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Opinions: New Atheism getting old

Browsing through the ASU events calendar, I was excited to see that Richard Dawkins, the famed evolutionary biologist best known for his harsh criticism of religion, would be speaking at Gammage on the Thursday before spring break. I'd never read any of Dawkins' books, but had seen a handful of his lectures and interviews online and knew that though my opinions were not exactly in line with his, Dawkins was nevertheless an enormously influential and important academic.

Dawkins and other authors such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are the best-known examples of New Atheists, or as they sometimes call themselves, antitheists. New Atheism is a growing, lucrative school of thought which puts forth that not only is there no God, but the universe would be a much worse place if there were one. This has obvious implications for what it means to be a believer.

Dawkins spoke for roughly an hour to what he said was his largest audience ever. I felt like I was listening to a different lecture than the one that received boisterous applause and laughter. The audience was entirely complicit in a presentation that had more the feel of a marketing job for Dawkins' book than an honest, levelheaded lecture.

Instead of discussing real scientific controversy, Professor Dawkins spent no fewer than 10 minutes and several slides on how and why the existence and influence of a divinity has no place in scientific inquiry — a topic that should be as insulting to the audience as it is embarrassing to the person who mentions it. Dawkins took the easy road by (ironically) preaching to the choir for as long as possible.

Some, but not much, credit can be given to Dawkins for mentioning that his work is often controversial. But this soon devolved into lumping all his critics into the camp of creationism, a cheap oversimplification. What was most insulting was the fact that in making his point, Dawkins used only himself as a reference, saying that atheists who don't like him are weak-kneed pseudoskeptics who, thought they don't believe in the Almighty, wish they could.

Dawkins mentioned that many find his language harsh, non-analytical, and excessively cynical. He read to the audience a sample of London restaurant reviews to prove that far more caustic language exists. The audience guffawed.

Since Dawkins was neither brave nor responsible enough to give an example of genuine, well-developed criticism of New Atheism, I'd like to point out that critics of him and others like him reasonable and far from fanatics. Many of the strongest critics of New Atheism are atheists themselves.

Brendan O'Neill, writing for The Guardian, says that people like Dawkins have given atheism a bad name. He points out that atheism is about criticizing religion because it expresses "man's sense of higher moral purpose in a deeply flawed fashion." But the New Atheists "see religion merely as an expression of mass ignorance and delusion."

Writr Paul Vallely notes how Hitchens argues that Martin Luther King Jr. was not a Christian. By this, what he really means is that Dr. King "wasn't a fundamentalist," which should come as no surprise, since "most believers aren't."

The philosopher Michael Novak supports the notion that "there is much in atheism to praise." But Dawkins and others are "almost as literal in their readings of the Bible as the least educated, most literal-minded fundamentalist." This should be noted alongside Dawkins' confession that he has no knowledge of theology.

In the lecture, Dawkins was careful not to draw a correlation between religiosity and violence. But he did (rightly) argue that an atheist has no logical reason to be irrationally violent, whereas a religious person might.

At this point, however, his argument is really just that religion as an institution includes and excludes certain individuals. One wonders why he doesn't mention class-consciousness, national identity, or the countless other examples of the exact same phenomenon. Instead, he makes it sound like religion is where it all lies.

Above all, I believe New Atheism endangers the emerging generation of potential freethinkers. If, for example, young people are convinced that the Israel-Palestine conflict is simply Jews versus Muslims, they will assume that anyone who is either must be a superstitious, prejudiced fool. New Atheism is narrow-mindedness, and good science is its opposite.

You can reach Kevin by e-mail at:

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