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.
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.