‘New’ atheism chapter 27,439

Madeleine Bunting takes a minute to remind us how stunningly predictable, how jaw-droppingly selective, how risibly but irritatingly woolly she can be and pretty much always is.

Increasingly, one hears a distaste for the polemics of the New Atheist debate and its foghorn volume, and how it has drowned out any other kind of conversation about religion.

Does one? Does one not rather rush about attempting to create such a distaste one’s very own self? Much of this putative distaste comes from Bunting herself, so it’s a little sick-making to see her pretending to be too modest to mention her own energetic campaign. And then of course the drowning out is completely ridiculous – witness Bunting herself, and all the people she quotes, and Tony Faith Foundation Blair, and the archbishops and bishops filling the Telegraph with their complaints and the apologists of Islam filling the Guardian with their rationalizations – ‘drowned out’ indeed! Apparently she confuses addition with drowning out, and not being silenced and closeted any more with ‘foghorn volume.’ Apparently she thinks that religious conversation about religion should have undisputed monopoly of the discussion and thus interprets any disagreement as Much Too Loud and Drowning Out. Excuse my bluntness, but that is stupid.

Ask a philosopher like John Gray or a historian of religion like Karen Armstrong and they are simply not interested in the debate; they bin the invitations to speak on platforms alongside New Atheists. Gray dismisses them as offering “intoxicating simplicity”; Armstrong is appalled by their “display of egotism and arrogance”.

So she doesn’t mean a philosopher like John Gray or a historian of religion like Karen Armstrong, she means John Gray and Karen Armstrong – but putting it the way she did conveys an impression that there are lots of philosophers like John Gray and historians of religion like Karen Armstrong, without having to offer any. But the views of John Gray and Karen Armstrong are highly contested; neither is typical, and both are considered exceptionally tendentious.

Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths…”We need to get away from the endless discussion about wretched beliefs; religion is about doing – and what every faith makes clear is that the doing is about compassion,” she argues. To try and shift the debate about faith into more fruitful territory, Armstrong came up with the idea of a global Charter on Compassion for all faiths (and none), which she is drafting and planning to launch later in the year.

Yes, she argues that, and thus we can see how and why her views are so contested. That would be because it is nonsense, and vicious nonsense at that, to say that ‘what every faith makes clear is that the doing is about compassion.’ She can’t say that without simply blowing off what is happening in (you know the dreary list) Swat and Afghanistan and Brazil and Iraq and Nicaragua and Somalia and the list goes on. It’s just not true that every faith makes clear that the doing is about compassion.

At times of crisis – such as the economic recession – the brittleness of a value system built on wealth and a particular conception of autonomy becomes all too apparent, leaving people without the sustaining reserves of a faith to fall back on.

That’s interesting – she talks a lot of wool about compassion but when it comes to practice she resorts to insult, claiming that non-believers build their value system on wealth. That is both stupid and rude.

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