The New Atheists

The cliché goes that atheism is a form of theism; Tina Beattie writes:

A professor of theology (Denys Turner) tells of how he makes a bet with his students that, if they can tell him why they do not believe in God, he will tell them which Christian denomination they were brought up in. He says he usually wins the bet.

I’d love to make that bet with Turner: being a liberal atheist born to liberal atheists, I suspect it’d be easy money for me. (Admittedly my great-grandfather was a Glaswegian missionary, and I’ve always regretted that he died before I was born.) But in this critique of the ‘New Atheists’ Beattie often treats unbelief the way that Turner apparently does: as an immature reaction, like the bourgeois teenager painting her bedroom black.

Thus: ‘the God that Richard Dawkins does not believe in may be the God of his own childhood experience, as the son of affluent colonial middle-class parents who gave him ‘a normal Anglican upbringing’ and sent him to an English public school from an early age.’ Christopher Hitchens is also slung onto Beattie’s couch: ‘Those who have witnessed Hitchens grumping and growling his way through an interview or public lecture may detect just a distant echo of a man made in the image of the God he rejects.’

These ersatz psychological ruminations sit well in a book that attacks the New Atheists for who they are rather than what they say. Beattie approvingly quotes Terry Eagleton’s description of Dawkins as ‘a readily identifiable kind of English liberal rationalist… one can be reasonably certain that he would not be Europe’s greatest enthusiast for Foucault, psychoanalysis, agitprop, Dadaism, anarchism or separatist feminism.’ Boring old Richard Dawkins, with his boring evolutionary biology and boring Oxford professorship. Yes, Dawkins’s atheism ‘belongs to a specific cultural context’ and Beattie takes care to discuss only those thinkers in that same cultural context of rich white males: Hitchens, Sam Harris, A C Grayling, Dan Dennett, and, for good measure, the novelists Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. McEwan’s novel Saturday is contrasted with Zadie Smith’s On Beauty in this way: ‘The author of life as a black postcolonial woman, perhaps, rather than as a white establishment Englishman.’

Man is the operative word. Beattie criticises the ‘testosterone-charged nature of this debate… this perennial stag-fight between men of Big Ideas.’ As an example of the aggressively masculine nature of the New Atheism she quotes Johann Hari, who said admiringly that Christopher Hitchens ‘can still intellectually get it up.’ Her sole other piece of evidence for the male-dominated nature of the faith debate is…a review on Amazon which describes a text questioning religion as ‘a smart, ballsy book.’ Well, if Beattie finds the New Atheism a bit of a boys’ club, can I point her in the direction of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasrin, Mina Ahadi, and our very own Ophelia Benson? All are kickass unbelieving feminist babes, but Beattie does not allude to them in her book: perhaps because their inclusion would disrupt her thesis that atheism is a fad of upper-class imperialist males.

For, yes, Beattie bends over backwards to entwine rationality with colonialism:

While European nations were on an adventure to conquer the world and to superimpose Western civilisation on ‘savage’ and ‘darkened’ cultures, European thinkers were on a no less ambitious venture to conquer the human mind and superimpose their version of science and reason on the dark intellectual legacy of religion and superstition.

You can see where this is going and sure enough, later in the book we get a long chapter on Iraq, with an attempt to tie the New Atheists into the New Imperialism. Hang on: only Christopher Hitchens actually supports the war; other prominent nonbelievers like Dawkins and Grayling are fierce critics of the Bush administration. No matter: ‘the relentless assault’ by atheists on religion ‘may contribute to this climate of indifference to the deaths of Muslims.’ Beattie apparently subscribes to the Tinkerbell Phenomenon: every time we say we don’t believe in Islam, a Muslim somewhere dies!

Never mind the fact that actual imperialists followed Harry Flashman’s credo: ‘Don’t monkey with the local gods; it don’t pay.’ Or as Caroline Fourest put it: ‘During the colonial period, the occupying nations rarely modified the habits of the occupied countries. They maintained most traditional provisions in the name of that cultural differentiation.’ You’d think, wouldn’t you, that someone who throws the word ‘imperialism’ around so recklessly would take the trouble to read about the subject.

I’ve been harsh on Tina Beattie in this review and so I must say that she gives fascinating accounts of the histories of science and religion. She is smart, subtle and can write lyrically on art, mystery and the universe: she is certainly correct in saying that mankind is essentially pans narrans, the storytelling ape. As a feminist theologian she is aware of the suffering experienced by vast numbers of women in Muslim cultures; she damns the sexual apartheids of the Islamic world.

There’s a sense, too, that Beattie is aware of the contradictions of her own position: a feminist defending belief systems that, indirectly or not, condemn the female gender to a slow lifetime of oppression. But Beattie consistently takes the wrong side: ‘Some Muslim scholars such as Tariq Ramadan have called for a reformation in Islam similar to that which transformed Christianity in the sixteenth century,’ she writes approvingly. Any ‘reform’ imagined by the fundamentalist reactionary Tariq Ramadan does not, to be honest, bear thinking about – for Muslims or anyone. Why not consult genuine reformist Muslims like Irshad Manji or Ed Husain?

When I used the Peter Pan analogy just now, I wasn’t exaggerating. For in Beattie’s world:

The assault on religion by a clique of Western polemicists risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in its labelling of religion as violent and extremist, for it is stoking the fires of resentment at a time of global volatility when, for many of the world’s people, religious faith holds out the only possibility of living a meaningful and dignified life.

Don’t you know these poor savages need their delusions? How dare you Western rationalists take away their toys! Seriously, though, I wonder if Beattie has ever considered that problems for people in the developing world stem from too much religion: too much faith, and not enough of anything else.

The New Atheists, Tina Beattie, Darton, Longman and Todd (reprinted 2008)

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