Maybe the New Atheists Need to Read More Literature?

This piece is interesting because the writer is “a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker and Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University. He is regarded as one of the world’s finest and most influential literary critics…” and so comes from a different perspective—and actually a perspective (literary) that I have a great deal of respect for.

“The God of the New Atheism and the God of religious fundamentalism turn out to be remarkably similar entities. For Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, among others, the God most worth fighting against seems to be the hybrid of a cheaply understood Old Testament, a prejudicially scanned Koran, and the sentimentalities of contemporary evangelicalism – He created the world, controls our destinies, resides in heaven, loves us when He is not punishing us, intervenes to perform miracles, sent His only son to die on the cross and save us from sin, and promises goodies in heaven for the devout.”

“God is like the teapot. But it seems to occur neither to Dawkins nor to Russell that belief in God is not like belief in a teapot. The referent – the content of the belief – matters here (as does the metaphor).
God may be just as undisprovable as the teapot, but belief in God is a good deal more reasonable than belief in the teapot, precisely because God cannot be reified, turned into a mere thing, and thus entices our approximations. There is a reason, after all, that no one has ever quite worshipped a teapot: it is not big enough for us to pour the fluid of our incomprehension into.”

“The third weakness is related to the second. The literalist obsession with killing off a literal God, who is only ever seen as a dominating old father up in the sky, brings with it a startling lack of comprehension and sympathy for what William James called ‘the varieties of religious experience.’”

“Since faith is interpreted, again, on the evangelical or Islamic model, as blind – a blind leap of faith that hurls the believer into an infinite idiocy – so no understanding or even interest can be extended to why people believe the religious narratives they follow; little or no understanding can be extended to what so gripped Wittgenstein – that is to say, the loyal, unthinking, relatively undogmatic embeddedness of daily religious practice.”

“I would rather that the New Atheists refrained from speculation altogether than plunge into their flimsy anthropological-quasi-neuroscentific-evolutionary-biological kitbags. It is peculiar indeed to read Dawkins’s superb descriptions of evolution, and then to find that very evolutionary theory being applied in the most hypothetical, rampantly unscientific ways to the question of why we have believed in God for so long.”

Again though, this is a testament to how small the world is of the “new” atheism and how they fall into that same sensibility of religious fundamentalism, creationism, and other radical fringe thinking.

The other very relevant point the writer makes is the fact that the god the new atheists rail against is nowhere to be found or believed in, but perhaps by that small rather pathetic group of people we call fundamentalists. This would be analogous to an adult boasting to his adult friends that he had just bested everyone in his karate class only to learn that everyone in his class was twelve years old. “Look at me everyone; I’m an Oxford Ph.D. who took on a country preacher with a high school diploma—and won!”

Forgive us if we are not impressed.

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