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on December 11, 2008
As a scientist and an atheist (but not a new one!) I resolved to read this book to see if and what it could add to the debate. Issues nowadays at hand in cultural, but increasingly popular, circles between vociferous atheist authors and representatives of the religious establishment are complex and deeply rooted in philosophy. But given the present-day resurgence of religious fundamentalism with its heavy cargo of wild nonsense, and the role this plays in geopolitics and within our societies, the debate goes far beyond philosophy. Its meaning probably extends down to our very daily lives..

Tina Beattie is a well-known scholar in theology. (Well known in her field, but not to me, until I found the book... I admit theology is not my thing!) She laid out a well-organized argument to counter the latest, loudest atheist claims, an argument based on cultural history and in an analysis of sociocultural trends in the "western" world through time. It's all very readable, informative and clear, but I think Beattie suffered too much from an obvious initial bias, common to all too many religious people.. She defends a way of thinking basically for its own sake, even in the face of historical evidence, logic, and I'd say (unsophisticated though this may sound) plain common sense! In the end I don't buy her line of reasoning, and I don't think she can make much of a difference in my personal stance. The problem lies probably in the author's lack of expertise in what science can actually contribute to a secular worldview. It is all too common recently for religious figures to comment on science without any idea whatsoever of what its body of ideas consist in.. That Beattie managed to report Freud and Marx as examples of influential scientists in one of her chapters is nothing short of just ridiculous, a really blatant confirmation of her poor preparation in the arguments and history of the ideologies she wants to oppose with her book...

Basic fault in her approach to the discussion, is a condescending tone that can be picked from page to page, pointing to the social and cultural complaints of modern atheism in a dismissive way. They're treated as outcomes of bad individual attitudes, closed-mindedness, and cultural bullyism on the part of the many writers who divulge atheist reasoning to the great public. I'm particularly amazed by the number of unwarranted personal interpretations she offers of the psychology and (presumed) problematic personality of Hitchens or Dawkins, above all the others. Somehow Sam Harris has attracted much less of her attention, whereas he's probably the most subtly aggressive of atheist authors.. Strange.. There's no direct, explicit consideration and counteragument to their works, but mainly a series of ad-hominem notes, and what I would call straw-arguments. That is, points she discusses which are totally irrelevant, or actually just wrong. The latter, a device that religious people unfortunately resort to with most candor.. The straw-arguments in the end amount to the whole second part of her work. No space here to discuss them, I leave it to other readers to recognize them and form their own opinions..

I guess as a single, crystal clear example of this we might take her protracted reference to the role European nations in the past, and Americans now, have had in interfering with other cultures, creating a worldwide contrast between rich and poor, imposing their own philosophies, and therefore contributing to instability and war-mongering which would be host to new religious extremisms. That religion in western countries actually has gradually (and luckily) lost its appeal in how we run our societies internally, and that the most secular countries today are the ones who are less prone to violence and extreme international resolutions doesn't much seem to occur to her. That religion is instead not a result, but a driving engine of many initial contrasts between different peoples is more the fact... Curiously, Beattie points to American imperialism as a cause of Muslim unrest, as if Islam were in and of itself a peaceful, socially equant system of belief and openness that never raised its head before. And that this American imperialism is in itself greatly due to a caste of leaders whose minds are now notoriously befudged by medieval notions of christianity, again, is not a major concern to her..

This book makes for an interesting read, but somehow it smoothly dodges the very debate it should be addressing. A lot of words, but the final impression is that she couldn't find clinching arguments against the mainstream atheist movement. That is usually a sign of weakness in debate. And it's also usually a way of gaining a free way out for religious philosophers when faced with evidence they're uncomfortable with. Which is disappointing. I would have been more impressed by a direct attempt, say, at rebutting Harris' chapters in Letter To A Christian Nation. Reminds me very much of what Huxley once wrote to Darwin about ecclesiastics and their ways to debate: they are like pigs, who all squeal together when one of them is poked... And squealing is not reasoning..
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VINE VOICEon April 6, 2008
Tina Beattie's The New Atheists is a welcome change of direction in a debate which has generated more heat than light over the last five years and which, quite frankly, has become increasingly tedious and uncivil. That debate, of course, is between the latest tide of militant atheists who defend what's come to be known as the "New Atheism" and their (mainly) Christian opponents.

The New Atheism for the most part is actually a rehashing of Old Enlightenment Atheism's insistence that scientific norms of rationality and verification are universal and therefore disenfranchise "religious" belief (an imperialism that critics generally call "scientism"). The genuinely new element in the New Atheism is its harsh condemnation of religious fundamentalisms, and its insistence that all religious belief, whether liberal or fundamentalist, feeds the flames of sectarian hatred and violence. It's not coincidental that the New Atheism is a post-9/11 phenomenon, or that it's especially popular in the U.S., which of course produces its own homegrown and obnoxious variety of (Christian) fundamentalism.

Most Christian responses to the New Atheism have thus far fallen short. They've generally either been evangelical defenses which displayed much fervor but little philosophical merit, or earnest attempts (by theologians such as Alister McGrath) to show that religious belief in fact can live up to the standards of scientific rationality demanded by New Atheists such as Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris.

But Beattie, to her credit, refuses to play this game. She argues that the very parameters of the current God-debate need to be called into question. They're too narrow, she claims, reflecting the worldview of a relatively small group of white intellectual males who've hijacked the discussion to fit their own militant allegiance to Enlightement reason. As such, the god they argue against is a strawman, a caricature of the deity in whom most theists believe. Beattie agrees with them that this god isn't worthy of worship, and tries to move the discussion away from traditional efforts to prove or disprove its existence toward a deeper, richer consideration of religious experience. In her final two chapters, she suggests that Godded experiences are best examined in terms of imagination, creativity, and symbol. To confuse the standards appropriate to their investigation with those suitable to the scrutiny of measurable and quantifiable objects in the world is to make an obvious category mistake. One is reminded here of Stephen Jay Gould's defense a few years ago of the two magistera thesis.

How ironic, that the debate over the "existence" of God which has exercised so many of us for the last five years might be largely based on a misunderstanding (willful or otherwise) of what believers mean when they use the word "God." One can only hope that Beattie's book will move the discussion in a less vituperative and more fruitful direction.
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on May 12, 2010
Cultural Sadomasochism and Religion in Britain: A Review of Tina Beattie's The New Atheists: the Twilight of Reason & and the War on Religion

There is always a danger in making a book review blatantly autobiographical, as I am going to do here. But since I am writing purely for enjoyment and only to explore my own thoughts about Tina Beattie's book The New Atheists: the Twilight of Reason & and the War on Religion, I am not only going to dispense with this common wisdom but go against it zestily. I discovered Beattie's book only some two days ago and read it cover to cover over a period of 24 hours. As an American living in England working on a post graduate degree in Religious History over the past six months, and having been an English teacher in Saudi Arabia and having thought a lot about Islam during that time before coming to England, I found that Beattie's book spoke to my experience of the religious scene in Britain on a number of levels. I admit to not having read Christopher Hitchens' and Richard Dawkins' scathing discussions of religion, which along with Sam Harris and some of the recent apologists for religion in the wake of Hitchens and Dawkins are the focus of Beattie's book. But we hear so much about them here in Britain (I have in fact seen Harris lecture on cable television in the U.S.) and Beattie gives ample illustration of their discussions in the book, that it is not necessary--the need always to read an author in their own words notwithstanding.

Before talking about how it speaks to my perception of the religious mood of Britain at the present time, let me state what I believe Beattie is aiming to do. Here she aims to show: 1) how the new atheism is situated culturally and historically, and 2) how the new atheism and its rhetorical strategies, especially with regard to Dawkins, shows a basic disregard for civility and intolerance for rational debate at a time when they are desperately needed. These two themes are interrelated. For example, Beattie shows that the new atheists' proclivity for finding a single rationality to which all of western civilization and beyond should ascribe, one which can only operate fully if the superstitions of religion are sloughed off, is similar to colonialist, imperialist and male-dominated types of thinking seen in the 18th and 19th century. There "men of science" attempted to rationalize colonial rule in Africa and Asia and clear it of any local and unincorporated conceptual and political impediments, as Beattie shows in some detail in the first few chapters.

There are other types of basic "brush clearing" done in the early chapter and where Beattie goes through typical assertions made by the new atheists in order to nuance the debate and bring civility to it. I particularly liked chapter 4 in which Beattie countered the notion found in new atheist writing that religion is a predominant cause of war throughout history. She shows that in the last 3000 years of history religion has been a cause in relatively few wars. The First and Second World War had nothing to do with religion; and if anything Nazism and the Cold war had much to do with Germany and Russia's having broken away from their cultures' Christian past. Beattie also shows that witch hunts of 17th century Europe had as much to do with the rise of scientific thinking and the desire to root out superstition and control women's bodies and female subjectivity as it did with religion. The Spanish Inquisition was also counseled against by religious authority (124).

But more interesting for me is how Beattie speaks to what I am now sensing in my six-month-long stay in England with regards to how religion is regarded society-wide in Britain. Generalizing grossly about British views on religion (never a good thing to do), I believe it is fair to say that British society exhibits a set of tensions around religion which is as follows. On the one hand, there is a declining resonance between the British public and The Church of England, occurring for a number of reasons, one of which it its perceived attachment to colonialism and its being the established church. On the other hand we find an anti-Muslim sentiment population-wide, or at least an ambiguity toward Islam because of 9/11 and 7/7 fueled by strife within the British Muslim immigrant community. These frictions are fueled by the perception that Britain was dragged foolishly into war in Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States, a country whose Christianity is seen as part of the problem (which positions me in interesting ways as part of the landscape being described here). The way to deal with these interrelated problems in British society, it appears, is to slough off any attachment to religion, Christian or Muslim, a notion found not only among the new atheists.

While the above is my take on the issue, Beattie does not deny these tensions either. She shows us furthermore how these tensions are fed by secular impulses in British society which were rejected in the 7/7 attacks. I would add that there are some conversions to Islam among the British population, some 30,000 or so, who I would argue have been led to Islam because it is seen, at least partly, as way of being countercultural and counter-hegemonic, also part of the rejection of British secularism. Conversions to Islam in Britain can also be linked to the declining numbers in Church of England attendance because of its perceived lack of cultural relevance and provincialism, which is again an impulse which feeds and has been fed by the new atheism and its counterpart in the new fundamentalism in its Christian guises (see 137). Teenage pregnancy, Beattie points out, is among the highest in Europe (146). This and the Freudian influenced sexuality-expressed-will-make-you-free secularism has also contributed to conversions to Islam and to its militancy, or at least its stridency, among the British Islamic community, the female among whom are much more zealous in wearing the hijab in public as a statement of their rejection of this secularism than they were in years past.

Whether or not we need to remedy the current situation depends on where you stand. But that the social landscape sketched about is not civil and is tense is beyond question. While I have taken my discussion in a direction different form the main direction charted by Beattie, these concerns are not absent in Beattie's treatment. Nor do we differ on how they might be treated. Beattie does not use the term "cultural sadomasochism" as I do (to define a strain within the new atheism as well as a society-wide view that Christianity is provincial and the related view that Islam is counter cultural and anti-imperial) but she does discuss the way in which Christian roots can be pointed to for European modernity and scientific reason and the placing of the individual at the center of history. She mentions thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre who advocates a return to the Aristotelian and Christian views of rationality of the Middle Ages (144). She suggests this could also be way of forming common ground with Muslims and Jews, both of whom share in the Medieval Aristotelian heritage which the West inherited from the Levant(116). Beattie also has a fascinating discussion of the new physics and how it might relate to this medieval and sacramental view of the world. She also mentions how the Protestant Reformers, having come to see human nature as corrupted and grace being divorced from nature, also played a role in the overly narrow version of rationality and the science and theology split we find in the new atheism (58).

Beattie's final salvo in my view begins with a discussion of Nietzsche and his thoughts on language and power(150). This is made part of an argument suggesting that if the language of or about God is to once again speak to contemporary Westerners it must be part of a renewed campaign for civility, one not afraid to campaign against church abuses as well (such as the Vatican's failure to prosecute its own with links to Nazism). Nietzsche and the Postmoderns have shown us that language is part of its context: if this God language will once again have meaning, we must be once again good to one another. Literature, narrative theology and holocaust thinkers such as Eli Weisel also show us how to move "beyond thinking of God as a philosophical conundrum" as is the case in the new atheism (152).

Beattie shows us in the last two chapters of the book how the relationship between God, humanity and contemporary history itself seemingly can be thought of as a literary character that stands free from the mind of its author as it speaks its truth and comes to life. This section stands as a dénouement to a postcolonial feminist Catholic analysis that may or not be able to stem the tide of cultural sadomasochism I see in Britain as this country moves further away form the Christian tradition that did much to build Europe and it. But if the heart of the Christian message is one of civility and integrative complexity, one where science and religion are allowed to inform one another and become subsumed within a rationality which allows for dialogue and organic growth among the social body where it is found, then the cultural sadomasochism that I see in contemporary British liberalism as well as Western liberalism as a whole might be able to be addressed, and addressed by some of the ideas found in this book. The ideas about narrative theology found here as well as those about the new physics resonate with the Emerging Church movement, now worldwide, and with the Sojourners magazine inspired Social Gospel Christianity stemming from the United States.
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on February 7, 2015
Beattie gets it just right here, showing how Dawkins and company don't understand real theology and are fighting a non-existent war from another century. Sad to see it doesn't have a broader readership. But then, the truth never does.
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on August 23, 2009
Over the weekend, I just read "The New Atheists" by Tina Beattie. It was supposed to be a rebuttal of course to "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins and the similar books by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Well, she did a good job of refuting the rationalism in the claims these guys made in their books.

But the more interesting part comes just at the end. Here she begins to compare God to an author and religious truths to fiction novels. She says in Wuthering Heights for example, the fact that we know that Cathy and Heathcliffe are not real people does not detract from the capacity of these characters to communicate something truthful about the human condition. Though she does not come out and say so, she is implying here that we can apply a similar understanding to religious concepts. If the characters in the Bible never existed, well, no matter. They can still teach us something truthful about the human condition. I like that! ....except - doesn't that make joining a religion something like joining a fiction fan club, where more than half of the members don't even realize the books are fiction??

Then, in what I thought was a particular stroke of genius, Tina Beattie went on to explain how in some works of fiction, the less inspired ones, the characters all behave in an orderly way and kind of "prove" the viewpoint of the author. But in others - obviously the most intriguing ones - the characters and the book seem to take on a life of their own and no longer obey the "intention" the author might have had when he started writing the book. Books, works of art, any form of personal expression, Beattie says, all respond best when "creative expression" is allowed to guide the artist or author, even if it means the work gets out of his control.

The reason Beattie brings this up is to show that where the concept of Intelligent Design leaves a lot of logical flaws, maybe we should be comparing "god" to the artist with creative genius - who who set our world and creation in motion...and then allowed the characters and the story to take off with a life of their own.

There is much, much more to Beattie's treatise than I can possibly present here. All I wanted to do was mention a few of the points she makes. She is a marvelously eloquent writer and the book is well worth reading.
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on May 8, 2008
THE NEW ATHEISTS: THE TWILIGHT OF REASON & THE WAR ON RELIGION comes from an English Catholic feminist theologian who accepts some of the contentions of atheism while redefining the type of God rejected by these atheists and fostered by some religions. Instead she displays a historical and cultural acknowledgment of the foundations of these 'new atheist' beliefs, and examines the symbolism and underlying meanings of a different form of spiritual belief. Perfect for any religious holding.

Diane C. Donovan
California Bookwatch
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on April 26, 2008
This diatribe was an insult to intelligence, and boring in the extreme. The title was misleading, and was a total disappointment. Now I know what the dinosaurs must have felt when wanting a drink of water, at the La Brea tar pits! I could have spent the money in any of 10,000 better ways!
I simply can't say enough BAD about this. I rate this ZERO stars.They are forcing me to select 1 to 5 stars. I select one, just to publish this review, but please note I state ZERO in the review. Don't waste your money. Take your kid to mcdonalds or something!
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