February 21, 2011
Why atheism is winning-4: The new and decisive shift by the new atheists
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
In the previous posts, I said that it is the firm knowledge that almost everything in religious texts like the Bible and the Koran are fiction that will destroy religion. But right now that knowledge largely exists amongst a small group of theologians and philosophers of religion and does not percolate out to influence ordinary religious believers who do not read their works. The clergy who deal on a daily basis with ordinary believers have some awareness of this knowledge but also realize that to disseminate it to their flock would cause an uproar and destroy their careers and so they keep it to themselves or discreetly share it with a very few of their colleagues and parishioners. As a result of this, beliefs that religious texts are mostly true have remained largely unscathed.
It is the new atheists who have upset the status quo. The new atheists are well aware of the power of this knowledge in undermining religion and have been using it in their attacks on religion, repeatedly pointing out that there is no evidence to supports its strong claims and that the religious texts are largely fictional and contradicted by science.
Doubts about the plausibility of god are not new. Many philosophers going back to the ancient Greeks argued persuasively that the idea of god made no sense and created all manner of logical contradictions. What those philosophers did not have were the insights provided by modern science. The rapid advancement of science that began with physics in the 16th century and joined in the late nineteenth century by dramatic advances in biology and geology resulted in deepening our understanding that the world works perfectly well without the need for divine intervention at any stage. The archeological findings in the late twentieth century that have shed light on human history have been combined with these other scientific findings to discredit the factual claims of religion.
The decisive new development is that we now know that not only is god unnecessary as an explanatory concept for anything, but that the Bible itself is false in almost all its historical details and that its main characters are fictional. What is new about the new atheism is that it is the new atheists who are taking this knowledge out of academia and intellectual circles and broadcasting it to ordinary people, to the believers in the churches and mosques and temples, using popular books, newspaper articles, radio, TV, films, the internet, in short any and all forms of accessible media.
I think that the new atheists are on the right track in thinking that the best way of fighting religious extremism is by attacking it at its foundations, the literal truth of religious texts, and taking that message directly to the general public. But it is undoubtedly true that this will result in moderate religion suffering irreparable collateral damage because they too depend, even if to a lesser extent, on believing in the truth of those texts. Even if I were sympathetic to the accommodationist idea of preserving moderate religion, I frankly do not see any way out of this.
As long as doubts about the existence of god and the truth of the Bible stayed within elite circles, it did not cause serious damage. I think that it is clear that the leadership of mainstream religions is well aware of the danger that this knowledge presents if it became widely known. This is why there has been such a strong reaction to the new atheists amongst the religious hierarchy. They cannot, of course, argue that the new atheists are wrong on the facts because they realize we are right. They want to avoid at all costs a debate on the historical truth of the religious texts because that would only give more publicity the fact that is false. Instead they attempt diversionary tactics.
One such tactic is to attack the 'tone' taken by new atheists and argue that we are not 'tolerant'. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom one could label as a religious moderate, has called upon his clergy to fight back against the new atheist message.
Clergy are to be urged to be more vocal in countering the arguments put forward by a more hard-line group of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have campaigned for a less tolerant attitude towards religion.
A report endorsed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warns that the Church faces a battle to prevent faith being seen as "a social problem" and says the next five years are set to be a period of "exceptional challenge".
Pope Ratzinger has also decided to come out swinging against what he calls "atheist extremism", an undefined quantity. What would he consider non-extreme atheism, I wonder? His top aide Cardinal Walter Kasper also stoked fears about the danger of the atheist message taking hold amongst the general population.
I am actually heartened by the responses of Williams and Ratzinger. It shows that the new atheists are having a major impact on the minds of ordinary believers.
Next: The battle for hearts and minds.