Bunting pulls out the ‘new atheist’ file yet again

Another consignment of rebarbative truculent inaccurate wool from Madeleine Bunting. About…? The Vatican’s petulant cries of ‘petty gossip’ in response to revelations of its settled habit of concealing and protecting child rape? No. The ‘new’ atheists – that’s what’s got her worked up: the endless unappeasable horror of the ‘new’ atheists. Their wrongness. Their violence. Their ignorance. Their deafness to the overwhelming arguments of Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton.

…in the years since the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 2006 and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great in 2007, there has been an addition every few weeks from enraged philosophers, theologians, historians and journalists, all trying to convince readers of the shoddiness of the New Atheists.

Indeed there has. There has been, in fact, a reaction; there has been a classic backlash. There has been a prolific, energetic, often very hostile and very inaccurate backlash. Bunting herself is a part of it – she has written piece after petulant piece complaining of the ‘new’ atheists. This is another. She is part of the very loud and populous chorus trying to convince readers of the shoddiness of the shoddiness of the ‘new’ atheists. They could all be right, of course, but the mere fact that they exist doesn’t show that they are right. The wild inaccuracy that so many of them resort to tends to make me think they aren’t right, at least in their overarching assumption that there is something obviously illegitimate about explicit argumentative atheism. Bunting of course takes this assumption entirely for granted.

Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens convey the fury of Old Testament prophets, while their opponents struggle in various well-mannered ways to contain theirs.

Ohhhhhhh no they don’t. Bunting doesn’t, for one. Chris Hedges doesn’t for another. Eagleton doesn’t.

And then, what reason do they have for fury anyway? Why should two or three or four atheist books fill so many people with such fury? Bunting doesn’t say – she just assumes it, because as mentioned she assumes that there is something obviously illegitimate about explicit argumentative atheism.

From my rough survey I would suggest those with philosophical training are the most irritated by New Atheism, while the journalists seem to enjoy the opportunities the row provides…What staggers the “philosophers” (I use the term loosely to indicate writers who use philosophical arguments) is the sheer philosophical illiteracy of Dawkins. As Terry Eagleton puts it in Reason, Faith and Revolution…

Stop right there. Eagleton is in no sense as writer who uses philosophical arguments. Eagleton doesn’t argue at all, he simply announces. There is no argument in his book. I looked for it; it isn’t there. Bunting was fooled, as she was meant to be, by Eagleton’s unearned air of omniscience.

Faced with such ignorance of centuries of philosophical thought, there are two options. Either start from the beginning – Charles Taylor’s 800-page A Secular Age or Karen Armstrong’s speed history of western thought, The Case for God – or go for clever brevity, elegantly skewering the argument in the style of Eagleton or John Cornwell’s Darwin’s Angel. The problem with both genres is they don’t offer the kind of bestselling strident certainty that brought Dawkins such handsome financial rewards.

What such ignorance of centuries of philosophical thought? Bunting hasn’t shown us any, she has only asserted it. And as for strident certainty – what, exactly, does she think she is offering in this piece and the rest of her body of work? And then the snide remark about Dawkins’s book sales, as if they too were obviously illegitimate.

She gives us several more paragraphs of warmed-over Armstrong, and finishes by rejoicing that God is being discussed again. (Because there was a time, pre-Dawkins, when God wasn’t discussed? Has she visited the religion section of any bookstores lately? Some of the rows upon rows of books there pre-date 2006.) Then she gets savaged by CisF readers.

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