The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens on Herding Cats

This blog post is largely based upon the final chapter of my undergraduate dissertation, which was entitled “Consciousness Raising: The critique, agenda, and inherent precariousness of contemporary Anglophone atheism”. If anything needs further clarification, it is likely that it was discussed in earlier chapters, however I have attempted to augment this post (the final and, I think, most interesting chapter) with extra discussion from the previous chapters.

The subject matter for my dissertation was the writings of a particularly modern form of atheism, frequently referred to as the “New Atheism”. Whether this label is justified or not is another issue, and I prefer to refer to “contemporary atheism” throughout this post, taking the work of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens as representative of a particularly recent form Anglophone atheism. This is based both upon external observations such as Google searches, and the numerous critiques of contemporary atheism which group these authors together, as well as internal observations and displays of mutual support.

I discerned that there was a three-fold criticism of religion running throughout the writings of these four authors. “Religion” is castigated for motivating, supporting, and initiating violence, for encouraging amoral (if not positively immoral) behaviour, and fostering an atmosphere where knowledge and progress are discouraged, and an attitude of passive submission to ignorance and religious authority is the norm. I also discerned a loosely four-fold positive agenda running throughout their writings: the promotion of knowledge and understanding for all; the belief that the atheistic worldview is life-affirming and life-enhancing; an ambivalent, but largely negative stance on the continued existence of religion; and an emphasis on the majesty and wonder of nature. This criticism and agenda was analysed in relation to a question raised by Tina Beattie – are the New Atheists promoting a New Enlightenment – and I concluded that their  criticism does indeed follow the pattern established by Enlightenment writers. However, upon turning to the positive, active aspects of the worldview atheists are promoting, it becomes clear that whilst their agenda has expanded upon the implicit influence of Enlightenment writers, it has found additional motivation from the Romantics, and from a sentimental attachment to aspects of Christianity

Thus, in the previous chapters of my dissertation, I demonstrated that there is an agenda at work within the contemporary trend of Anglophone atheism, frequently referred to as the “New Atheism”. However, the question remains as to why this agenda is so general, and why these atheists seemingly avoid explicitly articulating it. These authors give the impression that they speak for a large, readily mobilised, organised group of atheists. According to Dawkins, this “non-believing choir” is “a lot bigger than many people think” and includes (citing Bertrand Russell) “the immense majority of intellectually eminent men” (2007b:18,123). Dennett, Hitchens and Harris (2006) incessantly utilise the word “we” throughout their work, creating the sense of a large, global community that is rallying to their cause (cf. Hitchens, 2008:283). The large number of public conversations, lectures and conferences at which these authors have spread their message makes it unsurprising that Dawkins should conclude: “you can hear the gentle patter of our feet on every side” (2007f). If the milieu is as active as these rhetorical observations suggest, this makes the central question of this post all the more pertinent. Discussion on this issue occurs along five key themes – criticism of the Enlightenment, internal disharmony, atheist individuality, potential target audiences, and societal sympathy – before concluding that contemporary atheism rhetorically constitutes the very audience it seeks.

I previously demonstrated that the contemporary atheistic position is greatly influenced by the Enlightenment. Thus the degree to which these atheists make their agenda explicit is influenced by common perception of the Enlightenment. This perception is, however, far from complimentary, since the Enlightenment has been variously blamed for the inability of modern man to form “non-utilitarian ties to other human beings“ (Outram, 2005:112), for supporting despotism (Gay, 1964:274), and was casually castigated in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for authority and tradition” (ibid:263). Whilst these attacks are “misleading” and “fallacious” (Berlin, 1979:29 cf. Gay, 1964:262), it is unsurprising that they would discourage explicit calls to return to Enlightenment values. It is also significant that the Enlightenment philosophes themselves “never developed a coherent political program” (Gay, 1964:119); if contemporary atheism models itself on these pioneers, it is perhaps naive to expect a fully articulated agenda.

Secondly, There are few other issues on which there is so much disagreement than contemporary atheistic attitudes towards the continued existence of religion. At some points it appears that the aim is the complete eradication of religion – people should be protected from being “infected” by, or “hooked” on religion (Dennett, 2007:85; Dawkins, 2007e:306 cf. Harris, 2006:14,227). At others, the “spiritual” aspects of life are celebrated in such a way that allows Harris to say, without a hint of irony, that in a world without God “there would be a religion of reason” (Wolf, 2006, cf. Dennett, 2007:23,55,303,311; Harris, 2006:16,30-41,221). Hitchens indicates that he would be happy if religious people simply left him alone (2008:12-13) and during The Four Horsemen dialogue actually states, to the consternation of the other three, that he wouldn’t wish “to see a world without faith” (cf. 2008:12)  – he wishes people would see sense, but then he would be left with no one to argue with. Dennett harangues those people of faith who withdraw from the discussion on the existence of God (2007:296-297), yet Dawkins himself refuses to debate with creationists (2006). Sometimes religion is presented as a manmade phenomenon (Hitchens, 2008:10,52,117,219; Dawkins, 2007b:56) or, alternatively, as the result of unconscious evolution (ibid:222,233; Dennett, 2007:140-141,149,166-167). However, underneath this disagreement flows the thought that the world would fundamentally be a better place if free, rational thought triumphed over supernaturalism. In addition to tensions surrounding the continuing existence of religion, these atheists are far from united “in their attitudes to war” (Beattie, 2007:75), and The Four Horsemen dialogue indicates that there are distinct and sometimes opposing opinions on the finer points of their overall thrust. Dennett identifies “slightly different but defensible strategies”, in their writings, however all are seen as “necessary because there are different people out there, different audiences that have to be reached” (Baggini, 2010:61; Dennett, 2008c:24). Given these differences, it is natural to be cautious regarding articulating agendas if the intention is to present a united front, rather than risk initiating eponymous forms of atheism, or losing the audience’s interest through the impression of discord and competition.

Thirdly, there is the “problem” of atheist individuality and its effects on how contemporary atheists might feasibly articulate courses of action. Atheists are typically categorised as “a small, hard to identify, and disorganised category of persons” (Edgell, 2006:211-212) who “do not tend, even nominally, to join specifically atheistic organisations” (Bullivant, 2008:364). In an interesting play on Grace Davie’s “believing without belonging” thesis (1994), a norm of “disbelieving without belonging” is discerned (Bullivant, 2008:365). This is humorously explained by A.J.  Jacobs, who states: “an atheist club fe[els] oxymoronic, like an apathy parade” (2009:96). A more scholarly explanation is that individuals lacking strong social bonds and dependants, are by inference less likely to tend towards ‘groupishness’ and “more free to espouse atheism” (Bainbridge, 2005:7). Dawkins himself acknowledges that organising atheists is like “herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority” (2007b:27). Despite these assertions, Gary Wolf speaks of “scores” of atheist groups, populated by members who, having “no church to buoy them, cling to one another” (2006).  It is true that there are many atheistic organisations (e.g. The British Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance International), but even within these groups the scholarly perception is that “values tend to be wholly relativistic and goals are rarely stipulated at all” (Demerath and Thiessen, 1966:684). Significantly, Colin Campbell posited the idea that it is a sociological assumption that atheism is an individual phenomenon (1971:39). This assumption is rooted in perceiving atheistic organisations as “pale shadows of effective social forces when compared with traditional religious bodies” (ibid:42) which is an unfair and biased comparison. That being the case, it is cogent that Bullivant and Bainbridge are aware of Campbell raising this issue, yet continue to demarcate an individualistic atheism. This emphasis on the individual bears remarkable resemblance to Steve Bruce’s critique of the “precariousness of diffuse beliefs” within the New Age movement (2002:90-103). As a consequence of the New Age’s “individualistic epistemology” it does not instil “obedience to a central authority”, it “elicits only slight commitment and little agreement about detail”, is vulnerable to dilution and trivialisation, and thus has “little social impact […]even on its own adherents” (ibid:90-91). Through contemporary atheism’s focus on the individual, it may provide the perfect example of the precariousness of diffuse unbelief.

This precariousness could affect contemporary atheism’s ability to make explicit calls to group action in two key ways. Firstly, individualism may be at work within the writings of the authors themselves, thereby affecting their ability to articulate plans for group action. Their evident awareness of the individualism of their fellows – both as a closed group of four, and across the globe – may also lessen the desire to make such explicit calls. And secondly, since grouping together appears problematic for atheists, this explains why the internal conversation is dominated by the size and organisation of the “movement”, rather than on what this movement should “do” – perhaps the cats must be rhetorically herded before they “can make a lot of noise” (Dawkins, 2007b:27).

Discussion now turns to the issue of who the target audience of contemporary atheism is, and how this affects the articulation of an agenda. As alluded to previously, Dennett sees each author’s book as targeting a slightly different audience (Baggini, 2010:61). Dennett’s own intention was not to “give [his readers] an excuse to throw [Breaking the Spell] across the room” (ibid). This intention, combined with frequent appeals to the “religious person”, the “reasonable adherents” and “the moderates” (Dennett, 2007:301,298,291) indicate that his book is aimed towards getting religious moderates on side – an intention similarly evinced throughout Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. Conversely, there are many aspects to Dawkins (2007b), Hitchens (2008) and Harris (2006) which would cause these moderate believers to throw the book across the room and not return to retrieve it (Dennett in Baggini, 2010:62). These books work well as a “shot across the bows”, and also provide ammunition for avowed ‘positive’ atheists (ibid). However, it is also clear that these books are designed to fuel a “positive” atheistic fire in those for whom it already “negatively” burns (see Martin, 2007b:1). This is the “non-believing choir”, the wavering unbelievers who “desperately need[…] encouragement to come out” (Dawkins, 2007b:18 cf. Wolf, 2006). All three of these groups are targeted through the “consciousness raising” enterprise of these four authors, and the “encouragement” they provide (Dawkins, 2007b:18,23).

Each of these target groups present problems for articulating a positive agenda. Firstly, if the target audience is moderate religious believers, the major battle is getting them onside before attempting to rally them into action. However, Wolf suggests that these atheists are naive because they simply focus on right belief and don’t “propose any realistic solutions to the problems religions can cause” (2006). This lack of credible solutions is combined with a critique of fundamentalist, non-moderate religion, which fails to scan in the face of the fact that there have been no fatwas, no prison cells, no gallows, and no crosses to greet these atheists (Wolf, 2006). Secondly, if their audience is wavering non-believers, these can typically be divided into two groups. There are the “thoroughly secularised”, the “negative atheists”, who find religion so irrelevant that they are not even conscious of having rejected it (Campbell, 1971:39 cf. Martin, 2007b:1; Bruce, 2002). And there are those who “are believers of some sort, and many are quite conventional” (Hout and Fischer, 2002:175). Whether accepting the “believing without belonging” or the “disbelieving without belonging” thesis, the best measures to convince this non-committal group to accept a “positive” atheistic identity are unlikely to begin with the enunciation of an agenda. Finally, if the target audience is committed, positive atheists, the simple fact remains that there are relatively few atheists of this type in the world (Davie, 1994:69 cf. figures in Weller, 2008:51; Zuckerman, 2007:49; Edgell, 2006:214). In light of the available figures, and the protestations to the contrary supplied by the authors (see p.34), it seems plausible that they are aware that their audience of ‘die-hard’ positive atheists is much smaller than they would care to admit (cf. McGrath and McGrath, 2007:63), and therefore that the audience most receptive to an active articulated agenda is not, in fact, their main target audience. In addition, an awareness that this audience may share ambivalent feelings towards Christianity would understandably present a barrier to fully articulated decisive action.

This discussion has identified three potential target audiences who, for various reasons, are unlikely to be receptive to the explicit articulation of an agenda. However, after an initial lag period following the “consciousness raising” phase, it is possible that more publications from these authors will follow, tackling solutions to the problems enumerated previously. With the forthcoming publication of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (October 2010), it may not be long before this can be assessed.

Finally, in many respects, the world that contemporary atheism would like to create is reflective of a similar desire throughout society. This observation contradicts Demerath and Thiessen’s assertion that “irreligion has […no] set of values which are in any way consistent with the normative mainstream” (1966:675) and Colin Campbell’s observations about irreligion’s relationship to protest, reform, hostility and propaganda (1971:40). However, the contemporary atheistic promotion of awe and respect for nature, of life affirming values and fully democratised knowledge, and the criticism of actions that cause suffering, or limit individual freedom and intellectual inquiry, seem to strike a chord with the current atmosphere in the UK and USA.

As with the notion of “diffuse unbelief”, scholarship on New Age provides a useful comparison. Steve Bruce acknowledges the notable contemporary popularity and proliferation of New Age publications and ideas, and although denying that this proliferation demonstrates any significant number of “enthusiastic adherents” (2002:80), it does indicate that typical New Age concerns address the concerns of a significant portion of the population. Some themes particularly resonant with contemporary atheism are a relativism that “allows a thoroughly democratic attitude to knowledge” (ibid:86), an emphasis on individual authority (ibid:83), and a more holistic concern for the environment (ibid:85; Partridge, 2007:234-5). Whilst there are many dissimilarities between the New Age ‘movement’ and contemporary atheism, most notably concerning rationality (ibid; Bruce, 2002:84), the significant point is that the noted commonalities are “particularly well suited to the dominant ideas and assumptions of their society” (ibid:87). If contemporary atheists are aware that many of their concerns are “diffused” throughout society, this explains why these are not made more explicit in their texts – the purpose of the text becomes convincing the audience, through “consciousness raising”, that religion opposes this worldview, and not extolling the virtues of this worldview itself. A fascinating question raised for future research is to what extent these concerns are “emblematic of religion in our culture” (ibid:82)? If the concerns of contemporary atheists reflect the internal debate within religious bodies, this could lead to very interesting conclusions about the commonalities between human religiosity and irreligiosity. However, it is likely that contemporary atheism would explain these commonalities as the church following society, rather than suggesting there was a more mutual relationship between the two (cf. Fergusson, 2009:127).

This discussion has demonstrated that there are many conceivable and justifiable reasons why contemporary atheists have failed, thus far, to make more than a minimal statement regarding their programme for rectifying the religiously fuelled ills identified in their books. Their target audiences are not ideal targets for explicit agendas, either because they have inherent negative perceptions of contemporary atheism, or because of the diffusion of the broader, more positive goals of contemporary atheism throughout society. In addition, the inherent individuality of atheists necessitates a process of gathering together, or “consciousness raising”, into a more defined ‘movement’ before explicit programmes of action can be articulated.

I am well aware that many of the issues involved here are far more complex than I have had space to testify to. I am also aware that there are many key terms here that I have not delineated properly, either because they were clarified at other points in my dissertation, or because I am working with established conventions within Religious Studies, or because I have simply missed something. I am more than willing to enter into discussion on this fascinating issue, and to receive any advice or direction anyone may have on this matter.


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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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