Here’s a sort of semi-back-and-forth re: God between Karen Armstrong and Sam Harris in Foreign Policy. Armstrong finds Harris insufficiently “Socratic,” by which she seems to mean that he’s not interested in an “enriched” mutual understanding. I guess she comes out sounding more adult, but she either misses or ignores the foundational assumptions of the “New Atheists”: they’re not looking for common ground. They explicitly don’t want common ground, at least when the other guy’s ground is even remotely close to the holy land. Hence Hitchens’s “How Religion Poisons Everything” subtitle. Dawkins and Harris seem to agree with Hitch on this point, and if you really literally think that religion poisons everything, you’re probably not looking to find any kind of common ground with the poisoner; like, hey, maybe you should only poison some things?

And Hitch apparently does take his subtitle literally, as his Bloggingheads debate with Bob Wright clearly shows. Even a self-proclaimed materialist and non-believer like Wright comes in for some hellfire, so you can imagine where someone like Armstrong stands.

This inflexibility is one of the more frustrating features of New Atheist-type arguments, but also one of the things that makes them most compelling to sympathetic readers. And I think “sympathetic” is the right word here – if you’re a secular humanist / atheist type, there’s something really comforting about the unyielding materialism of the New Atheist position. But of course that’s the thing that also makes it seemingly uninterested in or unable to actually win over anyone who possesses even the most modest religious faith. For that reason, I’ve never been quite sure about the goals of New Atheists. One of them is public relations; they’ve done a good job providing a set of clearly delineated political and scientific arguments for Atheism. But if what they’re really trying to do is influence policy and weed out fundamentalist interests from the places where they can influence policy, it’s not clear that New Atheist goals are achievable, given their inflexible positions and the curious (but characteristic) mixture of geniality and bile on display in the Hitchens/Wright diavlog.

Before this post gets out of control, I’ll end by suggesting that, if what we see in the New Atheism v. Religion debate is, as the New Atheist’s claim, really a clash of two essentially irreconcilable world-views, two mutually poisonous epistemological, cultural, and religious positions, then you might ask how any of them can gain any rhetorical purchase. First of all, it’s essentially a one-sided debate. Though Harris may find Armstrong’s objections to New Atheist claims annoying, she’s not the real target. Rather she, and even Wright, are gnats that need swatting, whereas radical fundamentalism (in its Evangelical Christian, Jihadist Muslim, and Zionist Jewish iterations) is the infestation. Yet, fundamentalism need not respond – why should it, if it knows the only power it ever really has to answer to? Second, as Wright points out, New Atheist moral arguments are a bit shaky because they lack the divine authoritarian legitimation that underpins religious moral arguments. This is not to say that morality is impossible without religion (and to be clear, I’m much more sympathetic to the New Atheists’ position than anyone else’s, except for maybe Wright’s), but they have more trouble grounding the authority for their arguments in anything other than things like the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Which are of course very admirable, but also are the product of internationalist political efforts which, at least outside of already-sympathetic liberal circles, have never had much of a foothold in the US.

One last thing, and that’s that I think the problem of moral grounding is also compounded by Hitchen’s peculiar personal and political history. Not to sound too old-school, but to me the best of the Marxist-inspired enlightenment critiques (like, say, Dialectic of Enlightenment) of the postwar era do raise serious problems for any notion of morality using the history of humanism and enlightenment thought as its basis. That is (and perhaps this is just the overly-contemplative academic wonk in me), treating, oh say, the Holocaust or Hiroshima and Nagasaki as aberrations rather than consequences of the intellectual and moral tradition so important to this project ignores the heart of the critique that fundamentalists frequently level at science, which is that its essential (and necessary) amorality has profound moral consequences. This is the issue that requires a rhetorical (and public relations) strategy with a bit of a lighter touch than the New Atheists seem ready to offer. I have more to say about all of this, but my blogging could also use a lighter touch, so I’ll leave off for now.