The New Atheists did not manage to dent the growth of religion across the world. Instead, they only fed our interest in it.
by Madeleine Bunting
first published on Guardian, Comment is Free Belief, 4 April 2010, re-published with permission
One shelf of my bookcase is now groaning under the weight of its contents. It's the God slot, and in the years since the publication of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion in 2006 and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great in 2007, there has been an addition every few weeks from enraged philosophers, theologians, historians and journalists, all trying to convince readers of the shoddiness of the New Atheists. Peter Hitchens's Rage Against God was the latest arrival last week.
So with Easter done and the Catholic church embroiled in one of the most shaming and tumultuous periods of its history, it seems an appropriate moment to reckon on the progress of New Atheism, and take stock of this curious and – in the early 2000s entirely unpredictable – publishing phenomenon. What have all these books, these tons of paper and felled forests achieved?
Well, the most obvious achievement has been a lot of sore heads. Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens convey the fury of Old Testament prophets, while their opponents struggle in various well-mannered ways to contain theirs. From my rough survey I would suggest those with philosophical training are the most irritated by New Atheism, while the journalists seem to enjoy the opportunities the row provides; Peter Hitchens explicitly does the "in sorrow not in anger" approach. What staggers the "philosophers" (I use the term loosely to indicate writers who use philosophical arguments) is the sheer philosophical illiteracy of Dawkins. As Terry Eagleton puts it in Reason, Faith and Revolution, "Dawkins's rationalist complacency is of just the sort Jonathan Swift so magnificently savaged". Several centuries on, it appears some have not quite grasped Swift's point.
Faced with such ignorance of centuries of philosophical thought, there are two options. Either start from the beginning – Charles Taylor's 800-page A Secular Age or Karen Armstrong's speed history of western thought, The Case for God – or go for clever brevity, elegantly skewering the argument in the style of Eagleton or John Cornwell's Darwin's Angel. The problem with both genres is they don't offer the kind of bestselling strident certainty that brought Dawkins such handsome financial rewards.
But perhaps New Atheism's publishing success is a case of winning a battle and losing the war. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge point out in God is Back that the main religions are currently experiencing massive expansion across most of the world. One of the biggest drivers of growth is China; by 2050 it could be the biggest Muslim nation, and the biggest Christian one. What numerous countries are now demonstrating from the US to Asia, from Africa to the Middle East and Latin America, is that modernisation, far from entailing secularisation, is actually leading to increased and intensified forms of religiosity. According to Micklethwait and Wooldridge, the future across most of the globe is going to be very religious.
To the sceptical European, this is a lonely and unintelligible prospect. So, scanning my stuffed bookshelf, which of these defences of God are going to help explain this enduring appeal? Start with Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Myth: "we are meaning-seeking creatures" who "invent stories to place our lives in a larger setting … and give us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life has meaning and value". That helps explain why the bestselling religious book in the US is The Purpose Driven Life (the first chapters of which are published on the net as What on Earth Am I Here For?). The faithful are not mugging up on critiques of reason for an argument with New Atheism, but turning to religion to offer meaning and purpose.
The great mistake the atheists made is to claim that religion started out as a clumsy stab at science – trying to explain how the world worked – and is now clearly redundant. That misses the point entirely: religion is not about explaining how an earthquake or flood happens; rather it offers meanings for such events. When someone is killed in a car accident, western rationality is good at analysing how the brakes failed and the road curved, but has nothing to say about why, on that particular day, the brakes failed when it was you in the car: the sequence of random events that kill. This search for meaning is part of what drives the religious spirit.
Armstrong distinguishes between two capabilities of the human brain: mythos and logos. The latter is rational, logical; the former generates the mythology "which often springs from profound anxiety about essentially practical problems which cannot be assuaged by purely logical arguments". Death is central to all human mythologies.
The second mistake made by the atheists is the assumption that faith and belief are mental processes akin to opinion. Armstrong runs through the etymology to uncover original meanings: belief is a commitment not a proposition; faith, as in "I have faith in you", is an expression of confidence, not an assertion of the existence of something. Dogma is "a truth which cannot easily be put into words and which can only be fully understood through long experience" – rather like the love of a parent for their child growing into adulthood.
The loss of the original meanings of all these words show how religious faith in the west came to be interpreted as a matter of the head and the intellect, and was bound up with the authority of an institution which expected submission: God was regarded as something to think about rather than do in large chunks of western religious practice which, preoccupied with institutional power, ended up in this current cul de sac. (Alastair Campbell's use of the verb in "we don't do God" is actually cutting-edge theology of a practice of love, service of others, search for justice.)
Armstrong offers an important insight into the sheer aggressive intolerance of New Atheism when she argues that "the history of religion shows that, once a myth ceases to give people intimations of transcendence, it becomes abhorrent". The shift to monotheism provoked huge struggle among the Israelites, for example, and a deep contempt for anything that might be idolatry. The New Atheists might demonstrate this, suggests Armstrong; Dawkins is rejecting a particular conception of God, the God of a literal reading of the Bible who made the world in six days. What Dawkins would not be aware of (he is proud of never having read any theology) is that he shares this position with prominent 20th-century theologians such as Paul Tillich, who rejected this kind of belief as tantamount to idolatry. So New Atheism could be read as a violent reaction against a corrupted mythology in need of renewal.
The paradox of New Atheism is that in its bid to make religion unacceptable, it has contributed to making it a subject that is considered worth talking about again. As Micklethwait and Wooldridge point out, in the US there are now hundreds of thinktanks, institutes and courses dedicated to the subject. Any visitor to Comment is Free is aware of how religion attracts a huge number of posts; literary festivals routinely offer several sessions on religion. Books are churned out. Admittedly the debate can be horribly bad tempered and it is in as much danger of spreading intolerance as it is of enlightenment, but God hasn't attracted this quantity or intensity of debate for decades.
Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2010
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum