There are two charges that are often laid at the feet of the ‘new atheists’. One is that they are rude, shrill, angry, and otherwise disrespectful towards religion. The second is that their challenge to religious beliefs in general (as opposed to just the fundamentalist and extreme variants) makes for bad politics, since they are alienating those religious elements who act as a moderating influence in our society and with whom elite science has formed useful alliances in the past.
As to the first charge of rudeness and shrillness, this is clearly not a statement about that actual tone of the discussion conducted by the new atheists. Most of the prominent new atheists are urbane academics who are not prone to yelling or using profanity or ad hominem attacks. I have seem numerous interviews with Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most prominent of the new atheists, and never once have I heard him so much as raise his voice or even seem angry. The worst charge that can be laid against him is that he can be testy with those people who make sweeping claims about evolutionary theory without seeming to understand what the theory actually says. He is actually very mild-mannered when compared with some of the other voices one hears in the media.
So whence does this charge of rudeness arise? I think it is because the new atheists are directly challenging the idea that religious beliefs should occupy a privileged place in public discourse that shields them from the kind of scrutiny that any other belief would merit. If, for example, some public official like a member of Congress or the President were to say that he or she believed in fairies and had conversations with them, that would immediately raise questions about the mental competence of the person involved. But saying that he or she converses with god through prayer not only raises no concerns at all, it is seen as wholly admirable. The fact that people do not even see a similarity between belief in god and belief in fairies is a testament to how powerfully our society has internalized the idea that ‘respect for religion’ means that one must not point this out.
In his book The God Delusion (p. 178), Richard Dawkins quotes the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who once over dinner at a Cambridge University college recounted the beliefs of the Fang people of Cameroon who believed that “witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they will devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.”
Bayer says he was dumbfounded when a Cambridge theologian turned to him and said “This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.” (italics on original)
Dawkins points out that the theologian, as a mainstream Christian, did not see any irony at all in referring to the Fang people’s beliefs as nonsense even while he himself believed many or all of the following beliefs:
- In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
- The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
- The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
- Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
- If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
- If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
- The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but ‘ascended’ bodily into heaven.
- Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.
Note that this set of beliefs is commonly held by mainstream religious people, not just fringe groups. There will be differences amongst the various sects as to which to believe and which to reject (Catholics believe the last one which non-Catholics find preposterous) but clearly once you have accepted any one of them, it is hard to deny credibility to any of the others or to the beliefs of the Fang people.
What has disturbed the equilibrium in dialogue between elite science and elite religion is that the new atheists are saying that the beliefs of even elite religion are incompatible with a scientific outlook that values evidence. And this is what, I think, underlies the charge of rudeness, shrillness, etc. It is not the volume or tone or language or any of the other things that we normally associate with those words, but simply the fact that the new atheists have chosen to point out that, in an intellectually coherent sense, there is no such thing as a ‘respectable’ religious belief.
POST SCRIPT: Bush no longer influential?
I usually don’t pay much attention to the periodical generation of lists of the 100 best or worst this or that. Those lists tell us more about the people making up the lists than anything else. But I was intrigued by the recent release of Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world and the fact that George W. Bush was not on it.
It seems absurd to me that the leader of the world’s only superpower, and a man with a proven record of creating disaster and chaos, should not be considered objectively influential, if even in a negative way. The Mayor of New York, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and Osama Bin Laden make the list but Bush doesn’t? Are there any reasonable criteria by which such an omission makes sense?
Yes, but only if you take the view that this list is not a measure of actual influence but simply measures the zeitgeist. And what Time seems to have decided is that Bush has become an embarrassment who is best ignored until the time comes when he slips away into obscurity at the end of his term, unless he is impeached first. His low approval rating of 28%, the lowest of any President since 1979, adds to his aura of being a loser.
Perhaps this cartoon by Nick Anderson, editorial cartoonist of the Houston Chronicle (in Bush’s home state no less), best represents how Bush is increasingly being perceived.