With four days to go until thesis submission, I just thought I’d let you know that I have finally had my journal article published! If you’d like any more information, please just get in touch. Here are the details:
Full citation: Cotter, Christopher R., 2011. “Consciousness Raising: The critique, agenda, and inherent precariousness of contemporary Anglophone atheism.” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 2 (1): 77-103.
From the editors preface:
The fourth article, Christopher R. Cotter’s “Consciousness Raising: The
Critique, Agenda, and Inherent Precariousness of Contemporary Anglophone
Atheism,” deals with a completely different area, contemporary atheism
(sometimes called the “new atheism”). The author discusses what agenda
is promoted in opposition to the criticized “religion.” Not only religion, but
also atheism, is changing over time and in specific contexts, and thus different
kinds of agendas are pursued. The author pinpoints certain characteristics
of contemporary atheism, bearing interesting resemblances to the New Age
And the abstract:
Atheism, as a subject in its own right, has received comparatively little scholarly attention in the past. This study begins by unpacking the term ‘atheism’, specifying an appropriate timescale and limiting the scope of the investigation to the work of four key authors. Their critiques of religion are considered and common themes under the appellation ‘dangerous religion’ are discerned. The author then pursues a closer reading of the texts, discerning what agenda is promoted in opposition to the heavily criticised ‘religion’, and discussing contemporary atheism in relation to Enlightenment values. Finally, the author examines why contemporary atheism fails to state its agenda more explicitly. The main players are shown to be individuals, with different foci that cannot be encapsulated by labels such as ‘Enlightenment’. Indications emerge of a ‘consciousness raising’ agenda, resulting from various factors that make contemporary unbelief a particularly organisationally ‘precarious’ phenomenon – a precariousness enhanced by an implicit ambivalent attitude to certain aspects of Christianity, and a correlation with Enlightenment, Romantic and New Age concerns.
I have just finished reading Amarnath Amarasingam’s recent journal article “To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists” (2010), and I really don’t know how to react. I found myself agreeing emphatically with some of his well-researched points, and yet at other times I was hitting the roof at how unfair and inappropriate some of his statements were. To that end, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the article… positive and negative… and hopefully you can draw your own conclusions.
Firstly, Amarasingam writes:
‘The academic community, with a few exceptions, has largely dismissed the[ New Atheists’] writings as unsophisticated, crude, and lacking nuance.’ (574)
This is not necessarily a criticism of Amarasingam, but a criticism of most academic treatments of atheism (‘New’ or ‘old’). What I want to know is what gives the academic community the right to do this? I guess it is possible to do this from a philosophical perspective… but if we are looking at these texts from a religious studies perspective, it is not our place to critique them in this way. Imagine if a religious studies scholar read something by Karl Barth or al-Ghazali and deemed it ‘unsophisticated’, ‘crude’ or ‘lacking nuance’! According to http://info.wlu.ca/randc/phd/phd-students.html, Amarasingam is a PhD student in Religious Studies, ‘working in the area of sociology of religion with a focus on social theory’, yet he refers to New Atheism as an “evangelical revival and repackaging of old ideas” and deems the frequency of comments posted in the Converts Corner of Dawkins’ website ‘ad nauseum’.
Amarasingam begins by discussing what he describes as “the fundamental attribution error. This is:
“a pervasive tendency on the part of observers to overestimate personality or dispositional causes of behaviour and to underestimate the influence of situational constraints on behaviour’’
Tetlock, PE, 1985. “Accountability: a social check on the fundamental attribution error” in Psychology Quarterly, 48(3):227-236, p. 227.
‘I am not arguing that secularists are the only group that succumb to attribution biases. Christians may view Muslims as a coherent whole, even though this is far from the case, and Muslims in turn may view secularists with similar biases. However, I focus on the new atheism, because it often presents itself as an objective, value-free, and universal critique of religion en bloc.’ (575)
‘One of the most replicated […tendencies that individuals exhibit when attempting to understand why others behave the way they do] is one in which individuals assume that some stable dispositional or attitudinal characteristic lies behind the behaviour of another. [… P]eople often downplay situational reasons for the actions of others while overestimating the significance of dispositional causes.’ (575)
So far so good. I can totally relate to this. As human beings we all too frequently make statements such as “That’s so typical of a…”, without giving that ‘other’ the respect that we would give ourselves by discerning situational reasons for such-and-such an action/statement/belief/etc.
However, Amarasingam suddenly stumbles when he states that ‘It must be noted that religious belief is best treated as a situational cause of individual behaviour, and not as a disposition’ (576). Why is this the case? He provides no justification for making this statement and just assumes that it is obvious. He continues:
‘At times, [New Atheists] effectively treat religion as a social constraint and critique it accordingly. At other times, they treat individual religious actions as if they were dispositional.’ (576)
But is it not both? Doesn’t everyone do this when they assess things? I see his point… we should treat religious actions as both dispositional and situational… but I would imagine that everyone is guilty of focussing on one to the detriment of the other at specific instances in time. The fact that they consider both aspects throughout their writings could be seen as a positive… Just a thought…
Amarasingam then moves on to the following statement from Sam Harris:
‘‘The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not ‘cowards’, as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith – perfect faith, as it turns out – and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.’’(2006, 67)
From this, Amarasingam somehow infers that, ‘For Harris, all that is required to understand the terrorist acts of 9/11 is the knowledge of the fact that these individuals were people of faith. Situational causes – Western injustice, geopolitical realities, etc. – do not need to be factored into the equation’ (576). Whilst I understand the point that he wishes to make, my problem is with the statement ‘all that is required’… Harris does not say this at all. He makes it quite plain that ‘faith’ is what he sees to be the most important element… but he does not say that it is all that is required. That being said, I do agree with his further elaboration that: ‘To continue to argue that religion is about blind faith and not open to discussion and criticism seems disingenuous’ (576).
At this point I had a thought. Could it have been that the idea of religion and science as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) stopped civilised debate occurring between atheistic and theistic positions before the publications of New Atheistic literature? Could the New Atheists’ books be a deliberate overstatement to force the religious to clarify their position and open up a dialogue?
One of the things that Amarasingam does well, is to draw attention to these massive overstatements which lace the texts of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. He writes:
‘Although there is much in Hitchens’ text to admire, and several philosophical arguments to take seriously, his presentation of basic historical facts about religion as if they are revelatory is rather perplexing, especially since most religious people (not to mention theologians and scholars of religion) have known about them for years.’ (576)
As a ‘scholar of religion’, and someone who has had experience with religious faith, I could not agree more. Most religious people are well aware of the inconsistencies of their religious tradition, and
‘just because [they] have learned to live with inconsistencies in their religious tradition, this does not mean that they practice blind faith. Hitchens’ claim that religion is man-made is particularly revealing as he believes himself, once having stated it, to have made a devastating critique of religion.’ (577)
Just as in science, religious people tend to adapt to new revelatory facts about their faith by accepting, adapting and revising, or stubbornly sticking to old paradigms. This is human nature… the religious do not all, or even mostly, live up to the caricature depicted by many atheists. They do not all stubbornly resist the discoveries of history and science, but take them, work with them, and attempt to understand them and work them into their worldview.
Whilst it pains me to agree with him, the theological critique of John Haught hits the nail on the head, when he writes that in arguing that faith is simply
‘‘‘belief without evidence,’’ the new atheists are undermining ‘‘the intended universality’’ of their condemnation of faith: ‘‘Even one white crow is enough to show that not all crows are black, so surely the existence of countless believers who reject the new atheists’ simplistic definition of faith is enough to place in question the applicability of their critiques to a significant sector of the religious population’’’ (577)
Citing Haught, JF, 2008. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 62
Amarasingam continues to hit the nail on the head, when he finds Dawkins, in an interview on Youtube, stating, in opposition to this criticism, that
‘“it’s no good saying ‘oh, that’s not my kind of Christianity!’ Well fine, it is not your kind of Christianity, but I didn’t write the book for you’’ […]. Such candid statements by Dawkins contradict the intended universality of his writings. It is unclear, then, whether the writings of the new atheists are aimed at religious fundamentalists or religion en bloc.’ (577)
Getting back to the fundamental attribution error, Amarasingam writes:
‘when the group that we are a member of performs a positive act, we are more likely to see that act as stemming from a dispositional trait. But, when this in-group performs a negative act, we are more likely to see it as stemming from situational, contextual, causes. When it comes to the out-group, however, we tend to do the opposite.’ (578)
This certainly makes sense, and is something which Richard Dawkins draws attention to himself.
‘When their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children [considered in an experiment by George Tamarin in Israel] agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share. […] But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts in early life. [… Religion] made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.” (Dawkins 2007, 292)
‘As Pettigrew (1979: 464) has noted, there ‘‘appears to be a positivity bias for intimate others, such that you grant them the benefit of the doubt by attributing positive actions to dispositional causes and negative actions to situational causes’’ […] Similarly, there is often a negativity bias, where the situational constraints of a negative action performed by an individual member of a disliked group are underplayed in favour of dispositional explanations. ‘‘And often when race and ethnicity are involved, these attributions will take the form of believing the actions to be a result of immutable, genetic characteristics of the derogated group in general – the bedrock assumption of racist doctrine’’ (Pettigrew, 1979: 465). Although I am certainly not calling the new atheists racist, they do, as we will see, repeatedly fall victim to what is known as the ‘‘ultimate attribution error’’: whenever a member of the out-group (i.e. adherents to a particular religion) perform a positive act inconsistent with their overall view of the group (i.e. all religious people), the new atheists either dismiss it as an exception to the rule or deny that religion had anything to do with the positive act. The reverse is true when the new atheists deal with their in-group (other secularists).’ (578)
Citing Pettigrew, TF, 1979. “The ultimate attribution error: extending Allport’s cognitive analysis of prejudice” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 5:461-476.
‘As Sam Harris (2006: 78) notes, ‘‘the fact that faith has motivated many people to do good things does not suggest that faith is itself a necessary (or even a good) motivation for goodness.’’ This is indeed true: faith, and/or religion, is not necessary for people to be good. However, neither is it a sufficient element for the perpetration of evil. Harris (2006: 78–79), however, does not allow for this: ‘‘By contrast, the most monstrous crimes against humanity have invariably been inspired by unjustified belief. This is nearly a truism.’’ Here we see the ultimate attribution error in full bloom.’ (579)
From my own experience of New Atheist literature, this criticism certainly rings true. However, I would disagree when Amarasingam turns to the New Atheist criticism of the Holocaust. Taking Sam Harris’s statement that ‘knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion’’ (2006:79), Amarasingam writes:
‘Such attribution errors are common in the new atheist corpus. Harris does not even attempt to explain why, if Christian anti-Semitism was the sole driving force behind the Holocaust, the Nazis also attempted to eliminate the Romani people, the deaf, the disabled, as well as homosexuals’ (580).
Sam Harris has not stated that Christian anti-Semitism was the “sole driving force” behind the Holocaust, but that the Nazis were fulfilling a path laid by the religious situation in Germany at this time. Whilst it is not debatable that the Holocaust targeted many more people than just ‘the Jews’, these were certainly the primary targets of Hitler’s extermination. And whilst ‘religion’ is not the only factor involved here, a brief glance at the situation of the Jews in Europe in general in the centuries leading up to the Holocaust, and particularly in Germany will demonstrate that the common, and indeed Christian, attitude to the Jews was largely responsible for providing an atmosphere in which the Holocaust could happen.
To take but a few examples of Christian anti-Semitism at the time of Hitler, Joachim Hossenfelder (1932) – wrote that the Church must help “cleanse the German nation of the foreign blood of the Jews”, Reinhold Krause (1933) declared the Old Testament, the apostle Paul, and the symbol of the Cross to be debilitating signs of Judaism, and Bishop Muller (1934) decreed that Hitler was to be considered the supreme authority of the church. This anti-Semitism was not new to the twentieth century, but had been present for many years before, in the writings of, for example, Wilhelm Marr (1879), Heinrich von Trietschke (1880), and of course the composer Richard Wagner, who wrote in 1850 that moneyed Jews “held it wise to make a Christian baptism wash away the traces of [their origin]”, and that “to become man at once with us, however, means firstly for the Jew as much as ceasing to be a Jew.”
I am not wishing to argue here that Christianity was responsible for Hitler. But simply that Amarasingam is being unnecessarily harsh to Sam Harris in this instance. I would thoroughly recommend seeing (Ericksen and Heschel 1999) for more information on this issue.
Turning to the idea of group consensus, Amarasingam writes that:
‘at times, the[ New Atheists] complain that organizing their fellow secular humanists is a bit like ‘‘herding cats’’ because they are ‘‘such independent thinkers,’’ while viewing religion as homogeneously irrational. At other times, they view themselves as a homogeneous, enlightened whole, fighting back superstition.’ (582)
Whilst I agree that there is some ambiguity here, it would be helpful is Amarasingam included some citations (see my previous post). And can these not be the same thing? Can a group of enlightened, independent thinkers, not fight back superstition in their own individual ways? However, this is me simply being a pedant. Continuing once more:
‘When faced with a threatening group, ‘‘perceivers are quite willing to infer the presence of a consensus without much information simply because they want  to see the group as a unified whole’’ (Corneille et al., 2001: 440). Such biases will become apparent below when we explore the new atheist treatment of Islam.’ (583-4)
Citing Cornielle O, Yzerbyt VY, Rogier A and Buidin B (2001) “Threat and the group attribution error: when threat elicits judgements of extremity and homogeneity” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27:437-446.
‘For Harris, the out-group, Islam, is indeed thoroughly homogeneous. For example, he argues that ‘‘If a twenty-first century  Muslim loses his faith, though he may have been a Muslim only for a single hour, the normative response, everywhere under Islam, is to kill him’’ (2006: 115; italics added). If we are to believe Harris, Muslims, regardless of whether they live in Dearborn or Dubai, live under the fear of death if they even contemplate apostasy. As Corneille et al. (2001: 440) noted, individuals are more than willing to believe there is a consensus in a given community simply because they wish to see this community as homogeneous.’ (584-5)
I could not agree more! This monolithic treatment of Islam is completely and utterly inaccurate and misleading.
Amarasingam begins his conclusion stating that his ‘paper has argued that insights gleaned from social psychology – particularly the fundamental attribution error, out-group homogeneity bias, etc. – are especially useful for critiquing the new atheism’ (585).
As I began this post, so I will say again… yes within the context of social psychology it is definitely okay to make this sort of critique. However, I ask once more: how appropriate is it for a religious studies scholar to be critiquing the position of a group of people who are essentially articulating their position on religion?
That being said, Amarasingam has a point when he cites McGrath and Collicutt McGrath (although the majority of their book is utter twaddle), who state that (2007, 22, 50):
‘similarly note that one of the main characteristics of the new atheism is its presentation of ‘‘the pathological as if it were normal, the fringe as if it were the center, crackpots as if they were mainstream. It generally works well for his intended audience, who can be assumed to know little about religion and probably care for it even less. But it’s not acceptable. And it’s certainly not scientific.’’’ (586)
Drawing attention to another Youtube interview, this time between Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, Amarasingam finds Dawkins confused by Harries’ liberal stance on Christian dogma. On hearing about this, ‘Dawkins responds: ‘‘This, of course, is all music to my ears, but I’m kind of left wondering, why you stick with Christianity at all!’’ Harries (YouTube, 2008a) rightly responds that perhaps Dawkins has spent too much time in fundamentalist circles’ (586).
It is a point…
Amarasingam, Amarnath. 2010. To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists. Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 39, no. 4: 573-588.
Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.
Ericksen, Robert P., and Susannah Heschel, eds. 1999. Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Harris, Sam. 2006. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. London: The Free Press.
McGrath, Alister, and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. 2007. The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the denial of the divine. London: SPCK.
Yesterday I chanced upon Atheist Climber’s interesting post on “The Atheist Re-Enlightenment” whilst browsing around reddit.com, and this inspired me to make available the third chapter of my undergraduate dissertation, in a slightly updated and “blog-ified” format. This chapter was entitled “The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda” and assessed the views and agenda(s) I have discerned in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and compared them with my (fairly general) impression of the views and agenda(s) of prominent Enlightenment thinkers. I hope it illustrates some of the merits and pitfalls of referring to a contemporary Enlightenment, spearheaded by certain individuals or a more general atheistic movement, and provides some interesting starting points for discussion.
The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda
Although it can be inferred from representative literature that contemporary atheism pushes a liberal agenda in favour of a peaceful, moral co-existence, where rational inquiry can be freely practised, positive expressions of this are difficult to find. This blog post teases out positive expressions from the representative writings and utilises these, in addition to the contemporary atheistic criticism of religion, to consider whether contemporary atheism promotes a twenty-first-century return to Enlightenment values. Following a brief presentation of these values, I consider various key points of contact, before concluding that there is an agenda at work, which has been heavily influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, but also incorporates certain aspects of Romantic and anti-clerical thought.
As with any historical period, it is misleading to refer to “the Enlightenment” as a distinct, bounded phenomenon. Different Enlightenments occurred at different times during the eighteenth-century, and localised terms for “enlightenment” carried different meanings within these contexts (Outram, 2005:1). However, these contextual usages delineate a consistent theme of new light bringing fresh and deep understanding. As will become clear, it is almost always possible to find a counter-example to any simplistic designation of the Enlightenment position. However, this acknowledgement does not negate certain commonalities of spirit and purpose. It is possible to speak of the Enlightenment as an “historical fact” and an “ideal reconstruction” (Crocker, 1969:1). Whilst the individuality of various writers means that ‘the Enlightenment’ is in many ways an ideal reconstruction, it is also a “fact inasmuch as a group of writers, working self-consciously, […]sought to enlighten [humanity], using critical reason to free minds from prejudices and unexamined authority” (ibid). Humanity seemed to be freeing itself from the superstitions of the past, “human omniscience” seemed an attainable goal (Berlin, 1979:14 cf. Hampson, 1990:150-151), and people believed, with Kant, that “we are indubitably living in an age of enlightenment” (in Hof, 1997:165).
As I am not attempting to assess theological critiques of the Enlightenment, this greatly reduces the sources available for an examination of its relationship with contemporary atheism. Also, due to the large number of Enlightenment sources, I proceed from contemporary atheistic writings, and compare their implicit and explicit vision with the Enlightenment. However, the writers considered as Enlightenment representatives are by no means all atheists. Whilst “Baron d’Holbach [1723-1789] and Jacques-André Naigeon were the two foremost proselytisers for materialistic atheism during the French Enlightenment” (Kors, 1992:273), their contemporary, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) cared little “if his atheistic manuscripts saw the light of day” (ibid). Voltaire and Rousseau were most certainly deists, with Rousseau believing that atheism was immoral, arrogant, and philosophically untenable (ibid:287). And there is evidence that other thinkers, such as Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Priestly, George Berkeley and Isaac Newton maintained a Christian faith, believing that “reason and revelation went largely hand in hand” (Hyland, 2003:60). Therefore, any similarities discerned between the views of “the Enlightenment” and those of contemporary atheism cannot include a denial of God’s existence.
Explicit calls for a new Enlightenment can be found in the work of Hitchens and Dawkins. In the final chapter of God is not Great, “The Need for a New Enlightenment”, Hitchens calls for “a renewed Enlightenment” which is well “within the compass of the average person” (2008:277-283). This enlightenment is seen in direct opposition to the religious alternative being delineated “with extraordinary vividness” (2007b:xxvi). Similarly, Dawkins writes the following in his “Mission Statement” for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science – “The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science…” – clearly seeing the defence of the Enlightenment as an imperative for his foundation.
It is much more difficult to find such explicit declarations in the work of Dennett and Harris. There are instances where they have participated in lecture series’ promoting Enlightenment values (Enlightenment 2.0, the Enlightenment Lecture Series), and Dennett indicates his displeasure that the spirit of the Enlightenment hasn’t led to a scientific examination of religion (2007:49). However, despite frequent insinuations and provocations from public comments, Dennett refrains from mentioning the Enlightenment in seventeen articles published in the Washington Post, and Harris only mentions it five times in passing in the fifty published articles listed on his website, suggesting that they are intentionally avoiding utilising the term. If anyone can alert me to any writings by these authors which do explicitly refer to the Enlightenment, I would be delighted to have them brought to my attention. However, on the basis of the evidence I have seen to date, it appears that two representatives of contemporary atheism make sparing references to their Enlightenment agenda, and two either fail to make this explicit, or intentionally avoid doing so. Whilst potential reasons for this are discussed in another of my posts, these observations indicate that if an Enlightenment worldview is being presented, it is implicit rather than explicit.
Through previous research, I concluded that religion is overwhelmingly portrayed as physically, morally and intellectually dangerous by contemporary atheism. On this subject, the general Enlightenment position held that through reason, humanity was “freeing itself from the prejudices and superstitions that had produced so much blind cruelty in the past” and from the “repressive and disciplinary role” of Christianity (Hampson, 1990:150-151,155 cf. Dupré, 2004:251). Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a Protestant, believed that Christians “are encouraged to cruel intolerance by beliefs that arouse their aggressive passions” (Crocker, 1969:10). And in a striking prelude to the writings of Harris and Hitchens, d’Holbach asserted that God is known “only by the ravages, the disputes, and the follies which he has caused upon earth” (in Hyland, 2003:89).
On the immorality of religion, in addition to the overwhelming denunciation of religiously inspired violence, Voltaire criticises biblically celebrated immoral actions (e.g. Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac) (Gay, 1964:28) and derides the Christian optimists who “accepted that evil was just a necessary part” of the world (Hyland, 2003:61). D’Holbach was of a similar opinion (ibid:89), and David Hume held that “religions result in cruel persecutions, bigotry, strife between sects or between sects and the civil power, and the hunting down of unorthodox opinions” (Gaskin, 1993:xvii). Concerning the non-religious origin of morals, Hume speaks for the Enlightenment, writing: “Their root [morals] strikes deeper into the mind, and springs from the essential and universal properties of human nature” (1993a:183).
Finally, in 1947, Horkenheimer and Adorno stated that “the Enlightenment had always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. […]The programme of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world: […]the substitution of knowledge for fancy” (in Outram, 2005:6). Although this was an anti-Enlightenment polemic, it provides an accurate account of the Enlightenment opinion on knowledge and religion. Condorcet (1743-1794) opposed both the church and belief in God “because it perpetuated ideas detrimental to progress” (Hof, 1997:262); Voltaire thought that “it was to the interest of ecclesiastics everywhere to keep men in the condition of ignorant and submissive children” (Gay, 1964:44); and Kant maintained that the churches made their “domestic cattle dumb” (in Hyland, 2003:54). As with the previous two points of discussion, these points of commonality cannot sufficiently support a declaration that contemporary atheists are promoting an Enlightenment worldview. However, they do demonstrate that the key themes through which these atheists couch their opposition to religion found significant expression in the writings of the Enlightenment. These similarities also emphasise an anti-clerical regime which can stand apart from ‘atheism’, suggesting that contemporary atheism inadvertently endorses a secular reformist Christianity…
In his critique of the Enlightenment, Hegel wrote: “When all prejudice and superstition has been banished, the question arises: Now what?” (in Outram, 2005:109). If this question is applied to contemporary atheism it perfectly encapsulates the scope of this investigation. When the negative critique of contemporary religion is stripped away, what positive intentions can be discerned? When referring to ‘positive intentions’, the term “positive” is not used in an evaluative sense, but denotes the active courses of action proposed, as opposed to the negative criticism of religion. Thus, this analysis focuses on four key aspects of the worldview promoted by contemporary atheism, and discusses parallels with the Enlightenment: the promotion of knowledge and understanding for all; the belief that the atheistic worldview is life-affirming and life-enhancing; the stance on the continued existence of religion; and the emphasis on the majesty and wonder of nature.
Throughout contemporary atheistic writings there is a recurrent emphasis on the importance of knowledge. Bafflement as to why anyone would choose religious faith over the pursuit of knowledge is exemplified when Dawkins cites Douglas Adams: “I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day” (2007b:142 cf. Hitchens, 2008:278; Harris, 2006:48). Dennett emphasises the importance of this pursuit, believing that the only constant of human nature left in our post-modern, scientific age may be “our incessant curiosity” (2010:xxiii). However, this emphasis is no mere corollary of the Enlightenment denunciation of religion’s obstruction of knowledge. Yes “imposing ignorance is shameful”, but there is nothing shameful in ignorance itself (Dennett, 2007:339). “The average person [now has] access to insights that not even Darwin or Einstein possessed” (Hitchens, 2008:282) and should be allowed “to make their own informed choices” (Dennett, 2007:327) Including in matters of religion (ibid:327-328). This same concern to promote knowledge, above and beyond objecting to its censure, can be seen clearly in Enlightenment writings: Rousseau aimed “to free children from the tyranny of adult prejudice and expectation” (Hyland, 2003:83); Voltaire believed the clergy should be “told what to teach and how to teach it” (Gay, 1964:31); and “the mere diffusion of accurate and up-to-date information” was an important part of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Hampson, 1990:86). However similar to the contemporary atheists’ concern for education this might seem, there are several important differences. Firstly, this concern to educate does not appear to have extended to the ‘common’ people. Aside from the expense of the Encyclopédie restricting its circulation (Hampson, 1990:86), there is evidence that Voltaire, d’Holbach, Diderot and Naigeon (ibid:160-161; Kors, 1992:299-300) “took the existence of an unteachable majority for granted” (Hampson, 1990:160). Secondly, it was a common thought that unrestricted use of reason was either undesirable (Kant in Outram, 2005:1) or simply impossible (Diderot and Voltaire in Hampson, 1990:96 cf. 78-79). And thirdly, it was regularly argued, in the words of the Benedictine Louis-Mayeul Chaudon (1775), that “the study of physics” could be put into the service of religion, as a cure for both atheism and superstition (in Kors, 1992:288 cf. Voltaire in Hampson, 1990:78-79). These widespread views indicate that whilst contemporary atheists may be influenced by these initial, tentative steps, their emphasis on a fully naturalistic and rational education for all takes them above and beyond the pale of the Enlightenment writers.
Dawkins states that “the atheist view is correspondingly life-affirming and life-enhancing” (2007b:405). This double affirmation is passionately expressed in quite romantic language, by the other writers: “we have been given a lot to love” (Dennett, 2007:253) and once people have embraced reason, and “accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives” (Hitchens, 2008:6) they will “feel in their bones just how precious life is” (Harris, 2007:54 cf. 2006:226). Again there is a correlation between these views, and the general purport of the Enlightenment. The core of Voltaire, Hume and Kant’s ethics “was a favourable estimate of human nature and of the human enterprise” (Gay, 1964:135), and even the devout Anglican, Dr Johnson (1709-1784), acknowledged that “pity is […]acquired and improved by the cultivation of reason” (Hampson, 1990:159). However similar these views may seem to those of contemporary atheists, the majority of these expressions were not based upon a materialistic atheism (Kors, 1992:296-7), but upon a re-examination of the relationship between man, religion and the deity. Therefore any correlation between contemporary atheism and Enlightenment thinkers on this matter seems purely coincidental.
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.
Unsurprisingly, the Enlightenment exhibits a spread of opinion on this issue, with Condorcet being prepared to dispense with the church (Hof, 1997:262), and Voltaire oscillating between “white-hot hatred” and “respect and even affection” for Christianity (Dupré, 2004:253 cf. Outram, 2005:113). However, the overwhelming thrust of the Enlightenment was one of religious tolerance (Outram, 2005:114-115 cf. Hampson, 1990:152). This toleration was extolled by Kant as “enlightened” (in Hyland, 2003:57), and most explicitly by Voltaire, as “the natural attribute of humanity” (ibid:62 cf. Dupré, 2004:251; Gay, 1964:25). Whilst these arguments for tolerance share some similarity with the professed positions of contemporary atheists, there are two key differences. Firstly, Enlightenment toleration was imbued with an inherent respect for the religious beliefs of others whereas contemporary atheism views “the very ideal of religious tolerance […as] one of the principle forces driving us toward the abyss” (Harris, 2006:15). And secondly, any toleration extended by these atheists is generally viewed as an interim solution, before religion eventually dies its natural, or induced, death. However, as discussed previously, contemporary atheism often exhibits an ambivalent attitude to certain aspects of Christianity, which reflects the Voltaire’s oscillating position. It is also clear that, in striking resemblance to the “civil religion” proposed by Rousseau (Gehrig, 1981:51), a “religion of reason”, purged of superstition and immorality, and imbued with an anti-clerical ethos would partially address the concerns of contemporary atheists. These observations clearly add weight to theories of both Enlightenment and secular Christian influence on contemporary atheism.
The final aspect of the contemporary atheistic worldview for comparison is the tendency to view the natural world with awe and wonder. The use of romantic language by these authors is, at times, quite intense: Dawkins notes a “quasi-mystical” response amongst scientists to the “magnificence of the real world” (2007b:25,32 cf. 397,404); and the others speak of the “mystery and marvel” (Hitchens, 2008:8-9), the “unimaginable surprises” (Harris. 2006:36) and the “humility, and awe, and sheer delight, at the glory of the evolutionary landscape” (Dennett, 2007:268). The notion that the natural world is sufficient for any human is a resurgent theme throughout the writings of these four authors. However, whilst the Enlightenment saw men as “objects in nature no less than trees and stones” (Berlin, 1979:27), the message taken from this was that human interactions “could be studied as that of atoms or plants” (ibid). Hints of reverence are found in the writings of Hume, who has Philo declare that nature “possesses an infinite number of springs and principles, which incessantly discover themselves on every change of her position and situation” (1993b:50). However, the key notion here is again that these “springs and principles” of nature “discover” themselves – they make themselves known upon proper scientific examination.
It is commonly held that “the idealisation of nature” is something which occurred in the movement away from the Enlightenment and into the Romanticism of the nineteenth-century (Outram, 2005:108). This could explain why Dawkins alludes to critics at Cambridge who condemn his worldview as “nineteenth-century” – a double-edged attack aimed both at his directness and at his awe at nature’s “monstrosities of improbability” (2007b:185-187). Romanticism was itself a form of diffuse Christianity, imbued with the same anti-clericalism observed in the Enlightenment and contemporary atheistic writings. The observed parallels between contemporary atheism and Romanticism are suggestive, once again, of a sentimental attachment to certain aspects of Christianity, and a liberal, secularising reformist agenda. Thus, whilst it is not possible to label contemporary atheistic emphasis on the majesty of nature as “Enlightenment”, these observations point to an additional, Romantic, influence – itself a reaction to, and in some ways a development of, the Enlightenment. Although contemporary ecological concerns and a more “New Age”, holistic attitude to human interaction with nature are likely to influence the contemporary atheistic position, these too are rooted in Romantic ideals (Chryssides, 2007:6) and thus further support this argument.
This discussion has demonstrated that however much contemporary atheism may be influenced by Enlightenment norms and values, the consistent surpassing of Enlightenment ideals in the areas considered discourages the conclusion that contemporary atheism promotes an Enlightenment worldview per se. Only two of these four authors offer explicit support for a new Enlightenment, and then only sparingly. Their three-fold criticism of religion does indeed follow the pattern established by the 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. I have identified that there is a positive agenda at work, even if there are disagreements over the final fate of religion. Whether this agenda is to be labelled a new Enlightenment or not appears to be down to the individual idiosyncrasies of the authors involved.
A full bibliography, and a continuation of this discussion can be found in my earlier post: The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief
 See Hof, 1997:4-5 on English, French and German interpretations of the term.
 See, Tina Beattie’s “The Enlightenment and its Aftermath” (2007:57-75).
 http://richarddawkinsfoundation.org/foundation,ourMission, (21/03/10, 19:12)
 http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-enlightenment-2-0, (21/03/10, 19:20)
 http://websiterepository.ed.ac.uk/explore/av/enlightenment2006/dennett.html, (21/03/10, 19:26)
 Since 14/11/06
http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/daniel_c_dennett/, (21/03/10, 19:31)
 See, McGrath’s “Nature: Affirming the Transcendent without God” on the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats (2005:116-122).
This post has been motivated by a fascinating article by Armin W Geertz and Guðmundur Ingi Markússon “Religion is natural, atheism is not: On why everybody is both right and wrong”. It shall mostly be a summary of the main points for those of you who don’t have the time to plough through such things, but I shall also be throwing in some of my own ideas and thoughts based upon my research and personal experience.
A major stumbling block which has reared its head at numerous points throughout my study is that, dependent upon the context, both the “religion as a natural phenomenon hypothesis” and the “religion as an unnatural/parasitic phenomenon hypothesis”, seem perfectly reasonable and valid. Thus. I was instantly rapt when I read the introduction to this article, where the authors claim that one of their aims is to:
“… consider the differences between the naturalness hypothesis and Dawkins’ memetic or unnaturalness hypothesis of religion and argue that, ultimately, both approaches must be combined if we are to achieve a comprehensive account of religious and cultural systems.”
However, even more important is the fact that this argument is applied throughout the article to both religion and atheism… with great success in my opinion.
Their snapshot of current opinion on atheist numbers in the USA and Worldwide:
I am always somewhat bemused and amused at the vast differences in figures that are presented when one asks the questions “How many atheists are there in X?” or “How many people do not believe in God in Y”. The simple fact is that many of the results presented rely on such figures as church attendance, or even merely church affiliation/membership and use these as indicators of religious belief, and that the way in which questions are asked in surveys, and the population being surveyed, and the source of the statistics, impacts hugely upon the ways in which the figures can be skewed.
Geertz and Markússon write:
A consistent discourse is promoted claiming that the vast majority of American citizens believe in God (a Newsweek poll claimed 91% in 2007) and ignoring or denigrating atheists as an insignificant minority (Aronson, 2007). Other polls seem to indicate that more than 29 million American adults, or one in seven, declare themselves to be without religion (American Religious Identification Survey, 2001 gave a result of 14%) [see also here]. The Financial Times/Harris poll of 2006 gave a result of 18% [see here]. The Financial Times/Harris poll also indicated that 73% in the U.S. claimed to believe in any form of God or any type of supreme being.Figures are quite different in that poll for European countries […]. The poll suggests that in Great Britain, France and Germany, the majority are either agnostics or atheists. In Spain, agnostics and atheists are almost as numerous as believers in any form of God or any type of supreme being. In Italy, believers form a substantial majority, but still not to the extent seen in the U.S. These figures, if reliable, could indicate why Europeans generally are not as upset by the New Atheist literature as Americans are.
They also point to a rough estimate provided by Phil Zuckerman in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism of some 500-750 million people in the world who do not believe in God… making unbelief statistically the fourth largest “belief”, “persuasion”, “stance” or whatever you wish to call it, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism (c. 2 billion, 1.2 billion and 900 million respectively). However, the key thing that I wish to stress here is that these statistics are for non-belief. No comment is being made here as to whether these people have intentionally chosen this stance, or even give religious belief a second thought… and it is most important to emphasise that these individuals are most definitely not all atheists. Unfortunately I do not have the precise citation to hand, but I remember when reading Victor Stenger’s fair abysmal The New Atheism, a moment where he effectively took the entire population of China and added them to the unbelieving choir (if not the atheist choir… damn I wish I had that citation with me). However, whether he said “unbeleivers” or “atheists” is not my central point. My point is that far too many people involved in the debate on numbers of religious or nonreligious affiliates simply make sweeping generalisations to suit their own agendas. Be very careful which figures you trust. I can”t say more than that… but just always make sure you ask where they are coming from…
The New Atheist Movement
The authors seem to agree with my conclusions that the “Four Horsemen” (whether this appellation is suitable or not) are seen from both within atheism itself (by those labelling themselves as New Atheists, and those who eschew this more contemporary form of atheism, such as Julian Baggini), and from without atheism in both scholarly and religious circles, as the main spokesmen for this “movement”. The fact that the best article they can point to as “a summary of some of the characters in the New Atheism movement” is Gary Wolf’s The Church of the Nonbelievers fills me with despair… it is no criticism of their scholarship, which seems to be of a very high standard, but simply a criticism of the Wolf article and the severe dearth of scholarly analysis that there is “out there”. If anyone is particularly interested in an overview of this nature I can supply you with my undergraduate dissertation, and I would also encourage to check out the research project “The “Return of Religion” and the Return of the Criticism of religion – The “New Atheism” in recent German and American culture” being carried out by Thomas Zenk et al in Berlin. Or indeed my previous blog post “The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens on Herding Cats”.
Another interesting phenomea that these authors draw attention to is the emergence of atheist summer camps, starting in 1996 with Camp Quest: “Today there are six Camp Quests across North America (Ohio, Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan, California in the U.S. and Ontario in Canada) and one is currently being organized in the United Kingdom”. What exactly is the need for a specifically atheistic summer camp? Couldn’t it just be a summer camp for the sake of a summer camp? What do they “teach” at an atheistic summer camp? I suppose it is just a backlash against the scores of religiously themed and motivated summer camps prevalent in the US and other countries… but it still seems a bit unnecessary to me!
And finally, although in danger of extreme reductionism. the authors cite the work of Paul and Zuckerman, who propose that the reason why religiosity may still be so prevalent in the USA as compared to other first world democracies is that it is the only one without a stable, socio-economic security. Paul and Zuckerman write:
Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character, the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level of disparity… To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the U.S.
G. Paul and P. Zuckerman, Why the gods are not winning, Edge. The Third Culture (2007).
A very stimulating thesis!
The Naturalness and Unnaturalness of Religion and Atheism
What is the Naturalness of Religion Hypothesis? Phil Zuckerman is used as a caricature of an erroneous stance on this issue. He believes that the central tenet of this hypothesis is that “belief in God is biologically determined, neurologically based, or genetically inborn, growing out of the “natural” processes of the human brain”. Thus construed, he ‘naturally’ assumes that the statistics, intimated above, on the numbers of nonreligious people in the world, are essentially damning to this version of the naturalness of religion hypothesis.
The authors then discuss numerous alternative formulations of the thesis:
- They state: “The naturalness hypothesis as widely understood by cognitive scientists of religion refers to the fact that religious ideas and behaviors thrive on (or are parasitic to) normal human cognitive and psychological processes.”
- They refer to two types of “naturalness” proposed by Pascal Boyer: a) the subjective feeling amongst believers that their beliefs are self-evident or “natural”; b) “those aspects of religion which depend upon noncultural constraints” – these constraints being evolutionary or “cognitive”… “universal features of the human mind–brain, which have a direct effect on the likelihood that certain ideas will be acquired, memorized, and transmitted”.
- And they point to Justin Barrett’s characterisation of the naturalness of religion hypothesis as “much of what is typically called “religion” may be understood as the natural product of aggregated ordinary cognitive processes”.
- But they do acknowledge that Zuckerman raises a valid question which must be dealt with by any proponent of the naturalness of religion thesis: If religion is natural, whence the spread of non-belief?
Zuckerman’s stance is then related to the prevalent stance amongst many prominent New Atheists, who are ‘naturally’ (or should I say, understandably) averse to prescribing any type of “naturalness” to religion. The preferred stance here is the “unnaturalness hypothesis”, based upon the meme concept coined by Richard Dawkins and detailed extensively in both The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. At its most simply, according to this thesis, religion does not depend on normal human cognitive and psychological processes but on an external “mind virus”. But at its most simple, this thesis falls foul of the immediate, common sense objection… if religion is dependent upon something external to the human species, how has this same mind virus developed, in different variations, in vastly different and unconnected cultures worldwide?
This being said, Dawkins does make a great deal of sense when he writes in The God Delusion:
“Propositions about the world, about the cosmos, about morality and about human nature [come to a child from the respected and indeed unquestionable authorities known as parents, relatives, elders etc.]. And, very likely, when the child grows up and has children of her own, she will naturally pass the whole lot on to her own children – nonsense as well as sense – using the same infectious gravitas of manner”
The authors continue:
“One can understand why atheistic activists feel more at ease with the unnaturalness hypothesis than its natural alternative. The notion of religion as a transmitted, mental illness fits hand-in-glove with the ideological aspects of the New Atheist movement. Not only is religion unnatural (and by association atheism natural), it is also a condition that is treatable, at least in principle.”
However, this risks equating two very different concepts. Just because something is “natural”… whether this specifically means genetically, evolutionary, or occurring by second-nature across the globe… this is not the equivalent to saying it is correct, good or indeed necessary. There are many things which have in the past seemed normal and “natural” but which have been left behind. And similarly there are things which have even been biologically engrained which have been outgrown. If it were to be shown that religion were natural and atheism were unnatural, this does not mean that one is a better state of affairs than the other… it would simply be a comment based on observable phenomena. Any of these statements that I have made could be true or false, but the simple point is that nature does not inherently have to provide the definitive state of affairs.
The authors eloquently sum up the merits of each explanation as follows:
“The naturalness hypothesis accounts for a range of recurrent issues quite economically. For example: a) why religion is a human universal, being present in all known human groups (the human mind-brain is more or less the same everywhere); b) why supernatural agents are central to most religious systems (they activate entrenched cognitive mechanisms such as our hyperactive agency detection and are easy to process and memorize); and c) why rituals take the form that they do (due to action representation and effects on memory). The unnaturalness hypothesis, on the other hand, explains at best surface variation (say, why an important agent is called “Jesus” here but “Visnu” there) and the propagation of superstitious beliefs.”
But are careful to clarify that “we still maintain that Dawkins’ unnaturalness hypothesis identifies important aspects of cultural transmission and that a full account of religion will have to combine both approaches.”
The authors propose a simple thought experiment whereby a group of infants find themselves on an uninhabited island and grow to form a society without the aid of parental influence. Will they become religious? The authors contend that the unnatural, virus-of-the-mind hypothesis would answer “no!” and that the naturalness hypothesis would give at best a “most likely”. This is because, in this hypothetical situation, the development of religion…
“does not depend on religious concepts being genetically hardwired, independent of environmental factors. The only inborn aspects at play are normal, cognitive mechanisms of the mind–brain which we use to navigate in our mundane, day-to-day environment – such as our ability to detect agency in the environment (in other living organisms and fellow humans), our capacity to infer the intentions of other people and automatic or intuitive expectations about things in the environment (such as solid objects cannot be in more than one place at a time, that living beings have agency and that people have intentions). In this [hypothetical situation], religiosity (as belief in supernatural agents) is an emergent property arising from the interplay of normal cognitive mechanisms and the immediate natural and social environment (opaque causal processes → ideas → talking → spread of supernatural concepts). Only by removing cognition from its environmental and social niche do we arrive at Zuckerman’s caricature of the cognitive science of religion.”
Here comes what I see as one of the key points of their thesis: naturalness is a question of probability, with religion being likely but not necessary – atheism, whilst being less likely, is “certainly possible, given the right environmental and cultural niche.”
“In urban conditions, the environment is to a large extent man-made, and thus there is much less incentive to interpret causal relations in terms of non-human, supernatural agency. Further, there is a difference in the modern epidemiology of ideas in the sense that naturalistic explanatory frameworks will be more readily available due to higher levels of education.”
The authors then present Justin Barrett’s thesis, that there are certain cognitive capacities when theism has no problem dealing with, that atheism will struggle to cope with, making it a much less likely outcome. At first these sound reasonable… but Geertz and Markússon manage to provide compelling counter arguments at each turn. I shall present each of Barrett’s cognitive capacities in turn, combined with Geertz and Markússon’s rebuttal:
- The Hypersensitive Agent Detection Device (HADD) – “Repeated, demonstrated false alarms from HADD should equally reinforce beliefs in non-theistic, natural explanations. Wouldn’t the reasoning mind that concludes, ‘No, it’s not a tiger that brushed the branch, it’s only the wind’ also be able to conclude, ‘No, it’s not my ancestor who pushed the rock from the ledge above, it’s only a startled goat’?”
- Moral Realism – Barrett is not concerned with whether or not we can be moral without religion. What he claims is that religion gives a certain moral certitude which atheism cannot. However, “We argue that atheists also find moral certitude in the ideologies of a just society or in human compassion or simply in enlightened altruism.”
- Dealing with Death… specifically guilt: “We don’t know how atheists deal with such situations. We do agree with Barrett, however, that guilt for instance is a natural mechanism and can be felt without any apparent reason for it. But this problem must be dealt with by both atheists and theists regardless of their particular persuasions.”
Another argument that the authors use to refute the argument that atheists do not cope as well as theists in the world is quite simply that atheism is both ancient and complex… it is not a recent phenomenon. They spend a long time discussing this point, however I do not feel that it needs as much explanation as they provide. Alistair McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism and James Thrower’s Western Atheism: A Short History provide an ample introduction to atheism throughout history, as of course does Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. However, the do draw attention to some work by an early historian of religions, Guiseppe Tucci, who identified a heterodox movement in India approximately 300-150BCE known as the Cārvāka school, who held the following main tenets:
- 1. Sacred literature should be disregarded as false.
- 2. There is no deity or supernatural.
- 3. There is no immortal soul and nothing exists after the death of the body.
- 4. Karma is inoperative and an illusion.
- 5. All (that is) is derived from material elements.
- 6. Material elements have an immanent force.
- 7. Intelligence is derived from these elements.
- 8. Religious injunctions and the sacerdotal class are useless. (Thrower, 1980 and Tucci, 1924)
This bears a remarkable similarity to the views of some contemporary New Atheists…
Now what about more recent “adaptationist” or “religion by natural selection” approaches?
According to this type of approach, “instead of maintaining that it is a by-product of adaptations for mundane survival, it claims that religiosity is a functional adaptation in its own right, crafted by natural selection.”
I’m not going to do much more than throw out what Geertz and Markússon have to say on this approach. They point to the theory of Jesse Bering who “theorizes that belief in ambient, unseen agents, such as ancestors, was selected due to its beneficial effects on cooperation in our ancestral past.” He writes that the psychological foundations of some religious behaviours
“may be side effects of other design features that, quite by chance, had salutary effects of their own on the organism’s ability to pass on its genes and, over time, were independently subjected to natural selection.”
And continues: “God is a way of thinking that has been rendered permanent by natural selection.”
The authors cogently observe that “The interesting paradox here is that even staunch atheists, such as Bering himself, may continue to “hear” the “voice of God” emanating from the recesses of their mind, no matter their agility with Occam’s razor and other thinking aids of the scientific method.”
So how does this all fit with the New Atheism?
The authors tip their hat to the common (and to some extent common sense thesis) that the New Atheism “was ignited by the shattering events of September 11, 2001”, however they are quite rightly insistent that whilst 9/11 may have been a motivation to put pen to paper in some specific instances, in most cases (specifically in the case of Richard Dawkins) outspoken writing “is also the culmination of [a] long-standing opposition to religion and religion’s place in society, a career of critique antedating 9/11 by decades. Furthermore, 9/11 tells us very little about the continued strength and propagation of New Atheism.”
However, I think it is fairly obvious to you and me that, for better or worse, 9/11 has acted as a kind of “cultural primer’, enabling the message of atheism to strike a chord with others to whom it may not have reached.
The also draw attention to a Guardian piece written by Dawkins 4 days after 9/11 that I had not come across until now – “Religion’s misguided missiles: promise a young man that death is not the end and he will willingly cause disaster”.
They point to three features of New Atheism that they believe help it spread and maintain itself:
- “A rich ecology of signs increases adaptability as it makes it possible to employ different “segments” of signs (texts, and so on) in response to different circumstances (an analogy to cells applying different segments of DNA in different contexts). Externalization techniques like signs/mnemonics further enable the “offloading” of complex concepts into the environment, thus securing their spread and transmission. Within a relatively brief number of years, variously linked concepts such as memes, genes, rationality, secularism, science, naturalism, democracy, religion-as-a-delusion, religion-as-a-virus-of-the-mind, religion-as-abuse and so on became determining hallmarks of New Atheist semiotic ecology.”
- A “reactionary semiosis” – “In order to secure the transmission of atheist thought, New Atheists have been engaged in systematic and aggressive criticism and deconstruction of theist claims.”
- Arguments from authority give credit to certain trends of semiosis – whether these be from contemporary authorities, or from a carefully chosen and cited list of older – even ancient – authorities. I stumbled upon a striking instance of this phenomenon just a few days ago when Hemant Mehta – The Friendly Atheist – asked on his popular blog “What should atheists memorise?”… the greater than 100 responses so far should prove instructive. Why on earth should atheists feel compelled to memorise particularly notable passages? And do these passages perform the same evangelical and personal commitment functions as they would within, say, Christianity? Something interesting to look into I reckon!
For the authors, then,
“In this perspective, the New Atheist movement is a complex system of signs/external mnemonics and distributed cognition, well adapted to the uneasy world of popular media and social activism. These formal, semiotic aspects, we suggest, are key factors in the movement’s spread and maintenance. To restrict New Atheism to the individual brains of New Atheists is insufficient grounds for any claims on the cognitive naturalness or unnaturalness of atheism. Modern, Western cultural, political and social contexts function as the supportive framework for atheist cognition—just as they do for religious cognition.”
And at this point they conclude their paper:
“In the course of this paper, after considering irreligion and the New Atheism, we have refuted Zuckerman’s claim that statistics on atheism pose a problem for cognitive accounts of religion. Neither the by-product nor the adaptationist hypotheses of the naturalness approach make religiosity a necessity for humans. Such would only be the case if we were to remove cognition from its socio-cultural habitat. However, cognitive accounts often proceed as if the wider cultural ecology can be ignored. To amend this, the naturalness and unnaturalness (or memetic) hypotheses must be combined, bringing cognition and culture back together again. In redirecting attention to the fact that human cognition is always situated within a natural habitat of cultural systems, we find that atheism is no less natural than religiosity is. We are therefore critical of the cognitive science of religion accounts of atheism and their unsupported assumptions about atheists.
In the end, religiosity and atheism represent entrenched cognitive–cultural habits where the conclusions drawn from sensory input and the output of cognitive systems bifurcate in supernatural and naturalistic directions. The habit of atheism may need more scaffolding to be acquired, and its religious counterpart may need more effort to kick, but even so, that does not, ipso facto, make the latter more natural than the former.”
To my mind, this is an excellent paper. It may raise more questions than it answers, but I think it nicely frames how things aren’t always as simple as they seem, and how in the field of Religious Studies – whether we are looking at religion or irreligion, belief or nonbelief – the ultimate pitfall is to fall into the reductionistic trap of accepting on theory as definitive, to the detriment of other useful and worthwhile explanations.
I hope some of the citations, quotations, summaries and personal insights I have provided have been useful. Please do use this as a basis for further research and discussion.
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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