Since 9/11 there has been a growing body of literature testifying to the detrimental effects of religious faith; equally, there is now an ever increasing chorus of voices devoted to saying - that it aint so: that religion is rather benign; that it isn’t a wellspring of human ignorance, superstition and intolerance; furthermore, these defenders of dogma charge the “New Atheists” of “intolerance”, “damaging science” and, incredibly, fuelling religious mania.
Religious apologists generally come in two stripes: the deeply religious themselves; and the religious/agnostic or “woolly minded, secular liberals”. An example of the first kind would be someone like William Lane Craig or Dinesh De Souza; the latter, consisting of: Terry Eagleton, Karen Armstrong, Madeline Bunting, Robert Winston, and, finally, the new kids on the block - Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney. It is, this latter “troupe” that I will be reviewing here. Admittedly, among the people I mentioned, there is diversity of opinion, but I would argue that we can safely ignore this. The criticism they make generally pertain to three lines of thinking: that the New Atheists have caricatured religious faith; that they misuse science for their own ideological purposes; and that they are every bit as fundamentalist as they people they criticise.
Firstly, lets take this charge of caricaturing religion. This comes down to two specific charges: that they widely misrepresent the texts of the Bible and the Koran; that they exaggerate the numbers of people who believe in things like virgin births, angels, and the belief in the sacredness of martyrdom. There can be little doubt that the God of the Old Testament or the Koran is not a moderate- self described as a “jealous” “wrathful” male - yes male - who engages in a fair bit of “ethic cleansing”, advocates slavery when not smiting people for heresy, who floods the world in anger when his new toy displeases him. In the two thousands years or so since these barbarism were first set down - many, it would seem, think that God has somehow evolved - tracking, rather suspiciously, the moral progress we have made in the time say - since we thought it was acceptable to stone a woman on her fathers doorstep for not being a virgin on her wedding night. Many, mistakenly, have thought that Jesus did away with all this absurdity and cruelty; nothing, however, could be further from the truth, early on Jesus “states” that every “jot” of the law shall be fulfilled. Indeed, on many occasions Jesus preaches that unbelievers are heading for hell “the burning lake of fire”, the sinfulness of adultery and divorce - yes, divorce, a decree that almost everyone - including Catholics (in their moral “backsliding” ignores. ) Finally, the latter books of the bible prophesy a angry Jesus - returned to judge the living and the dead - raining down wrath on the unbelievers and unrighteous.
One could go on with such examples - Paul railing against homosexuality, endorsing slavery, telling women to obey their husbands and keep quiet at the back of the church. If we were to listen though to religious apologists like Eagleton, all this does not matter: “God created the world for “love and delight”; Karen Armstrong, presumably after endorsing the “apophatic” tradition would state that we can say “nothing” on religious questions - that we practice “negative theology”. This now, is where theory meets practice, where religious obscurantism meets intellectual dishonesty. How many American Christians believe the statement: “we cannot say anything of God”. How many Muslims, at the very least, don’t believe that the Koran and the Hadith are best guide we have to living through this veil of tears? How many Christians - don’t think that faith in Jesus will someone save them and not others - lifting them up to a celestial paradise after death? Not many, not many at all, and that is the only honest answer that one can give.
Let me be charitable. Lets say, for the sake of argument, that the theologians are right, that God is some disinterested “entity” the “ground of all being”, that the Bible and the Koran has been greatly, vastly misinterpreted, it would not subtract - not a “jot” - from the fact that millions of our credulous neighbours believe the preposterous. A Harris poll taken in 2007 showed that “79 percent of Americans believed in miracles”, belief in hell and the devil got a confident 62 percent, belief in the theory of evolution limped in at 42 percent. A few years ago, the British newspaper The Telegraph conducted an ICM poll which found that four out of ten British Muslims wish to see Sharia Law in the UK, a footnote to this cheery finding was that twenty percent had “sympathy” with the July 7 bombers. Consider, finally, this nugget from a Pew poll on Islamic extremism, while it reported that support for terrorism and violence had decreased, many still had love in their hearts for Bin Laden and the aspirations of Al Qaeda:
In Indonesia, the public is now about evenly split with 35% saying they place at least some confidence in bin Laden and 37% saying they have little or none, a major loss of confidence from the 58% to 36% split recorded in May 2003. Among Indonesians, confidence in the Al Qaeda leader is lower among older citizens but is higher among the more affluent. Among those ages 18-34, 39% express a lot or some confidence in bin Laden compared with less than a third of those 35 and over. However, while only 32% of people in the bottom income tier have confidence in bin Laden, 37% of middle-income and 42% of higher-income people do so.
In only two countries, Pakistan and Jordan, has support for the Al Qaeda leader increased. In Pakistan, slightly more than half now place a lot or some confidence in bin Laden, an increase from the 45% who said so in 2003. Among Pakistanis, gender is a significant dividing line with nearly two-in-three men (65%) reporting a lot or some confidence in bin Laden, compared with 36% of women.
While this does show an improvement, and is encouraging, it is hardly grounds for stable optimism nor benign international relations; moreover, it does attest well to the fallacious notion that Islam is a religion hijacked by a few oddball Jihadists. It may even - be plausibly argued that, except in the countries were conflict takes place, the willingness to use force as a counter-measure to terrorism may lead to falling levels of support for terror in worldwide Muslim communities.
The ability to criticise bad ideas - about ethics, about beliefs about the world, about the nature and order of human relationships, using robust intellectual argument, is, when applied to religion - considered disrespectful, coarse and unproductive. In particular, critics of religion has been accused of prostituting science in conducting a holy war against fundamentalists. The most recent advocates are Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book: Unscientific America. Mooney and Kirshenbaum accuse the New Atheists of unnecessary confrontation; asking “must science conduct a holy war against religion” appearing to endorse NOMA and the National Academy of Sciences position who believe that “science and religion can be perfectly compatible”. Many others, have over the years endorsed this position: that religion and science ask and answer different questions, that science cannot say nothing on matters religious, that scientists are wedded to an a priori naturalism and so will not, in principle, consider things like raising the dead, walking on water or transforming water into wine under the purview of scientific rationality.
These positions, while philosophically, scientifically and intellectually indefensible, are held, though somewhat naively - for laudable reasons. I doubt the likes of Moony and Kirshenbaum are pleased (as their book shows) with the abysmal state of ignorance that Americans are languishing in; but the mistake they make, is thinking that science is just another belief system - that simply contains a body of facts about the world we live in. Though it is surely this, science is much much more. Mooney’s goal seems to be thus: lets try and be nice and persuade a few moderate folk to accept Darwin; lets also say nothing too bad or offensive - case the ignorant mob get together and start burning down science laboratories.
Religion and science is however, intrinsically opposed to one another. It is opposed for three chief reasons: religion relies on authority and science rejects authority in favour of questioning assumptions; religion relies on private feelings, geographical and subjective particularity, science however is universal and committed to objectivity; religion holds beliefs on the basis of faith and dogma, science will test and test again its hypothesises and will invite criticism and comment and adjusts itself accordingly. While Moony might be forgiven for trying to play nice with religious folk -as urgent action is needed on the question of climate charge (which they vehemently deny), it is, however, intellectually dishonest and morally negligible to simply lie to these people; to condescend to them and treat them as children. As Sam Harris recently pointed out, the New Atheists take their beliefs seriously; and yes, the baby will have to be thrown out with the bathwater: faith will need to go the way of slavery, torture, belief in witches, and a flat earth before we can begin to make moral and social progress on the ever growing litany of problems that our species face.
The silliest criticism that has been levelled at the New Atheists is that they are every bit as intolerant, fundamentalist and militant as the people they criticize. As one columnist for the FT wrote recently - this charge ought to be laughed out of existence. Firstly, lets deal with the charge of dogmatism. To hold beliefs dogmatically, means that you hold them - whatever happens - regardless of the reasons or evidence that goes against it. How many times have we all heard religious people say something like “I am absolutely certain and there is nothing that would change my mind” - if anyone can produce a similar statement made by the New Atheists - I will happily eat their books.
As to the charge to militancy: I cannot better Timothy Garton Ash, who also found the phrase amusing and mistaken - When someone like Richard Dawkins begins to brew bombs from an Oxford lab - then yes, the charge sticks. When was the last time their was an atheist riot over a insult or perceived slight? When was the last time an atheist blew himself up in the cause of spreading atheism? Indeed, when was the last time a secular humanist wanted to burn people to death over such a serious problem as theological disagreement?
The Philosopher AC Grayling, in a brilliantly concise and elegant passages, sums up the position of science; the New Atheists position; and as well, shoots down one or two spurious positions that I have been covering here.
“…any view of the world (atheism/methodological naturalism) which does not premise such belief. Any view of the world which does not premise the existence of something super-natural is a philosophy, or a theory, or at worst an ideology. If it is either of the two first, at its best it proportions what it accepts to the evidence for accepting it, knows what would refute it, and stands ready to revise itself in the light of new evidence. This is the essence of science. It comes as no surprise that no wars have been fought, pogroms carried out, or burnings conducted at the stake, over rival theories in biology or astrophysics.”
And in a final flourish-
“And one can grant the word “fundamental” does after all apply to this: in the phrase “fundamentally sensible”.”
It is not the New Atheists then, who are doing a disservice to science or civil society by drawing attention to superstition, bigotry, and bronze age stupidity. Rather, it is the religious apologists themselves - by providing a cloak of respectability, by obfuscating on the historical and philosophical antagonisms between religion and science; it is they who are offering a patently false and misleading picture of what religion is and how it is practiced by the faithful. They are dangerously mistaken. It is time we put our cards on the table; it is time we acknowledged, that yes, we are still hugely ignorant of all the mysteries that this universe contains, that a proper scientific and rational approach to ethics is only beginning; that there is a place for such things as mysticism and spiritual practice, as well as such human basics as community, co-operation and fraternity. These insights, into the moral and scientific landscape however, will be gained in the present, through the fruits of experiment, philosophy and personal reflection. There is no reason, no reason what so ever, to think that scripture written thousands of years ago - by men - ignorant of such basic knowledge that would make an eight year old blush - contain - the great and ultimate truths; the best way to live; and the best way to develop a global, interconnected hyper-community. The sooner we all realise this grotesque marriage of fear, ignorance, dishonesty and credulity that is religion, that cheapens and diminishes human life, the better.