‘New atheists’ accused of failing to understand the religious

Madelien BuntingMadeleine Buniting (pictured) launches an attack in today’s Guardian on the authors of recently published atheist books – Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and and Cristopher Hitchens.Although she does seem to concede that many of the points these authors make are fair ones that the religious might also support – the undermining of scientific understanding for example – her main point is that “the aggression and hostility to religion in all its forms (moderates are castigated as giving the fundamentalists cover for their extremism) deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged recently in the science/faith debate.”

The interesting questions being what positive characteristics science can unearth about religion:

Scientists have argued that faith was a byproduct of our development of the imagination or a way of increasing the social bonding mechanisms. Does that make religion…a crucial part of the explanation for successful human evolution to date? Does religion still have an important role in human wellbeing?…If religion declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?”

She concludes saying that

“With little understanding and even less sympathy of why people increasingly use religious identity in political contexts, they’ve missed the proverbial elephant in the room….one suspects that they are going to do very little to challenge the appeal of a phenomenon they loathe too much to understand.”

Now, whatever holes one might be able to pick in Buniting’s argument the fact is that she and others are making these defensive points in response to a new confident non-religious voice. Quite naturally they will be reluctant to be self critical when under attack and so we atheists must learn to show empathy and be specific in what it is we are unhappy with so that “even a devout church-goer might cheer them on” doesn’t get lost under  the headline “the New Atheists loathe religion far to much to plausible challenge it”. Only then can we bring about, not the elimination of religion, but the reform of how it sits in our societies and how the religious view those of us who do not beleieve in God.

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