The New Atheism - Just Another Dogma?

Angus McLeay attended the 2011 Hegel Summer School and provides his thoughts on the presentations.

This event was run by the Hegel Summer School and was described as a critique of the New Atheism (NA) movement. A diverse group of people attended, including Christians, philosophers – professional and amateur, philosophy students and a significant number of humanists and atheists. Four presentations were given, lecture-style, followed by questions from the audience. Angus McLeay was there for CPX and here he considers three of the presentations in limited detail.

Deakin University PhD philosophy candidate, Petra Brown, gave the first presentation. Brown shared that upon reading the NA literature in preparation she initially wrote a scathing review. With her Dutch Reformed background she saw how NA had failed to grasp the actual nature of religion as a lived reality. Yet Brown rejected her first approach and instead presented an insightful analysis of the problems besetting the debate, which stem from human nature. She set a tone of warmth, honesty and humility that was inspiring.

Brown advanced the view that what she called ‘logos’, or cognitive systems, and ‘mythos’, or imagination and art, were equally important to being human. She argued that both the New Atheists and some religious traditions err by imposing logos over mythos, or what theologian John Haught has called ‘cognitional Puritanism’. Cognitional Puritanism functions to abstract truth from its embodied context and idolises truth in its propositional form. Brown illustrated this problem by comparing two very similar denunciations of religious imagery, one found in a passage by Christopher Hitchens, the other taken from the 16th century Reformer, John Calvin. She employed ancient Greek Orthodox theologians to illustrate the integration of logos and mythos. Brown suggested that the division between logos and mythos could be healed through humour and by affirming imagination, art, music and ritual.

In the second paper, Melbourne University Continental philosopher, Cameron Shingleton, took up the critical gauntlet left by Brown when he delivered a withering review of Richard Dawkins’, The God Delusion (Delusion). Shingleton’s presentation was as erudite as it was rhetorically incisive. The gist of his attack was that Dawkins claimed to be representing scientific and rational principles, but had abandoned those same principles in terms of philosophical argument.

While Shingleton praised Dawkins’ arguments against Intelligent Design as specific, rationally clear and evidence-based, he described the remainder of the book as a collection of speculative, half-developed and analytically unsound arguments. The problems with Delusion begin, Shingleton argued, when Dawkins grounds his major argument on faulty premises. Specifically, Dawkins limits religion to a variety which suits the type he wishes to attack. Dawkins dismisses all forms of religion which don’t suit his purposes. For example, Indian and Chinese religions are relegated to ‘sub-religious’ belief systems so they don’t cloud Dawkins’ preferred religious target. Delusion focuses on examples from ‘the boondocks of American Fundamentalist religion’, which leave the author, Shingleton said, “like a man in a state of quivering disbelief at being served a rubber chicken for dinner”. The latter chapters descend into a “chaotic atheist scree” on the level of a breathless College frat discussion”. In Shingleton’s words, Dawkins was someone who had stared so long into the abyss of religious evil that the abyss had begun staring back.

Part of Shingleton’s frustration with Dawkins was his view that rigorous philosophy would have done a far more thorough and complete job in critiquing religion than Dawkins’ hamfisted, inconsistent attempts.

Melbourne University philosopher Tamas Pataki was the only speaker I recognised prior to attending, so I was most eager to see his presentation. Perhaps my heightened expectation was partly to blame for my subsequent disappointment. Pataki devoted himself to a defense of NA. As defences go, it was uninspiring.

Pataki described the NA movement as a reaction to religiously-motivated violence and bigotry as seen in the September 11 attacks as well as a sense that the relationship between religion and politics under US President George W. Bush was threatening secular, democratic values. The New Atheists were, Pataki said, responding to a “fierce irrationalism” inherent in religion. Pataki gave examples of such irrationalism in Christianity from comments by televangelist Pat Robertson that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment from God, as well as young earth creationism. At its heart, said Pataki, the NA movement was opposing the intellectual and moral vices of religion.

It was a shame Pataki hadn’t been present for Shingleton’s critique of Dawkins because he emulated Dawkins’ flaws. Pataki’s analysis of religion was both un-scientific and philosophically unsound. It was a bit like listening to an anarchist rail against organised government by referring to examples of tin-pot dictators or the election of fringe left or right wing minor parties in contemporary democracies. So, for instance, the connections between a comment by Pat Robertson on Hurricane Katrina to “evangelicalism” to “Christianity” to “religion” were not justified by sound analysis or empirical evidence. Such comments may be evidence that Pat Robertson is irrational. But they are not strong evidence that religion per se is such.

the New Atheists divert attention from the deeply felt ethical frustrations with institutional religion, which arguably drive them and the movement far more than logic and evidence

Other aspects of Pataki’s defense of NA raised further questions. For instance, given NA’s deep pessimism about religious influence, what does the movement propose should be done with something described by Pataki as an intellectual and moral “vice”. NA appears to assume that, stripped of religion, humanity would by default move up to a higher ethical and intellectual plane. So wouldn’t it make sense for governments to immediately drop any support for such vice, and better still, impose restrictions upon its practice? And what is NA’s assumption about humanity’s future in a ‘religion-less’ world (Pataki doubted that this was likely to be reality anytime soon). Supposing religion was magically extirpated – what forces would humanity face post-religion? Would human need for transcendence give legitimacy to destructive nationalistic or utopian ideologies? Would instrumental state policies become justifiable in the name of utilitarianism if religious stories or communities were absent? What civil society groups would restrain the seemingly limitless power of neo-liberal market ideology? Who would step into the gaps left by religion in social welfare and voluntary work?

There are a multitude of varying forces at work within people and societies. Religion has a complex role which is both constructive and at other times destructive in relation to these forces. In defending the NA agenda, Pataki gave no hints how NA could demonstrate empirically or analytically that the disappearance of religion in toto would lead to humanity’s greater good.

The fourth presentation was a broad outline of a humanist agenda. It was a sincere, eloquent and genial presentation which affirmed a humanist approach on a range of ethical and religious matters.

The day was very worthwhile. There is much to be gained from attending such meetings and engaging with diverse views presented with rigour and care. Hopefully such events help people avoid being fooled by Dawkinesque intellectual-light shows. We must remember that substantive critiques of religion remain (many of them articulated by professional philosophers). Furthermore, the New Atheists divert attention from the deeply felt ethical frustrations with institutional religion, which arguably drive them and the movement far more than logic and evidence. Ultimately it helps Christians, humanists, atheists and philosophers to meet one another in the flesh in order that two dimensional depictions in paper and ink are enlarged by the three dimensional realities of the human beings who inhabit differing views. And perhaps, as Petra Brown suggested, a fair bit more humour wouldn’t go astray either.

Angus McLeay is an Anglican Minister who is on leave of absence to pursue business and philosophical interests. He is the Director of ‘IsaiahOne’, a Christian Human Rights Group.

nb. ABC’s Radio National recorded the talks and may air some or all of them in the future. Arena Magazine is planning to publish the papers.