Baggini: The New Atheism is cringe material

Julian Baggini is an atheist who’s quite happy for people to know about it. I wish he weren’t, but hey, whatcha gonna do?

Recently Baggini has commented on the embarrassing spectacle that is the “new atheism,” a movement marked by volume and vehemence rather than substance and insight, spearheaded by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, unconcerned by the need to study or understand the target of it’s frothing at the mouth, tub thumping tirades and wide eyed cheering, stomping and whooping from its young zealous audiences at speaking engagements that would easily pass for “God sucks” rallies.

I think that in a relatively short space, Baggini was exactly right and exactly wrong. He’s right about the new atheism. he says:

What [another writer’s opinion piece] revealed is the negative perception people have of the godless hordes, and the New Atheism must share responsibility for creating its own caricature. You can’t publish and lionise books and TV series with titles like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The Root of All Evil? and then complain when people think you are anti-religious zealots.

This can’t be dismissed as “mere perception”. Appearances count, which is why those able to present a more agreeable face have come to dominate the moderate middle ground, even if their arguments are often vapid and shallow.

and:

Perhaps a period of New Atheist exuberance was necessary. At least it got people thinking, although I fear it has confirmed every negative stereotype about it.

Indeed. If ever conservative Christians needed to be encouraged to think that atheism is as much a fanatical sect as any other, the new atheists have given it to them on a silver platter.

Now, along the way, Baggini reveals the odd bit of ignorance of his own here and there. In arguing that historically, religious people have indeed cared about the truth of their beliefs, he asks, “Did doctrinal differences about Christ’s divinity have no role in Rome’s split from the Orthodox church?” Well actually – no they didn’t The divinity of Christ was a dispute primarily associated with the Arian controversy, not the split of Rome from the East. But such errors are excusable coming from someone who doesn’t set himself up as an expert in the subject, unlike the targets of his criticism.

But he manages to go quite wrong in a different way. One of Baggini’s stated goals is to encourage atheists to challenge fluffy liberal religious people to snap out of it and realise that the truth value of a religion really matters. He says:

Liberal believers and agnostics get away with this nonsense because religious belief is much more than a matter of doctrine, and practice can be as important, or more so. So while the atheists destroy simplistic, traditional creeds and dance on the ruins, much of the rest of the religious edifice remains intact. The fluffy brigade are then free to plant their flag on it unchallenged.

Atheists need to challenge these liberal theologians, so that they admit their vision of doctrine-lite faith is not a description of how true religion always was, but a manifesto for how it should be. If they do that and succeed, then good luck to them. I don’t care if people want to retain a sense of being religious, as long as what they believe stands up to intellectual scrutiny. Atheism needs critical friends as well as true non-believers, so that it is subjected to such scrutiny itself.

Perhaps a period of New Atheist exuberance was necessary. At least it got people thinking, although I fear it has confirmed every negative stereotype about it. We now need to turn down the volume and engage in a real conversation about what of value is left of religion once its crude superstitions are swept away.

The impression I get from the article as a whole is that he thinks that truth oriented Christianity with a belief in its own serious intellectual defensibility is really on the wane, and liberal religion has stepped in to fill the void, trying to keep the religious flame burning now that we can’t go around taking it intellectually serious any more due to the fact that astute atheists have torn it down and are dancing on the ruins.

Baggini is the editor of “the Philosopher’s magazine” according to the article I’m quoting from, but I have to think that he spends very little time staying abreast of the literature in analytical philosophy of religion, and he surely has no exposure to actual intellectual exchanges between Christian scholars and their critics. He probably does, but this piece does not reflect any such awareness. In those fields in particular, it is precisely the type of religion that Baggini thinks is in ruins that is postiviely thriving. The top journals in philosophy of religion are no longer dominated by sceptics but by believers. Within academia at least, what the world has witnessed is a resurgence of religious faith: Conservative, truth-oriented religious faith that is prepared to not only defend itself but actually take the intellectual fight to the naysayers.

But the article was half good.

Glenn Peoples

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16 thoughts on “Baggini: The New Atheism is cringe material

  1. “I wish he weren’t, but hey, whatcha gonna do?”

    I couldn’t care less whether people are theists or atheists. Whether their respective position is true or not is what matters, and both camps could do with a touch of humility in that respect, surely?

    “If ever conservative Christians needed to be encouraged to think that atheism is as much a fanatical sect as any other(…)”

    The “New Atheists” are an embarrassment, alright, but it doesn’t seem like conservative Christians need such an encouragement. They were already maligning and misrepresenting atheists and atheism long before Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Onfray, etc.

    It would have been nice if works by actual philosophers of religion such as Swinburne, Plantinga, Mackie, Martin, Oppy etc. were more popular. But that is just too naive for an expectation.

  2. “I couldn’t care less …”

    I guess if I were an atheist I might not care either. But obviously, if Christianity is true (as I think it is), it matters whether people are atheists or not.

  3. Well first of all, by “theism” I do not exclusively mean Christianity. And the point made is relevant even to other options like deism and polytheism.

    More importantly, the point wasn’t that it doesn’t matter in the final analysis whether a particular position is true and therefore which position people hold. The point is rather that positions should be evaluated on the basis of their arguments, rather than any emotional attachments or preconceived notions.

    I don’t see the point in aiming towards “theism”, “atheism”, “Christianity”, or whatever. *Truth* should be the goal. This is not an accusation, I’m just expressing a general principle.

  4. Perhaps, I need to get out more Glenn, but this is the first I’ve heard of the so-called shadowy movement ‘new atheism’ and Julian Baggini.

    What are these ‘caricatures’ Baggini talks about?

    Your ‘fanatical sect’ where do they hang-out, with The Knights Templars?

    Where’s my bloody invite?!

    Atheists generally only share one trait: a belief there are no superstitious Gods.

    I think atheists are simply individuals that are born more skeptical, and are entitled to push their case for a society free of superstition, a secular society where everyone is equal.

    These are of course my thoughts, trying to get atheists to agree on any subject other than a belief of God, is like trying to herd cats.

    See ya.

    Paul.

  5. “But because I think Christianity *is* true, it matters to me that people don’t believe it.”

    Fair enough. But granting for the sake of argument that Christianity is true (and you may well be right), aren’t infidels predicted and expected? Lamentable tragedies, perhaps, but the sort that will have to occur given that universalism is false?

    Moreover, if Christianity is true, the atheist is hardly the only one in trouble. Even theists like Jews and Muslims would be suffering the similar fate of Gehenna. Basically, I find it very difficult to discern what the problem is supposed to be which is uniquely atheistic. It can’t be ignorance of philosophy and religion, because even theists and the religious can be guilty of this, and there are atheists who are not guilty of this (unless one posits from the outset that only religious people can fit the bill).

    I hope I’m not being seen as unduly quarrelsome. I’m genuinely curious.

  6. Daniel,

    I hope I’m not being seen as unduly quarrelsome. I’m genuinely curious.

    Actually, so far you’re coming across as remarkably reasonable for someone who doesn’t share the site’s worldview. Keep that up, please.

  7. Daniel, if someone tells me that they’re an atheist, it’s at least clear that they aren’t a Christian. Because I think Christianity is true, I wish they weren’t something other than a Christian. My thoughts there are the same when someone tells me they’re a Buddhist.

    And however inevitable this may be, it is still, as you say, lamentable.

  8. Paul – that’s an invite you (hopefully) don’t want.

    “The New Atheism” is not just atheism of the modern age. It’s true that atheism is not a unified movement with a set creed, and the herding of cats may well be an apt analogy. But the New Atheism is rather easier to herd. They an be found lapping up books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. They can be seen reproducing their arguments at countless blogs and web forums. Not content to see violence and suffering as a product of the human condition, they somehow manage to conclude – and remind people as often as possible – that religion is the greatest force for evil in existence. They seem (unlike brilliant atheists like, say Stephen J. Gould) to be utterly certain that religious faith and a scientific inquiring minds are doomed to be perpetually at odds.

    I’m sure you didn’t mean to suggest that theists believe in gods who are superstitious (“superstitious gods”), what you no doubt meant is that atheists are not superstitious and deny that any god exists. Although this is a mistaken view, it pleases me that at least you are not identifying with the new atheists. To do so would be intellectual suicide in the world of actual philosophy of religion. Pray (irony intended) that the invitation never arrives.

  9. Glenn, I am happy & delighted for all churches in New Zealand to agree they are not superstitious – for to do so would mean they have to pay their fair share in taxes.

    So that’s why you’ll never get a Church in this country to disagree with the notion, officially at least, in the concept of superstitious entities.

    Glenn, for a guy that works in The Tax Department – you should know this sort of stuff!

    Happy for your Church to be the-odd-man-out, though, so do the honest thing
    & why not drop your employer an anonymous ‘tip’ that your own Church does not believe in superstitious entities.

    Also, people writing books on a similar vein, and being invited on to the talking circuit , hardly constitutes, more that common belief.

    There is no ‘New Atheism’, grand alliance, reds under the bed.

    The internet gives the growing number of atheists a voice to speak their mind, and stake their position in society.

    Religion has until recently, some sort of automatic societal exemption, from criticism.

    Respect should be earned, not given automatically in my books.

    Now the ‘blow torch is being applied to theist y-fronts’ from Dawkins, Hitchens and the like – you guys don’t like it.

    Cheers.

    Paul.

    PS: My e.mail is canterburyatheist (at)g.mail.com so be sure to copy me in on the e.mail to your investigations department at work, telling them your church has applied for tax exemption status illegally.

  10. Paul: “why not drop your employer an anonymous ‘tip’ that your own Church does not believe in superstitious entities. ”

    OK, my subtlety failed, let me put it differently: I was trying to subtly fix your language so as not to appear like a nit picker. You’ve outed me. I’m a nit picker. You’re referring to people who believe in superstitious gods. But literally that means there are people who believe in gods who are superstitious. What you really mean, surely, is that there are superstitious people who believe in gods.

    There, you forced me to. I laboured the point.

    Oh another thing, there are openly religious people who don’t believe in God and who run churches. Yeah, I think theological liberalism is silly too, but I think you’ll find that the state is well aware of their existence, and there’s no conspiracy to defraud going on.

    As for (apparently) denying that there’s a genuine “new atheist” movement, you’re welcome to disagree with a broad consensus shared by theists and non-theists alike. It’s not like I have any emotional stock in whether or not it’s a correct term, I just use it because it’s a term with a fairly easily understood meaning in contemporary philosophical culture.

  11. Glenn,
    Christianity contains traces of true events but with a big twist while Atheism is nonsense created by men.

  12. All you Atheists,Christians or Buddhist or other religion that idolized God are being far swayed from the true path.Theres only one and true God, that is the God of Moses,Abraham,Jesus(the real one) & Mohammad.

  13. Glenn,
    I appreciate your advice.This is just my introduction to this blog.Opinion with reasons will come later Godwilling.It’s just I’am very upset to read in most blogs,people are defying the existence of God.My intention is coaching them back to the true path.They are just following their lying scholars.They are humans,brotherhood of men.They can be our father,mother,sisters or brothers.I just can’t bear to see them burned in hell.

  14. Glenn,
    You think Christianity is true.But have you test your faith yet.Or do you still feel the emptiness or vacuum in your heart that tells you this is just not the truth yet or youre just forcing yourself to believe it.If that’s what you felt than that is a good sign.Let me start with something that you may or may not heard.Jesus(the real one) claims that the TORAH is the true book from god.The Torah also depicted there will come another prophet after Jesus (the real one) who is called Ahmed or Mohammad(prophet).The Bible are the excerpts or depiction from the true TORAH but have been twisted or manipulated by the Christians scholars due to interests or hatred.Do you ever wonder or does it occur to you in Christianity teachings, the Padre or human can forgive sins.
    Men have a lot of sins themselves, where is the rationale that they can forgive sins.Does that give them advantage to misuse or abuse the powers given to them.Only God can forgive sins.And another thing God says ‘Have become infidel those who says that God have a son.God should be something pure,would you agree.He does not need a son to represent him.He’s very powerfull & he can stand on his own.And do you wonder of all other things his son looks like human.Does that will put Gods standards to shame,a God or son of God to looked like humans or the lower beings?His also too pure & too high to communicate with the lower beings thats why he sent his messenger to show humans the right & true path, that is his path.

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