Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Richard Dawkins's Fading Atheism (R.I.P.)

Self, in Bangkok

I thought so. The angry evangelistic atheism of Richard Dawkins has faded into the sunset. The Spectator reports: "The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over [ thank God]. Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies. He’s the Mary Whitehouse of our day." ("Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new new atheists")

The silly, non-scholarly stuff seen in Dawkins-inspired movies like"Religulous" and "Zeitgeist" is now found only in smoky chat rooms and occasionally on Facebook by "atheists" who think they've discovered the fountain of truth. And those crazy Dawkins atheist t-shirts that never sold! But... for one more look...

Dawkins and the then-new-but-now-old-school atheists "managed to convince themselves that religion is basically bad, and that the brave intellectual should talk against it. (This preference for seeming tough and clear over admitting difficult complexity is really cowardice, and believers are prone to it too.)"

Of course, atheists are still with us. There will always be a small percentage of them. Way, way back in the 1970s, when I was a philosophy undergraduate and then PhD student, there were some atheists in philosophy departments. All of them (except one) was kind to me, a Christian theist. I learned from them all (except the one who had it in for me and the likes of me). My atheist professors never dismissed the absurdly simplistic ahistorical idea of religion as evil, for they knew better. 

One atheist of today, Tonya Gold, writes in ridicule of the idea of religion as a force for evil: ‘The idea of my late church-going mother-in-law beating homosexuals or instituting a pogrom is obviously ridiculous, although she did help with jumble sales and occasionally church flowers.’ (Quoted in Ib.) Who can forget (if they ever even knew?) Dawkins' and Hitchens' bludgeoning of Mother Teresa and the former's ignorant claim that religious parents are guilty of child abuse? Note that atheist "Douglas Murray recently recounted debating alongside Richard Dawkins and being embarrassed by the crudity of his approach." (Ib.)

"A polemical approach to religion has swung out of fashion. In fact, admitting that religion is complicated has become a mark of sophistication. Andrew Brown of the Guardian has played a role in this shift: he’s a theologically literate agnostic who is scornful of crude atheist crusading, and who sometimes ponders his own attraction to religion. On a more academic level, the philosopher John Gray has had an influence: he is sceptical of all relics of Enlightenment optimism, including the atheist’s faith in reason."

I see this among my philosophy students. Who, BTW, have never heard of Richard Dawkins. I used the term "the Four Horsemen" in class recently and one of my students e-mailed me asking "What's that?" The "Horsemen" have ridden out of town, leaving behind a few of their avatars.

Surely the following is true: "What distinguishes the newer atheist is his admission that non-believers can be just as immoral as believers. Rejecting religion is no sure path to virtue; it is more likely to lead to complacent self-regard, or ideological arrogance." (Ib.) But... of course!

In my philosophy of religion classes I'm going to stop bringing up Dawkins-Harris-Hitchens-Dennett since they are largely irrelevant to the real discussion which has been going on for centuries. The real discussion gets expressed in philosophy of religion texts such as the one I use. This old-and-still-relevant discussion captivates most of my students while remaining non-understood by "Religulous" lovers. Take it and read, if you can.