I won’t have time to read this for a while… but I needed to get my hands on it for a chapter I am putting together on atheist reactions to the New Atheists. I also needed to read it because I have been criticising it from a distance without having actually taken the time to read it. I know it will annoy me – why do we need secular temples? They’re called museums, libraries, universities, sports stadiums etc… but perhaps it won’t annoy me. Either way, it is always good to go into these things with an open mind… so I’ll try :)
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.
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.
This blog post is largely based upon the final chapter of my undergraduate dissertation, which was entitled “Consciousness Raising: The critique, agenda, and inherent precariousness of contemporary Anglophone atheism”. If anything needs further clarification, it is likely that it was discussed in earlier chapters, however I have attempted to augment this post (the final and, I think, most interesting chapter) with extra discussion from the previous chapters.
The subject matter for my dissertation was the writings of a particularly modern form of atheism, frequently referred to as the “New Atheism”. Whether this label is justified or not is another issue, and I prefer to refer to “contemporary atheism” throughout this post, taking the work of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens as representative of a particularly recent form Anglophone atheism. This is based both upon external observations such as Google searches, and the numerous critiques of contemporary atheism which group these authors together, as well as internal observations and displays of mutual support.
I discerned that there was a three-fold criticism of religion running throughout the writings of these four authors. “Religion” is castigated for motivating, supporting, and initiating violence, for encouraging amoral (if not positively immoral) behaviour, and fostering an atmosphere where knowledge and progress are discouraged, and an attitude of passive submission to ignorance and religious authority is the norm. I also discerned a loosely four-fold positive agenda running throughout their writings: the promotion of knowledge and understanding for all; the belief that the atheistic worldview is life-affirming and life-enhancing; an ambivalent, but largely negative stance on the continued existence of religion; and an emphasis on the majesty and wonder of nature. This criticism and agenda was analysed in relation to a question raised by Tina Beattie – are the New Atheists promoting a New Enlightenment – and I concluded that their criticism does indeed follow the pattern established by 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
Thus, in the previous chapters of my dissertation, I demonstrated that there is an agenda at work within the contemporary trend of Anglophone atheism, frequently referred to as the “New Atheism”. However, the question remains as to why this agenda is so general, and why these atheists seemingly avoid explicitly articulating it. These authors give the impression that they speak for a large, readily mobilised, organised group of atheists. According to Dawkins, this “non-believing choir” is “a lot bigger than many people think” and includes (citing Bertrand Russell) “the immense majority of intellectually eminent men” (2007b:18,123). Dennett, Hitchens and Harris (2006) incessantly utilise the word “we” throughout their work, creating the sense of a large, global community that is rallying to their cause (cf. Hitchens, 2008:283). The large number of public conversations, lectures and conferences at which these authors have spread their message makes it unsurprising that Dawkins should conclude: “you can hear the gentle patter of our feet on every side” (2007f). If the milieu is as active as these rhetorical observations suggest, this makes the central question of this post all the more pertinent. Discussion on this issue occurs along five key themes – criticism of the Enlightenment, internal disharmony, atheist individuality, potential target audiences, and societal sympathy – before concluding that contemporary atheism rhetorically constitutes the very audience it seeks.
I previously demonstrated that the contemporary atheistic position is greatly influenced by the Enlightenment. Thus the degree to which these atheists make their agenda explicit is influenced by common perception of the Enlightenment. This perception is, however, far from complimentary, since the Enlightenment has been variously blamed for the inability of modern man to form “non-utilitarian ties to other human beings“ (Outram, 2005:112), for supporting despotism (Gay, 1964:274), and was casually castigated in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for authority and tradition” (ibid:263). Whilst these attacks are “misleading” and “fallacious” (Berlin, 1979:29 cf. Gay, 1964:262), it is unsurprising that they would discourage explicit calls to return to Enlightenment values. It is also significant that the Enlightenment philosophes themselves “never developed a coherent political program” (Gay, 1964:119); if contemporary atheism models itself on these pioneers, it is perhaps naive to expect a fully articulated agenda.
Secondly, 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. In addition to tensions surrounding the continuing existence of religion, these atheists are far from united “in their attitudes to war” (Beattie, 2007:75), and The Four Horsemen dialogue indicates that there are distinct and sometimes opposing opinions on the finer points of their overall thrust. Dennett identifies “slightly different but defensible strategies”, in their writings, however all are seen as “necessary because there are different people out there, different audiences that have to be reached” (Baggini, 2010:61; Dennett, 2008c:24). Given these differences, it is natural to be cautious regarding articulating agendas if the intention is to present a united front, rather than risk initiating eponymous forms of atheism, or losing the audience’s interest through the impression of discord and competition.
Thirdly, there is the “problem” of atheist individuality and its effects on how contemporary atheists might feasibly articulate courses of action. Atheists are typically categorised as “a small, hard to identify, and disorganised category of persons” (Edgell, 2006:211-212) who “do not tend, even nominally, to join specifically atheistic organisations” (Bullivant, 2008:364). In an interesting play on Grace Davie’s “believing without belonging” thesis (1994), a norm of “disbelieving without belonging” is discerned (Bullivant, 2008:365). This is humorously explained by A.J. Jacobs, who states: “an atheist club fe[els] oxymoronic, like an apathy parade” (2009:96). A more scholarly explanation is that individuals lacking strong social bonds and dependants, are by inference less likely to tend towards ‘groupishness’ and “more free to espouse atheism” (Bainbridge, 2005:7). Dawkins himself acknowledges that organising atheists is like “herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority” (2007b:27). Despite these assertions, Gary Wolf speaks of “scores” of atheist groups, populated by members who, having “no church to buoy them, cling to one another” (2006). It is true that there are many atheistic organisations (e.g. The British Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance International), but even within these groups the scholarly perception is that “values tend to be wholly relativistic and goals are rarely stipulated at all” (Demerath and Thiessen, 1966:684). Significantly, Colin Campbell posited the idea that it is a sociological assumption that atheism is an individual phenomenon (1971:39). This assumption is rooted in perceiving atheistic organisations as “pale shadows of effective social forces when compared with traditional religious bodies” (ibid:42) which is an unfair and biased comparison. That being the case, it is cogent that Bullivant and Bainbridge are aware of Campbell raising this issue, yet continue to demarcate an individualistic atheism. This emphasis on the individual bears remarkable resemblance to Steve Bruce’s critique of the “precariousness of diffuse beliefs” within the New Age movement (2002:90-103). As a consequence of the New Age’s “individualistic epistemology” it does not instil “obedience to a central authority”, it “elicits only slight commitment and little agreement about detail”, is vulnerable to dilution and trivialisation, and thus has “little social impact […]even on its own adherents” (ibid:90-91). Through contemporary atheism’s focus on the individual, it may provide the perfect example of the precariousness of diffuse unbelief.
This precariousness could affect contemporary atheism’s ability to make explicit calls to group action in two key ways. Firstly, individualism may be at work within the writings of the authors themselves, thereby affecting their ability to articulate plans for group action. Their evident awareness of the individualism of their fellows – both as a closed group of four, and across the globe – may also lessen the desire to make such explicit calls. And secondly, since grouping together appears problematic for atheists, this explains why the internal conversation is dominated by the size and organisation of the “movement”, rather than on what this movement should “do” – perhaps the cats must be rhetorically herded before they “can make a lot of noise” (Dawkins, 2007b:27).
Discussion now turns to the issue of who the target audience of contemporary atheism is, and how this affects the articulation of an agenda. As alluded to previously, Dennett sees each author’s book as targeting a slightly different audience (Baggini, 2010:61). Dennett’s own intention was not to “give [his readers] an excuse to throw [Breaking the Spell] across the room” (ibid). This intention, combined with frequent appeals to the “religious person”, the “reasonable adherents” and “the moderates” (Dennett, 2007:301,298,291) indicate that his book is aimed towards getting religious moderates on side – an intention similarly evinced throughout Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. Conversely, there are many aspects to Dawkins (2007b), Hitchens (2008) and Harris (2006) which would cause these moderate believers to throw the book across the room and not return to retrieve it (Dennett in Baggini, 2010:62). These books work well as a “shot across the bows”, and also provide ammunition for avowed ‘positive’ atheists (ibid). However, it is also clear that these books are designed to fuel a “positive” atheistic fire in those for whom it already “negatively” burns (see Martin, 2007b:1). This is the “non-believing choir”, the wavering unbelievers who “desperately need[…] encouragement to come out” (Dawkins, 2007b:18 cf. Wolf, 2006). All three of these groups are targeted through the “consciousness raising” enterprise of these four authors, and the “encouragement” they provide (Dawkins, 2007b:18,23).
Each of these target groups present problems for articulating a positive agenda. Firstly, if the target audience is moderate religious believers, the major battle is getting them onside before attempting to rally them into action. However, Wolf suggests that these atheists are naive because they simply focus on right belief and don’t “propose any realistic solutions to the problems religions can cause” (2006). This lack of credible solutions is combined with a critique of fundamentalist, non-moderate religion, which fails to scan in the face of the fact that there have been no fatwas, no prison cells, no gallows, and no crosses to greet these atheists (Wolf, 2006). Secondly, if their audience is wavering non-believers, these can typically be divided into two groups. There are the “thoroughly secularised”, the “negative atheists”, who find religion so irrelevant that they are not even conscious of having rejected it (Campbell, 1971:39 cf. Martin, 2007b:1; Bruce, 2002). And there are those who “are believers of some sort, and many are quite conventional” (Hout and Fischer, 2002:175). Whether accepting the “believing without belonging” or the “disbelieving without belonging” thesis, the best measures to convince this non-committal group to accept a “positive” atheistic identity are unlikely to begin with the enunciation of an agenda. Finally, if the target audience is committed, positive atheists, the simple fact remains that there are relatively few atheists of this type in the world (Davie, 1994:69 cf. figures in Weller, 2008:51; Zuckerman, 2007:49; Edgell, 2006:214). In light of the available figures, and the protestations to the contrary supplied by the authors (see p.34), it seems plausible that they are aware that their audience of ‘die-hard’ positive atheists is much smaller than they would care to admit (cf. McGrath and McGrath, 2007:63), and therefore that the audience most receptive to an active articulated agenda is not, in fact, their main target audience. In addition, an awareness that this audience may share ambivalent feelings towards Christianity would understandably present a barrier to fully articulated decisive action.
This discussion has identified three potential target audiences who, for various reasons, are unlikely to be receptive to the explicit articulation of an agenda. However, after an initial lag period following the “consciousness raising” phase, it is possible that more publications from these authors will follow, tackling solutions to the problems enumerated previously. With the forthcoming publication of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (October 2010), it may not be long before this can be assessed.
Finally, in many respects, the world that contemporary atheism would like to create is reflective of a similar desire throughout society. This observation contradicts Demerath and Thiessen’s assertion that “irreligion has […no] set of values which are in any way consistent with the normative mainstream” (1966:675) and Colin Campbell’s observations about irreligion’s relationship to protest, reform, hostility and propaganda (1971:40). However, the contemporary atheistic promotion of awe and respect for nature, of life affirming values and fully democratised knowledge, and the criticism of actions that cause suffering, or limit individual freedom and intellectual inquiry, seem to strike a chord with the current atmosphere in the UK and USA.
As with the notion of “diffuse unbelief”, scholarship on New Age provides a useful comparison. Steve Bruce acknowledges the notable contemporary popularity and proliferation of New Age publications and ideas, and although denying that this proliferation demonstrates any significant number of “enthusiastic adherents” (2002:80), it does indicate that typical New Age concerns address the concerns of a significant portion of the population. Some themes particularly resonant with contemporary atheism are a relativism that “allows a thoroughly democratic attitude to knowledge” (ibid:86), an emphasis on individual authority (ibid:83), and a more holistic concern for the environment (ibid:85; Partridge, 2007:234-5). Whilst there are many dissimilarities between the New Age ‘movement’ and contemporary atheism, most notably concerning rationality (ibid; Bruce, 2002:84), the significant point is that the noted commonalities are “particularly well suited to the dominant ideas and assumptions of their society” (ibid:87). If contemporary atheists are aware that many of their concerns are “diffused” throughout society, this explains why these are not made more explicit in their texts – the purpose of the text becomes convincing the audience, through “consciousness raising”, that religion opposes this worldview, and not extolling the virtues of this worldview itself. A fascinating question raised for future research is to what extent these concerns are “emblematic of religion in our culture” (ibid:82)? If the concerns of contemporary atheists reflect the internal debate within religious bodies, this could lead to very interesting conclusions about the commonalities between human religiosity and irreligiosity. However, it is likely that contemporary atheism would explain these commonalities as the church following society, rather than suggesting there was a more mutual relationship between the two (cf. Fergusson, 2009:127).
This discussion has demonstrated that there are many conceivable and justifiable reasons why contemporary atheists have failed, thus far, to make more than a minimal statement regarding their programme for rectifying the religiously fuelled ills identified in their books. Their target audiences are not ideal targets for explicit agendas, either because they have inherent negative perceptions of contemporary atheism, or because of the diffusion of the broader, more positive goals of contemporary atheism throughout society. In addition, the inherent individuality of atheists necessitates a process of gathering together, or “consciousness raising”, into a more defined ‘movement’ before explicit programmes of action can be articulated.
I am well aware that many of the issues involved here are far more complex than I have had space to testify to. I am also aware that there are many key terms here that I have not delineated properly, either because they were clarified at other points in my dissertation, or because I am working with established conventions within Religious Studies, or because I have simply missed something. I am more than willing to enter into discussion on this fascinating issue, and to receive any advice or direction anyone may have on this matter.
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