Tone. We keep coming back to tone. It’s not what you say but how you say it. Julian Baggini thinks the ‘New Atheism’ is destructive, not because of its arguments, but because of the ‘general tone and direction’. It’s perception not reality that counts and the problem with The God Delusion etc is not ‘what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived’. The New Atheism is therefore ‘counterproductive’.
There are at least as many atheists attacking New Atheism, as there are New Atheists attacking religion. The former line of critique, again, rarely takes on Dawkins/Hitchens-style arguments but instead criticises the expression, not the actuality, of New Atheist ideas. We are ‘aggressive’; ‘dogmatic’; ‘militant’; ‘intolerant’ and, let’s not forget, ‘fundamentalist’.
Don’t get me wrong. Incivility is bad. But when I think of incivility I think of morons in pastel shirts, smashing up pubs, making bus journeys hell with mobile phone noise and compilation trance. I don’t think of two people in a lecture theatre having an academic debate.
Certainly there are lines that should not be crossed – hate speech, for example, or personal comments. I’m thinking of the attacks on Christopher Hitchens that carry the sniggering insinuation that he is an alcoholic, often made by people who think of alcoholism as a disease rather than a crime. Richard Dawkins once got in trouble for saying of a woman that she had a ‘stupid face’. Yes, it was a bad thing to say. But what real harm has occurred? You’ll live. People are too oversensitive. Writers are not diplomats and shouldn’t have to be.
A prominent theme of intellectual discourse is self-abasement. Liberals are fond of self-deprecation. We self-criticise, josh about our weaknesses, shrug, laugh, apologise, play down. There’s good things to be said about this approach, yet it means that passion is regarded as suspicious. When someone rises above this level of mediocrity, they are dismissed as arrogant. And it means that when we do have to fight the real militants, people who are genuinely and unashamedly arrogant, who are unafraid of appearing to believe in what they say – anti-immigration white racists, ‘politically incorrect’ Tory scum comedians/columnists, far-right Islamic clerics – they just walk all over us.
And there is also arrogance in self-deprecation. Remember Wilde: ‘There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us.’ That’s exactly right. Certainly, we should guard ourselves against the intoxication of self-righteousness. But we must also remember that modesty is half the sin of pride.
I think I’ve exhausted the question of tone. Baggini also thinks the New Atheists define themselves entirely by their opposition to religion, which renders atheism pointless: ‘Imagine for one moment that atheism triumphs and belief in God is eradicated. On the view that atheism needs religion, then this victory would also be atheism’s extinction.’ But this argument has already been made – by a New Atheist, Sam Harris. In a conference speech Harris discussed the redundancy of the term:
I think that ‘atheist’ is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people ‘non-astrologers.’
We don’t need the term ‘non-astrology’ because that implies that astrology is something more than harmless filler. But imagine a parallel world. In this world astrology is taken seriously to the degree that religion is taken seriously in our world. People self-identify, first and foremost, with the star sign under which they are born. Children are raised as Aquarians or Taurians by Aquarian or Taurian parents, educated by rote learning in Aquarian and Taurian schools, and married in arranged ceremonies to other Aquarians and Taurians. Minority signs have their shops burned down. Sectarian graffiti appears on walls. Protection of Zodiac teachings is written into national and international law. Astrologers enjoy the status of philosopher-kings, are consulted by legislatures, and hold senior positions in universities where they thrash out endless debates on conjunctions between human behaviour and the positions of the moon. Entire nations and cultures are based on a single astrological sign or group of signs. In these astrocracies people would be discriminated against, censored, tortured and killed for not being, say, Piscean, or being Pisceans with the wrong Piscean traits. The Fire Sign nations invade Water Sign land, gassing entire towns, killing civilians, pregnant women, children, babies. Water Sign militias respond with waves of suicide bombers, causing more loss of life. Meanwhile, the Cancerian Republic has its nuclear programme well underway. The planet reduced to glowing ash because of a dispute over whether Gemini’s ruling stone is the Sapphire, or the Moss Agate.
A sad and crazy world. And a lot like our own.
In the universe I’ve just described, there would certainly be a need for a movement against astrology in general. The term ‘non-astrologist’ would be useful, controversial, even fatal. Likewise, Elizabeth Wilson argues:
[T]he aggressive militancy of the ‘New Atheism’ is precisely a political response to the equally political agenda of evangelical Christians, Islamists and others who have used faith as the battering ram to attack the citadels not simply of enlightenment reason but – paradoxically – of worldly power.
What Julian fails to take into account, I think, is that many people long for a more uninhibited outspoken uncringing discussion of religion, and are pleased to get it. I think he overlooks the sense of liberation many people have gotten from the revival of explicit atheism.
That’s exactly it. It’s a joy to be able to point out that religion is stupid and harmful, without having to add all the caveats and qualifications of debased liberal discourse. To paraphrase Wilde: it should not just be a duty to speak your mind. It should also be a pleasure.
‘Nothing succeeds like excess’