RDBook: There is Nothing New About the New Atheism

Is God a Delusion?: A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers
by Eric Reitan
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)

When you proclaim something holy (or accuse it of the opposite) some mental heavy lifting is often required—an endeavor that almost always involves the private act of reading. For skeptics and atheists, mainstream publishers have obliged with the over-hyped surge of books intended to nourish the concept of “no God” or, slightly less loudly, “no religion.”

While the authors of these books are not celebrities per se, and may view themselves as off-road progressives or even mavericks, they are actually fully in line with the cultural orthodoxy of their times. They each continue to borrow heavily from their day jobs to gain presumptive gravitas as they delve into something as foreign as the supernal. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and a handful more have contributed to what is becoming the modern atheist’s scriptural canon.

Conservatives, religion scholars, and writers have been eager to respond. A few have tendered their certitude that the uprising of atheism can be chalked up to blowback from the violence connected with Muslims—which we’re asked to believe has opened the way for no-God arguments to enter the mainstream discourse with unprecedented ease. These first-responders, though, are strangely silent about the American evangelical political influence in the past decade and its doctrinal advocacy of Armageddon-shaped policies.

For the most part, however, you’ll find balanced and sober reviews of these books in a variety of print and online sources. (Good examples are Marilynne Robinson’s review of The God Delusion in Harper’s, William C. Placher’s Christian Century review of Hitchens’ contribution. Stanley Fish’s blogs in the New York Times on atheism are interesting.)

Today’s Atheists: Yesterday’s Angst

Among the many things associated with the progress of public atheism, “newness” still stands out: new books, new marketing imagination (paid banners on London buses, “There’s probably no God”), new recognition in inaugural addresses, and a hint of new intellectual fashion. But if we step out from the green zone for a moment, we may think to ask a question more critically: Is this all really new? Eric Reitan, professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University, doesn’t think so. Reitan makes an organized response to the vendors of atheism in his book Is God a Delusion?—an unemotional reply to these “cultured despisers” of religion (a phrase Reitan attributes to Friedrich Schleiermacher, a nineteenth-century theologian who took on the atheists of his day).

Reitan’s resurrection of the phrase “cultured despisers” underscores one of the most compelling purposes of his book, namely, to show that the arguments of today’s articulate atheists are rehash of yesteryear’s angst.

Reitan underscores and supports the fact that the atheistic arguments, whether drenched in vitriol or sanctimony, or told with a semblance of rigor, are essentially unoriginal. Reitan, for example, recalls Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” as a progenitor to many of Richard Dawkins’ gripes with God. I don’t know how heavily Dawkins leaned on Russell, but I’m sure that it doesn’t really matter. What a reader should retain is that Dawkins depends on the reputation and aura of science to remake old arguments that are essentially unassociated with his profession and experience, and unrelated to the advancements of science itself. I’ve read Dawkins since my senior year as a zoology student more than 25 years ago, when I studied his The Selfish Gene for a senior seminar required to get my undergraduate degree. I’ve read Dawkins along the way, including his no-God arguments in The Blind Watchmaker and their dependence on a hopelessly narrow epistemology. Really, not much as changed since then.

Reitan makes another interesting observation about anti-theistic arguments. He begins his fifth chapter with a short bit about how his book got its start. He explains that one of his colleagues photocopied a page from a book without identifying the author. The page contained summaries of some of Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God. When Reitan read the photocopy, he was immediately struck by the fact that the “writer of the passage got the arguments wrong.”

The writer then proceeded to make no-God arguments that hinge on these errors. The author of that photocopied page was Richard Dawkins. In a well-received essay, Peter Harrison, Oxford professor of religion and science, has something similar to say:

Unfortunately, Dawkins has blundered into a field he knows very little about. He misunderstands the logic of the arguments and how they function in a religious context. His own naïve and plodding counter-arguments would make a philosophy undergraduate cringe.

Reitan’s point is that Dawkins constructs arguments that seem reasonable only with a shoddy recasting of subtle points of discursive theology. (Other ecclesiasts of atheism rely on entertainment, farcical stereotypes, and psychobabble about religious experiential phenomena.)

Reitan spends more time on Dawkins than on the others, which seems understandable. As atheism continues to burrow in some philosophical dune, the mount of science and its theories of nature seem most convenient, though most people who find solace in atheistic arguments based on science mostly likely do not really understand science, its methodologies, and vulnerabilities.

There are many things to like about Reitan’s book. Similar to more recent replies to new atheism, such as David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions (Yale University Press), Reitan’s work chops away at the “new” of new atheism. The subtle notion of “new” suggests in itself some progress, which, again, we need to revisit without the glorification of man on the mind. Christopher Lasch’s question is as urgent today as it was when he posed it 18 years ago in his book The True and Only Heaven

How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once in for all?

Reitan raises in separate chapters the key arguments that atheists have used or attacked, including theories of “evil” and a benevolent God, the nature of religious consciousness, philosophical proofs of God, and, of course, science. They are straightforward, occasionally apologetic, and, for the most part, expected and useful. Reitan’s tenor is actually quite calm. He engages the atheistic arguments without a sense of emergency; he does not view atheism as a societal contagion or a spawn of Grendel that goes out at night to eat your children.

What if Atheism is Actually a Political Movement?

Reitan’s book and others constitute a response, and, despite having praised aspects of Reitan’s work, I’m not convinced that responses, however necessary they may be, hit the spot. It’s likely that we’re misreading new atheism by viewing it as a theological (or anti-theological) challenge. What appears to be happening is the emergence of a political movement.

Many of these books, those by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens in particular, say nothing that is actually interesting about religion per se. But vehemence, no matter who employs it, suggests that it is power, more than transcending or temporal truth, that’s sought. Already we notice one obvious trapping of modern political culture among the vendors of atheism, namely, an airbrushed presentation that associates atheism with enlightenment, progress, intellect, and, most absurdly, gentility. The complaints against religion are in themselves doctrinal, intolerant, and rely on straw-men caricatures and a rather ugly view of the past.

I have always known atheists; some are relatives still influenced by once-fashionable Marxist ideologies that moved in parts of the Arab world. Though the Marxist option is dead as a political paradigm, suggestive remnants of the philosophy and its opiate theories still do their work to some degree. My atheist kin remain, in my view, hamstrung by carefully-worded tautologies of old Soviet vintage that once tried to promote national atheism through argument-manufacturing—not to mention demolition, near genocide, and terror.

(The results of atheo-fascism on such a grand scale have been obviously horrendous and under-mentioned: take Stalinism, for example, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and the devastation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The urban myth of Ronald Reagan as the wind that blew down Soviet communism has been thoroughly discussed and dismissed. The Soviet experiment fell, at least in part, because atheism at that grand scale cannot sustain a sizable nation, let alone a civilization. Does atheism even have a gaze?)

Discussions about religion amongst my “special” kin are few now, mainly because we each ran out of things to say and are back to where it all started: personal choice and inviolable proof. It’s quite possible (and I hope it’s true) that not all atheists agree with the vendors of atheism who have had harsh things to say about religion, articulated in a manner that the vendors themselves complain to be obnoxious when upchucked by televangelists. Apparently, religion “poisons everything,” is the “root of all evil,” and the “devil’s masterpiece.” And religious impulses and experiential modes are vestigial mental tricks, lingering superstitions, imperfect explanations of natural phenomena, or primitive ideas that now need to be expunged because of human progress (evinced by our darkening skies, melted glaciers, uncontainable greed, and shrinking fresh water supplies?).

Like art, the core of the checks and ethics that we live by (even in secular societies) and that make civilization possible is rooted in sacred tradition. This is a reliable observation. The communal thought, the new groupthink, is starting to emerge: atheism as advancement.

It will be interesting to see how public atheism and its chief advocates attempt to forge a new cultural meme around political atheism.