The "New Atheists" are responding to provocation, not mounting an arbitrary attack
On behalf of the New Atheists AC Grayling blasts back at Theodore Dalrymple
I wonder if today’s liberal Western democracies would exist, and with them the rule of law, freedom of speech, liberty of the individual, the enfranchisement of women in political, economic and social respects, saner attitudes to sex and sexuality, and some of the other characteristic goods of contemporary secular society, if all the efforts to overturn the hegemony of religion and the Divine Right of Kings had failed in the mighty endeavour to break free of both during the centuries including and since the sixteenth? Not that either the church or crown gave up easily; what a lot of blood was spilled, lives lost, torture suffered, in the struggle to break their oppressive grip; and this is to say nothing of the blood and suffering endured in the long centuries beforehand, when priests and kings had that grip firmly on the throats of the people who toiled in superstitious fear, illiteracy and poverty, to build the cathedrals and the palaces which Mr Theodore Dalrymple, not unlike someone praising Hitler for the autobahns and the fine architecture of Goering’s Air Ministry in Berlin, says that we must identify as Western civilisation’s achievements.
Of course I am being a trifle unfair to Mr Dalrymple; he does not praise Hitler for the autobahns, and I am sure that a little reflection would remind him that Western civilisation, into which the oriental superstition of Christianity irrupted some seven centuries after Socrates began enquiring into the nature of the good (and to centuries-long civilisation-quashing effect, as Gibbon long ago pointed out: "I have here described," so he ends Decline and Fall, "the triumph of barbarism and religion"), is thankfully a great deal more than – and that, in turn, a great deal in spite of – religion.
But then, Mr Dalrymple started the unfairness business: to the so-called "New Atheists" he attributes a continuation of "the search for the pure guiding light of reason, uncontaminated by human passion or metaphysical principles that go beyond all possible evidence." I take it that Mr Dalrymple in his non-pseudonymous medical role, knowing the diagnostic worth of a rationally assessed good history, values evidence enough not to be implying here that the guidance of evidence-constrained reason is a bad thing. And no one I know among those who have finally lost patience with the fact that religious beliefs are once again murdering thousands, either ignore or downplay the importance of human passions, whether good or ill.
I think Mr Dalrymple simply misses the point in his perorative article about what the so-called New Atheists "don’t see". Firstly he tells us that their (since he names me, I’d better say ‘our’) arguments are not new. So, the only arguments worth listening to are new ones? But the old arguments have been forgotten by the reviving, resurgent, insistent, assertive-to-the-point-of-bombing religionists. Shall we keep silent because the arguments are not new?
Daniel Dennett is, says Mr Dalrymple, the least bad-tempered among us so-called New Atheists (some consistency required here, Mr Dalrymple: how can we be new if the arguments are old?) but he is the most condescending. These ad hominem remarks are killer blows, but let us press on. Dennett says religious beliefs are biologically evolved. But because all beliefs are so, says Mr Dalrymple, this is not an objection to them. Oh? We evolve some good beliefs, some bad, some useful beliefs, some dangerous ones, and yet because they are all biologically evolved this makes them all equally okay? So Mr Dalrymple seems to imply.
But this is indeed to miss Dennett’s point, which is that our capacity as rational beings to evaluate the intrinsic merits and the practical effects of our evolved beliefs enables us to revise or reject the bad ones and refine and supplement the good ones. It is a separate but very answerable question as to which are the bad ones.
The question posed by Mr Dalrymple that most got me gasping was, "how can reality have any moral quality without having an immanent or transcendent purpose?" At one blow we must say "bad luck Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, Hume, John Stuart Mill, and all the rest of you who have articulated ethical views for which you claim neither divine inspiration nor heaven as a reward for their observance; nor have you argued that morality must always be instrumental, answering to a purpose beyond itself." Is Mr Dalrymple seriously telling us that we cannot be moral unless we tack on a belief in fairies to our concern for our fellow human beings? Or that we seek to be kind and loving in order to achieve something beyond kindness and love – an ulterior purpose – a reward? What?
What a pity Socrates and the rest did not know this, in conceiving of the good as the supreme value in itself, with morality as its own purpose.
As to Mr Dalrymple’s claim that "The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core," and to which I hint a response above, I can only say – and by naming me among his targets he invites what would otherwise be a self-serving rejoinder – that I will take lessons from him on the place of religion in Western civilisation once he has read the following three of my books: What is Good?, Towards the Light, and The Choice of Hercules. In the two first I examine the respective contributions of religious and humanistic conceptions of individual and social good in the history of Western civilisation, and in the third venture to describe the nature of humanist ethics as thus derived. For the present it will be enough to remark that where we are now in historical terms owes far more to the struggle against religion than to the very nice music, buildings and paintings which jointly seem to exhaust Mr Dalrymple’s idea of civilisation, and which resulted from the fact that the church was a rich (the richest) patron for many centuries, and painters and composers had stomachs like other men. To attribute "Western civilisation" to the inspiration of a version of the Zeus-impregnates-mortal-girl-who-then-produces-hero myth is the sort of remark that by now ought scarcely to merit a horse-laugh: but apologists and Secret Sharers like Mr Dalrymple, clutching at straws, will always clutch at the most golden ones.
For the "New Atheists" all religious people are suicide bombers, says Mr Dalrymple. Hmm: I don’t think so; but I wonder why they make any connection between religion and suicide bombings at the extreme margins of things? Answer: we look around the world and across the landscape of history; we hear the clamour of strife arising from religious discord, persecution, oppression and execution; we smell the burning flesh of the Inquisition; we see how much and sometimes how violently Sunni hates Shiite and vice versa, we learn that the martyrs of Islam will go straight to paradise, and so dismally, heart-sickeningly and too often dangerously on. But, implies Mr Dalrymple, all we need do is look at a cathedral and lo! all is justified, and it does not matter that very small children are being brainwashed into the beliefs of herdsmen who lived in tents several thousand years ago, the better to quarrel with, and sometimes perhaps even kill, one another later for not agreeing that bread turns into human flesh or that this relative of the Prophet is more important than that one.
‘And so it goes,’ as Kurt Vonnegut used aptly to say. Do botanists go to war over the classification of wildflowers? Do physicists indulge in suicide bombings because of disagreements about string theory? Do philosophers shoot to kill in disputes over the semantics of quantified modal logic? And yet: wherever did we get our idea that religion is a major source of division, of conflict, of bloodshed in our world, throughout history and still today?
Mr Dalrymple surely cannot mean to imply that you have to be religious – perhaps even a Spanish priest – to appreciate the beauty of things, as you might paint them in a still life. He surely does not think that the gentle, generous human impulses, the kind and loving human heart, cannot be found in any breast which does not, as does the breast of Joseph Hall D. D., belong to a believer. It is hard to say whether these are indeed implications of Mr Dalrymple’s more sonorous later paragraphs, and if so whether they should be adjudged more silly than insulting; but insulting they certainly are to the good people who have thrilled to beauty and succoured their fellows and yet done without superstitions of any kind to prompt them to either.
What Mr Dalrymple does not see is that the so-called New Atheists are responding to a provocation, not mounting an arbitrary and uncalled-for attack. Instead of turning a politely blind eye to religion as we all did until recently (when those with religion had the good taste, mainly, to keep quiet about it in return), we have chosen to speak out against the absurdities, distortions and even dangers that the presence of religion in our societies cause. For nearly twenty centuries the religionists have had it their way: what a squealing they put up now that half a dozen "New Atheists" have argued back!
In that squealing I hear hope for the world. It has the sound of desperation, of defeat, of retreat and lost arguments. No doubt the conflict will be long and bloody; look at the historical precedent provided by the Roman Catholic Church when it lost its hegemony over the mind of Europe, and sponsored a century of bitterest war in the struggle to hang on – the Thirty Years War and the preceding Wars of Religion, devouring human beings in their maw from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries.
But eventually, one hopes, those who persist in wanting to have an invisible friend, who continue believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden, will do so in private, where such proclivities belong along with wearing the opposite sex’s underwear. And we will all enjoy the Mass in B minor and Chartres Cathedral, as we all enjoy the Coliseum where the gladiators fought, and the murals of Pompeii, and the essays of the atheist David Hume, for their intrinsic merits, understanding the sociology of their provenance in due perspective, not needing to believe in the Norse or the Hindu or the Christian gods to do so, nor wishing to, nor – best of all – having to, for fear of the lit faggots at the foot of the stake.