGA being necessary it is, rather, contingent (p. 172). But he argues that this counts against the philosophical naturalist and materialist position itself, whereas it seems to me that it merely counts against Dawkins’s and Dennett’s abstract and reductionist variant of it.
Petersen goes further than merely pointing to the weaknesses of new atheist morality by presenting the Lockean argument that OGA may indeed depend on a theistic ethical framework (pp. 172-4). Focusing on Christianity in particular, he argues that if we take an interpretive reading of scripture rather than ‘woodenly applying isolated biblical texts shorn of context to contemporary moral issues’ (p. 173), we can head off the new atheist criticism that the Bible is an immoral anachronism that is utterly at odds with superior and morally defensible secularism. The interpretive framework he suggests is based on the primacy, not of the text itself, but of the person of Christ. It is here that we encounter the manifestation of OGA—Christ’s overriding concern for other people (p. 174). Moreover, Petersen hypothesizes that it is this organic connection between Christianity and a concern for the well-being of others without any calculation of possible benefit or reward that explains why OGA is a persistent feature of the cultural milieu that supports even secularist and atheistic perspectives. (One presumes that its presence in non-Christian cultures can be explained in terms of the hold alternative religious philosophies have there.) Once again we see, I think, the presence of the Abrahamic scaffolding—in so far as OGA is present within new atheist morality it is due to its humanistic crypto-theological inheritance rather than a consistent Darwinism. In short, if we are to search for an explanation for OGA by restricting ourselves to philosophical naturalism we will be disappointed.
I am troubled by such a conclusion because, just as with Fuller, Petersen is presuming that a consistent philosophical naturalism involves the sort of species- egalitarian Darwinism advocated by Singer. But there are plenty of examples of naturalist-materialist philosophies that are perfectly consistent and yet are thoroughly humanistic. A Darwinian-Marxian interpretive framework and its concomitant theory of praxis, for example, would have no trouble incorporating OGA into it; indeed such a theory of human behaviour is absolutely central to it. The uniquely human physical environment that is created by praxis means that we experience selective evolutionary pressures on our survival that are themselves uniquely human. The species powers that are emergent from this environment have the capacity to react back on the physical and biological evolutionary processes that give rise to them. Dawkins’s abstract meme may, by virtue of its abstractive and idealist character, attract accusations of departing from a consistent materialist and naturalist position, but I cannot see how the Marxian approach could be likewise accused. Where the new atheists are abstract and idealist, Marx is concrete. He and Engels make clear the distinction with the memetic approach to materialism in The German Ideology when they say of abstract ideas,
[m]orality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness … no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.
The Darwinian implications for historical materialism are perhaps best explored in Engels’s ‘The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man.’ OGA was part of co-operative forms of labour that emerged due to the selective advantage of evolving increasingly sophisticated forms of speech in order to deal with the challenges nature presented to our earliest ancestors in securing their conditions of subsistence. Co-operative economics went hand-in-hand with socialized modes of food distribution because the latter reinforced social and communal ties necessary for the efficient working of the hunter-gatherer system.
With Marx and Engels, therefore, OGA, far from requiring innovative theories that weaken one’s materialist and naturalist credentials (as the new atheist approach surely does), can be rendered fully compatible with Darwinism and indeed seen as essential to how it can account for the evolution of the human species. Nor does this mean that in adopting such an approach we should shy away from accepting the tag ‘crypto-theological’ in the materialist humanism that it involves. It is perfectly possible to acknowledge that the ethics of OGA have historically manifested themselves to our conscious minds most clearly in religious terms. Such an acknowledgement is surely important to Marxist philosophers like Ernst Bloch, who accordingly wish to protect religious tradition because of its essentially humanist utopian content.40 Revering the links between OGA and religious ethics does not mean we have to depart one inch from a thorough-going Darwinian and naturalist position.
In general I found Religion and the New Atheism a compelling and comprehensive account of the numerous approaches to the criticism of religion that new atheism offers. The books of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are not written with academic and intellectual rigour in mind but as a means of presenting the case for radical Enlightenment atheism to a lay audience. This lack of intellectual rigour has made the key themes of these writings vulnerable to academic critique and I think that this collection of essays has undertaken this task effectively and informatively, although I am far from being in total agreement with many of their arguments. It this sense, this book is long overdue and will be required reading for all of those who wish to see scholarly engagement with the implications that new atheism has for a whole range of disciplines that touch on the issue of religion and religious belief.