A “pseudo-intellectual trifle”

Scott Stephens has an article on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website called “The Poverty of the New Atheism“.

PZ Myers has a go at this (and he’s seen it all before). Stephens’ article resembles the Courtier’s Reply, another of Myers’ illuminations. Theologians seem to object to atheist arguments not because they’re wrong – they hardly even mention the issue of correctness – but because atheists pay insufficient attention and reverence to the details of theological discourse. In this case, Stephens objects to “New Atheism” not because it makes errors but because it doesn’t go far enough into his other pet interests.

Many of Stephens’ remarks are just empty put-downs, like this:

But is there not is a kind of implicit acknowledgement of inferiority in the tone so many of the “New Atheists” have adopted? The air of contemptuous flippancy reduces atheism to a form of light entertainment and petit bourgeois chic.

New Atheists might adopt contemptuous flippancy towards the more extreme and fantastical religious imaginings floating around, but it’s not atheism that this reduces to light entertainment – it’s religion. Their tone might convey arrogance (which is the usual accusation), but Stephens does this quite well himself, as you can see.

Stephens use of “bourgeois” might be telling, considering that his next dozen paragraphs lead us on a wild adventure into Marxist philosophy. Stephens is strangely enamored with Marx, who he promotes above the New Atheists. I was torn between two possible reasons for this. Either –

  1. Stephens wants to laugh at his contemporary adversaries by comparing them unfavourably to a long-vanquished foe; or
  2. Stephens does see a redeeming quality in Marx, and is disdainful of New Atheism for not also being New Communism.

I lean towards the latter interpretation, because Stephens wraps up his Marxist adventure as follows:

And here the “New Atheists” fall tragically short.

By failing to pursue the critique of religion into the sanctum of global capitalism itself, by reducing discussion of morality to a vapid form of well-being and personal security, and by failing to advocate alternate forms of virtuous community – all in the name of “reason” – they end up providing the pathologies of capitalism with a veneer of “commonsense” rationality.

I think Stephens displays a profound misunderstanding of the terms of reference, so to speak, of atheism. It is silly to chastise atheism (or agnosticism, or secularism) for what it doesn’t do. Atheism is not supposed to be a holistic solution for all your philosophical needs; it is only one aspect of philosophy.

In particular, if you want to hear atheists make passionate moral arguments, tell them to take off their atheist hats and put on their secular humanist ones. It is humanism that (typically) drives morality for atheists, not atheism. Atheism is concerned with the non-existence of God. That’s not just where it happens to be focused at the moment; that’s what it is. New Atheism is merely a modern-day expression of this.

It’s even sillier to accuse New Atheism of legitimising “the pathologies of capitalism”, simply by having nothing to do with it. Atheists span the entire political spectrum. As many atheists would argue for capitalism as against it. As many theists would argue for capitalism as against it. We can debate the existence of God without invoking economics. We can debate the relative merits of capitalism without invoking the supernatural. The two issues are completely independent, and it serves no purpose to conflate them.

However, Stephens finally uses the capitalism theme to launch into the unlikeliest of proposals:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has recognized as much and has thus proposed – though not unproblematically – an alliance between atheism and Catholic Christianity.

“Not unproblematically” is something of an understatement, you might think. Atheism would not be atheism if it made an “alliance” with religion – the idea is self-contradictory. Secular humanism might make an alliance with religion (in some hypothetical context) – and that might even entail atheists, but not atheism per se.

Finally, we have this:

By continuing to ignore its debt to the Christian intellectual and moral revolution, and by severing itself from the profoundest insights of its own tradition, the “New Atheism” will find it impossible to avoid becoming a fad, a pseudo-intellectual trifle.

That’s the thing about atheism, Stephens – it has no debt to the past. Atheism is merely the rejection of religious mythology. Every one of us is born with the capacity for such reason. We don’t need cues from those living decades, centuries or millennia ago – we can work it out for ourselves. And that’s why it will endure.