I haven’t written very much about religion lately.
While a verbal war with Bible literalism was a feature of this blog’s earliest efforts, recently I’ve managed to ignore the subject in favour of more fruitful topics like politics and the human mind — despite the fact that fundamentalists continue to have too much contact with the former, and too little with the latter.
Besides, I haven’t felt much compulsion to defend the religion-haters among my fellow religion-deniers.
Unlike them, I don’t think that all religious impulses and all of the actions generated by religious feeling are evil. And I don’t have the virulent hatred of Muslims that arises from generalizing the vile doctrines of terrorist extremism to an entire world of the faithful.
Yet I feel an urge to respond to the latest negative article by a self-professed non-believer. These articles are all of a type, bemoaning the New Atheists’ lack of tolerance for religion. Bryan Appleyard’s New Statesman article “The God Wars,” is no exception.
“The God Wars” gets attention for the vehemence of its attack. It is the latest in a series of print assaults on “hard” atheism, an attack that’s not so much a defense of “soft” religion as it is a rejection of “scientism” and “Darwinitis” (to use Tallis’s pejorative). As such, it should not be mistaken for a theological stance but seen more accurately as an epistemological statement.
Appleyard characterizes “hard” atheism as an “ideology” with three main components: atheism, secularism, and Darwinism. In other words, he claims that the New Atheists believe that there is no God, that his world is all there is, and that science explains that world.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a pretty good summary of the way things are for a non-believer. Even the third claim is true, if you understand it to mean that science and nothing else explains those parts of the world that have been, in fact, explained. What is there with which any non-spiritualist should disagree?
Appleyard spends a little time distinguishing atheism from secularism, and no time at all exploring the huge questions of how, how much, and by what means science “explains” the natural world.
That brevity is due to the simple fact that Appleyard’s real subject is the stridency and intolerance of Richard Dawkins and other “hard” atheists. It’s a legitimate criticism, and it’s at least partly correct. Yet Appleyard’s own words ring with just the kind of scornful negativity for which he lambasts his opponents.
It’s curious how nasty, how often ad hominem, those who resist “mere” materialism become in their rejection of non-transcendent descriptions of body, mind, and spirit. The closer scientists come to showing that God in His Heaven and the Ghost in the Machine are illusory, the more shrill become the voices raised in opposition.
Remember, I’m not “siding” with the “hard” atheists. As I wrote above, I am considerably more sympathetic to the “accommodationist” position than are these hardliners. One can reject the wish-fulfilling fantasies of belief without needing to trash that majority of believers who quietly go about their business, often doing a lot of local good in the name of their imaginary Lord. To that extent, I somewhat agree with the “soft” atheism of writers like John Gray, who has a peripheral role in “God Wars.”
But spleen does not an argument make. Even a cursory look at Appleyard’s article reveals the depth of his dislike.
Appleyard’s position, some of which is quite valid, is easily lost in one’s reaction to his language. He characterizes criticism of his friend Alain de Botton’s accommodationist book as “the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa.” Dawkins is the supreme leader of a group of science-worshipping “cultists.” And Darwinism? It’s ” the AK-47 of neo-atheist shock troops.”
Even more gleeful is Appleyard’s exultation that even Dawkins “needed to turn to the Almighty” because he was heard to say “Oh, God!” when he misremembered the full title of The Origin of Species and lost a rhetorical point. Come on, now. Are we really to believe that the common expletive “Oh, God!” signals a hidden faith, a secret need for spiritual comfort? It’s an idiom, for Christ’s sake.
Try to make real points. There are, after all, real points to make. There are things that science doesn’t know, at least not yet, and the human impulse to seek the spiritual is one of those unexplained things. And yes, Dawkins can be smug and priggish. He also can be annoyingly humourless. But he’s not a secret Christian, and he’s not the evil leader of a devilish cult.
Near the end of “The God Wars,” Appleyard writes: “Happily, the backlash against neo-atheism has begun, inspired by the cult’s own intolerance.”
And my backlash against the backlash has a similar origin.