Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Difficult Atheism, or Beyond the New Atheism

As many have pointed out, the New Atheism is remarkably old-fashioned. It shares the touching faith of 19thC 'infidels' that secular intellectuals can make a clean break with the religious past, erecting a new philosophy that owes nothing to faith and everything to Reason.

The New Atheists have made plenty of converts among the general reading public, but they are failing to convince secular intellectuals. We are seeing the emergence of more conflicted styles of atheism that frankly acknowledge the religious roots of modern thought. Examples abound. Germany's leading philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, has argued that many of the values of European liberal democracy have Christian sources. The English philosophers, John Gray and Simon Critchley, maintain that post-Enlightenment political ideals owe much to Christian doctrines like original sin, millennialism, providence. Within contemporary French philosophy, as Chris Watkins shows in his book, Difficult Atheism (2011), there is an ongoing debate about what a genuinely post-theological atheism would look like, or whether it's even possible. The literary critic, James Wood (who was raised among Anglican charismatics in Oxford) has written in the New Yorker that ‘What is needed is a theologically engaged atheism, that resembles disappointed belief.’ At a more populist level, writers like Alain de Botton are thinking about how to create Religion for Atheists (2012).

What separates these writers from the New Atheists is a strong sense of history - an appreciation that religion is a constitutive element of human cultures across history, and that it has continued to flow into the values of a 'secular' age. When atheists get history, they get religion.

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