This is probably one of the best outlines of the philosophical weaknesses of the "New Atheists", even in regards to their Atheist predecessors, that I've come across.
Taki's Magazine: The Hollow Men: Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris
The Hollow Men: Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris
Posted by Erasmus Root on August 28, 2007
In over three decades of a vagabond life, I’ve had the good fortune to know some colorful atheists. The most memorable encounter, however, took place during a lunch in Lithuania. I had recently graduated from a small liberal arts college and, unable to find gainful employment in my native United States, flew to Eastern Europe to earn my daily bread as an English teacher. Thanks to some connections established through my alma mater’s Lithuanian librarian, I learned of some teaching positions in Klaipeda, a small Lithuanian port city that hugs the southern coast of the Baltic, and whose chief claim to geopolitical fame is a passing mention in the old German anthem “Deutschland Über Alles.” Now, Klaipeda hosts a fair number of expatriates, not only from North America but also from Scandinavian lands, and my most promising interview was with an oil company executive from Norway. Bjørn was managing a Swedish-Lithuanian joint venture oil project, and for some reason, felt it necessary to have the Lithuanian side of management learn conversational English. Bjørn’s need for an English teacher, and my aching need for funds, brought us together for our fateful interview at a Klaipeda cafe.
Everything about that lunch was pleasant, and yet pale. The café’s cream yellow walls were pleasant but pale, and so were the low-hanging Northern sun, the chilled and unsalted herring, the tepid tea in our little cups, and Bjørn’s own atheism. I had always associated atheism with passion—red-eyed anarchists swearing “No God, no master;” Milton’s tragically majestic satanic rebels, Prometheus’ daring theft of Olympian fire, and Nietzsche’s hypnotic dirges lamenting the death of the Judeo-Christian God. Bjørn’s atheism, however, had no suggestions or intimations of a soul-unnerving Göttersdämerrung. One could find more Wagner in a poached egg. Instead, atheism weighed lightly on Bjørn’s shoulders. God was not dead, but simply nonexistent. The daily rounds of life, the ordinary structure of a pleasant and bland existence, continued peacefully even in the absence of a God, heaven or hell. After finishing my herring and tea, I concluded that atheism was not a homogenous thing. There are great varieties of atheism, differing not just in intellectual content, but also in terms of feeling and emotional depth.
My memories of my lunch with Bjørn recently came to life again in the wake of a recent publishing buzz. Books attacking religion, faith and theism have become hot bestsellers. In particular, there is a troika of books that currently dominate the atheism publishing boom: Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Together, these three books make a formidable frontal assault on religious faith, particularly its Christian and Islamic varieties. They have different styles and emphases—Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, stresses scientific topics, whereas Hitchens the journalist draws on his experience in reporting on religiously colored war zones such as Lebanon and Afghanistan. What they all have in common is an unrelenting hostility to religious faith as such. Faith is not just wrong or irrational. It is a positive evil, like drunk driving, diabetes or racism. There have been plenty of atheistic and anti-religious writers over the past two hundred years, but it is hard to think of any other period since the Enlightenment when such a concerted attack on the entirety of religion has made such an impact on the popular book market. What is it about our time that makes these books so appealing? Why do they resonate with a substantial portion of the reading public?
In the 1930’s, in the wake of the catastrophic Great Depression, everyone was talking about economics. During the Cold War, secular totalitarianism and nuclear weapons were the hot topics in political conversation. Since 9-11, the problem of religion has risen to central prominence, especially with respect to Islam. From suicide bombings to controversies over the veil, Westerners are debating whether and how Islam and democratic modernity co-exist. Islam, however, is not the only ingredient in today’s world that is causing political consternation. Religious conservatism around the world, from Baptist churches in the American South to Hindu temples in Calcutta, has made a vigorous and often noisy resurgence. In America, Evangelical and Catholic movements, often tagged with the labels “fundamentalist” and “religious right,” have been in the front lines of the so-called “culture wars” over issues such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and the teaching of evolution and intelligent design. Thus, in both domestic and international news stories, we see the same theme of religion in conflict with modernity. This appears as a monstrously unsettling situation for many, especially for those who are secular or religiously liberal. To them, it seems that the whole edifice of post-Enlightenment modernity, from scientific naturalism to separation of church and state, is under attack by a pan-sectarian, global fundamentalism. Believers in the literal truth of the Quran, the Bible, and the Bhagavad-Gita, although they differ in their dogmas, seem to be united in their common hostility to secular democracy, and in their desire to impose a medieval theocracy upon the world.
Like all fears about universal conspiracies, this panic on the part of agnostics and liberals is somewhat exaggerated, but it has gained plausibility thanks to the efforts of two men. George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden are by no means twin brothers, but they have much in common. Besides coming from vast desert regions abounding in oil (Texas and Saudi Arabia), they are both prominent figureheads in the exploitation of religious faith for political advantage.
Bin Laden’s Al Qaida claims to be the liberator of an oppressed Dar-al-Islam, and casts itself as the heir of Mohammed, Saladin, and the Ottoman Empire. Everyone knows the Islamic (or apparently Islamic) character of this vile group. Bin Laden, however, embodies religious propaganda in the deepest personal way. Bin Laden does not rant and gesticulate like a Hitler or a Mussolini. His mannerisms and intonation are gentle and mild, and his posture is slightly stooped, giving an air of pious humility. Bin Laden affects the appearance of a pious religious teacher, as if he were some holy Sufi sheykh who has just emerged from a session of meditation and prayer.
George Bush, in a different way, also flaunts his personal religiosity. Many presidents have compelling narratives, using their personal autobiographies to give their administrations rhetorical legitimacy. Lincoln had his log cabin childhood, and John F. Kennedy had his PT-109 naval adventure. George W. Bush has always used his “born again” status to appeal to the evangelical base of the Grand Old Party. Born into wealth and privilege, Bush had no achievements of his own in college, the military or business. His one personal accomplishment is giving up alcohol, which he credits to his faith in Jesus Christ. Likewise, he tells the story of how his pastor convinced him that he was called by Christ to run for president. Although Bush does not explicitly mention Christ or the Bible with the frequency of Bin Laden’s quranic quotations, the theme of “faith” is the keynote of his presidency. The Bush White House specializes in launching grandiose ventures with an utter disregard for criticism, opposition, or any kind of feedback from reality. This is most famously clear in the case of the Iraq War, which will be remembered as one of the great instances of imperial hubris and disastrously smug self-confidence. This is also true, however, of his education, Medicare, social security and immigration endeavors. Bush has defended all of these quixotic ventures in flowery and idealistic language, at the heart of which is an appeal to faith. At bottom, Bush believes that he has a special relationship with Providence, and his confidence in his “gut feelings” does not waver one centimeter. The result of his confusion of obstinancy with faith is that the latter has become discredited. It is now common to speak of “faith-based” in opposition to “reality-based.” The appeals to faith made by these two very different—but equally reckless—leaders to justify their destructive decisions have helped ensure that the very word “faith” how leaves a dirty taste in the mouths of many. Thus, after 9-11 atheism takes on a special flavor—like a kind of mouthwash. It takes on a special appeal in a world dominated by a clash between two men who have divorced themselves from reality, to pigheadedly follow irrational and bloody projects in the name of “faith.”
Although I am not an atheist myself, I too share this repugnance to the use of faith as an instrument of political and ideological megalomania. And although I believe in God and revelation, I have a philosopher’s respect for good critical arguments, and I have always enjoyed the pugnacious style of fervent infidels such as Voltaire, Nietzsche and Mencken. Hence, a certain thrill of excitement and anticipation ran through me as I picked up my copies of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins. What arguments would I encounter? What thunderous barrage of critical discourse would wake me, to use Kant’s phrase, from my “dogmatic slumber?” Would my faith be shaken by these reputable and bestselling authors?
Alas, instead of a terrifying and interesting storm of doubt, my ship of faith only encountered a few annoying water balloons. The sales of Dawkins, Hitchen and Harris might be red hot, but their content is just as pale and anesthetic as my herring lunch in Lithuania. Hitchens relates some telling anecdotes in graceful language, and Harris raises a few interesting points, but all in all these books have an imaginative and emotional flatness one does not encounter in the writings of classical atheists and agnostics. In style and content, these books have the same blend of quasi-journalism and sterile indignation that characterizes most op-ed pieces. Paradoxically, what separates Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris from the classical atheists and infidels of Western literature is the former group’s absence of religious feeling. As an example of atheism that has the depth of religious emotion, consider the statements of one eminent 19th century antichristian:
If God is dead, it is we who have killed him….We are the assassins of God….How did we come to do that? How did we manage to empty the sea? Who gave us a sponge to wipe out the whole horizon? What were we about when we undid the chain that linked this earth to the sun? Are we not continually falling? Forward, backward, sideways, in every direction? Is there still an above, a below? Are we wandering as through an endless nothingness? Do we not still feel the breath of the void on our faces? Isn’t it growing colder? Is not night always coming on, one night after another, more and more?
Nietzsche’s vivid and compelling language taps into humanity’s well of religious experience. Since God (or some supreme being or principle) has been the keystone of order and meaning in human existence, Nietzsche understands the atheistic denial of God to be a momentous event, at once titanic, tragic, and full of heroic promise. The point in saying that God is dead is that He was once alive. For Nietzsche and other “titanic atheists,” God’s non-existence does not contradict the historical fact of His importance. Nietzsche, along with other great infidels of the nineteenth century, could understand the psychological appeal of religion, and could thereby invest their language with something of the power and sublimity of a Gothic cathedral or a Bach cantata.
But what has happened to the atheism of our generation? Are we doomed to have an atheism without awe? For Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins emphatically do not feel the “breath of the void” upon their faces. For them, belief in God is a simple error, akin to a child’s faith in Santa Claus. Hence, for them disbelief in God has no earth-shattering social, moral or cultural consequences. In the absence of religious faith, we will continue to eat, drink, work, make love and sleep as before. The death of God occasions no dislocations to the cosmological or ethical first principles that frame our lives. As a substitute for religious faith, Dawkins and Harris advocate a naïve scientific realism, ignoring the basic questions of a modern or postmodern skeptic. In fact, it is fairly astonishing how Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are oblivious to the whole rise of postmodern skepticism. They do not bother to address the objection that, from Hume and Kant to Foucault and Derrida, a progressively secularizing West has grown increasingly less capable of maintaining the rational foundations of scientific realism. In short, they are oblivious to the whole problem of the loss of absolutes in the modern and postmodern eras.