As some readers may remember, I am a committed and proud atheist (despite some apparent controversy on the point). So when someone attacks atheism, as James Wood does in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, I feel obligated to defend it.
The occasion for Wood’s criticisms is the publication of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections of the God Debate. Eagleton is one of the most respected theists currently writing about the subject of theology, but his new book will probably convert about as many people as The God Delusion or God is Not Great: not many.
Books like this have a tendency to appeal only to the side already in agreement, and Wood seems to think Eagleton’s will do the same. Wood offers a pretty sound criticism of Eagleton’s arguments in his review, and even professes a lack of formal belief on his own part.
But Wood—who from the little I’ve read of him seems like a brilliant critic with whom I disagree about almost everything—has many of the same problems with “new atheism” that Eagleton has.
How exactly this “new” atheism differs from the old kind (and when exactly the cut-off is) is never made clear. As best I can tell, “new atheists” are the people who read Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens* (and Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett and a host of others), christened “Ditchkins” by Eagleton—which is a cleverly derisive moniker, I must admit.
*It seems unfair to me how “atheists” are always identified with the most dogmatic and extreme wing of Dawkins, Hitchens et. al., and yet atheists who criticize Osama bin Laden and Jerry Falwell are faulted for picking easy targets. Not that I think Dawkins/Hitchens/Dennett are wrong: It seems to me that these “extreme” positions are merely the respective sides of the argument taken to their logical conclusions. I’d much rather cast my lot with prominent scientists and philosophers. The other side can have the terrorists and demagogues.**
**That was a joke, chill out. I realize there are intelligent, generally rational, good people who believe in God.
The biggest complaint Wood seems to have about these “new” atheists is that they are arrogant. That may be true, but it certainly isn’t much of an ideological shift from whatever “old” atheism was. One of Wood’s accusations about new atheists is that they are picking an unfair fight:
“[For new atheists] the God most worth fighting against seems to be a hybrid of a cheaply understood Old Testament, a prejudicially scanned Koran, and the sentimentalities of a contemporary evangelism: He created the world, controls our destinies, resides in Heaven, loves us when He is not punishing us, intervenes to perform miracles, sent His only son to die on the Cross and save us from sin, and promises Heaven to the devout.”
You said it, not me.
Atheists don’t pick the “God” they argue against. If Ditchkins lived in Ancient Greece, they would be writing books about Zeus and Apollo, but they play the hand they are dealt. Atheists don’t believe in ANY gods, but it makes sense for them to argue against the ones people believe in: It’s not like we’re making up all that stuff about God creating the world, controlling destiny, sending his son to die on the Cross, etc. That is, you know, in the Bible.
Now, granted, for many religious people, things are a lot more complicated than that, but A) for most people they aren’t; most Christians DO believe those aspects of Christianity are the most important ones, and B) it’s impossible to fashion arguments against every personalized conception of God. How am I supposed to argue with “the bodiless and indescribable entity that Maimonides or Aquinas ceaselessly circumnavigated”? How can we even discuss something that is “indescribable”?
Another piece of slander that Wood lobs at “new atheists” is the charge that “it is a settled assumption of this kind of atheism that there are no intelligent religious believers.” This is a favorite debate tactic of many theists: Make atheists seem as intolerant and closed-minded as theists.
It simply isn’t true. I don’t think Ditchkins (or Dennett, or Harris) would claim that Stephen Jay Gould, Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King, Jr. are “unintelligent.” Intelligent people can be wrong about things, and some intelligent people are wrong about God.
Wood also twists an example of Dawkins’ from The God Delusion: Dawkins illustrates Hyperactive Agent Detection Devices by recalling a scene in which John Cleese’s car breaks down, and Cleese gets out and starts manically hitting and blaming the car for its failure. Wood says, “The car is not a piece of indifferent nature. It is man-made, and so to assume a causal…link between human agency and the car’s breakdown isn’t insane.”
This is willfully disingenuous. Dawkins isn’t criticizing links between human agency: He is criticizing Cleese for blaming the car. If Cleese were to blame the manufacturer, or his mechanic, then that would be fine, because those are individuals with agency. But blaming God for things that are the result of chance or nature is like blaming a car for breaking down.
Finally, Wood’s last attack may be his most offensive:
“Abolishing the category of the religious robs non-believers of some surplus of the inexpressible; it forbids the contrails of uncertainty to pass over our lives. What is most repellent about the new atheism is its intolerant certainty; it is always noon in Dawkins’s world, and the sun of science and liberal positivism is shining brassily, casting no shadow.”
This is absurd. Nobody thinks this. Does Wood really think atheists live in a world without uncertainty? Has science fixed everything? If anything, science and “liberal positivism” (whatever that means) has raised as many questions as it answers. Additionally, relying on evidence and reason often challenges traditionally accepted conclusions.
What is even more offensive, though, about this sentiment is its attempt to present religion and faith as nothing more than a harmless metaphor for the inexpressible. If theism were really just a benign representation of the indefinable, then atheists wouldn’t concern themselves with it. But it’s not. Pretending religious zealotry, fundamentalism, terrorism and persecution are unrelated to religion itself is foolish and naïve. These things are natural extensions of the logic at faith’s foundation.
Religion instills fear and an unjustified sense of righteousness in people, which can lead to horrific outcomes: prejudice, tribalism, devotion through fear, arrogance, outdated morality, contentedness with the status quo and a mistrust of reason. Should atheists really be “tolerant” of these things? Sometimes the perils of tolerance are too steep.