Our new atheists are a remarkable bunch. As Dawkins, Hitchens, Pullman etc. ride a wave of popular secularism fueled by resentment against priestly paedophilia and a fear of fundamentalism of any religious form they attempt to give the impression of being freedom loving, clear thinking men and women at the cutting edge of intellectual argument. Yet if we read their books we look in vain for anything fresh.
Dawkins for example is marvelous when writing on science; passionate and almost lyrical he can actually move the reader emotionally when he discusses the wonders of the working of creation. However, when he moves out of his subject area into philosophy he comes across as a strident fourth-former seeking the attention of the teacher by being outrageous. When he comes to theology his level of knowledge, never mind understanding, is just plain abysmal for an intelligent man. It is difficult to take seriously the attacks of a man who himself does not take theology seriously enough to try to understand it.
Read Dawkins and the others and you come away disappointed by the sheer lack of intellectual engagement with the subject. You will fail to encounter a single fresh, challenging or novel point. Just the same old tired arguments and jibes which have been countered endlessly before.
There is however, one novel aspect of their work, its tone. For them belief in God is not just a matter of failing to understand intellectually the possibilities of creation; it is stupidity, something to be held in disdain, the outcome of feeble minds frightened of engaging with the greater reality. It is not too strong to say that their work is marked by undisguised contempt. We encounter not so much a rational argument as a sustained sneer.
ProfessorSir Bernard Williams, himself a secular humanist, wrote:
“The people I really do dislike are the morally unimaginative kind of evolutionary reductionists who in the name of science think they can explain everything in terms of our early hominid ancestors or our genes, with their combination of high-handed tone and disregard for history. Such reductive speculation encourages a really empty scientism.”
Our new atheists display an intellectual arrogance which is quite astounding. I have no problem with them thinking they are cleverer or intellectually braver than me, this wouldn’t be a particularly remarkable achievement. Unfortunately it goes beyond sneering at today’s Christians. They write as though no one before them had realised that biblical miracles go beyond the observed laws of nature. They give the impression that they are the first to wrestle with the great questions of moral law, the summum bonum, difficulties in Scripture or even the competing claims of different religions. Before their arrival it would seem that no one had tried to push the boundaries of understanding beyond a credulous acceptance of what they were told by priestly authority.
It is almost as if the great minds of previous ages had never encountered these questions and never passed through intellectual and spiritual turmoil in grappling with them. Calvin, Milton, Kierkegaard, Augustine, Durer, Newton, Solzhenitsyn… fill in however many blanks you wish. These men and women, their work and their lives, are passed over in favour of a simple minded and strident parody of the faith.
That is the great sadness of the current wave of atheist literature, it’s intellectual shallowness.