In Britain, Questions for 'New Atheists'

November 29, 2010

The "new atheism" promoted by academics and writers such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens came under fire at a debate this month at the University of Cambridge.

Terry Eagleton, distinguished professor of English literature at Lancaster University, opened the discussion, titled "Responses to the New Atheism." He said that the last time he had spoken at the University of Cambridge’s Great St Mary’s Church was in 1968, during a debate on student radicalism – something, he noted, that we are likely to see a good deal more of.

"Why is God back center stage again?" he asked. "Just when grand narratives seemed to be over, He’s back in the spotlight."

It was the events of September 11, 2001, Professor Eagleton suggested, that brought the issue of religion "to a new focus of intensity and politicised the debate, not entirely to its benefit."

This had led to the erroneous idea that "all faith is blind faith, an abdication of all rationality." Although he had great respect for "the kind of atheism which costs something, where you knowingly reject something," he had none at all for easy "off-the-peg enlightenment."

The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said that he hoped to "clarify terms and bring to the fore religious people’s self-definition – it is always dangerous to define for someone else who they really are." Religion should be seen neither as a survival strategy – it often called upon people to behave in dangerous ways – nor as "an explanation of the funny things that happen in the world – a bad explanation that has been superseded," he said. The new atheism, noted Archbishop Williams, "believes that religion should not exist, perhaps should not be allowed to exist, which makes it very different from other styles of atheism."

Earlier atheist thinkers had raised important challenges to believers about "the internal coherence of faith, notably the problem of evil," he said. But much of the new atheism amounted to "attacks on things that no one I know believes," he added.

Part of the appeal of neo-Darwinism, he claimed, was that it gave people the seductive feeling of "being on the inside track," able to see through what people say to the underlying motives beneath.

This had led to a surprising "eagerness to believe we are automata, not really thinking what we are thinking. One of the things religion brings to public debates is a powerfully non-negotiable sense of human dignity."

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