14 April 2011

Blackford on the New Atheism phenomenon

Philosopher and writer Russell Blackford has an excellent two-part (Part 1, Part 2) overview of New Atheism – on its origins and subsequent dissemination in the wider culture, and its luminaries and critics, with a focus on the inter-atheist squabbling that bedevils the otherwise progressive movement.

My own introduction to atheism (or specifically anti-religionism) was Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. I had already been casually irreligious for many years prior to encountering the ideas put forth in TEOF, but Harris was the first ideologue to make me feel indignant over the harms caused and perpetuated by religion. Then Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great completed my transformation into a committed atheist.

But my diet of New Atheist writing was supplemented by that of various other freethinkers, not all of them explicitly atheists. A few were agnostics or deists; many preferred to identify as humanists, or secularists. All were influential in the development of my present life stance: a secular, atheistic humanism. In this respect I disagree with one of my intellectual mentors, PZ Myers. Unlike him, I do not think it sufficient to just call myself an atheist. While I do not believe in the existence of god(s), I also subscribe to the humanist idea that values and meaning are to be derived from human needs and human nature, and I am convinced that religion and government should be like the proverbial oil and water. For me the term ‘atheism’ does not necessarily imply humanism and secularism, hence my insistence on a more specific and inclusive description of my convictions.

Going back to Blackford’s essay, I would like to highlight a point he made about atheist critics of New Atheism:

The irony is that some religious people seem more willing to accept the legitimacy of strong criticism of religion than some atheists. I am amazed by the continuing attempts by many atheists and secularists to demonise the New Atheist writers and their intellectual allies.

Anyone who has been following the Atheist Civil War alluded to by Blackford will know what he’s talking about. I responded to his post with this comment:

Two observations about this inter-atheist mudslinging:

1) The Gnu-bashers have a tendency to focus on the Gnus’ attitude and tone while sidelining their actual arguments. I suppose since much of these arguments are valid and coherent, the Gnu-bashers would just look silly criticising them, so they go after a more nebulous target instead. Like supposed Gnu ‘stridency’.

2) Segueing from the above, because much of the fundamental Gnu arguments against religion are sound, even self-evident, Gnu-bashers tend to resort to hairsplitting, nitpicking, pedantic criticism that rarely detracts from the solid core arguments of Dawkins and co. From what I’ve read of their criticisms, they seem mainly an exercise in flaunting their erudition in their field of expertise. Nothing wrong with that of course, except I struggle to see how not knowing, say, the genealogy of atheism precludes someone like Dawkins or Harris from condemning religion in a forthright manner.

Would I need to obtain a degree in theology or be well-versed in scholasticism before I can comment on their assumed and unproven premises, or their often contradictory, convoluted, abstruse rhetoric? Would it be anti-intellectual of me to reject such vacuous sophistry? Some Gnu-bashers would say 'yes'.

While it’s perfectly healthy for there to be strong disagreement within any group, any debate ought to be constructive if it is to further the positive aspects of the group’s cause. From my vantage point, a lot of the barking aimed at the New Atheists appears to be motivated by a petty self-importance that is more concerned with trumpeting the critic’s own credentials rather than by a genuine wish for balance and moderation in atheist arguments.


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