New atheism

Photo courtesy The Guardian
James Wood, The Guardian

In the last 10 years or so, the rise of American evangelicalism and the menace of Islamist fundamentalism, along with developments in physics and in theories of evolution and cosmogony, have encouraged a certain style of aggressive, often strident atheistic critique. Books such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great have sold in the millions.

Beyond the unlikely success of these books, there has also been the spread of atheist and secularist websites and blogs, some of them intellectually respectable, others more dogmatic and limited (ie, pretty atrocious). The events of 11 September 2001 were the obvious spur.

In The End of Faith, the American writer Sam Harris argued that as long as America remains swamped in Christian thinking, it will never defeat militant Islamism, since one backward religious system cannot prevail over another backward religious system.

Atheism would be the key to unlock this uneasy stalemate. Academics such as Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have broader projects, perhaps – for them, the removal of our religious blinkers will result in a proper appreciation of the natural world, and of science’s ability to describe and decode it.

Wood says he can’t be the only reader who finds himself in broad agreement with the conclusions of the New Atheists, while disliking some of the ways they reach them.

For these writers, and many others, “religion” always seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and the more relaxed or progressive versions of Christianity are not in their argumentative sights. Along with this curious parochialism about the varieties of religious belief comes a simplistic reading of how people actually hold those beliefs.

Read the full essay by James Wood at The Guardian …