Thoughtful Iconoclasts: A Response to Madeleine Bunting

I last mentioned Guardian columnist and Templeton Foundation fellow Madeleine Bunting in 2007, in “On Being Uncontroversial“. She’s recently written another column attacking atheism, alleging that the New Atheists are drowning out, in her words, “real debates” about religion and faith.

Personally, I don’t see the basis of her complaint. I think we’ve been provoking some very good debates – about the proper role of religion in society, how much influence it should have, whether and to what extent its claims deserve respect, how to judge between the various religions’ competing truth claims, and so on. This is a welcome change of pace, I would think, from the dreary repetitions of orthodoxy and the polite, embarrassed silence that’s so often prevailed in public conversations about religion. But none of these are the kind of “real debates” Bunting is talking about.

What many argue is that the New Atheist debate has ended up down an intellectual dead end; there are only so many times you can argue that religion is a load of baloney.

In one sense, this is true; there are only so many ways to say “there is no evidence for God”. But what Bunting appears to be arguing is that we’ve said all we have to say and should therefore stop talking. Needless to say, that isn’t going to happen. As she is surely aware, religious faith is still causing evils in the world today: oppressing and persecuting women and homosexuals, providing the ideological underpinnings for terroristic violence and theocratic rule, and motivating attacks on toleration, science, and separation of church and state. Under these circumstances, it would be morally wrong for atheists not to speak out, and we intend to continue doing so until our message sinks in and the world turns toward enlightenment.

And if Bunting’s critique is that atheists have run out of interesting things to say, that same critique applies with redoubled force to her own religion. Faiths like Roman Catholicism have spent millennia preaching from one book, endlessly rehashing the same tedious stories. Does this mean Christianity has hit an intellectual dead end? If not, then how much wronger is this claim in regards to atheism, which is not limited to one holy text or tradition but has the whole wide universe from which to draw its stories and moral lessons?

Just this week, AN Wilson announces in a thoughtful cover article for the New Statesman that he has apostated, abandoning his fellow atheists.

If I’m not mistaken, that would be the same A.N. Wilson who said that Darwin’s Descent of Man is “an offence to the intelligence” and added that “the jury is out” about whether evolutionary theory is true. Whether he ever was an atheist or not, this shameful and disgraceful ignorance gives us good reason to doubt his credibility in other areas, and to suspect that his statements about his past position are driven by apologetic necessity. Bunting might as well quote Lee Strobel saying he only became an atheist because he wanted to do whatever he chose and live free of morality and accountability.

In the Third Way, a Christian magazine, the poet Andrew Motion reflects wistfully, “I don’t believe in God – though I wish I did, and I can’t stop thinking about it so who knows what might happen one day?”

Bunting here provides further evidence for the thesis which I advanced in “Respectable Infidels“: that the only atheists considered “respectable” by apologists are those who concede the superiority of religion and wish they were believers. An atheist who is proud to be so, and who speaks their mind honestly and frankly, will always be judged as disrespectful by theists whose only goal is to silence us.

Anyway, what exactly does Bunting think the New Atheists are doing wrong? We get a glimpse at her answer, what she calls the “key mistake”, and it’s truly bizarre:

Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths. What “belief” used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of “love”, “commitment”, “loyalty”: saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles.

…the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe.

With this passage, Bunting places herself firmly in the rarefied, academic fantasyland inhabited by so many of her fellow theologians. She alleges that it’s crude and simple-minded to say that you have certain knowledge of what God is like, what he commands, and what we should do to fulfill our duty to him. In its place, she promotes an “apophatic” theology which claims that God so far surpasses our understanding that we can say nothing definite about him at all.

If that’s the tack she wants to take, fine. But the glaringly obvious rejoinder which she steadfastly refuses to mention is that this position is a minority report. There are billions of theists worldwide who do exactly what she decries, bluntly proclaiming their certainty in an anthropomorphic god whose wishes are known to all. They use this belief as a justification to tyrannize others, and they are loud, well-organized, and belligerent. That is the kind of faith that the New Atheists have risen against; that is the kind we oppose so vehemently because of the ongoing danger it presents to the liberty and well-being of humankind. Bunting’s apophatic faith, which has been been so carefully excised of substance, is a tiny minority opinion and always has been.

This piece is a perfect example of the Courtier’s Reply: religious apologists who decry atheists for not attacking the vague and allegedly more sophisticated creeds held by a handful of theologians, refusing to understand that we are responding to religious faith as it is actually held and practiced by the overwhelming majority of religious people today. Yet somehow, it’s always the atheists who get blamed for attacking this crude and over-literal faith – never the believers who actually hold it and put it into practice.

Bunting demonstrates her failure to grasp this with her closing argument:

So the media has been promoting the wrong argument, while the bigger question of how, in a post-religious society, people find the myths they need to sustain meaning, purpose and goodness in their lives go unexplored…. By junking the Christian myths, the danger is that the replacements are “cruder, less tested, less instructive”.

First of all, many atheists have devoted significant effort to explaining where we find meaning, purpose and goodness in a life free of superstition. Richard Dawkins wrote an entire book about it, for truth’s sake: it was called Unweaving the Rainbow. If Bunting doesn’t know this, maybe it’s because she’s so consumed with her own stereotypes of those awful New Atheists that she hasn’t made the effort to find out what we really think. The debate she wants has been happening all along – she just hasn’t been paying attention.

It’s true that any replacement for religion will be “less tested”. But that statement implies that religion has been tested and has passed. Much the contrary, we atheists believe that religion has been tested and has failed. The reality is that we atheists are not thoughtless iconoclasts, tearing down the altars of religion without thought for the consequences. We’ve made the decision to attack religions precisely because we’ve concluded that the hate, intolerance and division they cause is too high a price to pay for whatever comfort they offer. We believe that we can find sources of meaning and goodness that work just as well, without all the baggage that religion brings.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.