Religion, Commodification & the “New Atheists”

As a follower of philosophical Daoism, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Nonetheless, I feel the need to clear some brush. Terry Eagleton probably does a better job of this in his recent book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution (Yale University Press, 2009), so  I’m sure I will have smarter things to say once I’ve read it.

Meanwhile, a few thoughts:

Even as religious culture increasingly becomes reduced to commodified experiences and accouterments, it still retains a residue of resistance to commodity culture, a memory if you will, of values and practices not based on commodification.

In this light, the so-called "new atheists" (Dawkins, Hitchens, & friends) function in part as apologists for consumer culture, reducing religious thought to its stupidest forms and dismissing it. While writers like Christopher Hitchens might have heartfelt alternatives to both religious and consumer culture that they’d like for us to turn to, as something actual people find compelling, these putative alternatives are mostly D.O.A. Meanwhile the social function their writing fulfills is to attack forms of residual culture resistant to buying and selling. However much, say, conservative Christianity in the U.S. might be in bed with capitalism gone wild, those pesky scriptures they place so much stock in keep bringing up the poor.

The new atheists’ reductive tendency actually allies them with Christian and Islamic fundamentalists in their refusal to take religious diversity seriously on two fronts:

  1. It willfully obscures different religions’ internal diversity by equating a religion with its loudest (and dumbest) self-appointed spokespersons.
  2. It erases the diversity between religions and their traditions by reducing them to a set of (spurious) common denominators, such as the belief in a deity, or the promise of an afterlife.

Just as there are intelligent, thoughtful ways to be a believer, there are intelligent thoughtful ways to be an atheist. But the easy assumption that being atheist is in itself evidence of being more reflective than one’s peers is sophomoric.

It’s also lazy. If you’re going to promote yourself as a defender of reason, at least do your fucking homework. So trotting out arguments that were hackneyed when Kant was considering questions of belief over two hundred years ago won’t do. 

They may see themselves as a tough-minded vanguard, but all I’ve seen from the new atheists so far is a lack of intellectual curiosity, a unearned confidence in the originality of one’s own thought, and a facile contempt for those generations who have lived, and reasoned, before you.

One thought on “Religion, Commodification & the “New Atheists”

  1. I think you do have a dog in a different fight occurring simultaneously on another dimension, Warren.
    I am not a practicing anything, but have a sweet attraction to both atheist-inspired existentialism and deeply considered, personally defined christianity. Other religions seem to hold power, but I am not educated enough to speak to them.

    Stayed up late again Friday night with a friend who claims to be an avowed atheist but is really just a guy who loves to argue. I tried to work with him towards a definition of Grace as something like a human right or a human experience that anyone can access. However, once I used a biblical reference he started to simply undermine every attempt I made to move towards a working definition.

    He just hates religion, whatever religion is. He seeks to — and is successful in — undermining it. As the great philosopher Douglas Adams proved, it is quite easy to undermine the rhetoric of religion. God will help you to do it.

    But what fun is that game? It is played by folks who had a bad experience in their past with fundamentalists or someone else that defined some activity as “religious.”

    Fails to take into account the personal nature of people’s relationship with a diety. Take, for instance, those who choose Pascal’s wager. Is that a foul, blind religious fundamentalism?

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