There’s nothing like a few minutes with another stale, shallow, pseudo-profound, cliché-ridden essay bashing thenewatheists to remind me that harassers aren’t the only assholes out there. This time it’s one by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, via Jesus and Mo. Same old thing – new atheists don’t get it; whither the so much better atheists of yesteryear; religion isn’t scripture it’s meaning; they just don’t get it; foundations of European civilization; materialism and ruthlessness; bankers; fundamentalists; will to power.
Future intellectual historians will look back with wonder at the strange phenomenon of seemingly intelligent secularists in the 21st century believing that if they could show that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true, that the universe is more than 6,000 years old and there might be other explanations for rainbows than as a sign of God’s covenant after the flood, the whole of humanity’s religious beliefs would come tumbling down like a house of cards and we would be left with a serene world of rational non-believers getting on famously with one another.
Transparently dishonest. Who has ever said that? Name me one new atheist stupid enough and glib enough to say that without religion we would have “a serene world of rational non-believers getting on famously with one another.”
What even makes him think that’s what anyone says? The fact that new atheists do claim that religion is very harmful in some ways, and that many claim we would probably be better off without it, or at least with a lot less of it in a much weaker form? Probably that fact, but that claim is very different from Sacks’s fatuous version. We’d be better off without cancer, too, but that doesn’t mean that withouot cancer we would have a serene world of healthy people getting on famously with one another.
Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists, the forcefulness of Hobbes, the passion of Spinoza, the wit of Voltaire, the world-shattering profundity of Nietzsche?
Stupid question. Very few people measure up to Hobbes or Spinoza or Voltaire or Nietzsche.
Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues, which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life, the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order, the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom, and the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond?
Nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture? That’s not true either. He seems to be unable to be accurate or precise or careful about anything he says; it’s all rhetoric and exaggeration. Maybe that’s an occupational hazard for clerics. Maybe he should think about that for a few minutes.
…religion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact.
Oh? Western civilization was pretty crappy for many centuries while the church held limitless power – what makes Sacks think the good things about contemporary Western civilization depend wholly on religious foundations? On the whole, Western civilization has been steadily improving as the power of religion declined. What about that then?
Lose the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life and there will be nothing to contain the evil men do when given the chance and the provocation.
Richard Dawkins, whom I respect, partly understands this. He has said often that Darwinism is a science, not an ethic. Turn natural selection into a code of conduct and you get disaster. But if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religion, the new atheists start to stammer. They tend to argue that ethics is obvious, which it isn’t, or natural, which it manifestly isn’t either, and end up vaguely hinting that this isn’t their problem. Let someone else worry about it.
That, too, is just flat-out false. And as for “the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life” – oh come on. Endless religious wars, sanctified wars of conquest, inquisitions, crusades – some “sanctity of life.”
He concludes with
I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.
He says that as if religion had done a brilliant job of that “in the long run” – well when and where would that be then?