Via P.Z. Myers I came across this article by Julian Baggini. Baggini is the editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine and the author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction.
The essay is rather weird. It begins with the standard brain-dead boiler-plate about how Dawkins et al are just too darn mean in their attacks against religion:
When I threw off my Christianity, I did not throw out my Bible, I just learned to read it properly. Intelligent atheism rejects what is false in religion, but should retain an interest in what is true about it. I don’t think many of my fellow atheists would disagree. Why is it, then, that we are increasingly seen as shrill, bishop-bashing fanatics who are tone deaf to the spiritual? The answer, I fear, is to be found in St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” In short, we had it coming.
Last week, in these pages, Madeleine Bunting spoke for many when she complained about the “foghorn volume” and “evangelical fervour” of the New Atheists, with their “contempt for religion”. The piece touched a nerve, producing an enormous volume of responses, including nearly 1,500 on Comment is free.
Atheists who criticised the details of Bunting’s argument missed the point. What it revealed is the negative perception people have of the godless hordes, and the New Atheism must share responsibility for creating its own caricature. You can’t publish and lionise books and TV series with titles like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The Root of All Evil? and then complain when people think you are anti-religious zealots.
Baggini, like all people who make this argument, provides no evidence that atheists are viewed more negatively as the result of the work of Dawkins and the others than they were before these books were published.
In the United States atheists have long been viewed so negatively that it is close to a mathematical impossiblity for a handful of books to make things worse. Changing that attitude is a long-term project that begins with mainstreaming atheism as a legitimate viewpoint. Accomplishing that goal requires a bit of screaming and yelling. The surprising success of the New Atheist books revealed that there is a far larger audience for these views than anyone previously believed. It started a conversation about atheism that is still going on today. We need a hundred more just like Dawkins, not a retreat into the polite silence that got us into our current predicament.
Granted, the cultural situation in England, where Baggini is located, is far different than in the United States. Still, one essayist for the Guardian claiming people don’t like the New Atheists is hardly evidence of a wide-scale backlash.
But just when I was ready to dismiss Baggini as a hack, his essay suddenly turned intelligent:
Bunting mentioned several such people: Karen Armstrong, Giles Fraser and Mark Vernon all appear reasonable, offering uncertainty in contrast to the conviction of the atheists. They flatter the woolly-minded by telling them vagueness is a virtue, not a vice. Only silly atheists and daft fundamentalists treat religious creeds as though they were factual descriptions of the real world, they say.
The idea that it is a modern distortion to think of religious beliefs as being factually true is manifest nonsense. If people thought their tenets of faith were metaphors, why did they torture or kill people who disagreed with them? Did doctrinal differences about Christ’s divinity have no role in Rome’s split from the Orthodox church? If literal truth is not what matters, why is it so hard to find a practising Muslim who’s prepared to say that the Angel Gabriel didn’t really dictate the Qur’an to the prophet?
Liberal believers and agnostics get away with this nonsense because religious belief is much more than a matter of doctrine, and practice can be as important, or more so. So while the atheists destroy simplistic, traditional creeds and dance on the ruins, much of the rest of the religious edifice remains intact. The fluffy brigade are then free to plant their flag on it unchallenged.
Atheists need to challenge these liberal theologians, so that they admit their vision of doctrine-lite faith is not a description of how true religion always was, but a manifesto for how it should be. If they do that and succeed, then good luck to them. I don’t care if people want to retain a sense of being religious, as long as what they believe stands up to intellectual scrutiny. Atheism needs critical friends as well as true non-believers, so that it is subjected to such scrutiny itself.
Now I’m confused. Those few paragraphs are every bit as hardcore and militant as anything the New Atheists are writing. Referring to religious moderates as wooly-minded and vague, and emphasizing the importance of challenging liberal theologians just as surely as more conservative ones, do not indicate a desire for peaceful reconciliation between atheism and religion.
Baggini finishes with:
Perhaps a period of New Atheist exuberance was necessary. At least it got people thinking, although I fear it has confirmed every negative stereotype about it. We now need to turn down the volume and engage in a real conversation about what of value is left of religion once its crude superstitions are swept away. If we don’t, we will only have ourselves to blame if the vague platitudes of Bunting and Armstrong win the war for hearts and minds.
But if even the vague platitudes of Bunting and Armstrong do not represent anything of value in religion, then what does? The crude superstitions are no good. Apparently the vague feeling of something transcendant is no good either. What is left?
Personally, I would consider it a great advance if this coumtry would choose vague platitutdes over the rigid dogmatism it currently favors. As for Baggini, I don’t know what his point is. He criticizes the New Atheists for attacking religion generally, but then repeats some of their most incendiary charges. He encourages us to have a conversation about what is of value in religion, but then derides even liberal theology as vague and wooly-minded. It’s all very strange.