Reza Aslan on atheist fundamentalism


Reza Aslan (who wrote an excellent history of Islam titled "No god but God") has penned a very nice article for the Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" website about the relationship between the New Atheists and religious fundamentalists. He points out that many of the New Atheists are so zealous in their intolerance of religion (thus resembling religious fundamentalists) that in their zeal they have shown themselves to have little in common prior strain of serious philosophical atheism:

It is no exaggeration to describe the movement popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as a new and particularly zealous form of fundamentalism--an atheist fundamentalism. The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore.This is not the philosophical atheism of Feuerbach or Marx, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche (I am not the first to think that the new atheists give atheism a bad name). Neither is it the scientific agnosticism of Thomas Huxley or Herbert Spencer. This is, rather, a caricature of atheism: shallow scholarship mixed with evangelical fervor.
He goes on to point out that a willful and disdainful ignorance of religion seems to be a consistent characteristic of this movement:
The principle error of the new atheists lies in their inability to understand religion outside of its simplistic, exoteric, and absolutist connotations. Indeed, the most prominent characteristic of the new atheism--and what most differentiates it from traditional atheism--is its utter lack of literacy in the subject (religion) it is so desperate to refute. After all, religion is as much a discipline to be studied as it is an expression of faith. (I do not write books about, say, biology because I am not a biologist.) Religion, however it is defined, is occupied with transcendence--by which I mean that which lies beyond the manifest world and towards which consciousness is oriented--and transcendence necessarily encompasses certain theological connotations with which one ought to be familiar to properly critique belief in a god.
The comment about not writing books about biology without knowing something about the topic is particularly apropos. Many of the New Atheists seem to make a virtue out of not knowing anything about that which they condemn so vehemently; the so-called "Courtier's Reply" argument advanced by PZ Myers is an example of this claim that you don't need to know anything about religion to be able to dismiss it out of hand--and the interesting point is that Myers himself is a biologist who does not take kindly to people ignorant of biology making pronouncements about evolution.

Aslan also points out the fallacy of scientism--the belief that science can step out of its own domain and make pronouncements about subjects that do not fall within the scientific purview--which is to say, the human quest for meaning through religious myth and metaphor:
What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims--be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth--are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science. That may not be a slogan easily pasted on the side of a bus. But it is the hallmark of the scientific intellect.


Honesty said...

Some good points here. I believe Sam Harris dismissed Aslan's article as 'the second most embarrassing article' he has ever read. I am curious to find out why. I think the article is fair with the exception that I don't think Dennett is as extreme as the other three.

Mystical Seeker said...

Honesty, I agree with you that Dennett is not as extreme as the others, but in general I thought Aslan did raise a lot of valid points. I haven't seen Sam Harri's comments on the article, but I am not surprised that he would react that way.