Richard Dawkins and the sinking ship of New Atheism

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: New Atheism's cornerstones
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: New Atheism’s contemporary cornerstones

It was pleasing to read Owen Jones’ recent article in The Independent, denouncing, from an atheist’s perspective, Richard Dawkins’ hostility towards religion (albeit almost entirely confined to his various attacks on Islam). It is a rare early example of a public disassociation that must be undertaken by serious-thinking nonbelievers as quickly and emphatically as possible.

Pieces on this topic customarily begin with a personal disclaimer in some agonising form, and I feel as though it would be rude to buck the trend. I cannot attest to the same secular security as Jones, to say nothing of Dawkins, but suffice to say that I live under the assumption that the commonly conceived, anthropomorphised deity of the popular monotheistic religions – a god that I might be tempted to petition with self-interested requests, or to whom I would turn in times of strife or despair – does not exist. Nor do I disagree that the diverse list of moral indiscretions (to phrase the thing politely) – continual subjugation of women, child rape, homophobia, genital mutilation, stigmatisation and condemnation of contraception, of alternative reproductive methods, and of pre-marital sex, to cite a small handful – facilitated and justified by numerous religions can possibly be regarded as anything but repugnant. Moreover, I consider Jones’ assertion that holding critical opinions about followers of certain religions is an act of discrimination comparable to racism (“it is beyond unrealistic to regard religious belief as a ‘choice’”) to be completely ridiculous; if we cannot judge people based on the set of beliefs they hold, we might as well give up judging anyone at all. With this point, Jones is, I fear, unwittingly dabbling in a debate of nature vs nurture that is complex and distracts from the issue at hand.

So far so good. Dawkins would welcome me with open arms. Regrettably, however, I could not return the embrace. Rather, I would seek to distance myself from a movement which, I have slowly and reluctantly become persuaded in recent years, is irredeemably sullied by a vice from which no serious cultural or social revolution has ever emerged; the desire to look clever (often confused with the desire to be right). This relatively young faction of non-belief, of which Dawkins is unanimously regarded the figurehead, is usually referred to as New Atheism (Christopher Hitchens, gloriously accurate about so much, was wrong to claim that “there is nothing new about the New Atheists”), and retains an impressive army of supporters and propagators, including A. C. Grayling, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and even the dependably controversial, fidgeting figure of Ricky Gervais.

The fundamental problem with New Atheism in its present form is, ironically, a deficiency of pragmatism. Ironic because Dawkins’ favoured method of cognition – the governing principle of Dawkinsism, if you like – exercises an arbitrary prioritisation of pragmatism above all other considerations. The pragmatist has no time to think about metaphysics, or entertain the notion of a reality that he cannot perceive but must infer or imagine. Indeed, the diehard pragmatist mightn’t consider a world beyond sense experience to qualify as “reality” at all.

Herein lies the inconsistency. From a pragmatist’s point of view, the overwhelming problem with religion is the vast number of ignominies and injustices it continues to perpetrate in almost every country – and New Atheism has great potential to address and work against such abominations. Instead, however, Dawkins, Maher, Gervais and too many others would rather attempt to prove the intellectual tenability of their position in a debate wherein neither side is able to offer a conclusive argument. Addressing Howard University in Washington D.C., Dawkins admitted: “My interest is that I care passionately about the truth. I’m actually rather less interested in the role of religion in society and all that stuff… Is there, as a matter of fact, a Supreme Being who created the universe or not?” Whilst one might be tempted to smile at the philosophical naivety in his words, they are unhappily symptomatic of a wider tendency, to polarise in an extremely unhelpful way – to group forward-thinking Christians together with creationists, or bracket someone like me with Jones and Hitchens; the discriminating criterion is no more precise or nuanced than “belief in God”, and all theistic belief consequently becomes synonymous and equivalent. The National Secular Society’s Kate Smurthwaite encapsulated this attitude on ‘The Big Questionsa couple of years ago, when she explained that “faith, by definition, is believing in things without evidence – and personally I don’t do that, because I’m not an idiot”. Perhaps she was aware of Dawkins’ declaration in Edinburgh, nearly twenty years earlier, that “faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think”, or indeed, his judgement in ‘The Selfish Gene’:…faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness”.

Constructing a tension between those who believe in a deity and those who do not is polarisation at its laziest, indulging the same predisposition for eradicating nuance (now ubiquitous) that sees divorced parents become “broken families” or New Feminists “misandrists”. It is stupid to believe that any debate concerning the existence a transcendental, supernatural entity could reach a satisfactory conclusion – reasonable, defensible theism is wise enough to refrain from appealing to evidence in the physical world, and cannot therefore be validated by scientific verification. The hackneyed notion that theism and science are as air and seawater in a sinking boat – the latter steadily pushing the former out of each diminishing alcove – is a fallacy, deriving once again from the same erroneous tension of which the New Atheists are so fond. This tension is favoured because it helps to formulate a caricaturised version of theism that may be easily challenged or ridiculed, but it is likely to offer little comfort to those non-believers who would rather not score intellectual points at the expense of pursuing essential cultural progress. When it comes to God, presence of belief matters far less than the manifestation of that belief, and it is this new conflict that needs to replace the old; a distinction between rational, moral theists (of which there are many) who recognise the enormity of the problems caused by religion, and those who perpetrate those problems.

In its current artless form, New Atheism needlessly estranges all believers, merging the reasonable with the idiotic, and thereby alienating many of those with whom it needs to work in order to change the function and influence of religion. Atheism, similarly, no longer interesting of its own accord, has implications and concerns – the viability of a meaningful life without a deity, for instance, or the source of secular morality – which invite further controversy and debate. In order to engage in these discussions, however, the unsophisticated approach of Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists must be abandoned immediately, and a more nuanced style of atheism adopted in its wake.