Wassup with ‘the new atheism’?

Julian wrote a piece arguing that the ‘new atheist movement’ is destructive. It got linked at Dawkins’s site where commenters greeted it with intemperate hostility – until Russell Blackford posted a comment informing them that Julian isn’t actually as wicked as all that, which calmed things down a little. Julian later commented too, pointing out with some justice that the intemperate hostility rather bore out his point.

I want to take issue with some things Julian said, however – though I will of course do so in a very reasonable and measured way.

He starts off by saying, with deliberate impudence, that he has an opinion about the four chief Newatheists, despite the fact that he has not read any of their books.

That does not, however, disqualify me from having an opinion about them. Let me defend both apparently intellectually disreputable confessions. Not reading The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith is perfectly reasonable. Why on earth would I devote precious reading hours to books which largely tell me what I already believe?

There’s a problem with that, as I (very civilly) pointed out on the Dawkins site. If Julian hasn’t read the books he can’t know that they largely tell him what he already believes. If he hasn’t read them he really can’t know what they tell him; he can’t know that they don’t tell him about facts or consequences or arguments that he hasn’t thought of. It’s not particularly reasonable simply to assume that they largely tell him what he already believes. That might be the case, but he can’t know that without at least skimming them.

In fact, I think atheists who have read these books have more of a responsibility to account for their actions than I do my inaction…God’s non-existence is a fact atheists live with, not something that they should obsessively read about.

But there may be (and I would say there are) implications to God’s non-existence and/or other people’s belief in God’s existence that are worth reading and thinking about. Just ignoring the whole issue is certainly one option, but it’s not self-evident that it’s the only reasonable option.

Hitchens goes so far as to explicitly say that “I am not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist.” This antitheism is for me a backwards step. It reinforces what I believe is a myth, that an atheist without a bishop to bash is like a fish without water. Worse, it raises the possibility that as a matter of fact, for many atheists, they do indeed need an enemy to give them their identity.

Does it? I don’t see why. It’s possible to be opposed to various things without depending on the things to give one an identity. I’m opposed to corn syrup in pasta sauce, but I don’t get my identity from that. I don’t even think about it, except when I’m looking at the ingredients list on a jar of pasta sauce, which is not very often.

But more important, it is necessary to be opposed to some things, even at the risk of getting part of one’s identity from that opposition. We’re all opposed to some things after all, and if that is part of our identity, well, so what? The issue is the quality, the rightness, of the opposition, not the mere fact of opposition.

The new atheism has also, I think, created an unhelpful climate for atheism to flourish. When people think of atheists now, they think about men who look only to science for answers, are dismissive of religion and over-confident in their own rightness.

Some people do, yes. But much of that is because ‘the new atheism’ gets misreported a lot and also gets scolded a lot, much the way Julian scolds it in this very piece. Furthermore, many other people don’t think of atheists that way but rather as refreshingly honest and unapologetic after years and years of tactful silence. What Julian fails to take into account, I think, is that many people long for a more uninhibited outspoken uncringing discussion of religion, and are pleased to get it. I think he overlooks the sense of liberation many people have gotten from the revival of explicit atheism.

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