It’s business as usual on the ABC’s Religion & Ethics website

Which means, some dork is echauffing themself about gnu atheists. Got to fill those columns somehow. This time it’s Scott Stephens himself, who obviously needed a topic to write about, and he came up with this complete drivel that I just want to say a few things about. By the way, the comments to his post are rather heartening, and tell me that snakeoil is becoming harder and harder to sell to the Australian public.

In a post titled The poverty of the new atheism, Stephens tells us that the gnus are not like those good old philosopher atheists, like Marx or Hegel, or the Greeks.

What made the atheist tradition proper so potent was its devotion to the tasks of flushing out the myriad idols, often unperceived, that clutter human society, and dismantling all the malign political, economic and sexual uses which those gods were made to serve.

When I look around at what atheists around the world do today, from Barbara Forrest to Dawkins, from Susan Blackmore to Sam Harris, from Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Chris Hitchens, it seems to me to be a lot to do exactly with “dismantling all the malign political, economic and sexual uses which those gods were made to serve”. These to me are the second leg the criticism of religion stands on, so to speak, “religion is used to do bad things in the world”, the first leg being “Where is the evidence that this god you allege really exists”.
After this, it gets silly, apparently to lack belief in gods, one has to be a recluse :

But there was another aspect of this tradition – frequently overlooked and now almost forgotten – that immunized it against the excesses and indiscretions which will almost certainly consign the “New Atheism” to the status of an early twenty-first century fad, like the recent spate of Hollywood remakes.

There seems to have been an innate sense among atheists that the Promethean quest to topple the gods demands a certain seriousness and humility of any who would undertake it. Hence those atheists worthy of the name often adopted austere, chastened, almost ascetic forms of life – one thinks especially of Nietzsche or Beckett, or even the iconic Lord Asriel of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – precisely because our disavowed idolatrous attachment manifest in practices and habits and cloying indulgences, and not simply in beliefs (this was Karl Marx’s great observation about the “theological” dimension of Capital).

“There seems to have been an innate sense” . Where, Scott ? Got a quote handy ? And “worthy of the name”, by whose standards ? Yours ? What nonsense, making up strawmen to knock them down with gusto in the next paragraph.

By comparison, the “New Atheists” look like sensationalist media-pimps: smugly self-assured, profligate, unphilosophical and brazenly ahistorical, whose immense popularity says rather more about the illiteracy and moral impoverishment of Western audiences than it does about the relative merits of their arguments.

Scott asserts it, so it must be true. Again, no quotes, no examples, just polemic rhetoric. The hot air balloon is taking off. So if someone is popular, that means that person’s audience must be illiterate ? I can’t believe someone can write such drivel and get paid for it.

Then he quotes Marx to somehow make a point that the gnus practice “Atheism lite” :

“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusion. The criticism of religion is therefore the germ of the criticism of the valley of tears whose halo is religion.”

His point is that religion acts as a veil draped across the cold severity and injustice of life, making our lives tolerable by supplying them with a kind of “illusory happiness.” Hence, for Marx, religion is a palliative. But tear away the illusion, remove those narcotic fantasies to which people cling and from which they derive a sense of contentment, and they will be forced to seek out true happiness through justice and self-determination.

I don’t see many gnu atheists disagree with that, it’s pretty obvious. So what was the point again ?

By failing to pursue the critique of religion into the sanctum of global capitalism itself, by reducing discussion of morality to a vapid form of well-being and personal security, and by failing to advocate alternate forms of virtuous community – all in the name of “reason” – they[the new atheists] end up providing the pathologies of capitalism with a veneer of “commonsense” rationality.

However noble the goals of the “New Atheism” may be, armed with nought but an impoverished form of commonsense rationality (of which Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape and the rather unwieldy The Australian Book of Atheism are the most opprobrious examples I’ve yet seen – but more on these books in a later piece) it is simply not up to the task of confronting the idols and evils of our time.

So let me get this straight. His complaint is that the gnu atheists are popular, and that they are not Marx, and should rather be fighting capitalism or something. And because they are not doing that enough in Scott’s view, they are cynical and atheists lite.
I’m still not hearing an argument for the existence of gods. Isn’t that what would clear the matter up once and for all, rather than whining sophisticatedly about atheists’ tone and perceived superficiality ?

Christianity and atheism have been intertwined from the very beginning, such that their relationship is rather like two sides of a Moebius strip – follow one side far enough and you suddenly find yourself on the other.

What nonsense. Humans were atheists, then animists( are they still technically atheists ?), then shamanists, then polytheists, and so forth. The Christian sect was just another one that atheist humans encountered down the track, Scott is overestimating the relevance of his own religious club.

By continuing to ignore its debt to the Christian intellectual and moral revolution, and by severing itself from the profoundest insights of its own tradition, the “New Atheism” will find it impossible to avoid becoming a fad, a pseudo-intellectual trifle.

There is no such debt. The Christian cult owes mankind an apology for the Dark Ages, for child rape, STD spread, teen pregnancies, and most religious conflicts on this planet today. And it will hopefully soon enough fade into irrelevance. Those meanie gnu atheists are working on it, Scott. I’m sure Marx would approve.

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