Attack of the Straw-New-Atheist

When I was growing up, and even when I was a young adult and a Jehovah's Witness, one of the things that would infuriate me to no end would be people who would tell me what I believed. They knew, even though they'd not spent day one inside a Kingdom Hall, precisely what teachings I subscribed to as a Jehovah's Witness, and would contradict me when I told them something that conflicted with their beliefs about what I believed. (Amy has similar frustrations with people who have come to Florida for vacation and who then think they understand the culture and make claims about it.) In fairness, I often did the reverse when I was preaching--I took the written claims by church fathers about things like the Trinity or hellfire and then tried to demolish them using scripture, and ran into brick walls when the beliefs of those I was preaching to differed from their church's dogma.

I use this example because we're seeing the inevitable pushback against the so-called New Atheism, and not just from Republican politicians like Mitt Romney (who recently flip-flopped again on whether he'd appoint an atheist to his cabinet). Salon has an interview with John Haught, a Roman Catholic theologian who has written a book titled God and the New Atheism, and he can't wait to bring out the straw-New-Atheist in order to destroy him. First question out of the box:

Your forthcoming book, "God and the New Atheism," is a critique of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. You claim that they are pale imitations of great atheists like Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre. What are they missing?

The only thing new in the so-called new atheism is the sense that we should not tolerate faith because, by doing so, we open people's minds to any crazy idea -- including dangerous ideas like those that led to 9/11.
Dawkins' primary thesis in The God Delusion has nothing to do with intolerance of religion, though it is nearly always cast that way--there's an ocean-sized gulf between being critical of religious belief and saying it should be done away with. I can't speak to Hitchens or Harris (though I've read some of Harris's essays, and they often have big logical problems that have nothing to do with atheism), but Dawkins is not espousing an intolerance for religion, and neither are most of the atheists I know. What Dawkins calls for is for people to stop giving religious beliefs a free pass from criticism. The more blowhard-ish of the religious critics claim that this is intolerant, that a lack of bowing and scraping to traditional religion somehow transforms non-believers into totalitarian assholes who would raze every church in the land and cast believers into re-education camps.

And I'm not exaggerating here. When Haught uses the phrase "we should not tolerate faith," he knows what he's doing--he's invoking the specter of religion as thoughtcrime, and that angers me because it's not only dishonest, it's personally insulting. No atheist I know thinks that it should become illegal to have faith in something. Some find faith more silly than others, and we find the extremes to be dangerous at times, but we don't advocate for its forced elimination. At worst, we hope to bring people around to our way of thinking, and convince them through reasoned argument.

But Haught isn't finished slaying the straw-new-atheist. Here's another example of just how little he understands the situation.
But why can't you have hope if you don't believe in God?

You can have hope. But the question is, can you justify the hope? I don't have any objection to the idea that atheists can be good and morally upright people. But we need a worldview that is capable of justifying the confidence that we place in our minds, in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I argue that an atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying that confidence. Some sort of theological framework can justify our trust in meaning, in goodness, in reason.
Well, I can't tell you how glad I am to discover that Mr. Haught doesn't object to the idea that I can be good and morally upright, though again, I am insulted that he feels my worldview isn't capable of justifying the confidence I place in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I carry all the justification I need inside my brain, Mr. Haught--I don't need an outside construct to appreciate the majesty of the universe. The universe is awesome enough on its own to overwhelm me, to provide me with transcendence, without dumping an overlay of meaning onto it. I don't need purpose to appreciate what exists.

There are tons of other examples. Haught claims, for example that atheists believe "since there's no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God." Curious word, should. I wouldn't use it in that context. In fact, I wouldn't make that statement at all. Again, the atheists I know simply feel that there is no cause to believe in a personal God, though many are open to the notion that the universe is a sort of mega-consciousness of which we are all a part, and that could be considered a god.

My point here is that while I appreciate Haught's efforts in bringing religious belief more in tune with scientific understanding--he was the only theologian to testify in the 2005 Dover, PA case about ID in the schools--he really needs to lay off of us atheists, especially if he's not going to actually address our stances and opinions.

Newer Post Older Post Home