- Paperback: 194 pages
- Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan; 1st ed. 2014 edition (November 19, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1137586052
- ISBN-13: 978-1137586056
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,043,435 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The New Atheist Denial of History 1st ed. 2014 Edition
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REVIEWER #1: Eugene McCarraher, Villanova University
The New Atheist Denial of History attempts to demonstrate that the writings of the so-called 'New Atheists' especially Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens are riddled by historical inaccuracy, reliance on dubious sources, and flagrant violation of the professional canons of history as a discipline.
In my view, this manuscript largely succeeds at demonstrating its thesis. Its strengths include lucid writing, deft argument, thorough knowledge of the work of New Atheist writers, familiarity with a wide range of historical literature, and commitment to the standards of evidence espoused by professional historians. It establishes quite conclusively that New Atheist writers either distort the past or remain angrily uninformed about it; that they exhibit a cavalier disregard for historical veracity and an incapacity for fair, well-informed argument; and that they routinely violate the very Enlightenment standards of rational argument and empirical verification that they claim to uphold. (Dawkins' failures in this regard are especially egregious and well-documented.) I believe that, when suitably revised, this work will constitute an important contribution to the debate about the New Atheism, most of which has not focused, or has focused only tangentially, on the historical claims made by the principal polemicists for atheism.
There are, however, weaknesses in the manuscript that lead me to recommend that the author make some sizeable revisions before Palgrave Pivot publishes it. Aside from addressing some minor infelicities of grammar or word choice, there are two things the author needs to rethink or rework. The first which is not something central to the argument here, but which could be something on which hostile readers or reviewers might pounce emerges in the introduction, where the author writes that the New Atheists 'have invented their own historical method and school' of interpretation' and that they venture 'beyond the boundaries of good historical practice' (3). It seems to me that, judging from the author's own considerable evidence, the New Atheists haven't so much 'invented' their own 'method' or 'school' as much as they've ignored accepted standards of historical practice. Moreover, saying that they go 'beyond the boundaries of good historical practice' opens up the author to the charge of rank conventionalism. Haven't many advances in historical understanding been achieved by enlarging or violating what was considered 'good historical practice'? Marxist, feminist, or psychoanalytical historians just to cite a few examples were attacked on precisely the grounds that they weren't 'doing history.' While I agree with the author that the New Atheists seem to have little regard for the careful assessment of evidence especially of evidence that contradicts their arguments the case is not helped by asserting that our current canons of historical understanding are the only conceivable standards.
My second recommendation is more substantial: several sections of the manuscript that need either to be drastically condensed or eliminated altogether. These passages usually take the form of long and often unnecessary expositions on the history of a given period in contradistinction to the versions offered up by the New Atheists. Every chapter contains some lengthy disquisition that paints history in broad brushstrokes, but for the sake of brevity, I'll call attention to three such passages: one in chapter 2, 'Europe 1600 to 1900', one in chapter 3, 'Europe to 1600 and one in chapter 4, 'Back to the Present.' In chapter 2, the author devotes nine manuscript pages (15-24) to relating the history of Europe from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the opening of the First World War. In chapter 3, the author spends fourteen pages (15-29) to outlining the history of medieval Europe. In both cases, the ostensible purpose of the digression is to provide an accurate history of the period in question to counter the New Atheist version. This makes sense, on one level, but I'm put off by the grandiosity of the strategy. It seems to me either that these historical accounts need to be severely condensed, or preferably that the author recount the New Atheist version of medieval or early modern history but also note that it doesn't square up with accounts provided by reputable scholars. I don't think that any sweeping grand narratives are necessary.
A similar problem mars chapter 4, where the author opens with a vignette about the Holocaust denial controversy involving David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt. Again, I see the author's point, but I don't think that it's the most apt or illuminating episode. The author then follows this vignette with a 'history of history' and a discussion of Daniel Goldenhagen's controversial book about popular complicity in the Holocaust. The 'history of history' goes on too long and is, in my view, almost entirely unnecessary. Because they're inapt and/or verbose, all of the exemplary passges I've cited distract from the central issue: the fallacious use of history by the New Atheists.
My recommendation on this score is quite simple: the author needs to cut or condense, drastically, any such extended passages. The main subject is the distortion and misuse of history by the New Atheists; one doesn't have to provide potted histories in order to establish this.
I do believe that, given the standards and purposes outlined for Palgrave Pivot, this work deserves to be published under that rubric. But while I think that this work remains timely as I've indicated, it deals with an aspect of New Atheist thinking that's received little sustained attention I urge the author to make revisions as quickly as possible, as the topic will, I suspect, be cresting in the next few years. The New Atheists have already been taken to task on a number of issues, and I have a feeling that interest in their work may begin to wane over the next two to three years. (Hitchens is dead, while Dawkins and Harris haven't, in my view, said or written much of anything that advances the debate in any significant way.)
It's difficult to predict what the 'shelf-life' of the book will be; although the subject of atheism is perennially interesting, the 'New Atheism' may or may not endure as a subject of general cultural interest.
Because most critics of the New Atheism concentrate on its theological and philosophical ineptitude, I can't think of any competitors with this manuscript, which emphasizes its serious historical illiteracy. Although the author does a very good job of removing any hint of his/her religious beliefs he/she continually reiterates that the soundness of historical scholarship does not depend on religious belief or its absence - I suspect that its main audience will be religious. I don't think that should be seen as a drawback. There are many religious readers out there, and even secular readers who are interested in the whole controversy should find the volume worth their time. The writing seems to be pitched not so much at academics as at that elusive creature called the 'educated lay reader.'
Unfortunately, I don't think this book will be used in college courses, not because it's poorly written or ill-researched, but because I doubt that the New Atheism is a controversy that lends itself to a college course. College and university libraries are a better target in this regard.
REVIEWER #2: Stephen Bullivant, St Mary's University College, UK
There have, of course, been a large (and still growing) number of books responding - usually negatively - to the 'core' New Atheist writings of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and a select group of others. Almost without exception, these critiques have come from the fields of philosophy, theology, and religious studies. Within the 'responses to the New Atheism' subgenre, therefore, The New Atheist Denial of History stands apart. As its author puts it: 'It does not deal with the debate over theism and atheism and nor does it aim to defend the historical record of Christianity or religion more generally. It does aim to defend the integrity of history as a discipline in the face of its distortion by those who violate it' (p. 3). In short, this is a rebuttal of the New Atheist authors' 'contempt for history' (p. 5).
The book is structured in a neat and systematic way. Following an introduction clearly stating its scope and purpose, each of the following three chapters focus on a given period: 'The Twentieth Century', 'Europe 1600-1900', and 'Europe [from late Antiquity] to 1600'. This reverse chronology works well in 'hooking the reader', since the Twentieth Century (including topics such as Soviet Communism, and the motivations for the Holocaust, as well as the personal beliefs of Stalin, Hitler, etc.) is not only the period with which most readers will be familiar, but is also the 'home ground' for much of the New Atheists' polemical attention. Within each chapter, the 'New Atheist account' of a given period is given at length (noting similarities and differences in the approaches of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and - where relevant - various fellow travellers such as Stenger), with careful attention paid to the sources used (or not) to back up the positions taken. This is then followed by a 'mainstream historical' account of the period, correcting the errors of the New Atheists, and - in many cases - using the high-quality, scholarly sources they occasionally do appeal to against them. The fourth and final chapter presents a summary and overall critique of what the author characterizes as 'New Atheist historiography'.
This is a well-written, engaging, enjoyable, and informative book. As noted above, it is also distinctive and original in terms of the current (sizable - and so presumably [?] briskly selling) literature on the New Atheism. It is pitched well for its presumed audience (i.e., people who, like myself, are not trained historians, but enjoy good, substantial popular history), and is also a good length (long enough to feel like one has read a 'proper book', but not so long as be a real 'task'). In that sense, then, I should think it is well-suited for the Pivot series. There is nothing specific in its contents it to require the kind of swift publication Pivot allows for (i.e., its topic is not 'time sensitive'). However, the idea for the book is such a good one, that it's surely only matter of time before someone else hits on it. In short, I recommend that Palgrave offer to publish it.
A number of small comments/suggestions (not as 'deal breakers', but as possible revisions the author might like to consider prior to publication):
1. The current endnote format (lower-case Roman numerals) is needlessly cumbersome, especially given how many endnoted there are. Why use 'xxxviii' when '38' would do just as well?
2. In a book devoted to demonstrating the extent to which various NAs veer away from 'the historical mainstream', it would perhaps be worth briefly mentioning the credence given by Hitchens (and, to a rather lesser extent, Dawkins) to the possibility that Jesus never existed. Hitchens speaks of 'the highly questionable existence of Jesus' (God is Not Great, p. 231), and while Dawkins concedes that Jesus' existence is 'probable' he allows that it is 'possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all' (God Delusion, p. 122). While I am not an ancient historian, I should think taking the 'Jesus mythicism' case so seriously, even if not actually avowing it, is fairly 'way out' in terms of mainstream history. The current leading proponent of this kind of view, incidentally, is probably Richard Carrier - who features a fair bit in some of the other chapters too.
3. A good point is made about Harris' (and others') tendentious use of the term 'religion' to describe Stalinism, Nazism, etc. (Chap. 1, pp. 4-5; Chap. 2, p. 28), in order to 'explain' why they are bad. It might perhaps be worth noting, as an aside, how he accordingly doesn't use it of Buddhism - which he likes (as noted on Chap. 4, p. 33). Unlike Communism, he argues that Buddhism is 'not a religion of faith, or a religion at all, in the Western sense', apparently because of its atheism... to the point of berating 'millions of Buddhists' (and, implicitly, scores of religious studies scholars) for ignorantly supposing otherwise (The End of Faith, p. 283 n. 12).
4. A very minor point this, but might the very first paragraph of the introduction be very lightly edited, perhaps to include some commas? The opening two sentences are quite long and complicated as it is, and a little simplification might help draw the reader in from the get-go. (I have, I should add, no criticisms of the writing style thereafter!)
From the Back Cover
This compact, forcefully argued work calls Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and the rest of the so-called 'New Atheists' to account for failing to take seriously the historical record to which they so freely appeal when attacking religion. The popularity of such books as Harris's The End of Faith, Dawkins's The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great set off a spate of reviews, articles, and books for and against, yet in all the controversy little attention has focused on the historical evidence and arguments they present to buttress their case. This book is the first to challenge in depth the distortions of this New Atheist history. It presents the evidence that the three authors and their allies ignore. It points out the lack of historical credibility in their work when judged by the conventional criteria used by mainstream historians. It does not deal with the debate over theism and atheism nor does it aim to defend the historical record of Christianity or religion more generally. It does aim to defend the integrity of history as a discipline in the face of its distortion by those who violate it.
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Painter handles the New Atheist historiography in a series of chapters, each of which is devoted to examining a particular historical period. By combining decades of experience in history (particularly European history), Painter delves into the various uncritical assertions the New Atheists make about historical events (i.e. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot's anti-religious policies weren't motivated by their atheism, the Soviet Union supported the Russian Orthodox Church, religion is the cause of all violent wars and conflicts, etc.). As Painter shows, these claims are either dubious or completely ignore the nuances of historical events, especially in omitting how cultural, political, economic and ideological forces play a causual role in past events.
If you're interested in serious historical study, I would strongly suggest Painter's book, as the stakes are always high when history is being rewritten to suit ideology. It is concerning that Western society and cultures has been so greatly affected by the works of the New Atheists, as their ignorance across a variety of subjects is enormous, especially in their treatment of history, as Painter shows. It is saddening that common misunderstandings of religion are shaped by historical ignorance driven by inchoate prejudices and preconceived notions of the superiority of scientism. To paraphrase Painter, the New Atheists "prove" that religion poison everything through the simple trick of defining everything that's poisonous as religious.