The Closing of The New Atheist Mind

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Perhaps the oddest feature of New Atheism is its tendency to be shaped by the movements that it implacably opposes. One reason that New Atheist literature rose to prominence was that it offered a radical response to Islamism. This is the view found among some Muslim groups that true religion and a secular society must always be at war. Bloodshed will always follow when the two societies meet; the believer will subjugate the infidel or be subjugated himself.  Now New Atheists might be a tad prickly, and they might call on unbelievers to be a little grumpier in public. But that’s as far as their “call to arms” goes. New Atheists cannot be associated with the violent intolerance of Islamism. How strange, then, to find the New Atheist and the Jihadist agreeing on what Western thought is all about.

 As Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit explain in Occidentalism (Atlantic Books:2004), Islamism typically takes a two-dimensional and caricatured view of the Western mind. To the Islamist (or Jihadist or Islamofacist), Western thought is biased by materialism. Science, for example, is only interested in impersonal particles and the mechanical forces that operate on them; it has no concern with the realm of meaning. Western economies are geared to producing material comfort and have no concern with righteousness. Westerners are obsessed with practical problems, and are always focused on means rather than ends. The individual’s preferences always trump moral concerns. The demands of the modern always triumph over the yearnings of the spiritual.

Given the inherent idolatry of the Western mind the faithful have no choice but to oppose such faithlessness by every means possible. There can, by definition, be no point of compromise between the Sacred and the Secular. If faith is to survive the Western civilization must die; or so the Islamist argues. But the Islamist analysis is merely a perverted reading of a highly selective sample of Western writers. What about the Romantics? The Reformers? What about Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm and Abelard? It is bizarre to suggest that the Western mind has no place for spiritual commitment.

Yet, instead of answering Islamism with a careful analysis of Western thought, the New Atheist accepts the Islamist’s premises.The New Atheist agrees that there is a fundamental conflict between theism and Western thought; the Jihadist has simply picked the wrong side. New Atheists seem to accept that the Jihadist is the pure embodiment of theism. After all, New Atheists insist that the quantitative, empirical methods of scientific investigation are the paradigm of rationality. And because the Semitic religions of the Middle East depend on blind, irrational faith, there can be no room for compromise between the Western Mind and true religion.

To the New Atheist, theology is founded on superstition and expressed in tyranny. Sympathy is expressed for the deluded masses, but religious thought is the “root of all evil”.Religious belief necessarily produces Crusades and Intifadas. AC Grayling is adamant that the only reason that modern Christians no longer engage in terrible Inquisitions is that they no longer have the reigns of power. Leaders violently opposed to organised Religion and obsessed with modernity, like Stalin and Hitler[2], are labelled “religious.” In the New Atheist worldview this must be so, because the Stalinist and Nazi regimes brought about great suffering.

So, in a panicked response to the dangers of religious violence, New Atheism forces false dichotomies on the reader. You can either have religion or rationality; you can either be devout, or you can be tolerant. But Tertullian and Chrysostom were arguing for religious tolerance centuries before the Enlightenment. Philosophers and historians have noted the importance of Christian thought for the very concept of human rights. And from Justin Martyr to the present day, mainstream Christian thought has emphasised and defended the rationality of the Christian faith. The New Atheist is welcome to disagree with all these theologians and scholars; but only blind, prejudiced dogmatism could pretend that they never existed.


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