A series of debates on religion in public life, running from February to May 2012 at RUSI, 61 Whitehall, SW1A 2ET, Wednesdays fortnightly, 5.30-7pm.
Between 2007-2012 £12m was invested by two research councils, the AHRC and ESRC, in the largest-ever funded research programme on ‘Religion and Society’. In this series leading academics will present findings arising from that research, for response by public figures. Together they will open up debate about the place of religion in public life today.
The series is organised by the Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Professor Linda Woodhead and Dr Rebecca Catto, in co-operation with Theos.
1. Religious Identity in ‘Superdiverse’ Societies – 8th Feb
- Trevor Phillips, Dominic Grieve, Kim Knott, Therese O’Toole
2. What’s the Place of Faith in Schools? – 22nd Feb
- Richard Dawkins, John Pritchard, Jim Conroy, Robert Jackson
3. What have we Learned about Radicalisation? – 7th March
- Mehdi Hasan, Ed Husain, Mark Sedgwick, Marat Shterin, Mat Francis
4. What role for Religious Organisations in an era of Shrinking Welfare? – 21st March
- David Blunkett, Peter Smith, Adam Dinham, Sarah Johnsen
5. What Limits to Religious Freedom? – 18th April
- Lisa Appignanesi, Maleiha Malik, Peter Jones
6. What are the main Trends in Religion and Values in Britain? – 2nd May
- Aaqil Ahmed, Cole Moreton, Linda Woodhead, Grace Davie
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to register for the debates you would like to attend, and visit http://www.religionandsociety.org.uk/faith_debates for further details.
The diary for 2012 is sure filling up! I’ll be presenting the following paper at Lancaster University as part of the (New) Atheism, Scientism and Open-Mindedness Conference, 2-3 April 2012.
New Atheism, Open-Mindedness and Critical Thinking
Based upon prevalent emic and etic presentations of “New Atheism” in the media and online, it is unlikely that one would feel inclined to describe the dominant discourse as ‘open-minded’. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the situation is much more nuanced than such a superficial overview would suggest. One of the key criticisms levelled at “religion” by four illustrative exemplars of “New Atheism” – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens – is that it stands in the way of knowledge and progress, and fosters a “totalitarian” atmosphere of submission to unquestionable authority. This portrayal of closed-minded “religion” is contrasted with one of the key aspects of the worldview they promote, where fully naturalistic and rational education is presented as essential for the good of humanity, allowing individuals – according to Dennett – “to make their own informed choices”.
Drawing upon William Hare’s extensive writings on the subject of “open-mindedness” and Harvey Siegel’s subsequent clarification of the relationship between “open-mindedness” and “critical thinking”, this paper shall consider the following three interrelated areas of “New Atheist” discourse: a) their critique of religion, b) the worldview they promote, and c) the framework within which these occur. I shall demonstrate that “critical thinking” – described by Siegel as a “sufficient (but not necessary) condition of open-mindedness” – is a key epistemic virtue extolled throughout the “New Atheist” texts. This contrasts markedly with the “religion” portrayed in their critique. I conclude, with reference to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of “paradigms” (adapted by Wayne Riggs), that the “New Atheist” position cannot be understood as “open-minded” (and neither, following Siegel, as involving “critical thinking”) through their apparent failure to engage with “religion” on its own terms, and the tendency towards propaganda and rhetoric inherent in their texts.
With four days to go until thesis submission, I just thought I’d let you know that I have finally had my journal article published! If you’d like any more information, please just get in touch. Here are the details:
Full citation: Cotter, Christopher R., 2011. “Consciousness Raising: The critique, agenda, and inherent precariousness of contemporary Anglophone atheism.” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 2 (1): 77-103.
From the editors preface:
The fourth article, Christopher R. Cotter’s “Consciousness Raising: The
Critique, Agenda, and Inherent Precariousness of Contemporary Anglophone
Atheism,” deals with a completely different area, contemporary atheism
(sometimes called the “new atheism”). The author discusses what agenda
is promoted in opposition to the criticized “religion.” Not only religion, but
also atheism, is changing over time and in specific contexts, and thus different
kinds of agendas are pursued. The author pinpoints certain characteristics
of contemporary atheism, bearing interesting resemblances to the New Age
And the abstract:
Atheism, as a subject in its own right, has received comparatively little scholarly attention in the past. This study begins by unpacking the term ‘atheism’, specifying an appropriate timescale and limiting the scope of the investigation to the work of four key authors. Their critiques of religion are considered and common themes under the appellation ‘dangerous religion’ are discerned. The author then pursues a closer reading of the texts, discerning what agenda is promoted in opposition to the heavily criticised ‘religion’, and discussing contemporary atheism in relation to Enlightenment values. Finally, the author examines why contemporary atheism fails to state its agenda more explicitly. The main players are shown to be individuals, with different foci that cannot be encapsulated by labels such as ‘Enlightenment’. Indications emerge of a ‘consciousness raising’ agenda, resulting from various factors that make contemporary unbelief a particularly organisationally ‘precarious’ phenomenon – a precariousness enhanced by an implicit ambivalent attitude to certain aspects of Christianity, and a correlation with Enlightenment, Romantic and New Age concerns.
Whilst eating my breakfast, I was watching BBC Breakfast News, and picked up on the following story: “Cardinal brands UK aid foreign policy ‘anti-Christian’”
Essentially, Cardinal Keith O’Brien ‘has attacked plans to increase aid to Pakistan to more than £445m, without any commitment to religious freedom for Christians.’
The key points of his argument, as reported by the BBC, are as follows:
Cardinal O’Brien said: “I urge William Hague to obtain guarantees from foreign governments before they are given aid.
“To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy.
“Pressure should now be put on the government of Pakistan – and the governments of the Arab world as well – to ensure that religious freedom is upheld, the provision of aid must require a commitment to human rights.”
He said the report’s [see article] estimate of persecution against Christians was “intolerable and unacceptable”.
“We ask that the religious freedoms we enjoy to practice our faith, will soon be extended to every part of the world and that the tolerance we show to other faiths in our midst will be reciprocated everywhere,” he added.
Now, I am not suggesting that any form of religious persecution is a good thing… it isn’t… it’s very bad. But, from my limited understanding of the basics of Christian teachings I am pretty baffled by the language utilised by the Cardinal… and the fact that he has made this statement at all.
One of the core teachings of Christianity is not only to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins et al commonly reduce it to – attacking Christianity for having an inward looking love), but is, in fact, to love your enemy. Take some of the following cherry-picked teachings from the New Testament (NIV translation):
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
People may attack me, saying that these are cherry-picked… but they are quite simply summations of universal core teachings of Christianity.
Persecution was seen in the early church as a prime sign of faith, and something to be celebrated:
2 Thessalonians 1:4
4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
Those believers whose faith withers in the face of persecution are castigated in the famous parable of the sower:
20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
I would counter Cardinal O’Brian with the following: it might just be that Britain’s foreign policy is too Christian for your diluted, decadent twenty-first century Western Christianity. I would maintain that the policy of giving aid to countries where Christians are persecuted is a supreme example of the Christian virtue of loving your enemy.
Personally, I wouldn’t be giving aid to a country which actively, systematically persecutes any people… and, personally, I think the government probably shouldn’t either. However, I am cynical, secular, and don’t have much faith in humanity’s ability to change without a bit of a push.
I would have expected a more ‘Christian’ response from a prominent leader of the Catholic church.
It has been a long time since I posted anything… clearly I have been busy. This is just a flying post, with a long quotation from Michael Shermer, which expresses something quite simple but profound.
“In fact, science is a type of myth if we think of myths as stories about ourselves and our origins (and not in the pejorative sense of myths as things “untrue”). Many gain considerable emotional, even “spiritual,” satisfaction from reading scientific articles and books by geologists about the creation of the Earth, by palaeontologists about the evolution of life, by paleoanthropologists about human origins, by archaeologists about the genesis of civilisation, by historians about the development of culture, and especially by cosmologists about the origins of the universe. Tens of millions of people watch Carl Sagan’s 1980 Cosmos series with rapt attention. In 1997 the PBS series Stephen Hawking’s Universe gripped viewers every Monday night. Books on evolution by Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Donald Johanson, and Edward O. Wilson are eagerly sought by readers and often find themselves on bestseller lists. Why? Because at these boundaries of scientific knowledge the lines between science, myth, and religion begin to blur as we ask ultimate questions about ourselves, our origins, and our place in the cosmos.”
Shermer, Michael. 1999. How we Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman, p. 29.
I think I have mentioned this before, but the way in which many people gobble up books on evolution, cognitive science, cosmology etc does seem to suggest an overriding underlying human need for narrative. This narrative might have been provided in the past by religion, but now more and more are turning to other forms of narrative. This is not to say that religion is ‘right’… just that it might fulfill a fundamental human function which can be replaced with other narratives…
Worth a think, eh?
How many of you have, on occasion, been simply baffled at the extreme views of leading figures of religion (and, significantly, nonreligion) across the globe?
What is it that makes evangelists like Pat Robertson think it is okay to come out with statements like this?
“If the widespread practice of homosexuality will bring about the destruction of your nation, if it will bring about terrorist bombs, if it’ll bring about earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor, it isn’t necessarily something we ought to open our arms to. ”
Pat Robertson, The 700 Club television program, August 6, 1998, on the occasion of the Orlando, Florida, Gay Pride Festival 1998, see here.
What is it which inspires Richard Dawkins to overstate his case with such hyperbolic statements as this (which Dawkins himself acknowledges as one of the most oft-quoted examples of a somewhat intentional hyperbolism):
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us who are school from infancy in his ways can become desensitised to their horror.” (Dawkins 2007, 51)
How can Osama Bin Laden feel justified in coming out with the following statement, with which the majority of Muslims would wholly disagree?
“We — with God’s help — call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.”
Osama Bin Laden (February 23, 1998). See here.
Now, clearly I am not equating these statements in any way, shape or form. Some of the views expressed above have the capacity to cause offense, some to cause people to lose their faith or their self esteem, and others which can have very drastic consequences for the lives of others. However, these statements (and countless millions more to which I don’t have quick and easy access) are all united in their distinct hyperbolism. They vastly overstate their position, and seemingly alienate not only those of opposing viewpoints, but also those within their own ‘community’ who hold more moderate views.
Why on earth do people do this? A potential answer, which I had never really thought about, jumped out at me from the pages of an article I was reading recently. Referring to the extreme positions taken by a number of high profile atheists (my area of expertise), Samuel Bagg and David Voas write:
“It doesn’t mean that every one of their followers will then become atheistic, just that the extreme position must be publicly taken in order to legitimise the moderate ones. In a process that Voas has earlier termed “diffusion”, the traits of a few visible figures may be copied by many others, and even if the original character and meaning of the trait is lost in the process, the copies will stand on their own. For example, cultural diffusion occurs when celebrities stop wearing fur because it represents cruelty to animals, and people on the high street stop wearing it because it is now unfashionable.” (Bagg and Voas 2010, 105)
This makes an awful lot of sense. Although I am not sure how conscious this would be on the part of leaders taking extreme standpoints, you can certainly see how pushing the boundaries of acceptable dialogue to greater and greater extremes allows more moderate positions to fill up the space in between. With every documentary that Dawkins makes for Channel 4, the message of contemporary atheism gets a little bit more socially acceptable. People may not buy into any of it, but they start to realise that smart people are out there saying very extreme things about religion, therefore it is okay to hold much diluted versions of those positions.
It also says a lot about the power of celebrity endorsement. Think of Tom Cruise and John Travolta in the Church of Scientology, or of Madonna and her Kabbalah. These are minority religious positions or movements which receive major attention and endorsement from individuals who are very publicly visible. Although many of us would like to think that we were not influenced by celebrity endorsements, I wonder how effective this sort of thing is?
A very tangible example that I can think of is the emergence of Darwinian evolution as a sort of meta-narrative for the contemporary atheistic cause. At a recent workshop I attended, Matt Sheard (Birbeck College, University of London), whose work focuses on Working Class Atheists in Britain (1900-1980) suggested that only two of his 70+ sources made any reference to Darwin in their personal atheistic ‘testimony’. Whilst I don’t have any statistics or references to provide, I think that most would agree with my subjective impression that Darwin is a BIG deal in contemporary atheism. One highly plausible suggestion that we discussed on the day was that Dawkins et al have done a remarkably good job in bringing Darwinism to the masses, and through constantly talking and writing about it have diffused this enthusiasm throughout contemporary atheism, and wider society at large. Whether a positive or negative, atheism lacks the overarching narratives which are bought into upon religious conversion or a religious upbringing… this focus on Darwinism, to some extent brought about by the leading figures of the contemporary atheistic cause, could be providing a very valuable function for the movement at large.
Personally this is something that I can totally relate to. I am going to say something potentially controversial – “I do not care about Darwin”. I just don’t. This doesn’t mean I don’t accept evolutionary theory. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t think it is a very important scientific advance which has benefitted humanity in innumerable ways over the past 150 years. However, I am not a scientist. I don’t want to read about it. I don’t want to hear about it. There are plenty of other things which I find much more interesting. However, the simple fact that I know what I know about evolutionary theory, that I consciously weigh the evidence and make a decision, and that I know that it is significant is for the most part down to the diffusion of that message throughout the contemporary atheistic milieu.
So… the next time you hear a celebrity or a religious or world leader making extreme statements and find yourself confused as to why anyone would expound such views, take a moment to think: “What does the presence of that position in the public domain do to the boundaries of socially acceptable positions?” Attitudes can change for better and for worse. It just may be that some of these extremely articulated positions aren’t as ill-conceived or naive or insensitive as might first appear. They may be part of a shrewd and well-thought out publicity campaign. And even if this is not the conscious purpose which they serve, with time they can shift the cultural barometer in their favour.
Bagg, Samuel, and David Voas. 2010. The Triumph of Indifference: Irreligion in British Society. In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 2: Global Expressions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 91-111. Santa Barbara: Praeger.
Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.
The question of what religion is, how we define it, where we find it, and how pervasive it is in people’s everyday lives is a question which plagues the discipline of Religious Studies. One interesting attempt to deal with this is set forth by Kelly Besecke in her 2005 Article “Seeing Invisible Religion: Religion as a Societal Conversation about Transcendent Meaning”. (Sociological Theory 23, June 2005, pp. 179-196). This post attempts to set forth her argument, contextualise it, and engage with some of the questions it raises.
The core of Besecke’s argument is that that “contemporary sociology conceptualises religion along two dimensions: the institutional and the individual” (Abstract), and this is a problem for her because the cultural dimension of religion is lost in this dichotomy.
She begins by illustrating the contemporary “religious conversation [occurring] in the United States”, and highlighting bestselling book titles, book clubs with names such as “Spiritual Pathways” and “Wisdom Tea”, talks & workshops, magazine articles and song lyrics which exemplify a “growing societal conversation about… “spiritual matters”” (179-80).
The point that she wishes to make from this initial depiction of the “milieu” is that we can
“look at such phenomena through a… lens… that highlights, instead of individuals and institutions, the important social role of interaction and communication. Seen through this “communicative” lens, the “spiritual matters” [sections of book stores look…] less like individualism in a narrow sense, and more like American society talking to itself about meaning” (181).
That, in a nutshell, is her theory.
She then proceeds to dissect and expand upon a work by Thomas Luckmann – The Invisible Religion – with which she generally agrees, but only up to a significant point. Luckmann importantly defines religion as primarily a meaning system or symbolic universe, and not as a social institution. (182-3):
“Symbolic universes are socially objectivated systems of meaning that refer, on the one hand, to the world of everyday life and point, on the other hand, to a world that is experienced as transcending everyday life.” (Luckmann, 1967:43)
In this sense it is easy to see how religion can be viewed as part of culture… which does indeed meet people in their daily life, but transcend it also.
- Think of African Independent/Indigenous Churches, which are distinct entities in their own right, incorporating much of local culture, custom, rite and practice, and would potentially be denounced by many “orthodox” “Western” Christians, as un-Christian
- But then think of Christianity as an overarching whole…
Besecke stakes her claim strongly:
“Religious meanings and other meanings are in the same general category – “meaning” – they are all symbolic representations, they are all culture. Religious meanings are a type of meaning; if culture is shared meanings and practices, then religion is shared meanings and practices that point people to a transcendent reality. In this sense, religion is to culture as Meaning is to meaning.” (184)
Here she is claiming, in line with Luckmann, that religious meanings, consisting of symbols such as God, Tao, Christ, Brahman etc are “the topmost layer of th[e] hierarchy of meanings that constitutes a society’s culture” (184).
At this point I couldn’t help but wonder: In what way are religious meanings the pinnacle of culture? I assume from the context in which she writes this that she means that conversations about ultimate concerns are the highest point of our cultural development, and in some way the most important questions for the vast majority of people… What about the scientific “worldview”, which many would see as a higher level of the hierarchy of meanings:
“I prefer to say that I believe in people [not God], and people, when given the right encouragement to think for themselves about all the information now available, very often turn out not to believe in God and to lead fulfilled and satisfied – indeed, liberated – lives.” Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion 2007 )
A second important consequence of “religion’s cultural nature is what Luckmann calls its “objectivated” status” (184):
“By describing religious meanings [as] “objectivated”, Luckmann opens the way to understanding meaning as a public phenomenon; as something that is not just for individuals, but for societies. […] So religious meaning is not just an individual phenomenon; neither is it just an institutional phenomenon. […] Religion exists in the social world as culture exists in the social world – via shared meanings and practices.”
To me this rings very true, especially in contemporary Britain where most people won’t participate in any formal worship, or may not even give much thought to their own personal faith… but will still participate in the culturally normative religious practices… Christmas, funerals and weddings, memorial services, “praying” for success/people…
This idea can also be seen in contemporary critiques of religion as well… Here we see Stephen Fry divorcing religion from religious institution:
“I have no quarrel, and no argument, and I wish to express no contempt for individual devout and pious members of [The Catholic] Church. It would be impertinent and wrong of me to express any antagonism towards any individual who wishes to find salvation in whatever form they wish to express it. That to me is sacrosanct as much as any article of faith is sacrosanct to anyone of any church or of any faith in the world.”
Stephen Fry (Intelligence Square Debate on the motion “Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?”). Around 2mins in to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvDz9_5me74&feature=related
This is the point where Besecke leaves Luckmann’s argument behind. Luckmann argues that in late modernity, religion became increasingly privatised. However, whilst this is arguably the case, her problem is with his statement that “Religion today [is] essentially a phenomenon of the private sphere” (1967:103). She believes this characterisation has been picked up by almost all sociologists, but rarely challenged, with the notable exception of Jose Casanova’s Public Religions in the Modern World.
There are three tendencies of this characterisation:
- The limitation of the public sphere to religious, political and economic institutions
- The assumption that authority has moved from the institutions to the individual
- “For many scholars, “private seems to be shorthand for “socially inconsequential” (186).
The problems are fairly easy to see here: what is it that people talk about, blog about, listen to, read, think… are these private or public? And who has authority? And in what way are they inconsequential?
Besecke and I agree here: “Much of the religion that has been interpreted as privatised religion or religious individualism is remarkably “public” in the more common-sense definition of the word” (187).
- This brings to my mind the idea of New Ages seekers: the role of a seeker is embedded in social relationships – pairs, groups, audiences and networks…
- To what extent could any religion be designated private? Even a hermit who had never had any contact with anyone… regardless of the fact that through our observation and/or questioning their religion would cease to be private… even if it could be observed without interfering, their religious ideas would have been based upon influences from the physical world… from outside…
- However, there always is a private dimension… all Christians will have a different conception of Christianity… this may even be impossible to get at empirically as they may give identical answers to questions… so does this mean religion is inherently private?
Besecke then proceeds on a largely “common-sensical” description of how important communication is to culture, which I think you’ll appreciate during discussion. It is largely summed up by Bella et al (Habits, 1985:27): “Cultures are dramatic conversations about things that matter to their participants”. However, she importantly points out that “empirical studies of communication have focused almost exclusively on communication that takes place in church, in seminary, or in interviews with individuals who identify as members of a particular church”… sermons, statements by religious leaders, conversion tactics etc [see as Wood (1999) Lukenbill (1998) Wittberg (1997) Bouma and Clyne (1995) Caroll and Marler (1995), Wuthnow (1994)] … But these are completely missing the point!
She proposes a definition of religious culture as “a societal conversation about transcendent meanings” (190)
“Communication is what makes God socially real” (190)
A question I would throw out there at this point is that conversation implies something two way… if there is a seeker who is engaging with reading material, DVDs, CDs and attending lectures etc., but not talking to others, what is this? And on p. 192 there is another problem. Besecke’s fieldwork included a living room discussion event, The Mystic Heart, where a small group (50 or so) got together to talk generally about “mysticism”. In assessing this through her “communicative lens”, Besecke writes: It is religion, it is people talking with each other about transcendent meaning.” What about atheistic discourse? Pub chats? Philosophy? In all of these cases people can be talking about religion… about transcendent meaning… but in no sense of the word “religion” can they said to be in any way being “religious”.
It is true that Besecke has taken the burden off institutional religion: “they now can be understood as important interlocutors, perhaps important nodes or centres for a society-wide conversation about transcendent meanings, rather than bearing the burden of having to be religion in an otherwise secular society” (192). But it may possibly be too wide…
Importantly, for the secularisation/re-enchantment debate:
This allows religion to be found in a whole host of places where it would not normally be looked for, which definitely rescues religion from the Secularisation Thesis.
“if we… recognise the social power of communication, then the secularity of a society would be measured by the extent to which members of that society are communicating with each other about transcendent meaning. Put differently, […] religion can influence a society by permeating its social institutions, by shaping its individual members, and by influencing the character of its culture through communication.” (193)
This brings to mind Colin Campbell’s Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (1971). He proposes the idea that thorough irreligiosity leads to seeing religion as totally irrelevant… not even a conscious rejection (39). If society were totally secular, “the irreligious message would be ignored as much as the religious” (124)… this is clearly not the case…
Hopefully I have demonstrated that Besecke is clearly on to something here… but that whilst finding religion in conversations about “transcendent meaning” is sometimes possible, and certainly a worthwhile enterprise, these conversations are by no means sufficient to “be” religion, in any sense of the word, and that they sometime can be as far away from religion as Nick Clegg is from his pre-election promise to keep his promises.
I have just finished reading Amarnath Amarasingam’s recent journal article “To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists” (2010), and I really don’t know how to react. I found myself agreeing emphatically with some of his well-researched points, and yet at other times I was hitting the roof at how unfair and inappropriate some of his statements were. To that end, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the article… positive and negative… and hopefully you can draw your own conclusions.
Firstly, Amarasingam writes:
‘The academic community, with a few exceptions, has largely dismissed the[ New Atheists’] writings as unsophisticated, crude, and lacking nuance.’ (574)
This is not necessarily a criticism of Amarasingam, but a criticism of most academic treatments of atheism (‘New’ or ‘old’). What I want to know is what gives the academic community the right to do this? I guess it is possible to do this from a philosophical perspective… but if we are looking at these texts from a religious studies perspective, it is not our place to critique them in this way. Imagine if a religious studies scholar read something by Karl Barth or al-Ghazali and deemed it ‘unsophisticated’, ‘crude’ or ‘lacking nuance’! According to http://info.wlu.ca/randc/phd/phd-students.html, Amarasingam is a PhD student in Religious Studies, ‘working in the area of sociology of religion with a focus on social theory’, yet he refers to New Atheism as an “evangelical revival and repackaging of old ideas” and deems the frequency of comments posted in the Converts Corner of Dawkins’ website ‘ad nauseum’.
Amarasingam begins by discussing what he describes as “the fundamental attribution error. This is:
“a pervasive tendency on the part of observers to overestimate personality or dispositional causes of behaviour and to underestimate the influence of situational constraints on behaviour’’
Tetlock, PE, 1985. “Accountability: a social check on the fundamental attribution error” in Psychology Quarterly, 48(3):227-236, p. 227.
‘I am not arguing that secularists are the only group that succumb to attribution biases. Christians may view Muslims as a coherent whole, even though this is far from the case, and Muslims in turn may view secularists with similar biases. However, I focus on the new atheism, because it often presents itself as an objective, value-free, and universal critique of religion en bloc.’ (575)
‘One of the most replicated […tendencies that individuals exhibit when attempting to understand why others behave the way they do] is one in which individuals assume that some stable dispositional or attitudinal characteristic lies behind the behaviour of another. [… P]eople often downplay situational reasons for the actions of others while overestimating the significance of dispositional causes.’ (575)
So far so good. I can totally relate to this. As human beings we all too frequently make statements such as “That’s so typical of a…”, without giving that ‘other’ the respect that we would give ourselves by discerning situational reasons for such-and-such an action/statement/belief/etc.
However, Amarasingam suddenly stumbles when he states that ‘It must be noted that religious belief is best treated as a situational cause of individual behaviour, and not as a disposition’ (576). Why is this the case? He provides no justification for making this statement and just assumes that it is obvious. He continues:
‘At times, [New Atheists] effectively treat religion as a social constraint and critique it accordingly. At other times, they treat individual religious actions as if they were dispositional.’ (576)
But is it not both? Doesn’t everyone do this when they assess things? I see his point… we should treat religious actions as both dispositional and situational… but I would imagine that everyone is guilty of focussing on one to the detriment of the other at specific instances in time. The fact that they consider both aspects throughout their writings could be seen as a positive… Just a thought…
Amarasingam then moves on to the following statement from Sam Harris:
‘‘The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not ‘cowards’, as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith – perfect faith, as it turns out – and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.’’(2006, 67)
From this, Amarasingam somehow infers that, ‘For Harris, all that is required to understand the terrorist acts of 9/11 is the knowledge of the fact that these individuals were people of faith. Situational causes – Western injustice, geopolitical realities, etc. – do not need to be factored into the equation’ (576). Whilst I understand the point that he wishes to make, my problem is with the statement ‘all that is required’… Harris does not say this at all. He makes it quite plain that ‘faith’ is what he sees to be the most important element… but he does not say that it is all that is required. That being said, I do agree with his further elaboration that: ‘To continue to argue that religion is about blind faith and not open to discussion and criticism seems disingenuous’ (576).
At this point I had a thought. Could it have been that the idea of religion and science as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) stopped civilised debate occurring between atheistic and theistic positions before the publications of New Atheistic literature? Could the New Atheists’ books be a deliberate overstatement to force the religious to clarify their position and open up a dialogue?
One of the things that Amarasingam does well, is to draw attention to these massive overstatements which lace the texts of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. He writes:
‘Although there is much in Hitchens’ text to admire, and several philosophical arguments to take seriously, his presentation of basic historical facts about religion as if they are revelatory is rather perplexing, especially since most religious people (not to mention theologians and scholars of religion) have known about them for years.’ (576)
As a ‘scholar of religion’, and someone who has had experience with religious faith, I could not agree more. Most religious people are well aware of the inconsistencies of their religious tradition, and
‘just because [they] have learned to live with inconsistencies in their religious tradition, this does not mean that they practice blind faith. Hitchens’ claim that religion is man-made is particularly revealing as he believes himself, once having stated it, to have made a devastating critique of religion.’ (577)
Just as in science, religious people tend to adapt to new revelatory facts about their faith by accepting, adapting and revising, or stubbornly sticking to old paradigms. This is human nature… the religious do not all, or even mostly, live up to the caricature depicted by many atheists. They do not all stubbornly resist the discoveries of history and science, but take them, work with them, and attempt to understand them and work them into their worldview.
Whilst it pains me to agree with him, the theological critique of John Haught hits the nail on the head, when he writes that in arguing that faith is simply
‘‘‘belief without evidence,’’ the new atheists are undermining ‘‘the intended universality’’ of their condemnation of faith: ‘‘Even one white crow is enough to show that not all crows are black, so surely the existence of countless believers who reject the new atheists’ simplistic definition of faith is enough to place in question the applicability of their critiques to a significant sector of the religious population’’’ (577)
Citing Haught, JF, 2008. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 62
Amarasingam continues to hit the nail on the head, when he finds Dawkins, in an interview on Youtube, stating, in opposition to this criticism, that
‘“it’s no good saying ‘oh, that’s not my kind of Christianity!’ Well fine, it is not your kind of Christianity, but I didn’t write the book for you’’ […]. Such candid statements by Dawkins contradict the intended universality of his writings. It is unclear, then, whether the writings of the new atheists are aimed at religious fundamentalists or religion en bloc.’ (577)
Getting back to the fundamental attribution error, Amarasingam writes:
‘when the group that we are a member of performs a positive act, we are more likely to see that act as stemming from a dispositional trait. But, when this in-group performs a negative act, we are more likely to see it as stemming from situational, contextual, causes. When it comes to the out-group, however, we tend to do the opposite.’ (578)
This certainly makes sense, and is something which Richard Dawkins draws attention to himself.
‘When their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children [considered in an experiment by George Tamarin in Israel] agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share. […] But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts in early life. [… Religion] made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.” (Dawkins 2007, 292)
‘As Pettigrew (1979: 464) has noted, there ‘‘appears to be a positivity bias for intimate others, such that you grant them the benefit of the doubt by attributing positive actions to dispositional causes and negative actions to situational causes’’ […] Similarly, there is often a negativity bias, where the situational constraints of a negative action performed by an individual member of a disliked group are underplayed in favour of dispositional explanations. ‘‘And often when race and ethnicity are involved, these attributions will take the form of believing the actions to be a result of immutable, genetic characteristics of the derogated group in general – the bedrock assumption of racist doctrine’’ (Pettigrew, 1979: 465). Although I am certainly not calling the new atheists racist, they do, as we will see, repeatedly fall victim to what is known as the ‘‘ultimate attribution error’’: whenever a member of the out-group (i.e. adherents to a particular religion) perform a positive act inconsistent with their overall view of the group (i.e. all religious people), the new atheists either dismiss it as an exception to the rule or deny that religion had anything to do with the positive act. The reverse is true when the new atheists deal with their in-group (other secularists).’ (578)
Citing Pettigrew, TF, 1979. “The ultimate attribution error: extending Allport’s cognitive analysis of prejudice” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 5:461-476.
‘As Sam Harris (2006: 78) notes, ‘‘the fact that faith has motivated many people to do good things does not suggest that faith is itself a necessary (or even a good) motivation for goodness.’’ This is indeed true: faith, and/or religion, is not necessary for people to be good. However, neither is it a sufficient element for the perpetration of evil. Harris (2006: 78–79), however, does not allow for this: ‘‘By contrast, the most monstrous crimes against humanity have invariably been inspired by unjustified belief. This is nearly a truism.’’ Here we see the ultimate attribution error in full bloom.’ (579)
From my own experience of New Atheist literature, this criticism certainly rings true. However, I would disagree when Amarasingam turns to the New Atheist criticism of the Holocaust. Taking Sam Harris’s statement that ‘knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion’’ (2006:79), Amarasingam writes:
‘Such attribution errors are common in the new atheist corpus. Harris does not even attempt to explain why, if Christian anti-Semitism was the sole driving force behind the Holocaust, the Nazis also attempted to eliminate the Romani people, the deaf, the disabled, as well as homosexuals’ (580).
Sam Harris has not stated that Christian anti-Semitism was the “sole driving force” behind the Holocaust, but that the Nazis were fulfilling a path laid by the religious situation in Germany at this time. Whilst it is not debatable that the Holocaust targeted many more people than just ‘the Jews’, these were certainly the primary targets of Hitler’s extermination. And whilst ‘religion’ is not the only factor involved here, a brief glance at the situation of the Jews in Europe in general in the centuries leading up to the Holocaust, and particularly in Germany will demonstrate that the common, and indeed Christian, attitude to the Jews was largely responsible for providing an atmosphere in which the Holocaust could happen.
To take but a few examples of Christian anti-Semitism at the time of Hitler, Joachim Hossenfelder (1932) – wrote that the Church must help “cleanse the German nation of the foreign blood of the Jews”, Reinhold Krause (1933) declared the Old Testament, the apostle Paul, and the symbol of the Cross to be debilitating signs of Judaism, and Bishop Muller (1934) decreed that Hitler was to be considered the supreme authority of the church. This anti-Semitism was not new to the twentieth century, but had been present for many years before, in the writings of, for example, Wilhelm Marr (1879), Heinrich von Trietschke (1880), and of course the composer Richard Wagner, who wrote in 1850 that moneyed Jews “held it wise to make a Christian baptism wash away the traces of [their origin]”, and that “to become man at once with us, however, means firstly for the Jew as much as ceasing to be a Jew.”
I am not wishing to argue here that Christianity was responsible for Hitler. But simply that Amarasingam is being unnecessarily harsh to Sam Harris in this instance. I would thoroughly recommend seeing (Ericksen and Heschel 1999) for more information on this issue.
Turning to the idea of group consensus, Amarasingam writes that:
‘at times, the[ New Atheists] complain that organizing their fellow secular humanists is a bit like ‘‘herding cats’’ because they are ‘‘such independent thinkers,’’ while viewing religion as homogeneously irrational. At other times, they view themselves as a homogeneous, enlightened whole, fighting back superstition.’ (582)
Whilst I agree that there is some ambiguity here, it would be helpful is Amarasingam included some citations (see my previous post). And can these not be the same thing? Can a group of enlightened, independent thinkers, not fight back superstition in their own individual ways? However, this is me simply being a pedant. Continuing once more:
‘When faced with a threatening group, ‘‘perceivers are quite willing to infer the presence of a consensus without much information simply because they want  to see the group as a unified whole’’ (Corneille et al., 2001: 440). Such biases will become apparent below when we explore the new atheist treatment of Islam.’ (583-4)
Citing Cornielle O, Yzerbyt VY, Rogier A and Buidin B (2001) “Threat and the group attribution error: when threat elicits judgements of extremity and homogeneity” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27:437-446.
‘For Harris, the out-group, Islam, is indeed thoroughly homogeneous. For example, he argues that ‘‘If a twenty-first century  Muslim loses his faith, though he may have been a Muslim only for a single hour, the normative response, everywhere under Islam, is to kill him’’ (2006: 115; italics added). If we are to believe Harris, Muslims, regardless of whether they live in Dearborn or Dubai, live under the fear of death if they even contemplate apostasy. As Corneille et al. (2001: 440) noted, individuals are more than willing to believe there is a consensus in a given community simply because they wish to see this community as homogeneous.’ (584-5)
I could not agree more! This monolithic treatment of Islam is completely and utterly inaccurate and misleading.
Amarasingam begins his conclusion stating that his ‘paper has argued that insights gleaned from social psychology – particularly the fundamental attribution error, out-group homogeneity bias, etc. – are especially useful for critiquing the new atheism’ (585).
As I began this post, so I will say again… yes within the context of social psychology it is definitely okay to make this sort of critique. However, I ask once more: how appropriate is it for a religious studies scholar to be critiquing the position of a group of people who are essentially articulating their position on religion?
That being said, Amarasingam has a point when he cites McGrath and Collicutt McGrath (although the majority of their book is utter twaddle), who state that (2007, 22, 50):
‘similarly note that one of the main characteristics of the new atheism is its presentation of ‘‘the pathological as if it were normal, the fringe as if it were the center, crackpots as if they were mainstream. It generally works well for his intended audience, who can be assumed to know little about religion and probably care for it even less. But it’s not acceptable. And it’s certainly not scientific.’’’ (586)
Drawing attention to another Youtube interview, this time between Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, Amarasingam finds Dawkins confused by Harries’ liberal stance on Christian dogma. On hearing about this, ‘Dawkins responds: ‘‘This, of course, is all music to my ears, but I’m kind of left wondering, why you stick with Christianity at all!’’ Harries (YouTube, 2008a) rightly responds that perhaps Dawkins has spent too much time in fundamentalist circles’ (586).
It is a point…
Amarasingam, Amarnath. 2010. To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists. Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 39, no. 4: 573-588.
Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.
Ericksen, Robert P., and Susannah Heschel, eds. 1999. Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Harris, Sam. 2006. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. London: The Free Press.
McGrath, Alister, and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. 2007. The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the denial of the divine. London: SPCK.
Yesterday I chanced upon Atheist Climber’s interesting post on “The Atheist Re-Enlightenment” whilst browsing around reddit.com, and this inspired me to make available the third chapter of my undergraduate dissertation, in a slightly updated and “blog-ified” format. This chapter was entitled “The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda” and assessed the views and agenda(s) I have discerned in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and compared them with my (fairly general) impression of the views and agenda(s) of prominent Enlightenment thinkers. I hope it illustrates some of the merits and pitfalls of referring to a contemporary Enlightenment, spearheaded by certain individuals or a more general atheistic movement, and provides some interesting starting points for discussion.
The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda
Although it can be inferred from representative literature that contemporary atheism pushes a liberal agenda in favour of a peaceful, moral co-existence, where rational inquiry can be freely practised, positive expressions of this are difficult to find. This blog post teases out positive expressions from the representative writings and utilises these, in addition to the contemporary atheistic criticism of religion, to consider whether contemporary atheism promotes a twenty-first-century return to Enlightenment values. Following a brief presentation of these values, I consider various key points of contact, before concluding that there is an agenda at work, which has been heavily influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, but also incorporates certain aspects of Romantic and anti-clerical thought.
As with any historical period, it is misleading to refer to “the Enlightenment” as a distinct, bounded phenomenon. Different Enlightenments occurred at different times during the eighteenth-century, and localised terms for “enlightenment” carried different meanings within these contexts (Outram, 2005:1). However, these contextual usages delineate a consistent theme of new light bringing fresh and deep understanding. As will become clear, it is almost always possible to find a counter-example to any simplistic designation of the Enlightenment position. However, this acknowledgement does not negate certain commonalities of spirit and purpose. It is possible to speak of the Enlightenment as an “historical fact” and an “ideal reconstruction” (Crocker, 1969:1). Whilst the individuality of various writers means that ‘the Enlightenment’ is in many ways an ideal reconstruction, it is also a “fact inasmuch as a group of writers, working self-consciously, […]sought to enlighten [humanity], using critical reason to free minds from prejudices and unexamined authority” (ibid). Humanity seemed to be freeing itself from the superstitions of the past, “human omniscience” seemed an attainable goal (Berlin, 1979:14 cf. Hampson, 1990:150-151), and people believed, with Kant, that “we are indubitably living in an age of enlightenment” (in Hof, 1997:165).
As I am not attempting to assess theological critiques of the Enlightenment, this greatly reduces the sources available for an examination of its relationship with contemporary atheism. Also, due to the large number of Enlightenment sources, I proceed from contemporary atheistic writings, and compare their implicit and explicit vision with the Enlightenment. However, the writers considered as Enlightenment representatives are by no means all atheists. Whilst “Baron d’Holbach [1723-1789] and Jacques-André Naigeon were the two foremost proselytisers for materialistic atheism during the French Enlightenment” (Kors, 1992:273), their contemporary, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) cared little “if his atheistic manuscripts saw the light of day” (ibid). Voltaire and Rousseau were most certainly deists, with Rousseau believing that atheism was immoral, arrogant, and philosophically untenable (ibid:287). And there is evidence that other thinkers, such as Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Priestly, George Berkeley and Isaac Newton maintained a Christian faith, believing that “reason and revelation went largely hand in hand” (Hyland, 2003:60). Therefore, any similarities discerned between the views of “the Enlightenment” and those of contemporary atheism cannot include a denial of God’s existence.
Explicit calls for a new Enlightenment can be found in the work of Hitchens and Dawkins. In the final chapter of God is not Great, “The Need for a New Enlightenment”, Hitchens calls for “a renewed Enlightenment” which is well “within the compass of the average person” (2008:277-283). This enlightenment is seen in direct opposition to the religious alternative being delineated “with extraordinary vividness” (2007b:xxvi). Similarly, Dawkins writes the following in his “Mission Statement” for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science – “The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science…” – clearly seeing the defence of the Enlightenment as an imperative for his foundation.
It is much more difficult to find such explicit declarations in the work of Dennett and Harris. There are instances where they have participated in lecture series’ promoting Enlightenment values (Enlightenment 2.0, the Enlightenment Lecture Series), and Dennett indicates his displeasure that the spirit of the Enlightenment hasn’t led to a scientific examination of religion (2007:49). However, despite frequent insinuations and provocations from public comments, Dennett refrains from mentioning the Enlightenment in seventeen articles published in the Washington Post, and Harris only mentions it five times in passing in the fifty published articles listed on his website, suggesting that they are intentionally avoiding utilising the term. If anyone can alert me to any writings by these authors which do explicitly refer to the Enlightenment, I would be delighted to have them brought to my attention. However, on the basis of the evidence I have seen to date, it appears that two representatives of contemporary atheism make sparing references to their Enlightenment agenda, and two either fail to make this explicit, or intentionally avoid doing so. Whilst potential reasons for this are discussed in another of my posts, these observations indicate that if an Enlightenment worldview is being presented, it is implicit rather than explicit.
Through previous research, I concluded that religion is overwhelmingly portrayed as physically, morally and intellectually dangerous by contemporary atheism. On this subject, the general Enlightenment position held that through reason, humanity was “freeing itself from the prejudices and superstitions that had produced so much blind cruelty in the past” and from the “repressive and disciplinary role” of Christianity (Hampson, 1990:150-151,155 cf. Dupré, 2004:251). Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a Protestant, believed that Christians “are encouraged to cruel intolerance by beliefs that arouse their aggressive passions” (Crocker, 1969:10). And in a striking prelude to the writings of Harris and Hitchens, d’Holbach asserted that God is known “only by the ravages, the disputes, and the follies which he has caused upon earth” (in Hyland, 2003:89).
On the immorality of religion, in addition to the overwhelming denunciation of religiously inspired violence, Voltaire criticises biblically celebrated immoral actions (e.g. Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac) (Gay, 1964:28) and derides the Christian optimists who “accepted that evil was just a necessary part” of the world (Hyland, 2003:61). D’Holbach was of a similar opinion (ibid:89), and David Hume held that “religions result in cruel persecutions, bigotry, strife between sects or between sects and the civil power, and the hunting down of unorthodox opinions” (Gaskin, 1993:xvii). Concerning the non-religious origin of morals, Hume speaks for the Enlightenment, writing: “Their root [morals] strikes deeper into the mind, and springs from the essential and universal properties of human nature” (1993a:183).
Finally, in 1947, Horkenheimer and Adorno stated that “the Enlightenment had always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. […]The programme of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world: […]the substitution of knowledge for fancy” (in Outram, 2005:6). Although this was an anti-Enlightenment polemic, it provides an accurate account of the Enlightenment opinion on knowledge and religion. Condorcet (1743-1794) opposed both the church and belief in God “because it perpetuated ideas detrimental to progress” (Hof, 1997:262); Voltaire thought that “it was to the interest of ecclesiastics everywhere to keep men in the condition of ignorant and submissive children” (Gay, 1964:44); and Kant maintained that the churches made their “domestic cattle dumb” (in Hyland, 2003:54). As with the previous two points of discussion, these points of commonality cannot sufficiently support a declaration that contemporary atheists are promoting an Enlightenment worldview. However, they do demonstrate that the key themes through which these atheists couch their opposition to religion found significant expression in the writings of the Enlightenment. These similarities also emphasise an anti-clerical regime which can stand apart from ‘atheism’, suggesting that contemporary atheism inadvertently endorses a secular reformist Christianity…
In his critique of the Enlightenment, Hegel wrote: “When all prejudice and superstition has been banished, the question arises: Now what?” (in Outram, 2005:109). If this question is applied to contemporary atheism it perfectly encapsulates the scope of this investigation. When the negative critique of contemporary religion is stripped away, what positive intentions can be discerned? When referring to ‘positive intentions’, the term “positive” is not used in an evaluative sense, but denotes the active courses of action proposed, as opposed to the negative criticism of religion. Thus, this analysis focuses on four key aspects of the worldview promoted by contemporary atheism, and discusses parallels with the Enlightenment: the promotion of knowledge and understanding for all; the belief that the atheistic worldview is life-affirming and life-enhancing; the stance on the continued existence of religion; and the emphasis on the majesty and wonder of nature.
Throughout contemporary atheistic writings there is a recurrent emphasis on the importance of knowledge. Bafflement as to why anyone would choose religious faith over the pursuit of knowledge is exemplified when Dawkins cites Douglas Adams: “I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day” (2007b:142 cf. Hitchens, 2008:278; Harris, 2006:48). Dennett emphasises the importance of this pursuit, believing that the only constant of human nature left in our post-modern, scientific age may be “our incessant curiosity” (2010:xxiii). However, this emphasis is no mere corollary of the Enlightenment denunciation of religion’s obstruction of knowledge. Yes “imposing ignorance is shameful”, but there is nothing shameful in ignorance itself (Dennett, 2007:339). “The average person [now has] access to insights that not even Darwin or Einstein possessed” (Hitchens, 2008:282) and should be allowed “to make their own informed choices” (Dennett, 2007:327) Including in matters of religion (ibid:327-328). This same concern to promote knowledge, above and beyond objecting to its censure, can be seen clearly in Enlightenment writings: Rousseau aimed “to free children from the tyranny of adult prejudice and expectation” (Hyland, 2003:83); Voltaire believed the clergy should be “told what to teach and how to teach it” (Gay, 1964:31); and “the mere diffusion of accurate and up-to-date information” was an important part of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Hampson, 1990:86). However similar to the contemporary atheists’ concern for education this might seem, there are several important differences. Firstly, this concern to educate does not appear to have extended to the ‘common’ people. Aside from the expense of the Encyclopédie restricting its circulation (Hampson, 1990:86), there is evidence that Voltaire, d’Holbach, Diderot and Naigeon (ibid:160-161; Kors, 1992:299-300) “took the existence of an unteachable majority for granted” (Hampson, 1990:160). Secondly, it was a common thought that unrestricted use of reason was either undesirable (Kant in Outram, 2005:1) or simply impossible (Diderot and Voltaire in Hampson, 1990:96 cf. 78-79). And thirdly, it was regularly argued, in the words of the Benedictine Louis-Mayeul Chaudon (1775), that “the study of physics” could be put into the service of religion, as a cure for both atheism and superstition (in Kors, 1992:288 cf. Voltaire in Hampson, 1990:78-79). These widespread views indicate that whilst contemporary atheists may be influenced by these initial, tentative steps, their emphasis on a fully naturalistic and rational education for all takes them above and beyond the pale of the Enlightenment writers.
Dawkins states that “the atheist view is correspondingly life-affirming and life-enhancing” (2007b:405). This double affirmation is passionately expressed in quite romantic language, by the other writers: “we have been given a lot to love” (Dennett, 2007:253) and once people have embraced reason, and “accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives” (Hitchens, 2008:6) they will “feel in their bones just how precious life is” (Harris, 2007:54 cf. 2006:226). Again there is a correlation between these views, and the general purport of the Enlightenment. The core of Voltaire, Hume and Kant’s ethics “was a favourable estimate of human nature and of the human enterprise” (Gay, 1964:135), and even the devout Anglican, Dr Johnson (1709-1784), acknowledged that “pity is […]acquired and improved by the cultivation of reason” (Hampson, 1990:159). However similar these views may seem to those of contemporary atheists, the majority of these expressions were not based upon a materialistic atheism (Kors, 1992:296-7), but upon a re-examination of the relationship between man, religion and the deity. Therefore any correlation between contemporary atheism and Enlightenment thinkers on this matter seems purely coincidental.
There are few other issues on which there is so much disagreement than contemporary atheistic attitudes towards the continued existence of religion. At some points it appears that the aim is the complete eradication of religion – people should be protected from being “infected” by, or “hooked” on religion (Dennett, 2007:85; Dawkins, 2007e:306 cf. Harris, 2006:14,227). At others, the “spiritual” aspects of life are celebrated in such a way that allows Harris to say, without a hint of irony, that in a world without God “there would be a religion of reason” (Wolf, 2006, cf. Dennett, 2007:23,55,303,311; Harris, 2006:16,30-41,221). Hitchens indicates that he would be happy if religious people simply left him alone (2008:12-13) and during The Four Horsemen dialogue actually states, to the consternation of the other three, that he wouldn’t wish “to see a world without faith” (cf. 2008:12) – he wishes people would see sense, but then he would be left with no one to argue with. Dennett harangues those people of faith who withdraw from the discussion on the existence of God (2007:296-297), yet Dawkins himself refuses to debate with creationists (2006). Sometimes religion is presented as a manmade phenomenon (Hitchens, 2008:10,52,117,219; Dawkins, 2007b:56) or, alternatively, as the result of unconscious evolution (ibid:222,233; Dennett, 2007:140-141,149,166-167). However, underneath this disagreement flows the thought that the world would fundamentally be a better place if free, rational thought triumphed over supernaturalism.
Unsurprisingly, the Enlightenment exhibits a spread of opinion on this issue, with Condorcet being prepared to dispense with the church (Hof, 1997:262), and Voltaire oscillating between “white-hot hatred” and “respect and even affection” for Christianity (Dupré, 2004:253 cf. Outram, 2005:113). However, the overwhelming thrust of the Enlightenment was one of religious tolerance (Outram, 2005:114-115 cf. Hampson, 1990:152). This toleration was extolled by Kant as “enlightened” (in Hyland, 2003:57), and most explicitly by Voltaire, as “the natural attribute of humanity” (ibid:62 cf. Dupré, 2004:251; Gay, 1964:25). Whilst these arguments for tolerance share some similarity with the professed positions of contemporary atheists, there are two key differences. Firstly, Enlightenment toleration was imbued with an inherent respect for the religious beliefs of others whereas contemporary atheism views “the very ideal of religious tolerance […as] one of the principle forces driving us toward the abyss” (Harris, 2006:15). And secondly, any toleration extended by these atheists is generally viewed as an interim solution, before religion eventually dies its natural, or induced, death. However, as discussed previously, contemporary atheism often exhibits an ambivalent attitude to certain aspects of Christianity, which reflects the Voltaire’s oscillating position. It is also clear that, in striking resemblance to the “civil religion” proposed by Rousseau (Gehrig, 1981:51), a “religion of reason”, purged of superstition and immorality, and imbued with an anti-clerical ethos would partially address the concerns of contemporary atheists. These observations clearly add weight to theories of both Enlightenment and secular Christian influence on contemporary atheism.
The final aspect of the contemporary atheistic worldview for comparison is the tendency to view the natural world with awe and wonder. The use of romantic language by these authors is, at times, quite intense: Dawkins notes a “quasi-mystical” response amongst scientists to the “magnificence of the real world” (2007b:25,32 cf. 397,404); and the others speak of the “mystery and marvel” (Hitchens, 2008:8-9), the “unimaginable surprises” (Harris. 2006:36) and the “humility, and awe, and sheer delight, at the glory of the evolutionary landscape” (Dennett, 2007:268). The notion that the natural world is sufficient for any human is a resurgent theme throughout the writings of these four authors. However, whilst the Enlightenment saw men as “objects in nature no less than trees and stones” (Berlin, 1979:27), the message taken from this was that human interactions “could be studied as that of atoms or plants” (ibid). Hints of reverence are found in the writings of Hume, who has Philo declare that nature “possesses an infinite number of springs and principles, which incessantly discover themselves on every change of her position and situation” (1993b:50). However, the key notion here is again that these “springs and principles” of nature “discover” themselves – they make themselves known upon proper scientific examination.
It is commonly held that “the idealisation of nature” is something which occurred in the movement away from the Enlightenment and into the Romanticism of the nineteenth-century (Outram, 2005:108). This could explain why Dawkins alludes to critics at Cambridge who condemn his worldview as “nineteenth-century” – a double-edged attack aimed both at his directness and at his awe at nature’s “monstrosities of improbability” (2007b:185-187). Romanticism was itself a form of diffuse Christianity, imbued with the same anti-clericalism observed in the Enlightenment and contemporary atheistic writings. The observed parallels between contemporary atheism and Romanticism are suggestive, once again, of a sentimental attachment to certain aspects of Christianity, and a liberal, secularising reformist agenda. Thus, whilst it is not possible to label contemporary atheistic emphasis on the majesty of nature as “Enlightenment”, these observations point to an additional, Romantic, influence – itself a reaction to, and in some ways a development of, the Enlightenment. Although contemporary ecological concerns and a more “New Age”, holistic attitude to human interaction with nature are likely to influence the contemporary atheistic position, these too are rooted in Romantic ideals (Chryssides, 2007:6) and thus further support this argument.
This discussion has demonstrated that however much contemporary atheism may be influenced by Enlightenment norms and values, the consistent surpassing of Enlightenment ideals in the areas considered discourages the conclusion that contemporary atheism promotes an Enlightenment worldview per se. Only two of these four authors offer explicit support for a new Enlightenment, and then only sparingly. Their three-fold criticism of religion does indeed follow the pattern established by the Enlightenment writers. However, upon turning to the positive, active aspects of the worldview atheists are promoting, it becomes clear that whilst their agenda has expanded upon the implicit influence of Enlightenment writers, it has found additional motivation from the Romantics, and from a sentimental attachment to aspects of Christianity. I have identified that there is a positive agenda at work, even if there are disagreements over the final fate of religion. Whether this agenda is to be labelled a new Enlightenment or not appears to be down to the individual idiosyncrasies of the authors involved.
A full bibliography, and a continuation of this discussion can be found in my earlier post: The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief
 See Hof, 1997:4-5 on English, French and German interpretations of the term.
 See, Tina Beattie’s “The Enlightenment and its Aftermath” (2007:57-75).
 http://richarddawkinsfoundation.org/foundation,ourMission, (21/03/10, 19:12)
 http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-enlightenment-2-0, (21/03/10, 19:20)
 http://websiterepository.ed.ac.uk/explore/av/enlightenment2006/dennett.html, (21/03/10, 19:26)
 Since 14/11/06
http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/daniel_c_dennett/, (21/03/10, 19:31)
 See, McGrath’s “Nature: Affirming the Transcendent without God” on the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats (2005:116-122).