I hear their hooves in the distance

There are a couple of other things that bother me about Julian’s ‘new atheism’ article.

One is that he says his opinions ‘are not so much about these books as the general tone and direction the new atheism they represent has adopted. This is not a function of what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived, and the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews’ but then he doesn’t provide a very clear account of how the ‘four horsemen’ are perceived and the kind of comments they make. He discusses ‘the new atheism’ without ever really pinning down for the reader what he takes that to be – so we’re left just vaguely assuming we know what he means because it’s probably more or less like what everyone else means…Well you can see that that’s not very satisfactory. Who is everyone else? What does everyone else mean? Is it really what Julian also means? That’s never clear, at least not to me. And since the subject of the article is why the supposed new atheists are wrong, there surely is some responsibility to specify and show what they have said, at least in outline. That’s especially true given the admission that the article is about them and their views but not about their books. I’m not absolutely sure that Julian would like being discussed in such terms himself.

There are a few brief quotations, rather late in the article, but we don’t know where they’re from, and they’re so brief it’s hard to be confident that they’re representative. And then there’s the bit about the title of the tv show…

Richard Dawkins, for example, presented a television programme on religion called The Root of all Evil and has as his website slogan “A clear thinking oasis”. Where is the balance and modesty in such rhetoric?

I agree about the website: that slogan has always made me cringe. (I need to change the subtitle of B&W, too. It has the same whiff of self-congratulation, of thinking nonsense is always the property of someone else.) But the title of the tv show had a question mark at the end, and besides that, Dawkins didn’t choose it and in fact tried to resist it. Julian knows very well that authors don’t always get to choose their titles, because he chooses the titles at TPM! Editor’s privilege. He also knows it because he doesn’t always get to choose his own titles. Why in fact…

Now really, people, there’s no need to be so vitriolic! (Not all of you, but a good many) A little internal dissent is no bad thing, is it? I should say that the headline was not mine and nor did I even see it before publication, and I think it does rather overstate the content.

What’s that, where’s it from? Why, it’s Julian, commenting at the Dawkins site on the reaction to his article. Cough.

The other thing has to do with this bit –

I also think the new atheism tends to get religion wrong. The focus is always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, its belief in personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the religious do indeed believe in such things. Indeed, I’m on the record as accusing liberal theologians of hiding behind their less literalist interpretations, and pretending that matters of creed don’t really matter at all. However, there is much more to religion to the metaphysics.

But the focus is not always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, as he would know if he had read (or even skimmed) the books, and it’s really not very fair to refuse to read the books and then go right ahead and misrepresent ‘the new atheism’ just the same.

It’s not that I completely disagree. There are parts of Hitchens’s book that wearied even me, and Dawkins does occasionally tip over into rudeness (the time he talked about a woman having a stupid face, for instance), and Sam Harris is too fond of the word ‘spiritual’ for my taste. But there is no shortage of people criticizing ‘the new atheists’ (another fact which Julian rather overlooks), for good reasons and bad ones; I think any new work in that field should be at least careful to be accurate.

39 Responses to “I hear their hooves in the distance”