Tag Archive | violence

Explaining Islam to the Public

I have just read the following superb post from Edward E. Curtis IV, entitled Explaining Islam to the Public. Whilst I suggest that you have a look yourself, I have pulled out what I consider to be the most relevant bits… mostly on Shari’a Law and Violence.

He begins with a cautionary tale on how Scholars of Islam were suddenly called upon to become public spokespeople in the decade since 9/11:

“Perhaps no group of scholars has had as much at stake in the public understanding of religion of late as Islamic studies specialists. The attacks of 9/11 indirectly created opportunities for career advancement for Islam specialists. […] The expectation that Islamic studies scholars were prepared to “cover” the Islamic tradition and speak to its beliefs and practices on a normative, global basis was stressful for many of us. The idea that we could speak with authority about the practices of 1.4 billion people who speak dozens of languages and have inhabited the planet for the last 1400 years is absurd, of course. Like other academics, Islamic studies scholars are trained in certain fields of knowledge; in the best of programs, they are trained to be exceedingly careful about claiming too much. The pressures to become the academic voice of Islam both on campus and in the media frequently led scholars to abandon caution.”

He continues with a response to the Ground Zero Mosque fiasco, ‘shedding light on Muslim contributions to the histroy of the United States’ and concluding that:

“It may be a strange, even perverse fact of history, but Islam in New York began on or near Ground Zero.”

He then enters into an extended discussion of a piece he wrote for the Washington Post on addressing their proposed ‘myth’, that “Mosques seek to spread shari’a law in the United States”.

Following the scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, I responded to the myth about shari‘a by writing that shari‘a is an ideal, that it is not codified, and that the human attempt to realize this ideal is called “fiqh,” or jurisprudence. I said that most contemporary mosques don’t actually teach the shari‘a because it is too dry, too pedantic, too arcane. I stressed that mosques devote their weekend classes instead to discussions of the Qur’an and the Sunna and how they apply to everyday life. […]

My answer hadn’t exactly been wrong, but my response to the question was not sufficient. In addition, it did not respond explicitly to the public’s biggest fears, for instance, about the cutting off of hands and stoning. When a Middle East studies newsletter asked for permission to reprint the piece, I kept some of my original answer but added the following: “most mosques in the United States teach only those parts of the shari‘a having to do with religious rituals and obligations. They do not teach the part of the shari‘a having to do with criminal law.” And further: “Few Muslim Americans advocate a shari‘a-based theocracy. Instead, most Muslim Americans insist that democracy is the most Islamic system of governance in the world today.”

Getting rightly annoyed about the one way process of this question and answer approach, he continues:

Responding to the public’s misconceptions about Islam is part of what we do.  But if we cannot question the assumptions on which questions are posed, we cease to be critics. We must retain the ability to ask questions as well as to answer them. The problem with my Washington Postpiece was that I did not explicitly name the prejudice that was animating the question about the shari‘a in the first place. As recent legislation passed in Oklahoma demonstrates, there is a special animus on the part of millions of Americans toward shari‘a, which is viewed, like Islam more generally, as particularly dangerous.

As I reflect on my moment of high-profile public scholarship, and on teaching religion more generally, I want to conclude with two further responses to the “myth” that “mosques seek to spread shari‘a law.” First, perhaps my response to the myth should have been: Yeah, but so what? Most American religious organizations seek to educate others about their ethics and rituals, and that is exactly what most of the shari‘a taught in American mosques is all about. Second, most Muslim Americans are not “spreading” shari‘a; they are trying to figure out how to apply it to their own lives.

And finally, on the widespread conception that Islam is a very violent religion, and the clash of interests between the USA and ‘Islam’:

There is a clash of interests between the U.S. and those whose lives it seeks to shape, often in its own image. But this story does not begin in Mecca; it begins in Washington. Middle Easterners, including Osama bin Laden, were not fantasizing when they saw the U.S. establish military bases in the Gulf region nor when it restored the Kuwaiti amirate to power in 1991, when it intervened on behalf of both the Iraqis and Iranians in the Iraq-Iran war, when it shelled Lebanon in the 1980s, and the list goes on. This is not primarily a story about religious fanaticism but a story about secular, imperial power.

[…] we should spend more time exposing the political contexts in which popular understandings of Islam and religion more broadly are generated, disseminated, and used. And if we must produce a sound-bite about Islam’s role in making violence for the media, then let it be this: “Islam is not the cause of violence, but it does offer one means of resistance to U.S. political, military, and economic domination in Muslim lands.”

A thoroughly engaging post, which contained almost nothing I could disagree with. Here’s hoping as many people as possible read it. I’d also suggest reading some sections from my Very, Very Short Introduction to Islam. Enjoy.

A plea to Northern Ireland – the fight is not ours

I don’t tend to emphasise the fact that I’m Northern Irish. I’m getting better at it… but perhaps the constant returns to utter stupidity are something to do with it. I came across this plea in a friend’s Facebook notes… and whilst I wince slightly at the hyperbolism and flowery prose (something of which I am all too frequently guilty) I thought it was most definitely worth sharing. Thanks AF.

A plea to Northern Ireland in light of the Ronan Kerr car-bomb.

The fight is not ours.

It is a historical fight derived from the cunning and deliberate divide and conquer policies of an imperial power.

The localised violence that continues to haunt parts of Northern Ireland allows the success to be theirs as we play the game set for us. We have been divided and we have been conquered and while the blame lies with our own people, the truly guilty party was an empire that is now long defunct.

Yet, despite this inalienable truth, we still fight. We still suffer car bombs, we still suffer shootings, we still suffer the threat of terror. Northern Ireland, I implore you, look at the history, take a non-compartmentalised glance and understand our past. If we continue to fight and bicker, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Ulster will once again descend into flames. We are seen as a disgrace in modern Europe, an embarrassing backwater of tribalism, violence and depravity. But we are also seen as a vibrant, progressive and creative society that offers the world an unlimited amount of good.

Look at us, look at them, look at the past, you decide.

It is time to move on, this is not our fight.

Thank you and to Northern Ireland: be proud.

I imagine this plea could be applied to many other conflict zones around the world…

Comments and thoughts appreciated.

Religion is Dangerous: The Portrayal of Dangerous Religion by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens

In this post, I examine the critique of religion exemplified by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who I take as representative of a particular strand in contemporary atheism, loosely referred to as the “New Atheism”. I contend that this criticism can be largely encompassed by a depiction of religion as dangerous: by inspiring violence, promoting ‘unacceptable’ morals, and standing in the way of knowledge and progress, through fostering a ‘totalitarian’ atmosphere of submission to unquestionable authority. This critique occurs within a Christianised, Anglophone context, and although Harris and Hitchens devote space to other religious systems, all representative authors significantly acknowledge that their “focus is on Christianity first” (Dennett, 2007:xi): their “atheism is a Protestant atheism” (Hitchens, 2008:11 cf. Dawkins 2007b:58, Harris, 2007a:title). Their books are by no means extended tirades against religion. Each author engages with more ‘traditional’ philosophical approaches within the atheist-theist debate (cf. Dawkins, 2007b:100-136, Dennett, 2007:200-248, Harris, 2006:50-79, Hitchens, 2008:63-96). However, an examination of the positive delineation of atheism requires a very close reading of more implicit themes and thus this discussion focuses on their critique of religion, which yields valuable insights, and provides a frame for my more expansive posts, The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda of Contemporary Atheism and The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief.

Contemporary atheistic books teem with damning statements on violence in religion: religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry” (Hitchens, 2008:56), and focussed upon a malevolent God (Dawkins, 2007b:51), who leads some to “lie and even to kill” (Dennett. 2007:338) for a vision which threatens to destroy civilisation itself (Harris, 2006:227). Two distinct sources support this hyperbolism: the various conflicts and atrocities in which religion has played a part; and the creeds and tenets of Christianity (and Islam) which may be utilised as motivation or support for violence.

These critiques are replete with detailed examples of religious conflicts.[1] Significantly, these writers attempt to change commonly held views (positive and negative) on certain regimes and individuals (Hitchens, 2008:25ff; Harris, 2006:78), with a major theme for Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens (though not Dennett) being Hitler’s Nazism. All discuss the possibility that Hitler remained a nominal Christian (Dawkins, 2007b:310, Harris 2006:106 cf. Hitchens, 2008:236-243), but also recognise that one man’s faith cannot implicate an entire religion. This is ensured by invoking an historical Christian anti-Semitism “that built the crematoria brick by brick” (Harris, 2006:179 cf. Dawkins, 2007b:311), by the support of Catholics and ‘German Christians’ for Hitler’s regime, and by the church’s complicity in relocating “guilty” members of clergy (ibid:314 cf. Hitchens, 2008:236-243; Ericksen/Heschel, 1999). Hitchens claims that, at a minimum, the Christian church is guilty of “passivity” and “inaction” which demonstrates that the church sought accommodation with Nazism (2008:238). These considerations appear to be a response to religious criticism of the violence committed by the “atheistic” regimes of the twentieth-century (Beattie, 2007:79; McGrath, 2005:165-169 cf. Baggini, 2003:81; Stenger, 2009:113-116).

This discussion is augmented by a focus on the motivation toward, or support of, violence implicit in religious texts – particularly the absolutising effect of a belief in the afterlife (Dennett, 2007:285), and the divisive nature of religious group loyalty (Dawkins, 2007b:297 cf. Hitchens, 2008:18). Harris holds that the “proposition – you will not die – once believed, determines a[n otherwise unthinkable] response to life” (2006:38 cf. Dennett, 2007:256, Hitchens, 2008:56). For Harris, religion has “become a continual source” of conflict (2006:79 cf. 2007a:12) casting human differences “in terms of eternal rewards and punishments” (2006:80). The combination of these characteristics is demonstrated by Dawkins’ inclusion of the work of George Tamarin, who presented Israeli schoolchildren with different accounts of a battle – one with  the central figure “Joshua”, another with “General Lin” – and found that “it was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it” (Dawkins, 2007b:289-292).

However, there are many examples throughout these works where the authors engage positively with the idea that religion may not be the underlying factor behind their catalogue of violence. Religious believers can be “rational and tolerant of others” (Harris, 2006:28 cf. Hitchens, 2008:187-188) and “are not psychotic, […but] by their own lights, are rational” (Dawkins, 2007b:344). However, the fact that “religion may well not be the root cause of […violent] yearning[s]” (Dennett, 2007:285) is, apparently, no excuse (ibid:299), because religion is “the most prolific source of the “moral certainties” and “absolutes” that such zealotry depends on” (ibid:285 cf. Harris, 2007a:11). The authors do not deny that some religious leaders “have put humanity ahead of their own sect or creed” (Hitchens, 2008:27), but contend that such actions are “a compliment to humanism, not to religion” (ibid). Whilst loopholes and backdoors may temporarily redeem religion, contemporary atheism believes itself firmly on the moral high ground: “Religious wars really are fought in the name of religion […] I cannot think of any war that has been fought in the name of atheism” (Dawkins, 2007b:316).

A second way in which religion is portrayed as dangerous concerns morality. To ask questions of religious morals apparently “involves no disrespect and no prejudging of the possibility” that they have a divine origin (Dennett, 2007:296), and contemporary atheists grant theists the right to try to convince “others, to whom God has not (yet) spoken” (ibid). Also, although some appeal is made to prison figures and moral judgement studies (ibid:279; Dawkins, 2007b:258; Harris, 2007a:43-46) it is significant that these atheists are content to show that atheists are no more likely to commit crimes than religious believers, despite more damning evidence that could be utilised (Dennett, 2007:279; Dawkins, 2007a:258 cf. Beit-Hallahmi, 2007). These observations indicate that, in this instance, contemporary atheism makes a concerted effort to maintain the moral high ground, and to avoid relying on violent polemic.

A common theme throughout this critique is religious amorality. There are three levels to this criticism. Firstly, religious teachings do not contain any guidance on many contemporary moral issues (Hitchens, 2008:100). Secondly, religious norms and conventions can lead to the conflation of attending to “one’s own spiritual needs” and “living a morally good life” (Dennett, 2007:306) allowing personal issues to assume greater importance than ‘genuine’ human suffering (Harris, 2007:28). In such cases, “the best that can be said of [believers] is that they manage to stay out of trouble” (Dennett, 2007:306). Finally, Dawkins cites Einstein, denouncing those who are “good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward” (2007b:259 cf. Hitchens, 2008:186). Although few contemporary believers would willingly cede individual moral responsibility, the historical emphasis on morality deriving from religion effectively exempts believers from moral conversation (Dennett, 2007:295), behaviour which itself is seen, at minimum, as amoral.

However, Harris and Hitchens go further, contending that religion is “positively immoral”: religions present “a false picture of the world to the innocent”; they promote “eternal reward and/or punishment”; they impose “impossible tasks and rules”; and they can encourage extreme self-centredness and conceit (Hitchens, 2008:74, 205). By “driv[ing] a wedge between ethics and suffering” religion can promote actions causing suffering, whilst condemning those which may relieve it (Harris, 2006:168-9). As before, it would be counter-productive to list all of the specific instances these authors refer to, but it is significant that they make reference to scripture and to religious leaders, and are not afraid to use religion to attack religion.

A final theme in the atheistic critique of religious morality is that most believers allow personal morals to decide their religious stance. As “all enlightened moderns” reject the rules of Deuteronomy and Leviticus (Dawkins, 2007b:81), so they “are using [their] own moral intuitions to authenticate the wisdom of the Bible” (2007a:49). The authors do not argue that faith has never had a part to play in defining morals (Harris, 2006:78; Dennett, 2007:310), but that morality is natural: “even monkeys will undergo extraordinary privations to avoid causing harm to another member of their species”, and they do this without religion (Harris, 2006:172). The key to the atheist critique of religion is that whilst urges to “altruism, to generosity, to empathy [and] to pity” are “Darwinian mistakes”, they are “blessed, precious mistakes” (Dawkins, 2007b:253) that can be celebrated without believing that Jesus “was born of a virgin or will be returning to earth as a superhero” (Harris, 2007b:25 cf. Dennett, 2007:307, Hitchens, 2008:52).

At this point I should acknowledge parallels between the contemporary atheistic critique and more secularised forms of Christianity. Alister McGrath sums up the ideas of Bishops Robinson and Spong (prominent “Christian atheists”, see the bibliography) as a call to the church to “bring its ideas into line with […]modern culture” and to “ditch its outmoded ideas if it is to survive” (2005:159,163). Thus far, it is clear that contemporary atheism criticises precisely these outmoded ideas, and exhibits a certain antagonism to religious leaders, rather than to religion itself. The representative contemporary atheists each have their own personal relationships with religion. Dawkins speaks of the “affection” he retains for the Church of England (2007b:32fn.), and Hitchens has in the course of his life “been an Anglican, educated at a Methodist school [and] converted by marriage to Greek Orthodoxy” (2008:11,195). Both speak with despair at the present state of the Church of England (ibid:12,16; Dawkins, 2007b:62). Conversely, Harris states that he was “raised in a totally secular home” and God was “really not a subject of conversation”[2], whilst Dennett makes no mention of any religious upbringing in his autobiographical essay (2008a,b,c). Therefore it is not possible on the basis of these biographical details alone to speak of an overarching, anti-clerical, secular Christianity at work. However, they shall prove significant when returning to this issue below (see p.30).

The final two aspects of the contemporary atheistic critique of religion – that it stands in the way of knowledge and progress, and that it fosters a ‘totalitarian’ atmosphere of submission to unquestionable authority – can be considered together. Criticism of the religious impediment of knowledge is twofold. Firstly, religion is perceived as an outdated worldview (Hitchens, 2008:256; Harris, 2006:14, 25) which vehemently opposes progress (Harris, 2006:22; Dawkins, 2007b:319) and is still in the thrall of Martin Luther’s assertion that “reason is the Devil’s harlot” (Hitchens, 2008:63 cf. Dennett, 2007:241; Dawkins, 2007b:323; Harris, 2006:107). Significantly, religious anti-rationality is perceived as selective – science and reason are used when they assist religion in some way (Dawkins, 2007b:83). This selectively anti-science attitude is deplored most strongly when it exerts its influence on health-related issues, where “religious beliefs [can] become genuinely lethal” (Harris, 2007a:28 cf. Ibid:33; 2006:149-150,167; Dawkins, 2007b:327-328; Hitchens, 2008:45,221).

Secondly, “the mists of incomprehension and failure of communication” form an integral part of religion, meaning that religion is perceived as implicitly impeding knowledge (Dennett, 2007:217). By making a virtue of faith, religion encourages satisfaction with not understanding (Dawkins, 2007b:152 cf. Harris, 2006:56; Dennett, 2007:228) and gives certainty “about things no human being could possibly be certain about” (Harris, 2007:67 cf. Hitchens, 2008:122). By deeming a text “gospel truth”, religious leaders foreclose rational inquiry (Dennet, 2007:241), whilst being “incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they’d like to be true” (Dawkins, 2007b:135 cf. Dennett, 2007:228).

These impediments to knowledge and rational inquiry are “enforced” through religion’s authoritarian influence. This influence can be manifested implicitly, through religious ‘guilt’ (Dennett, 2007:292) and the atmosphere of fear surrounding potential causes of offence (cf. Harris, 2007:39); and explicitly, through deliberate interference in people’s lives and aggressive marketing (Hitchens, 2008:17; Harris, 2006:25). This exertion of authority is forcefully demonstrated in the relationship between religion and children: religion practices upon the “unformed and undefended minds of the young” (Hitchens, 2008:217 cf. Dawkins, 2007b:206 cf. 323,348,358), hoodwinking and blindfolding them to ensure conformity (Dennett, 2007:328). Clearly contemporary atheism perceives both an implicit and a consciously explicit authoritarian agenda on the part of religion to limit access to, and acceptance of, scientific knowledge which contradicts aspects of religious faith, or limits the scope and power of its authority.

I hope that I have demonstrated that the contemporary atheistic critique of religion revolves around three key issues. “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. This criticism is integral to the “consciousness raising” enterprise of these atheists, and has great significance when considering their intentions and target audience (see The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda of Contemporary Atheism and The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief). Although non-Christian religions are occasionally criticised, it is implied that Christianity is the main target of this particularly anti-clerical attack. Evidence from individual biographies and a willingness to give Christianity credit where credit is due suggest a latent, sentimental respect, which proves significant in the aforementioned posts.

A full bibliography can be found in my earlier post: The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief.



[1] Harris, 2006:80-107; Dawkins, 2007b:23-4; Hitchens, 2008:173-194; Dennett, 2007:13

[2] http://bigthink.com/samharris (28/03/10, 19:52)

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).