New Atheism Redux

I keep swearing off talking about the New Atheists, but like quitting smoking, it is easier said than done. It’s not really that I object to their criticizing me nonstop. I do rather belong to the school of “as long as you spell my name right”—although interestingly, given that I have a name of only four letters, the misspellings are rife (Russe, Russo, Rose, Roose, Rooze, Rouse, and many more). In fact, I take a certain pride in the fact that our blog, Brainstorm, thanks in no small degree to the splendid efforts of my fellow blogger Jacques Berlinerblau, seems now to be even more hated than Biologos, a Templeton Foundation-supported, Christian blog, founded by Francis Collins, now head of the National Institutes of Health.

The latest outcry is by one of the junior New Atheists (in other words, not one of the big four of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris) writing from Australia—picked up and intensified (especially in the nastiness towards Jacques and me) elsewhere. Why, it is asked plaintively, do we who profess atheism or nonbelief of some kind or another nevertheless not recognize that the coming of the God Delusion and Breaking the Spell and so forth is the best thing since the invention of sliced bread?

I can understand people wanting to disagree with specific New Atheist thinkers about specific points – such as my disagreement with Sam Harris about certain issues in moral theory. What I don’t understand is all the resentment. Apart from the unattractive emotions of envy, jealousy, and spite, the only explanation is that some of these folk who had established philosophical and historical theories are disappointed that what they see as incorrect theories are gaining greater popularity with the public.

I am going to let Jacques Berlinerbau speak for himself, because when he does, he does so splendidly. Let me spell out one more time why I, a long time public nonbeliever, one who has fought for over 30 years against fundamentalism, someone who has time and again expressed his revulsion at the hierarchy of the Catholic Church over the child-abuse issue (including especially the cover-up and lack of contrition), just don’t buy into the New Atheism message.

Perhaps it has to do with “envy, jealousy, and spite.” I don’t think so, but anything I say on this issue will be suspect, so I will let others be the judge on this. I do dislike the fact that stuff I think wrong or simplistic or misleading gets great traction with the public. I dislike it from the Tea Party. I dislike it from the New Atheists. I think Dawkins is simplistic when it comes to analyzing the arguments for the existence of God. I think Dennett is naïve and simplistic when he thinks that so sophisticated an issue as the growth and belief in religion can be analyzed in terms of Dawkins’s cultural units of memes. I think Harris is crude beyond belief when he thinks that morality can be reduced to scientific findings. I cannot say anything about Hitchens, since I quit reading him when he supported George W. Bush’s excursion into Iraq.

Most of all I detest the New Atheism because I think it is playing into the hands of the Religious Right. The way fundamentalism—scientific creationism, creation science, intelligent-design theory—has been kept out of the biology classes of the nation is by drawing a line between science and religion and arguing that it is a violation of the First Amendment to allow religion (scientific creationism, etc.) into the classrooms. If you blur the science-religion distinction, specifically if you mesh evolution and atheism, then I just don’t see how you can continue that strategy. The fundamentalists argue that since the evolutionists’ position has religious implications, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Either you don’t talk about origins at all or—and they prefer this alternative—you allow talk about everyone’s views on origins.

Do they have a point? Well, I’m inclined to think that they do. There is no question but that any reasonable reading of New Atheist material totally meshes evolution and atheism. Look at the best blog of them all—University of Chicago biology professor Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. It intersperses quite brilliant discussions of evolutionary topics with diatribes against religion, and makes it very clear that these two are connected. If you are for evolution, you cannot legitimately be for or even tolerant of religion. Accomodationism, as he and others refer to the position I take—that you can keep the two separate—is just not a viable option.

But what really matters is not whether this is technically meshing science and religion so that a First Amendment scholar would say that the line has been crossed, but what is going to happen in the courts. Let us not forget that this last week the Supreme Court validated vouchers for religious schools. Anyone who thinks that what is happening on Why Evolution is True is not bringing joy to the folks at the Discovery Institute, the main force behind the Intelligent Design movement, is as naïve as those who thought that marching into Iraq was going to solve problems in the Middle East.

I don’t think the New Atheists are bad people. I really don’t. I think the contrary, that they are deeply moral people. But moral conviction is not enough. To answer Sam Harris: Doing the right thing is not a matter of deriving morality from the facts; it is a matter of combining morality with the facts.And until I get some sense that the New Atheists are going to show why their present strategy does not spell disaster down the road, why it is that they can mesh science and atheism as they do and not get into trouble in the courts when it comes to keeping creationism out of the schools, I will continue to regard them with contempt.

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