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New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?

By Benjamin O'Donnell - posted Friday, 25 January 2008


Reason and evidence and empiricism and science and liberal democracy - in short, the forces of the Enlightenment - have discredited Communist and Fascist dogmas. Now, say Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, it is time for them to do the same to the dogmas of religious faith.

Isn’t atheism just as dogmatic and dangerous?

At this point, a committed theist might point to the history of 20th century Communism and say that there is something about atheism that leads to barbarism, immorality and dictatorship. He or she might even say that there is something about atheism that leads to the very dogmatism that I and the "new anti-dogmatists" decry. But any theist who said that would have to explain the inconvenient fact that some of the most civilised, liberal and prosperous nations in the world are “atheistic”, in the sense that a majority of their populations do not believe in God.

Take Sweden, for example. When polled, more than 80 per cent of Swedes say they don't believe in God and more than 40 per cent explicitly identify themselves as atheists. Yet Sweden has some of the lowest homicide, poverty, teenaged pregnancy and STD rates in the world. It is a functioning liberal democracy with high levels of wealth, very little social unrest and a near 100 per cent literacy rate.

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And while Sweden is the extreme, the figures show that liberal democracies with low levels of theistic belief tend to be have high levels of societal health, and vice versa. Even in the heavily religious United States of America, the less religious a State is, the lower its rates of things like homicide, STD infection and teenage pregnancy tend to be. (See P Zuckerman, "Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns" in M Martin (ed), Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge University Press, UK, 2006), summarised here and here)

Clearly, a widespread disbelief in God is not incompatible with a healthy, happy, prosperous and civilised society. (Note I do not claim that atheism has caused these wonderful societies to be so wonderful. I cite these facts merely to show that atheism is compatible with social harmony.)

So, what is the difference between the slaughterhouses built by the Godless Communists of Russia and China and the civilised liberal polities built by the Godless progressives of Western Europe and elsewhere? The obvious answer is that Western European countries are liberal democracies committed to science and empiricism and reason, and freedom of speech and debate; whereas Soviet Russia and Red China clearly were not. It was not its atheism per se, but the illiberalism, the undemocratic nature, the dogmatism of Communism that made it the architect of so much 20th century horror.

The two Enlightenments

Another common criticism of atheists (particularly atheist scientists like Dawkins) is that they are robotic philistines, determined to destroy art, culture and community and reduce the world to a place of steel and chromium, spreadsheets and catalogues. But the really interesting thing about these new anti-dogmatists is their spirituality. Dawkins has written with such wonder and poetry about the natural world in books like Unweaving the Rainbow that he's been referred to as a “deeply religious non-believer” (and he is, after all, the man who once wrote an article entitled “Atheists for Jesus”).

Hitchens waxes lyrical about the beauties of religious music and art, but insists we separate the transcendent from the supernatural. Dennett's Breaking the Spell devotes a great many pages to examining and praising the community-building and altruism-sustaining qualities of religious institutions.

Most radical of all, Sam Harris is a former seeker, a man who spent ten years in meditation retreats and with yogis and monks (including a stint as a bodyguard for the Dalai Lama). In the last chapter of The End of Faith, Harris argues that there really is something worthwhile and wonderful about the mystical experiences that lie at the root of most of our religions. These experiences are real and important and increasingly measurable by neuroscientists - but the truth about them is buried beneath mountains of “metaphysical bullshit”. Harris extols the virtues of the contemplative disciplines at the same time as he is withering in his criticism of the ancient theology and modern "New Age" waffle that so often goes with them. What we need, argues Harris, is to take a ruthlessly logical and scientific approach to these ancient disciplines, to separate the wheat from the chaff (see also Harris’ confronting article, “Killing the Buddha” (PDF 534KB)).

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The new anti-dogmatists are children of the European Enlightenment. But Sam Harris, at least, is no stranger to that other meaning of the word enlightenment - the meaning that stands at the root of many of our religions. Reconciling these “two enlightenments” is a project where rationalists like Dawkins might join in common cause with ultra-liberal theologians like Bishop John Shelby Spong. But such a project is not a call for misty-eyed live-and-let-live compromise. Far from it. To get at the common core of truth that lies within both the religious and rationalistic meanings of the word “enlightenment” we need to be ruthless with obscurantism - whether it comes from orthodox theology, post-modern nonsense, new age silliness or naïve mechanistic psychology.

The baby and the bathwater

And here I return to my terminological criticism. This "spiritual" side to the new anti-dogmatism is not helped by the conflation of the terms "religion" and "faith". Dennett, as one would expect from a professional philosopher, has been by far the least sloppy in his use of the terms; but he is also the most subtle and least read of four.

Harris can slide between the terms "faith" and "religion", but his sophisticated treatment of spirituality makes it clear that his real target is the dogma of faith.

Dawkins and Hitchens are the two who most often conflate religion and faith in their use of language - and they are also the two most well known. In my view, this is unfortunate. As Dennett points out at length in Breaking the Spell, religions are social institutions that are very effective at providing community, solidarity and mutual support. But they needn't be based around dogma. By being sloppy in their language, I fear the new anti-dogmatists are driving away potential allies.

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About the Author

Benjamin O'Donnell is a Sydney lawyer.

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