Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The New Sophists

This is a guest post by Valdemar Squelch

It's become conventional in some circles to characterise Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Christopher Hitchins and other critics of religion as the 'New Atheists', 'militant atheists', or 'atheist fundamentalists’. The latter two terms draw parallels with the violence of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Iranian Basiji, or those Americans who shoot abortion doctors.

For me, fundamentalist is as fundamentalist does. Throwing acid in a girl's face because she is going to Sunday School is not, so far as we know, on Dr Dawkins' agenda. Throwing acid in a girl's face because she is going to any kind of school is very much on the Taliban's agenda. But smears are seldom dispelled by stating mere facts. So instead let me deal - to the best of my very limited ability - with a more serious failing of the current crop of anti-atheists.

Firstly, let me define my terms. There is a loose group of religious apologists I have decided to call the New Sophists. It includes Karen Armstrong, Terry Eagleton, and a number of other writers who defend religion not on the grounds that its holy books are factually true, or that its practices are morally defensible, or that its leaders speak with the voice of the Almighty. No, they defend it on the grounds that faith is a far more complex and subtle phenomenon than the New Atheists give credit for.

Those who criticise Dawkins book The God Delusion, in particular, make great play of the fact that he takes what most readers might consider a straightforward, commonsense view of religion. That is, Dawkins takes lots of religious people at their word, and considers carefully what they say and do. The attitudes and actions Dawkins condemns, mocks, unpicks and generally slaps around are familiar to us all from everyday experience and innumerable media reports.

Now this approach is laughably, outrageously wrong, according to the New Sophists. They insist that a wide range of clever theological ideas developed over many centuries are much more advanced than the attitudes of billions of regular believers. And, by the lights of the New Sophistry, it is this set of ideas that provides the underpinning of faith, with which the New Atheists have simply failed to engage. The New Sophists can cite any number of religious thinkers who proclaim that God is not a tetchy old man with a beard who lives in the sky; doesn't shout at us out of clouds or burning bushes; doesn't condemn us to hell or reward us with heaven when we die; doesn't hate gays or want women kept as second-class citizens; and so on and so forth.

As an atheist, I find this absconded God perfectly acceptable. It is (or is not) a maybe-entity that, having quite possibly created the universe, chose (or did not choose) to fade into the background so successfully that nobody can prove it exists. Or that it doesn't. Not so much a God of the Gaps as a God of the Guesswork, then. Fortunately - and I freely admit that, as a mere BA in English Studies, I can’t quite grasp this step in the argument - some privileged people (guess who?) sort of know (and/or feel) that this slippery God is not nonexistent (without being so vulgar as to merely exist).

I think it would be fair to say that Dawkins, Hitchins et al are not exactly reeling in confusion at this point in the ‘debate’. Waffle, no matter how erudite, is still waffle.
But my problem with the New Sophists is that they are basically dishonest about the case they are trying to build against the New Atheists. They argue that, because secular campaigners can't address every subtle theological point, they have failed outright. But religion only matters to begin with because millions of people believe it at the crude, contradictory, bloodthirsty and often absurd level dealt with so effectively by Dawkins, Hitchins and others.

Religion is a force in the world - and therefore dangerous to us all - because it shapes the thoughts and deeds of billions. Our freedoms and our lives are put in danger thanks to the unquestioning faith of brainwashed multitudes, not from rarefied debates between a few academics at high table. The indoctrination of innocent children, not polite discussion between erudite grown ups, is the common foundation of the so-called world religions. So proving (at least to one's own satisfaction) that Dawkins' theological garments are a bit threadbare in places does not matter a jot in the context of the broader conflict.

It’s not surprising, given this gaping flaw at the heart of the New Sophists’ argument, that one of its champions – Terry Eagleton - is a dogmatic old Marxist. Western Marxism has a long, dishonourable tradition of glossing over the nastier aspects of power politics, except of course when such politics is practiced by non-Marxists. ‘Awful what happened to poor Allende. What? Hungary? Czechoslovakia? Cultural Revolution? Oh shut up you fascist running dog.’

Another would-be nemesis of Dawkins, Karen Armstrong, is a former nun who has flirted with Buddhism. She has – like millions of Western women – been free to pick and mix aspects of any and every culture in her personal life. This intellectual by-product of consumerism is no doubt a good thing for many. But has Armstrong ever experienced the compulsory deprivation of the most basic freedoms that millions of poor, uneducated women suffer in the most religious cultures? I doubt it. She takes freedom of choice for granted, as something that has always been there, rather than a privilege granted her by a secular, Enlightenment culture. So Armstrong and Eagleton are both happy to stay above the fray, never descending into the din and clamour of the real battle.

Indeed, if all believers were like the New Sophists it seems unlikely that there'd be any organised religion in the first place. But, you may ask, does this mean that what are supposedly the best arguments for religion are in fact arguments for secularism? Quite possibly. It's a very complicated subject, don’t you know. So difficult, in fact, that a mere pleb like myself could be forgiven for taking my view of religion from news stories and history books, and leave the recondite pleasures of the New Sophistry to others.