Sunday, March 16, 2008

Are the roots of New Atheism in monotheistic religions?

Here is a long article by British philosopher John Gray, critiquing the New Atheists. Apart from taking on the usual suspects (Dakwins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett), he adds, Martin Amis, Michel Onfray, and even Phillip Pullman to the list. His main point is that the evangelical atheism of Dawkins etal has far more in common with monotheistic religions, such as Christianity and Islam, than this movement properly acknowledges:
Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living - their own, suitably embellished - is right for everybody. To be sure, atheism need not be a missionary creed of this kind. It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.
He later also took on the issue of liberalism:
Nowadays most atheists are avowed liberals. What they want - so they will tell you - is not an atheist regime, but a secular state in which religion has no role. They clearly believe that, in a state of this kind, religion will tend to decline. But America's secular constitution has not ensured a secular politics. Christian fundamentalism is more powerful in the US than in any other country, while it has very little influence in Britain, which has an established church. Contemporary critics of religion go much further than demanding disestablishment. It is clear that he wants to eliminate all traces of religion from public institutions. Awkwardly, many of the concepts he deploys - including the idea of religion itself - have been shaped by monotheism. Lying behind secular fundamentalism is a conception of history that derives from religion.
and on the notion of directional history and progress:

The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world's pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today's secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values - on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason. In contrast, evangelical atheists have positioned themselves as defenders of liberal freedoms - rarely inquiring where these freedoms have come from, and never allowing that religion may have had a part in creating them.

The article is long and it takes on too many issues to properly comment on them here succinctly (a shorter article with tighter editing would have been more effective). But its definitely worth reading, even if you don't agree with the premise. Here is the full article, The Atheist Delusion. (tip from 3quarksdaily)


Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Oddly enough, the Epicurians were atheists a full five centuries before the Christian faith (and surrounded by pagans)- and although they didn't have all the liberal freedoms we enjoy, I would say Greek democracy was rather good- there wouldn't be a comparably nice system until 2 milenia later (the Dutch Republic).

Heck, the scientific method was born in Ionia.

Aspentroll said...

John Gray stated:
"Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion."
One would wonder if this guy has even read the books written by Dawkins et al.

Almost everyone he mentions show real concern about what these Abrahamic religions are doing to undermine common sense in the world.
Can he not see or understand what has happened down through the ages, the results of the best these religions can do? Their deeds prior to the 20th century can almost be forgiven because they had no science to help them understand. To imagine that the same thinking is still ongoing here in the 21 century is appalling.

We are doomed when people like him hang out their shingles indicating their "enormous" knowledge. He is encouraging stupidity rather than trying to help matters.

Salman Hameed said...

While there is much to disagree about Gray's analysis, I think he initially does a good job of isolating features of religions that are similar to the New Atheists. Usually, this is what is missing from the discussion. Too often we say "science" and "religion". But these are too broad and too new categories (yes, even "religion" is a 19th century category). The debates are around specific characteristics of religion with specific characteristics of science. In that sense, his claim that about universal conversion, being inspired by Christianity and Islam is not that off. I think Gray gets into trouble when he links some of these concepts to liberalism and the rehashing of old arguments regarding Hitler and Stalin.

J. Daniel Kelly said...

Einstein, an atheist, in my opinion unknowlingly discovered "God" itself. Energy is, in fact the Supreme source of creation and life. Think about it. Jesus Christ knew nothing about the world or it's origin. How come? Was he not the son of "God." He and everything including life itself was created by Energy. How anyone can believe in the Bible (fiction) is beyond me. I can't find many people to agree with me. However, this knowledge satifies my quest for understanding.

Samuel Skinner said...

Heresy! It is gravity that is the one true faith. Did not Sagan reveal it in his works? Is it not all powerful and ever present? Who can stand against it- except for its hideous foe "dark energy".

(note- I don't worship gravity. Sagan did however say, when questioned "do you believe in a powerful force that prevades the universe" Yes- gravity)

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