Monday, May 19, 2008

An Implausible Thesis

Much futile ink has been spent dissecting the so-called "new atheist" movement, which in fact has nothing new in it besides an unprecedented measure of impudence and asperity. Some have argued that the phenomenon is a reaction to modern fundamentalisms; others have maintained that it is the latest defense of Enlightenment rationalism. To many, the appearance of this faction has appeared quite puzzling. But to my mind, it is not very hard to understand what sort of thing this movement is, nor in what prior circumstances it has its causes.

Even the most cursory glance at the writings of Dawkins and Hitchens (and what sensible person could stand anything more than a cursory glance at their writings) reveals that their particular take on religion consists not merely of disagreement, but of disdain. Those who believe in a god are not simply persons maintaining the truth of a proposition insufficiently demonstrated; they are persons adverse to all rational demonstration. They are fools and liars. Their beliefs have no more intellectual substance than belief in unicorns and elves. They are not to be trusted, in the words of Hitchens. They are abusers of their children, in the words of Dawkins and Dennett. They are objects of pity, when isolated from the public sphere, and objects of unrestrained loathing, when engaged in the public sphere. Perhaps the most striking example of the "new atheist" contempt for religion can be found in their assertion that theology is not even a legitimate field of study; there can be no grander disdain for an opponent's position than the claim that the opponent has no real position.

Thus, in considering the general stance of the new atheists, one cannot escape the conclusion that, if they are correct, everyone who ever wrote or spoke in defense of a belief in God, a God to whom we owe certain duties, was perfectly benighted and untrustworthy. Simply put, the new atheist thesis boils down to the following: we have reached the point in history when the superstition of Plato, and Aristotle, and Isaiah, and Cicero, and Boethius, and Abelard, and Dante, and Chaucer, and Aquinas, and Donne, and Sir Thomas Browne, and Pascal, and Bishop Butler, and Samuel Johnson, and Edmund Burke, and Kierkegaard, and Cardinal Newman, can be replaced with the light and wisdom of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

That such a ridiculous thesis could seem plausible to such large numbers of people is attributable to one obvious fact. No fair-minded person who has read Dawkins and Cardinal Newman would consider Cardinal Newman the bigger fool; the only reason why so many people in our age have convinced themselves of this falsehood is simply because they have not read Cardinal Newman. They have not read Cardinal Newman, nor have they read any of the other classic authors, though they may have flipped through the latest issue of the New Yorker or the last installment of Harry Potter. The new atheist movement is nothing more than the entirely predictable consequence of the mis-education of the Western world over the last several generations; it is nothing but the upshot of the now intractable stupidity of Western populaces, which alone could turn a Sam Harris or a Christopher Hitchens into a respectable intellectual figure.

Or, to state the same in somewhat more dramatic fashion, the rise of such evidently ignorant and dishonest men to the status of intellectual authorities in our age fulfills the dire prophecies of Arnold, Spengler, Ortega, Chesterton, and others who wrote at the beginning of the modern era, and confirms that the barbarism which they foretold has now settled firmly over the west.

No comments: