Monday, June 11, 2007

AC Grayling on the New Atheisim

The Guardian's "Comment is Free" blog has published some great commentary on both sides of the recent publication of books by Atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens. The latest is by A.C. Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London:

To the annoyance of many, the alarm of some, and the satisfaction of others, the half dozen books recently published that powerfully set out the case against religion and religious beliefs - books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Michel Onfray - have all sold in large numbers. At time of writing Christopher Hitchens' excellent and comprehensive dismantling of religious pretensions is at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Among the reasons for the large sales of these books is doubtless the desire by believers to see what the opposition is saying; but the main reason is the hunger that the undecided and the hitherto misinformed have for a clear statement, no punches pulled, of the indictment against religion.

The appearance of these books shows that the immunity of religion to forthright questioning and challenge is over, and with it its claim to automatic respect, privilege, sensitive handling and a place at the high table of politics and public life. Remember what happened to the dictators of eastern Europe in 1989: they turned out to be cardboard figures, who suddenly turned soggy and collapsed into nothing at the first dose of real opposition. A 1989 is in process of happening to religion. The hard truths spoken about it in these books and the public debate surrounding them are as genies freed from the bottle: they cannot be put back.

A trawl along the shelves of any major bookstore is enough to reveal the vast output of every conceivable specimen of religious view, though admittedly much of it consists of saccharine would-be uplift merely. There they are in their dozens and score and hundreds, where is the outrage, the condemnation, the complaining about this? Non-religious people simply ignore such books; they may feel contempt for them, but most grant the right of others to publish almost any kind of book (almost: there are obvious exceptions, though very few), and merely exercise their (hard-won, by our ancestors) right to ignore them.

Yet a mere half dozen anti-religious tomes have stirred up all the hornets in their nests, have offended and outraged the devout, and between them have exposed religious claims and beliefs for what they are. To me this suggests a profound insecurity among the religious. It is obvious why. They are not used to being under pressure somewhat after the fashion of a Honecker, a Ceaucesceu, a Wizard of Oz - this latter, remember, unmasked behind his screen, a knock-kneed pigeon-chested frightened little chap in his underpants, furiously pulling the levers and knobs to keep himself hidden. In the chorus of outrage at the books by Dawkins, Hitchens and others, one hears the furious squeaking of just such levers.

Perhaps that squeaking is the opening chord of a music of hope for a world too long oppressed by the superstitions of its infancy, too long forced to live whole litanies of lies, too wounded and wearied by the violence and hatred that they have loaded upon it. If so, it would be a sweet music indeed.

Read it all.

My own view is that all of these books largely show a profound ignorance about the nature of most non-fundamental faiths. And they show a surprising adherence to one world view, and show an unwillingness to even question whether there are alternative world views that are just as reasonable and rational.


Mystical Seeker said...

I would agree that these militant atheists who have been writing these books are profoundly ignorant about what constitutes religion, since they seem to confuse "religion" with "fundamentalism". They are too busy having fun knocking down straw men to really take the time to seriously consider what religious faith is about. But it isn't entirely their fault, because I think that the news media typically presents religion in this light. Those who are outside of progressive faith circles have no way of knowing that progressive faith exists, and thus in their mind religion is equated with fundamentalism.

The Exterminator said...

chuck & mystical: First of all, what's a "militant" atheist? Is it a person who wants to force you to forsake your religion? Name that person, because I'm unaware of his (or her) existence. If you haven't read the books by Dawkins, Hitchens, et al., you're not really competent to speak about what they say. If you have read them, you know very well that none of them advocates a forced deconversion of anyone, anywhere, at any time. So come on out from the intellectual bomb-shelter; we're not gonna nuke ya.

Second, many atheists -- I might even say most of us -- do not have a profound ignorance about the nature of non-fundamental faiths. Obviously, we don't believe in those faiths, and don't have experiences that stem from communing with what for us is a figment of the collective imagination. But we're far from ignorant. I would venture to guess that atheists, in the main, are much more knowledgeable about religion than the vast majority of Americans who claim to be Christians.

Third, we focus so much on fundamentalists, rather than moderate or progressive religionists, because of recent unfortunate government excesses on fundamentalists' behalf. It's important for all of us -- atheists and non-fundamentalist believers alike -- to keep the social conservatives' dreams of theocracy in check. Also, let's face it: Fundamentalists are fun to deflate because of their smugness and pomposity.

Finally, what atheists argue, in general, is that any belief system ultimately dependent on its adherents' acceptance of a supernatural being is unreasonable. That's "unreasonable" as in "not based on reason." In my experience, most moderate and progressive believers admit that fact themselves; faith, implying that there are some things in this world that will never lend themselves to rational explanation, is a given in any religion.

For me (and I speak only for myself, not your imaginary atheist "army"), the big difficulty with religionists of any kind is their very reliance on faith. Lacking that faith, I don't find it a cogent rationale for anything, including goodness, kindness, and brotherly love. I don't think one needs to believe in a supreme being in order to be imbued with these positive qualities. In fact, I would argue that adherence to the tenets laid down by the Abrahamic god actually hampers these qualities. Read your bible in toto to see what I mean.

Chuck Blanchard said...


Welcome back!

First, by militant atheist, I am referring to the strong polemists such as Dawkins and Hitchens who argue that a beleif in God is not merely wrong, but ultimately bad for scoiety. No forced conversions, but a different tone than had been seen before. (I invite you to compare David Hume to Christipher Hitchens--there is quite a difference in tone). I really don't mean ,ilitant to be perjorative (well, maybe a little, he says with a grin), but rather to note that the new tone is quite different.

Second, when I read Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens talk about Chritianity, I don't read about my own, actual faith. I don't beleive in an inerrant Bible, I'll accept the conclusions of scientif evidence, and I beleive in a secular pluralistic society. When these writers analyze Christian beleifs, they tend to ignore my fiath. Perhaps ignorance is the wrong word--they simply don't spend much time acknowledging that every Chrisitian is not a follower of Falwell.

Third, as you can probably tell from this blog, I am with you on the issues on which you disagree with fundamentalists--I just don't want to lumped in with these them.

Finally, I reject the notion that faith need be irrational. That is a topic on which I have only begun to write, and I'll save most of my fire for later, but my short version is this: if you take the current state of knowledge of the cosmos, it appears that the universe had a beginning (and it appears that what came before is likely unknowable). We also know that there are several fundamental physical values and conditions inthe universe that are all set at a precise level to allow for life. Now there are many explanations for this--pure chance, perhaps an underlying universal structure that we don't understand, and yes, an intelligent creator. Faith leads me to the final option, but it is no more irrational an option than the others--science leads us to the list of options and can take us no further (so far anyway), and faith leads me to choose the final option. How I come to choose this option, and what I mean by faith will have to await another posting.

The Exterminator said...


I'm sure we'll get into this in other posts, but I'd like to take a brief exception to what you said about tone. First of all, you can't compare David Hume -- almost certainly not an atheist, really -- with the writers you mention. But for historical examples: I don't think Dawkins's tone is anywhere near as vitriolic as Voltaire's, and I certainly don't rate Hitchens's rants on the level of Thomas Paine's. And don't forget both Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken, both of whom are unmatched for sheer audacity and biting humor.

Just look at it this way. Believers have had their way for a long time. Religion in general has had a sixty-year free "pass" in the marketplace of ideas. Obviously, then, literary atheists must state their case with vigor. I think they do that, and moderate relgionists are suddenly made uncomfortable when the mere concept of religion is challenged.

Please don't pile all atheist writers into one godless lump, though. Hitchens is fun to read, a true Brit curmudgeon; Dawkins is brilliant (although not as much so as in his pure science books) but strives to be plain-spoken. Dennett is downright amiable. Harris isn't in their class by any standard of judgment.

If you mean to imply by "tone" a certain stridency, I recommend that you seek out articles written by critics of any of these writers, but of Dawkins -- he being the most notorious -- in particular. Now that's where you'll find plenty of "tone."

Chuck Blanchard said...


To be clear, I think that there is nothing inappropriate or wrong with the tone of these authors. Perhaps a better way of making my point would be this--there is something different in the atheistic polemics coming from Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens (I have only read these three so I can't comment on the others). At the very least they are getting more attention than atheists in the past and therefore are worthy of attention by everyone--including persons of faith.

By the way, I am a big fan of Dawkins' science writings.

The Exterminator said...

Yes, I agree with you that the Big Three Atheists (actually, I'd substitute Dennett for Harris) have managed to garner plenty of media attention. What you don't mention -- perhaps you don't see things this way -- is that the media have tended to demonize them. I think Harris and Hitchens have blatantly courted that response; perhaps Dawkins has, too, but I feel, somehow, that his book is more sincere than the others'.

Of course, it's to the media's advantage to keep viewers/listeners/readers coming back for more, more, more. Every "story" needs its villains, and the religious world has responded to atheists just the way the media moguls want.

I must admit that I don't rush out to buy every atheist volume chugged onto the market; even when I do, I sometimes toss it aside if the writing strikes me as mundane or inarticulate -- or, worst of all -- plain boring. I don't really need any affirmation of my nonfaith from anyone. I was an atheist long before I read what any of those guys had to say. It's nice, though, for a nonbeliever to know that his irreligious worldview is no longer automatically shunted off to the side in public discourse; for that I thank all the writers who have drawn attention to it as a viable alternative to what I often see as potentially harmful ideas.

Still, I look forward to the day -- and I know you do, too, Chuck -- when a person's religious faith (or lack of it) in America is a personal matter, and not subject to constant public judgment and the bludgeons of the theocrats. That's what the founders had in mind; it's why they left god out of the Constitution. But it's also why they made sure that Congress could make no law "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. I wish they had had the foresight to add the word "private" after the word "free," but I think it's implied.