New Atheism, Open-Mindedness and Critical Thinking

The diary for 2012 is sure filling up! I’ll be presenting the following paper at Lancaster University as part of the (New) Atheism, Scientism and Open-Mindedness Conference, 2-3 April 2012.

New Atheism, Open-Mindedness and Critical Thinking

Based upon prevalent emic and etic presentations of “New Atheism” in the media and online, it is unlikely that one would feel inclined to describe the dominant discourse as ‘open-minded’. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the situation is much more nuanced than such a superficial overview would suggest. One of the key criticisms levelled at “religion” by four illustrative exemplars of “New Atheism” – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens – is that it stands in the way of knowledge and progress, and fosters a “totalitarian” atmosphere of submission to unquestionable authority. This portrayal of closed-minded “religion” is contrasted with one of the key aspects of the worldview they promote, where fully naturalistic and rational education is presented as essential for the good of humanity, allowing individuals – according to Dennett – “to make their own informed choices”.

Drawing upon William Hare’s extensive writings on the subject of “open-mindedness” and Harvey Siegel’s subsequent clarification of the relationship between “open-mindedness” and “critical thinking”, this paper shall consider the following three interrelated areas of “New Atheist” discourse: a) their critique of religion, b) the worldview they promote, and c) the framework within which these occur. I shall demonstrate that “critical thinking” – described by Siegel as a “sufficient (but not necessary) condition of open-mindedness” – is a key epistemic virtue extolled throughout the “New Atheist” texts. This contrasts markedly with the “religion” portrayed in their critique. I conclude, with reference to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of “paradigms” (adapted by Wayne Riggs), that the “New Atheist” position cannot be understood as “open-minded” (and neither, following Siegel, as involving “critical thinking”) through their apparent failure to engage with “religion” on its own terms, and the tendency towards propaganda and rhetoric inherent in their texts.

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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.

5 responses to “New Atheism, Open-Mindedness and Critical Thinking”

  1. elhunt92 says :

    This has really caught my attention, I keep coming back to re-read it. Are you going to be posting anything more/have you already posted anything about open-mindedness and religion or non-religion? I really enjoy the way that your blog looks at so many different things in such an open-minded way.

    • Chris says :

      Why thank you :) Glad it’s appreciated. I haven’t really done anything like this before – I have a lot of reading to do before writing this paper… but I am sure I will end up sharing some of the fruits of my reading as it happens. I’ve been enjoying your posts too… quite a diverse range of subjects, and barely any that I know anything about :)

  2. elhunt92 says :

    And thank you back :) I look forward to reading more and good luck with all that reading!

  3. compassioninpolitics says :

    Any further insights about this–that is the way New Atheism tends to misrepresent faith, Christianity, the Bible, etc..?

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