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:
- It willfully obscures different religions’ internal diversity by equating a religion with its loudest (and dumbest) self-appointed spokespersons.
- 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.