Comment 20 by Cartomancer (quoting Alister McGrath)

Easter is a time for celebration and reflection for Christians. How do the Cross and Resurrection of Christ help to make sense of the ambiguities of our experience? How do they shape our understanding of the world, and our place within it?

They don't. There, saved you all the effort. Now you can concentrate on the important things like time off work and chocolate eggs instead.

For many Christians such traditional reflections now take place against an unsettling debate about the place of religion in public life.

Good. They deserve to be unsettled and shaken up. They've got away with being fat and complacent and intellectually lazy for far too long. People nourishing infantile wish-fulfilment delusions in the public sphere should not be allowed to get away without being called out on it.

What disquiets people are not the questions but their dismissive and aggressive tone.

No, it's the questions that disquiet religious people. They disquiet religious people so much that they have to pretend that we're being aggressive and strident and shrill in order to avoid having to answer them, because they know deep down that we're right, and there isn't any serious debate to be had anymore. And dismissive? Sure, of course we're dismissive - just as dismissive of god belief as we are of fairy belief and goblin belief and alien abduction belief and the belief that the emperor is wearing clothes. Not being dismissive of such things is a sign of a crippling inability to process evidence properly.

Cultural discussions about the reasonableness of belief in God have gone on politely (if inconclusively) for centuries.

They did indeed. Anselm and Aquinas were very polite in their abstract musings on whether the existence of god could be proved by reason alone. Except that their view held that, even if it couldn't, you should still believe it anyway on blind faith. Unfortunately a few centuries later some people started not believing in gods at all. The church became very polite at this point. Crushingly, maimingly, burningly, agonizingly polite in fact. So polite you'd die. As PZ says, the definition of a "New Atheist" is "any atheist the catholic church can't legally set on fire anymore".

The recent rise of what is now (inaccurately) called the “New Atheism” has changed all this — at least, in the short term. For the fashionable few, rubbishing faith has become a mark of cultural sophistication.

So inaccurate is the term that McGrath uses it routinely, enthusiastically, repeatedly and without a hint of dissociation. Indeed, I seem to recall that he was one of the first to do so and may very well have invented the term...

And no, it's not a mark of cultural sophistication, it's a mark of basic intellectual capacity. And since when did atheism become "fashionable", or the preserve only of a few? In Britain at least we're something like 60% nonbelievers according to the surveys.

Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain to Harvard University, is one of many secularists to express alarm at the ridicule and contempt that he found in some recent atheist writings, such as Christopher Hitchen’s God is not Great (2007). Their aggressive anti-theism, he argued, set out “to shame and embarrass people away from religion, browbeating them about the stupidity of belief in a bellicose god.”

Deep Rifts! Deep Rifts! And how dare we try to make those widdle christians and muslims and jews embarrassed about their beliefs! Perhaps if those beliefs weren't so deeply stupid and embarrassing in the first place this tactic wouldn't be so useful, effective and powerful...

And it's not just the bellicose god we think is stupid, it's the lot of them, including the vague, mushy, incoherent one you believe in Mr. McGrath. In fact belief in that one is even more stupid and embarrassing, because it takes a massive effort of creative sophistry to support it.

This tactic represents a move away from some older forms of atheism, which appealed to evidence-based arguments and insisted on respect for religious belief. Slick soundbites took precedence over what were often ponderous and inconclusive arguments.

So we don't appeal to evidence-based arguments now, despite the fact that pretty much the foundational argument we come back to again and again is "there isn't any evidence for the existence of gods", and the fact we constantly laud and deeply admire science and the evidence-based scientific method? And it's soundbites over long arguments despite the fact that the main touchstones of what is called "New Atheism" are four several hundred page books packed with nothing but reasoned arguments? That sounds suspiciously like a slick soundbite to me...

And as for the arguments being inconclusive, nothing could be further from the truth. The existence of gods was definitively shown to be nonsensical centuries if not millennia ago. The debate has moved on now - from whether gods exist, and even from whether belief in them can be dangerous and harmful, to how best to diminish, remove and discourage such belief. We won the metaphysical and scientific argument ages ago, the one that remains is the social and political one.

Where some seemed to think that the New Atheism would achieve closure on the question of God, the reverse seems to have happened. Cultural interest in God and religion has resurged.

In the 1960s, as the sociologists William Bainbridge and Rodney Stark noted, “the most illustrious figures in sociology, anthropology and psychology” believed that they “would live to see the dawn of a new era in which, to paraphrase Freud, the infantile illusions of religion would be outgrown.”

A generation later political debate in western Europe — the most secular geopolitical region in the world — now routinely addresses such topics as how best to work with faith groups, and how faith may generate social cohesion.

This gets it entirely the wrong way round. Richard and co. are on record, in many, many interviews (and even in the introductions to their books and TV programmes themselves) as saying that they wrote the books largely in RESPONSE to the curious resurgence of religious sentiment during the 90s and 2000s. McGrath is trying to suggest that the resurgence came after, as a response to the books, not the other way around. And yes, of course it's in the most secular part of the world that the most debate about how to deal with religious groups happens - in non-secular (i,e, religiously partisan) areas, there isn't any debate because the religious authorities stifle it, dictate their own favourable terms for preferred religions and try to suppress and oppress others.

Society has not bought into the New Atheism’s analysis of the intrinsically “pathological” role of religion or its “God is a delusion” soundbites.

An awful lot of it has. Almost everyone I know is an atheist, and while not as openly and fulsomely derisive of religion as I am, none of them has a good word to say about it. I suspect that one can only maintain such a view that British society rejects atheism when one is a professor of theology and spends most of one's time around believing christian theologians, as McGrath does.

For the New Atheists it is obvious that religious extremism was behind 9/11, so why, they ask, did Barack Obama praise faith in his election campaign?

Because the overtly jihadist rhetoric of both the hijackers and the middle-eastern response wasn't an obvious enough clue I suppose? And yes, we have asked the question, because we rather like asking questions and prefer not to just assume the world works in a simplistic way like McGrath does. But it's not a very difficult one to answer, since the political and social culture of America has always been sodden with religious sentiment. ALL presidents of recent times have praised faith, because they know a large chunk of their voters would be dissuaded if they didn't. What's more surprising is that Obama is the first to have mentioned and praised those WITHOUT faith in his speeches. If you're talking US political rhetoric he's about the most secular one they've had.

In 2009 the atheist Julian Baggini, author of the excellent Very Short Introduction to Atheism, made two fundamental criticisms of the New Atheism. First, it is characterised primarily by its attacks on religion, rather than by its own positive beliefs.

Oh please. The War on Straw continues apace - soon there might not be any strawmen left. I get mightily annoyed when people say that Gnu Atheist writings are primarily destructive and lack their own positive values and beliefs. The God Delusion is filled with appeals to the explanatory value of the scientific method and humane, secular social policy. God is Not Great waxes lyrical on the importance of enlightenment values. Pretty much everything AC Grayling writes includes a paeon to humanism and progressive ethics, Sam Harris has recently written a whole, controversial book on deriving positive values from science, and one of PZ's hobbyhorses in recent years has been the fact that atheism always sits within a network of positive values and beliefs, and the "it's only a dictionary definition" idea is facile and obfuscatory.

In fact, if we look at older atheist material, such as Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian, or the writings of Nietzche, we find far less on positive values and far more on the technical, "combative" logical demolitions of religious belief. If anything what characterises "New Atheism" is the INCLUSION of so much stuff on how it is possible, desirable and necessary to live a complete life along secular, humanistic, freethinking lines. New Atheism is, if anything, triumphal atheism, holistic atheism, all-inclusive atheism, and the reason we're so passionate about spreading it is that can we see how patently superior it is on a social and cultural level to religious ideas.

Secondly, its exponents seem to think they have a monopoly on reason. It cultivates “the impression that only through stupidity or crass disregard for reason could anyone be anything other than an atheist.” For Baggini, belief is God is based on reason and evidence. So is atheism. The debate concerns which is the better explanation, not who is deluded.

We don't have a monopoly on the use of reason and evidence, but the conclusions we derive are the only ones you can derive if you're using them properly. That's the thing about reason and evidence - they point definitively in one direction (or, if they don't, we remain undecided). It's not that theists don't use reason and evidence, that's not where they're going wrong, it's that into the use of reason and evidence they introduce faith, personal feelings, emotional appeals, wishful thinking and a reverence for authority. You can't do that and expect reason and evidence to give good answers in the same way you can't expect a car to work well if you fill the petrol tank with treacle, tie the fenders to a cattle grid and charge the battery from a box of spoons.

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