Dimming the Brights? The Debris of the Dawkins Revolution

There used to be two kinds of atheists: those who lost their faith and those who never found it. The kind who never found it–people like Isaac Asimov and Richard Feynman–had fathers who actually never encouraged their kids to think there was anything to find.

Those who had it and lost it–people like Steve Allen, Julia Sweeney, Seth MacFarlane and George Carlin–seem to have been equipped by their church for a life of infidelity and enough material to last a lifetime.

There are atheists who came from the fields of course: the World Wide Church of God seems to be doing its share to produce them, and the nuttiest of the nutty brood will probably spin off dozens more by natural selection. Fundamentalism has been helpful in producing outrageous opinion and claims that have sent rational minds screaming from the congregation, and they deserve some credit for this.

The lesson in this highly informal typology is that “strong” religion seems to produce more unbelievers than mainline “soft” religion, for the same reason that oysters produce pearls. It’s the “grate factor.” –I hope I haven’t offended too many Episcopalians by saying that they are not doing a good job in this respect: the fact is, they are out in front on a number of social issues that wouldn’t be substantially improved by their becoming atheists. “God” is a small (very small in some cases) price to pay for social progessivism.

There is however a new wave of atheism, neither alienated Jew, Catholic, fundamentalist nor profoundly secular from birth. It worries me just a little–though it–the wave–is young, pretty smart, highly sociable and will probably vote for Democrats. That is reason enough in my book to go easy on it. After all, there are enough yahoos out there in Wonderland to worry about without offending our friends. For that reason, it doesn’t worry me very much.

New wave atheism follows in the wake of the Dawkins Revolution and book tours that featured the so called New Atheists–but especially Dawkins himself. I don’t think for a moment that other new atheists aren’t charismatic, but of the lot, Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who is the Hume and Dr Johnson of our time rolled up into one, take the prize for saying the kinds of things, in the right accent, that sound authoritative because they’re said in the tropes of Oxford, whence cometh our hope.

The bad reviews of The God Delusion and God is Not Great stressed that theologians had been having the conversation about classical arguments for the existence of God for a hundred years and had, basically, laid them to one side. They stressed that liberal and radical theology had long since moved beyond the ossified categories of Christian thinking: that no smart person took the Bible literally anymore. Aquinas? Who needs him? Ontology? Eleventh century stuff. Hadn’t theologians, the critics raged, especially in America and England, been using the term “post-Christian” for a generation? Perhaps, but almost no one had paid attention because no one reads theology except divinity school students and other theologians.

No one in any position to cause sales to jump was reading the “professional” books where radical theology had given up on God. And even if ordinary readers had read it, there was the honest sense that if you are at the point of saying that your theology is post-Christian, that Jesus is not the son of God, that miracles are hooey, and that the Bible contains ideas that have been retardant in our culture–you really ought to pack your bags and go away.

There was something elementally refreshing about seasoned scholars and journalists taking on the absurdity of some of the classical argumentation as though they had just discovered it, which for the most part they had. The criticism–which I made on this site as well–that journalists and scientists may not–odd to say–be especially well-qualified to talk about religion seemed petulant and jealous, which of course it was. Who wouldn’t rather have written The God Delusion than Defeasible Assumptions in Plantinga’s Epistemological Reliabilism Argument. I know I would.

So this is not really about getting to be an atheist by shortcutting: not all of us can have a radical Jewish father who wants to keep us away from Torah, or a run-in with Sister Mary Margaret (when there were Sister Mary Margarets) over the plausibility of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. (I was expelled for rolling my eyes).

It is about a rapid relocation of attitudes: people who have made a fairly quick progression from some belief (or not much of anything) to atheism without having at least some of the same background as the New Atheists themselves. It is about the danger of any kind of hero worship and fan-clubbism substituting for a critical assessment of sources. It is, frankly, about idolatry.

The conversation reminds me most of feminism, or rather the divide between first generation feminism and where we are now. The survivors of the sixties and seventies who broke down walls, challenged a sexist system, broke through ceilings and populated professional schools and academic departments with members of their own sex are now confronted with women who either don’t know the story or only know it as yawnable history. The world they have come to inhabit is not the world their grandmothers (yes, grandmothers) fought for. Judging from the number of African American Republicans maybe the same is true of that community: memory is short.

But the dues-paying comparison doesn’t work perfectly.  There are doubtless atheists out there who feel they earned their right to disbelief.  But a strong tranche of movement-atheists would argue that it doesn’t matter how you get there, just so you get there. There are no dues to pay. Atheism is not built on the abuse, bones and ashes of courageous predecessors, as was the case with the women’s movement or civil rights. If you get there from reading market paperbacks or children’s stories by Philip Pullman (who is a friend, by the way) or a couple of titles by Dawkins, so be it. It will do.

What matters to movement-atheists are the numbers, getting that meager 5% or 6% of professed unbelievers up to 10 or 15 percent– where it can claim some political advantage, and not be relegated to the irrelevance that has always been the lot of American atheism. As a movement, the American idolatry of the British atheist “style” has helped–so much so that bus campaigns and bumper stickers are now studiously modeled after the campaigns of the British Humanist Asociation, which itself promotes and benefits from the work of Dawkins and his comrades.

I feel terrible quibbling about this because soon enough it sounds like a quibble about being a good Catholic or a bad Catholic. Do you go to Mass Sundays? Great. Wednesdays and Fridays too? Even better. Hate abortion to the point you’ll march and picket? Best. It ought to be a cardinal tenent of the tenentless philosophy called atheism that no such gradients should arise within the movement. As in Islam, you really only have to believe one thing–or rather, disbelieve it.  In that sense, atheism is or ought to be a settled or definitive position, without qualification–like being pregnant, not like being a Presbyterian.  Atheists often write to tell me that I confuse their exquisitely simple position about God with more comprehensive philosophies like humanism, where gradients are possible.  Yet exquisitely simple atheism has long been the sine qua non of movement humanism, especially in England.

But my quibble is not with cynical efforts to jack up the numbers or the promotion of heroes as magnets to the cause. That’s the way movements work.  It’s the way religious denominations work as well, and they haven’t had a hero for a very long time.

My concern is over the fact that many of the idolaters are now not reading the sources of their distress, not really aware of any but the most contemporary reference points in their estimate of a fundamental religious question.  It is a destination without a journey behind it.

The Bible is considered toxic, in toto; religion, a long history of superstition, distress, and violence–even some of the art, music and literature of the western tradition, expendable expressions of priestcraft and supernaturalism.  In the most extreme cases, the present is regarded as having a juridical role to play toward the past, when people believed silly things.  History becomes a series of mistakes with respect to scientific outcomes and has nothing to teach us but the error of our ways.  What has been tainted by religion is not worth our time, not worth investigating because our vantage point makes it ridiculous. When this attitude takes hold, it is not just God who is disbelieved in: it is culture.

At this point, the debris of the Dawklins revolution becomes problematical on two counts. On the one hand, it permits the new wave atheist to reduce everything to a single proposition: God does not exist; and then to evaluate the entire history of western civilization according to an opinion that has been reinforced by similar opinions but never really tested against the sources. The opinion that God does not exist is an important one. It deserves scrutiny. But it does not deserve doctrinal security as though infallibly propounded by a secular pope.

We cannot cast off the literary and artistic history of our civilization, from Plato to Nato and Bible to Blues without knowing at least a little something about the creators.

In 2002, a number of students enrolled in my course in Civilization Studies at the American University of Beirut walked out of the classroom, in a staged protest, as we began to examine the book of Genesis. It was a book that had been excluded for a dozen years from the syllabus because it raised the temperature during the long Lebanese Civil War. I had made it plain that the story was a story; that some people thought it was historical, but that scholarship had shown it was a typical Near Eastern creation myth with a half dozen well preserved cousins from earlier in the millennium. But my careful historical framing was of no consequence. The students who protested were not Muslims; they were Lebanese Christians who regarded the Old Testament (which of course is in their Bible too) as “Israeli” propaganda.

The point is, of course, that an educated and informed atheism is a very desirable perspective. But an atheism that depends on the authority of others is no better than the political opinion that excuses Arab Christians from knowing something about the ancient history of the part of the planet they occupy.  Unfortunately for the new wave,  atheism has a long history–one that goes back far before 2005.


Matthew Arnold used the term Philistine to describe a set of values prominent among people who despised or undervalued art, beauty, and intellectual content. Despite his problematical approach to the Bible, which was neither credulous nor entirely respectful, he retained it as a key text in his educational canon.

The worst trait of the Philistine as Arnold painted him was his materialism, the preference for quick and easy fixes, a mass produced painting instead of a developed aesthetic sense.

Quick fix atheism is that kind of atheism. I think it needs to be worried about ever so little.

29 thoughts on “Dimming the Brights? The Debris of the Dawkins Revolution

  1. The short memory issues are problems on all fronts. What about the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy?

    As a side note, I like Kurtz’s post and I think it’s interesting to explore the point of religion by virtue of the data. I also think that many progressive movements seem like practical atheists or at least relative skeptics that kept the banner of a belief rather than alienate their goals. But I’m slightly concerned when the non believing folk and the believing types that value genuine education want a longer view of history because I worry that while we’re taking twenty years to learn our history correctly, we’re being contradicted at the polls by kids raised for holy wars.

    I do think history puts things into perspective. And I do like research. Can we make that more canonical?

  2. Wonderfully written with beautiful clarity, and I agree with every word. In your irrestibly witty and lyrical style, you’ve provided an incisive review of the failings and prejudices of atheists, and even religious people, in understanding history and their mistaken casting off of entire traditions. Education hopefully is the solution, the humanistic sort, with appreciation of the rich and vibrant literary and artist treasures inspired by faiths. I hope the end of ignorance is at hand. But if they’re going to vote as we would like, we have to tread gently, as if on embroidered cloths, it’s my dream. If only it could be a ‘quick fix’ – but then I might worry it wasn’t careful and accurate and thorough.

    I’m still laughing at the expressions -“atheism is or ought to be a settled or definitive position, without qualification–like being pregnant, not like being a Presbyterian”, the rolling of eyes at Mary assumed and the frightful prospect of writing God Delusions at all.


  3. There is however a new wave of atheism, neither alienated Jew, Catholic, fundamentalist nor profoundly secular from birth. It worries me just a little–though it–the wave–is young, pretty smart, highly sociable and will probably vote for Democrats.

    Really? It worries you just a little? You mention it more than just a little!

    And the new wave is by no means all young and pretty. This isn’t generational, not yet. The new wave isn’t like 3d wave feminism – it’s like 2d wave feminism, which also was not just young and pretty.

    And why is it just fathers who influence children?

    Other than that – I agree with every syllable and I want to hump your leg.

    • No, the new wave is not all young and pretty but those are the ones I deal with the most. They even have good intentions, just not much on the bookshelf. They think avoidance of texts is an adequate response to their belief (and that’s its status) that atheism answers questions about religion that haven’t been asked yet. I call that philistinism, but I might simply have called it righteous ignorance. I maintain–and I do talk about it a bit–that the “cure” for religiosity is not more science (which many of born again gnus aren’t into anyway), it’s to study religion, and alas, that means reading the sources, doing a little textual analysis, a lot of archaeology and some serious history. I dare say you can be an atheist without doing any of those things. It certainly doesn’t exclude scientific and psychological theories about religion (I’ve been giving a course on the psychology of religion once a year whenever I can squeeze it in, including this semester), but it has to start with a knowledge base, not the summary rejection of it. Not sure where I say only fathers influence children; is that the implication of naming two Jewish boys? (When I could have named three).

  4. The fathers who didn’t encourage their sons were specifically identified with the fathers of two men growing up in the American pre feminist 1920s. A father’s influence on his son was assumed back then. Above, it seems an intentional specification to demonstrate its anachronism. As a fluffy rabbit might say, humph.

  5. Two Jewish boys nearly a century ago, both had a Jewish father. These fathers didn’t encourage their sons to think their was faith to find. If the third Jewish boy had been Jesus, you’d have to really specific about which abba. One did encourage his son, some with the ‘faith’ would say, and while the other one might have, but we can’t be sure.

  6. This is the whole issue. It seems to me that John Hicks verdict on scripture, that “unbelief” was “psychologically unimaginable” in the biblical era is nonsense. Maybe because it was for Hick. Where did Pslam 14.1 come from–dear to Anselm and the “denier,” Guanilo? And frankly Job comes close. Why do we think that even the fiercest freethinkers and skeptics like Paine and Voltaire, not to mention the intuitive poets of the 19th century, sensed that Jesus should not be confused with his story and would have resisted election to the trinity? There’s a sense in which Jesus should be a hero to skeptics because he was skeptical of virtually every religious tradition of his day, which in my view is the strongest case for his historical existence: social memories and disaggregated, unidentified gentile networks don’t develop such attitudes about the Hebrew God eo ipso. Why would they/ Something is remembered, and the most efficient explanation is Jesus the iconoclast who ran afoul of Jewish orthodoxy and by default Roman authority. [wait for the book]

  7. That’s exactly why I said ‘we can’t be sure’. I think he very likely doubted, otherwise why would the references be left in? Mack himself is an iconoclast and something of a primadona too. His regrettable influence from association with the Jesus Seminar and dependence on a mythical document so called Q and various other untested assumptions are a big fail in my book. I’ve persuaded recently by the Crossley / Casey articulation of ‘tuv’, returning to Torah ,with controversy being over Pharisaic expansion and misinterpretation of traditional Law. However I can be persuaded with better argument. And what is first century Jewish ‘orthodoxy’? Detailed observation of halakhah as it is today? There wasn’t a term that’s all. There’s a discussion about that in ‘from Jewish Prophet to Gentile God’ – don’t know if I agree with it all necessarily though.

  8. We have what we have and we know where some of it came from. Scholars are still very reluctant to acknowledge that the best testimony to the possession of any gospel is the one possessed by a heretic; did Marcion dejudaize him? or did an early stratum of church tradition symbolized by M judaize him? Are we really certain Paul didn’t know a “gospel” just because he doesn’t quote from one, pr was there a community of scribblers led by Monsieur M. who took on the job of repairing the scraps they had access to? The point is we need a whole new paradigm and not to get hung up on the archaeology of Q. I know you agree: it is a huge distraction that has its roots finally in the same kind of failed logic that drove the Jesus Seminar onto the rocks with scarcely a saying left intact. It was the ultimate act of self-destructive critical terrorism of the XX century and I wrote my own obituary of it in 1994! {which i cannot find an online version of damn it] http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/hoff357903.shtml is fun though.

    • Yes you know I agree wholeheartedly. The Qers and other simple hypothesisers have a similar effect on me as the conspirators. I am passionately devoted to disposing of them, in a way I suppose. But don’t they know they’re already dead? No! They don’t read their own obituaries and they ignore other scholarship especially when it comes from the other side of the world (and Tuckett locks himself up in Oxford). Casey’s made a good start on how it started I think with Jesus of Nazareth and Crossley’s work, when he doing NT that is, fits in too. I’m skeptical about a ‘community’ of scribblers, but think it’s very likely plenty of people scribbled a bit. Lots of things suggest this… And yes, its even quite probably I think that Paul knew a version of Mark. He was writing letters to different churches with specific things in mind – why would he quote from a ‘bios’ of Jesus? I’m looking forward to the revision of Marcion (and the rest!) – such an important heretic about whom so little is known and we have you now as the world’s sole specialist in fact. And I should have said (but have before) metanoia was probably I think derived from the verb ‘tuv’.

  9. o – obituary to that! Thank you for the link! That’s a beautiful obituary, fun celebration of a death. Ironically it was in 1994 that I first bought a second hand copy of that book. I thought it extremely peculiar but fascinating back then, that there ever was such a debate at all. Casey’s ’91 book was basically ignored because it went against the conservative view. And then in ’96 ‘is john’s gospel true?’ was ignored too, and regrettably this last decade has seen a revival of the historicity of that fourth gospel. There is alot that’s not very critical in NT scholarship. Anyway I love your obituary. I wish my Q thing could be an obituary too.

  10. Orthodoxy – I remember Maurice told me he had many discussions with Prof Seth Kunin (very profound structural anthropologist Jewish atheist rabbi now at Durham, then at Nott) who argued that the term shouldn’t be read back into first century, but in the end they couldn’t come up with a better analytical term. Maurice defined it in ‘Jewish prophet’ as an expansion of halakhah to cover all aspects of life (Dunn got him wrong and misrepresented him) – and that expansion was what Jesus opposed according to the references to attitudes to Jewish Law explored more closely by James Crossley.

  11. Sorry to be jerk, Steph, but that’s “Primo Uomo” for dear Burton; he is. after all. a man just as your are a beautiful woman(:

    • That was actually the point – it was supposed to be the feminine to encapsulate the theatrical and effeminate character. And I was repeating the words of a former colleague of mine, whose reflection it was several years ago, when Burt and he were fellow fellows of the JS. Scot. Dear.

      • Drama Queen was another image applied – I got the impression he wasn’t very popular with all who sat at the pretentiously ‘egalitarian’ table. You’re not being a jerk – it’s very commendable to be accurate and pedantic about detail.

  12. My attempt to be “accurate and pedantic about detail”: The Origins story: The Jesus tradtiion began with two denominatios: First the Jeruslem Jesus Movement led first by the key desciples Peter, james and John, understanding Jesus’ significance in his sayings. Soon followed by a group of hellenists Jews who with their traditions of dying and rising heroes or gods, took up the notion that the death and resurrection constituted a proper sacrifice to the righteous God allowing him in justice to forgive and accept sinful humanity. The two were chacterized as being in deep opposition one to the other. The Hellenists notion claimed that it abrogated the Jewish Torah, for temple authorities this was treason. The Acts story of the stoning of Stephen, a hellenist Jew, may be taken as a put-down by temple authorities. Paul is introduced as a participant holding the garments of those casting the stones. The hellenist group was driven out of Palestine ending up in Demascus. Paul,”on the road” as persecutor, after his “vision”, tells us he received his gospel from these Hellenists. Paul took his gospel (the Christ of the passion story) to the Gentiles severing the Jesus of the Jesus Movement from its sayings and its Jewish roots. The Jesus Movement was never labeled Christian. Thus Ogden: None of the writings of the NT is apostolic witness, thus not reliable saurces for Jesus reconstruction. The rest is familiar tradition.

  13. That is some story. I’m skeptical about it’s ‘accuracy’ and pedanticism, but I suspect it lacks clarity as it is without sufficient argument or evidence.

  14. Steph, Having read the “some story”, given here in part, at least read the entire story as I have offered it in my letter of March 24, 2009 to Joe posted as comments to: The Importance of the Historical Jesu: A Jesus Project Quidblet stated largely in the words of three of the academies top authorities with further arguments offered by Merrill Miller. (All accepted as authorities by most NT scholars). Kindly name your major points of skepticism or lack of argument. I may just have something more to offer.

  15. No. Your original comment which I read long ago, is no longer available and I do not have time or the desire to trawl through Joe’s archives to find your other various references to your origins story, as none of them impressed me anyway. You keep quoting your three favourite scholars. From memory they are Robinson (dependent on “Q”, as well as being a co-editor of “The” so called “Critical Edition”), Betz (various inherited flaws and dependent on a variation of Q) and Ogden who is in any case a theologian, not a historian. They are certainly not accepted as authorities unquestioned by most NT scholars. Your story is a summary of what some people think. I see no reason to respond to your summary which has no argument or evidence. This is a comment on a post about something else on Joe’s blog. I can’t ‘name’ a lack of argument as I can’t name something that doesn’t exist. While some scholars name a non existent document, “Q”, I won’t make the same mistake.

    • T To your comment “your original comment is no longer available” I just entered the named essay all 13 comments remain. Could you have possibly made an error? Of course since it is about “something that does not exist” it can be b ignored.
      With temerity I again name my three favorite scholars to say: I try to imagine Joe having held Ogden as “once my intellectural hero”, but one who was only a theologian, apparently meaning one whose Jesus sensibilities are derived solely from theological statements – irrespective of his critical conclusion that none of the writings of the NT is reliable witness to the HJ. Then the qauestion raised by Joe’s judgment in naming Robinson as senior consultant for TJP, a scholar dependent on Q and co-editor of the so-called critical edition” – like Betz but further Betz one who inherited flaws – over against Joe’s April, 2009 letter to me saying in effect: yes Betz has much to offer, I will recommend to my collegues that he be included on TJP. Or is it barely possible that you have inherited some erroneous assumption to slant your relgious judgments?

      • My my – that lacks clarity and coherence. It might surprise you, I know, but I actually agree with Joe. If Joe finds your comments of interest I’m sure he will respond. And the Jesus Project (R.I.P) is at rest in peace and dead.

    • Seth,
      Go to the essay: The Importance of the Historical Jesus: A Jesus Project Quodlibet, the first 13 Comments. Several are but reactions to the 4 day delay in publishing the Lette,thus to be ignored

      • I saw that. But the history of the Jesus Movement isn’t directly related to atheists and the Dawkins revolution. Despite the fact that Jesus is one of the things one might believe in and not be an atheist, I think we can agree that it’s possible to get to the stance of non-belief rather quickly if a debate must be undertaken.

        In short, you have some sort of theistic position that you’re alluding to but you haven’t just out and out said it. I don’t want to short change what you think but I’m going to need your help to figure out what your position is.

  16. “My concern is over the fact that many of the idolaters are now not reading the sources of their distress, not really aware of any but the most contemporary reference points in their estimate of a fundamental religious question. It is a destination without a journey behind it.”

    This exact statement could be equally made about religious believers. I rarely encounter a lay Christian with even a basic Biblical literacy.

    I would also say that atheism is a starting point, not a destination. It’s home plate. It’s the default. I did not arrive at atheism, I never left it (despite a Catholic school upbringing…I realized at an early age that I was incapable of religious faith).

    Atheism is not a conclusion, not an answer to a question, not the end of a process. It doesn’t have to be worked out. It doesn’t have to be earned or learned. It has no content. It is an absence. It is NOT being pregnant. Atheism is an ideology like abstinence is a sexual position. No one needs to “earn the right” to not believe in gods any more than they have to earn the right to lack a belief in werewolves.

    I feel like your essay is analogous to somebody escaping from an oppressive country to a free one, then complaining that many of the natives didn’t have to do anything to earn their own freedom.

    I have noticed that the most strident, armband atheists seem to be deconverted from strident, armband religious traditions. The ones who deconvert from laid back or indifferent traditions (or households with relaxed/indifferent attitudes about it) tend to be laid back atheists.

    As a long time moderator on a prominent atheist message board rife with mythicists, I’ve often found it striking how similar some of the mythicist areguments and assumptions are to fundamentalist apologists. I see the same need for Historical Jesus to be synonymous with Gospel Jesus.

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