Gadfly: A Defence (And Critique) Of New Atheism

Rationality is a concept enshrined in our society’s structures. Just as we expect politicians to govern according to principles of logic and common sense, it is understood that the laws they enact are best when derived from expert advice and scientific consensus. One of our culture’s most sacred public institutions, the education system, teaches children and young adults to think logically and critically. It is hard to imagine how else a decent society could function.

Such a conclusion may seem rather obvious, but that does not necessarily render it immune from critique. “Many movements defame theory itself as a form of oppression,” 20th century German philosopher Theodor Adorno observed, “as though praxis were not much more directly related to oppression”. Although he was here primarily concerned with anti-intellectual tendencies in the radical left of his day, his contention – that, without sufficient theoretical justification, action will always be regressive and harmful – can be applied far more broadly; after all, the contrast between theory and spontaneous action is akin to the contrast between rationality and irrationality. Just as Adorno argued in favour of the intellectual’s place in progressive political activism, it follows that public policy not founded upon reason and logic has little chance of success.

If we can accept the importance of rationality in shaping our society, we may well ask ourselves this: how should we treat irrationality? Is it something that ought to be harboured? Should we tolerate it at all?

On an interpersonal level, the answer to both is clearly ‘yes’. While we would all undoubtedly be much better off if we were to act in a more rational manner at all times, we cannot realistically be expected to do so – indeed, there is reason to believe that some degree of personal irrationality is inescapable. As such, the right to make mistakes and act stupidly – within limitations – is fairly fundamental.

When it comes to irrationality being practised at an institutional level, a slightly less charitable response may be required. The Western atheist view has long been that organised religion is a case in point. Where they differ from the ‘New Atheists’ – loosely, the group of scientists and writers including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens and a handful of others – is that some are inclined to live and let live, so long as religion stays clear of law and scientific research. New Atheists offer no such concession. Scientifically dubious organisations such as religion and alternative medicine are, in their view, founded upon myth, superstition and manipulation; nevertheless, they carry sufficient cultural clout to mislead the public. Protection of these institutions, in the New Atheist view, leads to a public far more susceptible to irrationality (and thus, by extension, faulty decision-making).

It is understandable that some of these figures take a less than tolerant view. Dawkins, for instance, has seemingly devoted as much of his professional life to exploring the mysteries of evolution as he has to combating the alarmingly persistent view that the Earth was created in six days. Over 150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, he might well wonder why this is still considered a matter for conjecture.

Religion, though, has rarely sought much in the way of scientific credibility. It is, by its very nature, outside the realm of empirical observation; despite the best efforts of theistic philosophers, beyond logical deduction. With little external authority beyond dogma and intuition, it is certainly prone to more than its fair share of irrationality. While that can be relatively harmless, religion’s all-too-common fundamentalist manifestations can make it genuinely terrifying.

For all of religion’s (sometimes overstated) evils, it would, however, be wrong to ignore its positive attributes. The role that religious organisations play in charitable and humanitarian work is significant, and one could reasonably question whether or not its absence would be so easily filled. Likewise, the positive impact belief sometimes has on individual lives cannot be discounted.

The issue of whether religion causes more harm than good is, however, only one aspect of a much broader problem. To left-wing critics of New Atheism, the specific value of religion is far less important than the right of social groups to act out their cultural identities unhindered. In the context of post-2001 anti-Muslim sentiment in Western countries, New Atheists’ intolerance for Islam is often seen as mere bigotry masquerading as intelligent critique. Hitchens’s support for the Iraq War (along with some atheist groups’ ill-considered advocacy for dog-whistle politics such as burqa-banning) only serves to aid that perception.

While New Atheism’s left-wing opponents would do well to look more critically at a few of their own allegiances, there is validity to many of their criticisms. Dawkins and his peers are right to call out dangerous irrationality where they see it, but they need to take care that their advocacy does not lend support for oppression. One of the many painful lessons from the Iraq War is that one cannot impose cultural values – no matter how objectively beneficial they may seem – upon an unwilling populace. That is as true at home as it is in foreign lands: in a democracy, one must rule with the consent of the people. Targeting a minority may win elections, but the long-term consequences are conflict and disenfranchisement.

Here, there is another lesson for New Atheism: fundamentalism may cause conflict, but no less so than nationalism, bigotry or marginalisation. If Dawkins et al are serious about making society less violent, they should give aggressive policy aimed at religious groups a wide berth. There is little rationality in the alternative.

David Heslin



Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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