Monday, September 10, 2007

Finally some substantial criticism of atheist books

We all know that there has been a bunch of succesfull so-called "new atheist" books out in recent times. Hitchen's God Is Not Great, Dawkins' The God Delusion, Harris' The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation etc.

There have been numerous criticisms of these books, but so far they've been less than impressive. One insipid type of criticism of Dawkins' book became so widespread that PZ Myers made a counter-example based upon a classic fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen: The Courtier's Reply.

I've read the books that I've mentioned above, and I do have some problems with parts of them, especially Harris' The End of Faith, which is why I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a substantial criticism of some of the atheist books, that dealt with the actual points in the books.

I have a problem with the title of the article, since this sort of atheism isn't "new" in any meaningful way, especially not outside the US. However, it's still worth reading.

The New Atheism

Note that the author of the article, A. J. Chien, starts off with making clear that the central argument of the books is quite valid, and that most criticism of them is meaningless. The author writes

Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens have been widely reviewed, but it seems to me these few central points have scarcely been addressed. One common criticism, for instance by Terry Eagleton, is that Dawkins overlooks the many variants of Christian belief. But any variant that maintains an interventionist God is subject to Dawkins’ arguments; if there’s any that doesn’t, then it isn’t what Dawkins is addressing. So the criticism is pointless. Criticism like Tanenbaum’s is likewise typical: simply asserting the existence of moderate believers is easy, but just repeats what has been granted and ignores the argument about them.

I think the points made here are well worth repeating.

Now, on to the criticism. The author, rightfully in my opinion, objects to the attribution of terrorism to Islam, which is made especially by Harris and Dennett (who I haven't read), ignoring the other quite possible reasons, such as wanting revenge. This was something I also felt was lacking in Harris rather simplistic explanation for terrorism. It's true that religious fundamentalism makes terrorism much easier, but an additional motivation would seem necessary to me.

There is also some quite reasonable criticism of Harris' claims of good intentions by the US (and its allies) as something distinguishing from e.g. Islamic countries.

The only thing I feel is missing from the criticism, is a denouncement of Harris' implicit (and nearly explicit) endorsement of torture. Reading that part of The End of Faith nearly made me throw it away in disgust.

All in all, interesting to read a review of atheist books that actually deals with the content.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you that reading the torture "part of The End of Faith nearly made me throw it away in disgust". For a French perspective on atheism I recommend Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (this is the US title, the UK title is different) by Michel Onfray.

September 10, 2007 10:49 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

I've been meaning to get hold of that Onfray book. It's probably not a bad idea to read about atheism from an non-anglo-saxon stance.

September 13, 2007 11:44 AM  

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