Tag Archive | New Age

Catholic and Evangelical Reponses to the New Age

According to Daren Kemp, Christians were “among the first to recognise the existence of a New Age movement.” In the 1970s, Christian critiques of the New Age “did much to disseminate knowledge among the general public” (2004:133) and to some extent this is still the case today, where many Christians “have only second-hand knowledge of [New Age]” (Kemp, 2007:462). In this post, I aim to critically compare two contemporary Christian responses to New Age – the official Roman Catholic report Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the “New Age[JCBWL] (2003), and John Newport’s evangelical study, The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview (1998). These texts were chosen because they are notably absent from Saliba’s (1999) excellent study of Christian responses to New Age and because of their extensive attention to the writing of prominent scholars of New Age.

It is worth acknowledging that, due to the interdenominational nature of the evangelical movement, it is not possible to find a document comparable to JCBWL, which delineates the official position of the church. Newport’s text cannot be assumed to speak for all evangelical Christians (just as that there will be Catholics who do not subscribe to JCBWL). Discussion of each text focuses on four main themes: the motivation/perspective of the authors; perceived positive aspects of New Age; negative assessments of New Age; and proposed methods for Christian engagement with New Age.

Before commencing this discussion it is necessary to define what I mean when I refer to New Age. The Catholic document defines the New Age Movement as “a multifaceted cultural tendency” which is “spread across cultures, in [many varied] phenomena”. Expressing concerns to not refer to a New Age “religion” the report states that New Age is not so much an organised “movement” as “a loose network of practitioners(ibid). The authors recognise that they are dealing with “very complex and elusive phenomenon” and acknowledge that many New Agers abjure the New Age label (ibid). Whilst Newport’s title refers to a New Age Movement, most of his discussion is based around a clash of worldviews which he defines as “vision[s] of life and the world that help us to make sense of life [… and are] rooted in beliefs that are ultimate in character” (1998:41). For Newport, New Age expresses “diversity and fluidity in membership” and is characterised by an emphasis on personal transformation and universalisation of religion (ibid:35-39). These understandings of the New Age are generally in agreement with current scholarship. George Chryssides, for example, declares that “the [New Age] is certainly not a religion”, as individual interests tend to exceed any single religion and reject a “single religion[‘s claim to a] monopoly of answers to spiritual questions” (2007:19-20). And Christopher Partridge confirms both reports’ attempts to present a unified New Age by acknowledging that despite a “lack of homogeneity […New Age] worldviews do connect at certain points” (2007:232). Many subtle criticisms could be levelled at this broad delineation of New Age, however for my purposes it should suffice to acknowledge the broad agreement between both documents and current scholarship.

Kemp describes the Catholic report as “unprecedented […] in its objective and well researched approach to [New Age]” (2003:196.n.1). Even a cursory glance at the text reveals that it is not simply repeating the “second-hand paranoia” of a similar statement issued by the Irish Theological Commission in 1994 (see Kemp, 2007:462). The writers are aiming at reliability and objectivity, claiming that their intent is to provide “reliable information on the differences between Christianity and [New Age]” and that ““it would be unwise and untrue to say that everything connected with the [New Age Movement] is good, or […] bad”. Similarly, although approaching his book “from an evangelical perspective,” Newport admirably desires to “give both Christians and [New Age] advocates alike a better understanding of both sides” (1998: xv) and states that “there is value in dialogue” (ibid:51).

However, it is unlikely that the ideals of both texts will be attainable. JCBWL clearly defines its audience as “those engaged in pastoral work” with the intent “that they might be able to explain how the [New Age Movement] differs from [Christianity]”, whilst Newport’s motivation is to “provide a basis of study for churches, colleges, seminaries and lay people” (1998: xv). These religious biases inherent in the texts will understandably limit their objectivity.

Except for a section entitled A Positive Challenge, JCBWL has little to say on the positive aspects of New Age. This states that: “The search which often leads people to the [New Age] is a genuine yearning […]”, and identifies positive New Age “criticisms of ‘the materialism of daily life, of philosophy and even of medicine and psychiatry; [… and] the industrial culture of unrestrained individualism” (citing Massimo Introvigne, New Age & Next Age (2000), p. 267). However, it has previously been stated that the attraction exerted on some Christians by these criticisms/themes “may be due […] to the lack of serious attention in their own communities for themes which are actually part of [Catholicism]”. Therefore any positive affirmations made about New Age seem to be implicit affirmations of Catholicism.

Newport also highlights numerous positive aspects of the New Age Movement in his attempted dialogue: Various alternative medical practises promoted by New Age are praised (1998:52) and the New Age theme of spiritual transformation is seen as a sign of God (ibid:604). The New Age is even used as a criticism of Christianity, with Newport highlighting three key accusations posed by the New Age Movement (ibid:51-52), and acknowledging that Christianity “has not been, as a whole, ecologically sensitive” (ibid:309). However, as was the case with JCBWL, Newport contends that these positive aspects are only “half right” and that they “can be found in biblical spirituality – [… their] proper context” (ibid:142). The apparent reluctance of both texts to ascribe anything positive to New Age in its own right seems to be due to a fundamental conceptual issue on the part of the authors.

Considering JCBWL, this issue is encapsulated in two key factors. New Age is understood to be a result of “the growth and spread of relativism, along with an antipathy or indifference towards the Christian faith”, and “represents something of a compendium of positions that the Church has identified as heterodox”. This view is compounded with a statement from Pope John Paul II, defining New Age as “only a new way of practising gnosticism” (Kemp, 2003:162). Thus New Age is seen as fundamentally incompatible with Christianity, making it “[im]possible to isolate some elements of [New Age] religiosity as acceptable to Christians, while rejecting others”. Throughout the report, various attributes of New Age belief are systematically debunked. New Age health practises are defined as “an Eastern formula in Western terms”; the “real” distinction between Creator and creation has apparently been “wrongly” conceived by New Age; and New Age views on the perfectibility of humanity are identified with Nietzsche. This systematic condemnation based around dogmatic issues (Saliba, 1999:141) is unsurprising, given the supposed incompatibility of New Age and Christianity.

The issue in Newport’s text is different, but results in a similar treatment. Newport writes:  “the [New Age] worldview predict[s] that it will replace modernism, or secular humanism, and what New Agers call the outdated, propositional, non-fulfilling, compromising biblical worldview” (1998:597). The New Age is therefore identified with the biblical worldview’s opponents who have been “undercut[ting] its dominance” since the seventeenth century (ibid:597). Newport is arguing on one side of this dichotomy and thus readers should be unsurprised at his unwillingness to ascribe positive affirmations to New Age in general. Newport systematically considers various aspects of the New Age worldview and either defines these elements as already present (more authentically) in Christianity, or as incompatible with it. However an additional undertone, identified by Saliba in other evangelical writings, is a “fear” that New Age poses a “serious threat to Christianity” (1999:45): New Age is described as catching unsuspecting Christians (Newport, 1998:xv); “cross[ing] taken-for-granted boundaries and infiltrat[ing]” Christian groups (47); and “hijack[ing] various images, practises and insights” (51). Such language is notably absent from the Catholic report, and suggests that Saliba’s conclusion that Catholic responses “are less hysterical in tone than many of the responses that have stemmed from […] evangelical sources” (1999:176) carries some weight.

Whilst the negative emphases of both documents cannot be denied, they do offer some positive advice for Christians encountering New Age. Catholics are cautioned to “look for the marks of genuine Christian spirituality” but, as in Newport’s book, are encouraged to promote “care for the earth as God’s creation” and to “make the most of the riches of the Christian spiritual heritage”. JCBWL emphasizes that the best thing individual Christians can do is “offer a good, sound presentation of the Christian message” (ibid) rather than point out the faults of New Age beliefs, which Newport describes as not “unlike a commitment to witness (1998:598-9). Thus it seems that the encounter with New Age can serve to strengthen the faith of some Christians, but can prove a stumbling block for those who may not realise “that the [New Age] worldview is contrary in most of its teachings to a basic biblical perspective” (ibid:xv).

Whilst neither of the documents briefly discussed here can be considered definitive in their representations of Roman Catholic and Evangelical responses to New Age, they do provide an interesting comparison. Both responses are well researched, and admirably aim at constructive dialogue. However, it appears that due to their distinct conceptions of New Age as irreconcilable with Christianity, both reports are only willing to see positive aspects in New Age if these are already representative of Christianity. At times, Newport’s text unfortunately confirms Saliba’s conclusion that evangelical responses are generally “a process of self-affirmation” which tend to degenerate “into a senseless diatribe or an emotional harangue” (1999:77), and JCBWL, “while eager to promote the approach of dialogue adopted by Vatican Council II, frequently end[s] up taking an apologetical and condemnatory stance which does not contribute to dialogue” (ibid:176). These documents are, however, an encouraging development from earlier writings which were generally “marred by misunderstandings and apprehension” (ibid:28).

References:

  •  Chryssides, George D., 2007. “Defining the New Age” in Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis (eds), Handbook of New Age, Leiden/Boston: Brill, pp. 5-24
  •  Kemp, Daren, 2003. The Christaquarians? A Sociology of Christians in the New Age, London: Kempress Ltd.
  •  Kemp, Daren, 2004. New Age: A Guide, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  •  Kemp, Daren, 2007. “Christians and New Age” in Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis (eds), Handbook of New Age, Leiden/Boston: Brill, pp. 453-472.
  •  Newport, John P., 1998. The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview: Conflict and Dialogue, Cambridge/Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
  •  Partridge, Christopher, 2007. “Truth, Authority and Epistemological Individualism in New Age Thought” in D. Kemp and J. Lewis (eds), Handbook of the New Age, Leiden: Brill, pp. 231-254.
  •  Pontifical Council for Culture/Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, 2003. (JCBWL) Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the “New Age.”.
  •  Saliba, John A., 1999. Christian Responses to the New Age movement: a critical assessment, London: G. Chapman.

Article on ‘New Atheism’ published in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions

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
movement.

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.

The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda of Contemporary Atheism

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[1]. 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[2], 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…”[3] – 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[4], the Enlightenment Lecture Series[5]), 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[6], and Harris only mentions it five times in passing in the fifty published articles listed on his website,[7] 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)[8]. 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


[1] See Hof, 1997:4-5 on English, French and German interpretations of the term.

[2] See, Tina Beattie’s “The Enlightenment and its Aftermath” (2007:57-75).

[3] http://richarddawkinsfoundation.org/foundation,ourMission, (21/03/10, 19:12)

[4] http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/beyond-belief-enlightenment-2-0,   (21/03/10, 19:20)

[5] http://websiterepository.ed.ac.uk/explore/av/enlightenment2006/dennett.html, (21/03/10, 19:26)

[6] Since 14/11/06

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/daniel_c_dennett/, (21/03/10, 19:31)

[7] http://www.samharris.org/site/articles/ (29/03/10, 15:27)

[8] See, McGrath’s “Nature: Affirming the Transcendent without God” on the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats (2005:116-122).