Reader Maggie Clark made a thoughtful comment on my post yesterday about poet Michael Robbins’s Slate article dissing New Atheism. It was one of my longer posts, but I’m glad people read it, if only to see every fallacious argument about New Atheism crammed into one venomous essay. Dawkins-dissing, the claim that New Atheists are ignoramuses about religion, the assertion that literal interpretation of scripture is a modern phenomenon, the accusation that atheists have no good basis for morality, and, of course, the ritual invocation of “good” atheists like Nietzsche—it was all there in an article that could serve as a template for New Atheist Bashing.
Robbins, of course, responded to me, both on the site (see “update” at end of post) and several times by email, despite my asking him to leave me alone. I won’t divulge the contents of his emails except to say that he argues that I misunderstood everything he said, and that wanted the opportunity to “correct me.” Well, I think I pretty much understood what he said (after all, the piece was intended for for general readers), but “you don’t understand me” is the usual retort of religionists whose claims are easily mocked or refuted, and I have no further wish to engage with the guy. There was further invective about how I lacked wit, but I’ll leave that aside. The man is one of those writers, like Peter Hitchens and Deepak Chopra, who has a thin skin, one of the diagnostic symptoms of Maru’s Syndrome. Such people simply cannot follow the First Rule of Internet Journalism: don’t respond to criticism unless you absolutely have to.
But enough. I wanted to call attention to Maggie’s comment, but even more so to the contents of that comment, which itself called attention to her very nice essay on Robbins’s piece that she’s written on her eponymous website: “Enough already: The anti-atheist article shows its age.” She identifies herself as a “doctoral student of nineteenth century science writing,” and, indeed, she writes very well herself. And she clearly knows her stuff: far more than I do, for instance, about natural theology.
I’ll give a few excerpts from her essay, but I’d encourage readers to go to her digs and comment there, for in her comment she said this:
I’m not usually one to promote my blog posts on other blogs, but I’m still a doctoral student working to translate my academic voice and research into more accessible forms, so any feedback (from any readers here) is very much welcome.
So, two excerpts. Note, though, that most of Maggie’s article is about the history of tension between science and theology, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I’m just giving here her take on Robbins’s piece. You’ll learn a lot more by reading the whole thing.
Such articles [Robbins’s] always have their easy cannon-fodder, with the likes of Dawkins or Hitchens thrown in as de facto examples of what Robbins terms “evangelical atheism” and others have termed “militant atheism”. These terms almost never appear with any sort of textual evidence (for instance, in what way “evangelical”–knocking on doors to spread the good word of atheism? and in what way “militant”–agitating for the persecution of believers?), and so serve as little more than caricatures in an already highly-caricatured debate.
Other terms in Robbins’ article are likewise, predictably heated, with “Dawkins and his ilk” identified as the “intellectually lazy” successors to Spencer’s history. This generic flogging of Dawkins should be a warning for anyone seeking insightful commentary about science and religion; it only signals for the reader that this piece is not going to concern itself so much with ideas as with the people who forward them. Robbins even ends his article with a quote lamenting the lack of such ideas-based discourse–“Everyone is talking past each other and no one seems to be elevating the conversation to where it could and should be”–without expressing any self-awareness as to how rhetoric like his keeps this conversation off-point.
Not bad writing, eh? Here’s her conclusion:
Which brings us to the shape of our culture–this digital, Anglocentric, North American community in which we see time and again the popularity of articles like Robbins’: anti-atheist rhetoric by an author who nevertheless claims to want a more thoughtful discussion, a discussion in which atheists and theists are speaking directly to one another instead of over each other’s heads. But in a review that centrally castigates a caricature of modern atheism on a poorly-evidenced charge of historical ignorance, Robbins instead evades important histories of his own: histories of thoughtful theists, learned and layman alike, who over the last two millennia looked to the natural world assuming it carried literal Biblical histories both within and upon it.
Robbins and similar religious writers try to chalk up such theists to mere fundamentalists, and accuse atheists of targeting the “low-hanging fruit” of Biblical incoherence and Creationist nonsense instead of tackling “sophisticated” arguments like David Bentley Hart’s, which involves a “ground-of-all-being” god-concept: ineffable, Deistic, (still male), yet somehow of personal relevance when contemplating how best to live. But for all these attempts to place the god debate outside the world we all live in, the great bulk of Judeo-Christian history still lies with those theists who believed in a personal, present, and active creator as described in the Bible, even as both the natural world and weight of social history revealed less and less synchronicity with Biblical descriptions and prescriptions over time.
Diminishing the reality and diversity of such Biblical adherents–and thus dismissing consequent atheist concerns about how to build a better society when people still believe in this sort of god when making political and personal decisions–isn’t even “talking past each other”; it’s denying the full and profoundly human range of voices at the table. Surely we’re capable of more.
If you read her piece, you’ll see that Ms. Clark is a thoughtful and engaging writer. She’s definitely worth following, and I say that not just because she agrees with me. As noted above, she wants feedback, so go over and give her some.