Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Smug World(view) of the New Atheism

Book Review:

Atheism: A Very Short Introduction
by Julian Baggini (Oxford University Press, 2003)

The popularity of the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) seems to indicate that both Europe and America have certainly entered into a post-Christian phase. The fact that Dawkins' book The God Delusion was on the New York Times bestseller list for months is a cultural indicator. But what exactly does it indicate?

The purpose of Julian Baggini's book is to both provide an introduction to atheism and to make an argument for it; it succeeds in doing the former but not the latter.

While noting that different atheists have different emphases, Baggini says that they are all united in the affirmation of naturalism, the view which holds that no reality beyond the natural world exists. This means, of course, that no supernatural reality exists and that all religions are simply false.

This means that atheists work from a naturalist worldview and that the account for everything (like emotions, minds and moral obligation) in terms of natural causes. It is at this fundamental point that Baggini runs into trouble for he does not think of naturalism as a philosophical position (which it surely is) but simply as a description of the way the world is. Atheists, you see, do not make interpretive or metaphysical judgments; they simply report the facts about the world. One odd things about this position is that Baggnini never really provides an argument for naturalism; like the New Atheists just mentioned he simply assumes or asserts that it is true. This leads to a second odd thing. It seems to me that Baggini'scase for atheism is largely rhetorical rather than factual or argumentative. Throughout the book Baggini "succeeds" not really by proving anything but by the way the way he speaks. One sample of this rhetoric should make the point: "Most atheists see themselves as realists--their atheism is a part of their willingness to square up to the world as it is and face it without recourse to superstition or comforting fictions about a life to come..." (p. 10).

And there you have it: Atheists are courageous, honest people who simply see the world for what it is and report the facts while religious people simply can not face the truth and have to seek refuge in "comforting fictions". Baggini is a philosopher but his book is so philosophically vapid. He systematically uses "superstition" as a synonym for "religion" and he continually insists that while atheists prize free thought and argument, religious people rely on blind acceptance and consider credulity a positive virtue.

The value of this books is that it (unwittingly) provides us with insight into the mind of the New Atheism. Far from being open minded, scientifically grounded and philosophically sharp, the New Atheism is really founded on simple smugness. This becomes clear again and again in the course of this book. One example will suffice. In the course of his argument against the concept of life after death, Baggini begins with a completely false understanding of Christian anthropology. He assumes (Why?) that Christians hold that human beings are simply souls when it is clear that we are in fact bodily creatures. Has Baggini never heard of the resurrection of the body? Apparently not. But then, when one is dealing with the thoughts of people whose whole intellectual life is a set of "comforting fictions," why bother with precision? At the end of this pseudo argument, Baggini says that it will probably not convince believers because they are simply driven by "a strong desire or belief in life after death" (p. 21). And there you have it: Atheists deny life after death because they have rationally examined the evidence while religious people believe in life after death because they have an overwhelming need to believe in it.

Baggini succeeds by over and over again adopting the most superficial view of Christianity and then attacking it as being, well, superficial. The way in which he sets up his arguments determines their success in advance. If Baginni's picture of Christianity is correct, one should not argue against Christians but, rather, attempt to put them into some kind of institution where to poor dears can be properly cared for.

Baggini devotes a whole (and wholly unconvincing) chapter to the subject of atheist morality. He begins with the premise that Christians believe that only religious people can be moral. Most forms of Christian theology (from Thomism to Calvinism) actually acknowledge that some form of morality is possible apart from Christian revelation but Baggini prefers to argue against a stereotype of Christian thought rather than the real thing. What does this tell us about the New Atheists as intellectuals?

When one looks beyond the posturing, the demonizing of Christianity and the rhetorical smokescreens of the New Atheists, one sees the truth: their views are not the result of science or philosophical investigation but simply flow from their smug and small worldview which really is a worldview and not simply "the truth". The last sentence of the book says it all. What is Baggini's final argument against "religion" (by which he really means Christianity)? It is this: "Religion will recede not by atheists shouting condemnation, but by the quiet voice of reason slowly making itself heard" (p. 107). Get that? Atheists really do not even need to make arguments against religion because the more rational people become, the more they will embrace (wink, wink) our way of thinking.

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