The New Atheists: the Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion. By Tina Beattie
Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 540–541, May 2009
How to Cite
Egan, A. (2009), The New Atheists: the Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion. By Tina Beattie. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 540–541. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00484_28.x
- Issue published online: 7 APR 2009
- Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
Pp. ix, 209 , London , Darton, Longman & Todd , 2007 , $20.00.
The ‘new atheists’– Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, A. C. Grayling, Sam Harris and others (including novelists Martin Amis and Ian McEwan) – are the subjects of a sustained critique from Catholic feminist theologian Tina Beattie. She attacks the style and content of their attacks upon religion as theologically uniformed, ideologically conservative, scientifically reductionist, and unhelpfully polemical when not viciously ad hominem. While she sympathises with their hostility to religious fundamentalism they fall, she argues, into the trap of atheist fundamentalism.
Beattie's sharpest comments are reserved for Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins' scientific materialism, most recently expounded in the bestseller The God Delusion, claims too much in its attempt to refute religion tout court. Beattie reviews the development of the evolution vs. science debate, concluding that Dawkins' thesis that evolution proves the non-existence of God cannot stand up to the evidence: evolution neither proves nor disproves God. Similarly she notes how Dawkins distorts the evidence by taking as fact theories that many scientists (believers, sceptics and atheists alike) dispute.
While sympathising with their loathing of religious fundamentalism, Beattie attacks Hitchens for his vituperative support for the ‘war on terror’, a war fought ostensibly against militant Islamism. Such an endorsement seems quite contradictory given the new atheists regular charge that religion is the root cause of violence in the world. True, says Beattie, religious fundamentalisms are responsible for a high level of political violence, but to say that religion is the cause of violence is simply nonsense. Roughly 200 million people died in the 20th century as a result of secular and secularist ideologies of both far Right and Left. In addition, it should be noted that many ‘religious’ wars are rooted in socio-economic and nationalist causes that use religion as ideological justification. Here Beattie could have taken her argument even further by showing how, for example, radical Islam is a product of frustrated nationalist projects in the Middle East.
In almost all cases, she points out, the new atheists' understanding of religion is simplistic and often inaccurate. Many of them latch onto the crudest of theologies and hopelessly outdated theories of religion that no intelligent believer accepts today. Except in the most backward of institutions, religion has moved on from scriptural literalism and knee-jerk hostility to science. Biblical scholars have discovered history and literary theory. Most churches accept in some form the notion of doctrinal development. She credits one of the new atheists, philosopher A. C. Grayling, for acknowledging that many Christians do not share the fundamentalist caricature of his colleagues in his recent play On Religion.
The atheists' alternative – the ‘new secularist person’– is also profoundly problematic. Drawing on an example from recent literature, Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, she demonstrates how utterly dull, bourgeois and lacking in passion such a person is. The new secularist is comfortably middle class, ordered and self-contained. It is not surprising that the ‘new atheism’ has its roots and popularity in the middle class worlds of Europe, Australasia and parts of North America. Faith in God, by whatever name, is an expression for most people of hope in an uncertain future. While such hope can manifest itself in various pathologies – fundamentalist resentment, belief in ‘magical’ salvation or quietist acceptance of ones lot – religious faith can also be an expression of commitment to self-betterment and structural change. Although not in itself a proof of God, religious belief in a better world is a powerful tool for societal transformation and an encouragement to persevere in struggle. Liberation theologies express this hope in its effort, in collaboration with peoples of faith and no faith, to build a more just world.
Beattie is too honest to try to prove God's existence scientifically. Unlike Dawkins and company, who try to prove the converse, she respects the complexities of science and acknowledges the limitations of its method. Rather than defend ‘intelligent design’ (which at best may show the existence of an intelligent designer), she invites us to consider God as a ‘creative genius’, an artist and storyteller who in the Christian tradition chooses to enter his story in the person of Jesus. She also emphasises that correctly understood God is not a being, a creature as such. To posit God as a being, a being among many, is a fallacy the atheists perpetuate. Rather we need, she suggests, to emphasise the ‘no-thinglyness’ of God.
This is an excellent contribution to the debate over atheism. Tina Beattie brilliantly exposes the rhetorical bluffing of authors like Dawkins and Hitchens, highlighting their confused thinking, inaccurate manipulations of religious traditions and frequent self-contradiction. She is also refreshingly humble in her claims, not trying to prove God's existence – something that, in a sense, would undermine the very basis of religion, which is faith. She offers instead a God worth believing in, a God transcendent yet immediate and engaged with human beings. Her book is a gentle and generous counterblast to the rather ponderous and ‘not great’ delusions that have caught the imaginations of certain bourgeois publics.