Monday, 20 July 2009

Times New Atheist

I've been following the dust-ups on the blogosphere around the various issues to do with 'New Atheists' and accommodationism, and trying to make some sense of it.

Recent 'anti-neo-atheists' include Terry Eagleton, Chris Mooney, Karen Armstrong, Madeleine Bunting and H.E. Baber. These include theists and 'faitheists'.

The targets of/responders to the attacks include Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, Ophelia Benson and Russell Blackford.

The anti-neo-atheists seem a little taken aback by some of the responses to their criticism, and think the New Atheists are being a little thin-skinned, a little hypocritical; it's just the rough and tumble of debate - you dish it out, so don't complain when you get some criticism yourself.

This isn't quite the situation as I see it; the New Atheist complaint is not the criticism, per se, it's the *type* of criticism. The New Atheists are attacking accommodationism with various arguments that may or not be correct (I happen to be anti-accommodationist myself, so I agree with them). But the criticisms thrown at the New Atheists aren't about their arguments; they're about the actual act of criticism. Consider Chris Mooney's comments about Jerry Coyne; he's talking about what Barbara Forrest said about science v religion:
Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy.
And he goes on to give three reasons why atheists should not alienate religious moderates (a question-begging assertion itself): Etiquette, diversity and humility. An astonishing claim! In what other area of honest debate would these points be cited? The clarification for 'etiquette' simply places religious belief beyond criticism; 'diversity' argues that moderates shouldn't be argued out of existence as long as there are fundamentalists around, I think; 'humility' exhorts us to acknowledge our inability to disprove god. Well, one does, but does one have to *keep* acknowledging it?

So Mooney apparently agrees with Coyne's argument, but doesn't want him to press it home with moderate theists, in case they are alienated, and, er, what? Become fundamentalists, I guess. I cannot think of any other way to summarise Mooney's blog.

Now consider some quotes from H.E Baber's article in the Guardian:
Most people I know are atheists. But they're atheists of the old kind who have no particular interest in proselytising because they do not believe that anything of importance hangs on whether or not people believe in God and because they recognise that theological claims are controversial. Unlike the New Atheists they don't think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting.
A straight forward snide ad hom, and, of course, New Atheists don't think that anyway. From what I can deduce, they admire Hume, Russell and Mackie.
New Atheists believe in unbelief. For some reason they think it important to assure their followers in the village that religious belief is not merely false but uncontroversially false and that educated people who profess to be religious believers or claim that theism is compatible with science are out to dupe them.
Note the patronising 'in the village'; why can't the arguments be addressed in a grown-up manner? New Atheists *cannot* think that religious belief is *uncontroversially false* otherwise they wouldn't be applying so much time to arguing their case. They think that religious belief has not shown it is reasonable to think it true - at least the religions they are familiar with. It's possible there are true religious beliefs floating around somewhere.
I would be very interested in hearing why the New Atheists and their followers believe, with such manifest conviction, in unbelief.
So rather than address the anti-accommodationist argument, pretend the New Atheist 'believes in unbelief'. It's a real shame. One of my least favourite tactics - argument dodging.

For me the New Atheists attack on religion is more an attack on the religious way of thinking; their motives are to ensure that public policies are determined with full possession of the facts of each matter. Many religions have survived by privileging their dogma and punishing dissent. The motives of many religious leaders are, and have been, to maintain control over a constituency, and to direct public policies according to their dogma of choice. Now this may not, by chance, be a bad thing - they may have dogma that happens to be good. But if there is bad dogma it's difficult to change it through reason, because of the privileges and punishments which have developed to *protect* the dogma. So the very reason the religions have survived successfully is the reason we must deny them privilege in the public arena.

Anti-accommodationists point out that moderate theists subscribe to this *religious way of thinking* just as fundamentalists do. Thankfully the moderates don't make the errors that the fundamentalists do, and they should be applauded for that. I prefer a moderate to a fundamentalist. I'd encourage fundamentalists to be moderates and moderates to be agnostics, and so on. But too often the anti-neo-atheists cry wolf at atheists pointing out faulty thinking, as if we should not do it when the believer is 'moderate'. That is simply *not good enough*, and indefensible.

Finally, Jerry Coyne has 'coyned' (see what I did there) a new term for atheist-butters - 'faitheist'. More complaints of hypocrisy have flown from faitheists, suggesting that this is pejorative, in the same way as 'New Atheist' has been denounced as pejorative by the New Atheists. There may be an element of truth in this, but I *think* there is a clear difference. The purpose of 'New Atheist' seems to be to differentiate a certain type of modern, vocal atheist from those nice, 'umble atheists of the past, who knew their place - witness Habel's comment above "Unlike the New Atheists they don't think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting." There's an agenda, and it is to define the New Atheists as something they're not. 'Faitheist' actually defines the target group accurately; they are atheists who *do* demand respect for faith. Any pejorative in 'New Atheist' is based on a false attribution of what they think. If 'faitheist' becomes pejorative it will simply be because folk come to find atheists who demand respect for faith objectionable. At least, that is how it should be. If things turn out differently, I'll amend my view.


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