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Widely missing the core questions of the "new atheism"
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..