Dimming the Brights? The Debris of the Dawkins Revolution

There used to be two kinds of atheists: those who lost their faith and those who never found it. The kind who never found it–people like Isaac Asimov and Richard Feynman–had fathers who actually never encouraged their kids to think there was anything to find.

Those who had it and lost it–people like Steve Allen, Julia Sweeney, Seth MacFarlane and George Carlin–seem to have been equipped by their church for a life of infidelity and enough material to last a lifetime.

There are atheists who came from the fields of course: the World Wide Church of God seems to be doing its share to produce them, and the nuttiest of the nutty brood will probably spin off dozens more by natural selection. Fundamentalism has been helpful in producing outrageous opinion and claims that have sent rational minds screaming from the congregation, and they deserve some credit for this.

The lesson in this highly informal typology is that “strong” religion seems to produce more unbelievers than mainline “soft” religion, for the same reason that oysters produce pearls. It’s the “grate factor.” –I hope I haven’t offended too many Episcopalians by saying that they are not doing a good job in this respect: the fact is, they are out in front on a number of social issues that wouldn’t be substantially improved by their becoming atheists. “God” is a small (very small in some cases) price to pay for social progessivism.

There is however a new wave of atheism, neither alienated Jew, Catholic, fundamentalist nor profoundly secular from birth. It worries me just a little–though it–the wave–is young, pretty smart, highly sociable and will probably vote for Democrats. That is reason enough in my book to go easy on it. After all, there are enough yahoos out there in Wonderland to worry about without offending our friends. For that reason, it doesn’t worry me very much.

New wave atheism follows in the wake of the Dawkins Revolution and book tours that featured the so called New Atheists–but especially Dawkins himself. I don’t think for a moment that other new atheists aren’t charismatic, but of the lot, Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who is the Hume and Dr Johnson of our time rolled up into one, take the prize for saying the kinds of things, in the right accent, that sound authoritative because they’re said in the tropes of Oxford, whence cometh our hope.

The bad reviews of The God Delusion and God is Not Great stressed that theologians had been having the conversation about classical arguments for the existence of God for a hundred years and had, basically, laid them to one side. They stressed that liberal and radical theology had long since moved beyond the ossified categories of Christian thinking: that no smart person took the Bible literally anymore. Aquinas? Who needs him? Ontology? Eleventh century stuff. Hadn’t theologians, the critics raged, especially in America and England, been using the term “post-Christian” for a generation? Perhaps, but almost no one had paid attention because no one reads theology except divinity school students and other theologians.

No one in any position to cause sales to jump was reading the “professional” books where radical theology had given up on God. And even if ordinary readers had read it, there was the honest sense that if you are at the point of saying that your theology is post-Christian, that Jesus is not the son of God, that miracles are hooey, and that the Bible contains ideas that have been retardant in our culture–you really ought to pack your bags and go away.

There was something elementally refreshing about seasoned scholars and journalists taking on the absurdity of some of the classical argumentation as though they had just discovered it, which for the most part they had. The criticism–which I made on this site as well–that journalists and scientists may not–odd to say–be especially well-qualified to talk about religion seemed petulant and jealous, which of course it was. Who wouldn’t rather have written The God Delusion than Defeasible Assumptions in Plantinga’s Epistemological Reliabilism Argument. I know I would.

So this is not really about getting to be an atheist by shortcutting: not all of us can have a radical Jewish father who wants to keep us away from Torah, or a run-in with Sister Mary Margaret (when there were Sister Mary Margarets) over the plausibility of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. (I was expelled for rolling my eyes).

It is about a rapid relocation of attitudes: people who have made a fairly quick progression from some belief (or not much of anything) to atheism without having at least some of the same background as the New Atheists themselves. It is about the danger of any kind of hero worship and fan-clubbism substituting for a critical assessment of sources. It is, frankly, about idolatry.

The conversation reminds me most of feminism, or rather the divide between first generation feminism and where we are now. The survivors of the sixties and seventies who broke down walls, challenged a sexist system, broke through ceilings and populated professional schools and academic departments with members of their own sex are now confronted with women who either don’t know the story or only know it as yawnable history. The world they have come to inhabit is not the world their grandmothers (yes, grandmothers) fought for. Judging from the number of African American Republicans maybe the same is true of that community: memory is short.

But the dues-paying comparison doesn’t work perfectly.  There are doubtless atheists out there who feel they earned their right to disbelief.  But a strong tranche of movement-atheists would argue that it doesn’t matter how you get there, just so you get there. There are no dues to pay. Atheism is not built on the abuse, bones and ashes of courageous predecessors, as was the case with the women’s movement or civil rights. If you get there from reading market paperbacks or children’s stories by Philip Pullman (who is a friend, by the way) or a couple of titles by Dawkins, so be it. It will do.

What matters to movement-atheists are the numbers, getting that meager 5% or 6% of professed unbelievers up to 10 or 15 percent– where it can claim some political advantage, and not be relegated to the irrelevance that has always been the lot of American atheism. As a movement, the American idolatry of the British atheist “style” has helped–so much so that bus campaigns and bumper stickers are now studiously modeled after the campaigns of the British Humanist Asociation, which itself promotes and benefits from the work of Dawkins and his comrades.

I feel terrible quibbling about this because soon enough it sounds like a quibble about being a good Catholic or a bad Catholic. Do you go to Mass Sundays? Great. Wednesdays and Fridays too? Even better. Hate abortion to the point you’ll march and picket? Best. It ought to be a cardinal tenent of the tenentless philosophy called atheism that no such gradients should arise within the movement. As in Islam, you really only have to believe one thing–or rather, disbelieve it.  In that sense, atheism is or ought to be a settled or definitive position, without qualification–like being pregnant, not like being a Presbyterian.  Atheists often write to tell me that I confuse their exquisitely simple position about God with more comprehensive philosophies like humanism, where gradients are possible.  Yet exquisitely simple atheism has long been the sine qua non of movement humanism, especially in England.

But my quibble is not with cynical efforts to jack up the numbers or the promotion of heroes as magnets to the cause. That’s the way movements work.  It’s the way religious denominations work as well, and they haven’t had a hero for a very long time.

My concern is over the fact that many of the idolaters are now not reading the sources of their distress, not really aware of any but the most contemporary reference points in their estimate of a fundamental religious question.  It is a destination without a journey behind it.

The Bible is considered toxic, in toto; religion, a long history of superstition, distress, and violence–even some of the art, music and literature of the western tradition, expendable expressions of priestcraft and supernaturalism.  In the most extreme cases, the present is regarded as having a juridical role to play toward the past, when people believed silly things.  History becomes a series of mistakes with respect to scientific outcomes and has nothing to teach us but the error of our ways.  What has been tainted by religion is not worth our time, not worth investigating because our vantage point makes it ridiculous. When this attitude takes hold, it is not just God who is disbelieved in: it is culture.

At this point, the debris of the Dawklins revolution becomes problematical on two counts. On the one hand, it permits the new wave atheist to reduce everything to a single proposition: God does not exist; and then to evaluate the entire history of western civilization according to an opinion that has been reinforced by similar opinions but never really tested against the sources. The opinion that God does not exist is an important one. It deserves scrutiny. But it does not deserve doctrinal security as though infallibly propounded by a secular pope.

We cannot cast off the literary and artistic history of our civilization, from Plato to Nato and Bible to Blues without knowing at least a little something about the creators.

In 2002, a number of students enrolled in my course in Civilization Studies at the American University of Beirut walked out of the classroom, in a staged protest, as we began to examine the book of Genesis. It was a book that had been excluded for a dozen years from the syllabus because it raised the temperature during the long Lebanese Civil War. I had made it plain that the story was a story; that some people thought it was historical, but that scholarship had shown it was a typical Near Eastern creation myth with a half dozen well preserved cousins from earlier in the millennium. But my careful historical framing was of no consequence. The students who protested were not Muslims; they were Lebanese Christians who regarded the Old Testament (which of course is in their Bible too) as “Israeli” propaganda.

The point is, of course, that an educated and informed atheism is a very desirable perspective. But an atheism that depends on the authority of others is no better than the political opinion that excuses Arab Christians from knowing something about the ancient history of the part of the planet they occupy.  Unfortunately for the new wave,  atheism has a long history–one that goes back far before 2005.

Lucretius

Matthew Arnold used the term Philistine to describe a set of values prominent among people who despised or undervalued art, beauty, and intellectual content. Despite his problematical approach to the Bible, which was neither credulous nor entirely respectful, he retained it as a key text in his educational canon.

The worst trait of the Philistine as Arnold painted him was his materialism, the preference for quick and easy fixes, a mass produced painting instead of a developed aesthetic sense.

Quick fix atheism is that kind of atheism. I think it needs to be worried about ever so little.