The curious thing about these books is that the authors often appear to think that they are saying something new and brave. They imagine themselves to be like the intrepid explorer Sir Richard Burton, who in 1853 disguised himself as a Muslim merchant, went to Mecca, and then wrote a book about his unprecedented feat. The public appears to agree, for the neo-atheist books have sold by the hundred thousand. Yet with the possible exception of Dennett’s, they advance no argument that I, the village atheist, could not have made by the age of 14 (Saint Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence gave me the greatest difficulty, but I had taken Hume to heart on the weakness of the argument from design).He then goes on to show some of the foibles of each of the main contributors to the New Atheist movement. He notes, "One striking aspect of Dennett’s book is his failure to avoid the language of purpose, intention, and ontological moral evaluation, despite his fierce opposition to teleological views of existence." In other words, Dennett keeps using language of purpose and design in trying to sell the argument that there is no designer and no ultimate purpose for life. In a parenthetical statement he writes:
And Dennett is not alone in this difficulty: Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto, so rich in errors and inexactitudes that it would take a book as long as his to correct them, says on its second page that religion prevents mankind from facing up to "reality in all its naked cruelty." But how can reality have any moral quality without having an immanent or transcendent purpose?Dalrymple notes that Dawkins "quotes with approval a new set of Ten Commandments for atheists, which he obtained from an atheist website, without considering odd the idea that atheists require commandments at all, let alone precisely ten of them; nor does their metaphysical status seem to worry him." Brilliant observation. He also looks at Harris and Hitchens with equal insight.
However, the most amazing part of the article is how Dalrymple compares the modern atheists to the writings of a forgotten seventeenth century Anglican bishop. He writes, "But looking, say, into the works of Joseph Hall, D.D., I found myself moved: much more moved, it goes without saying, than by any of the books of the new atheists." After quoting from some of Hall’s writings, Dalrymple goes on to observe:
This is the language not of rights and entitlements, but of something much deeper—a universal respect for the condition of being human… No doubt it helps that Hall lived at a time of sonorous prose, prose that merely because of its sonority resonates in our souls; prose of the kind that none of us, because of the time in which we live, could ever equal. But the style applies to the thought as well as the prose; and I prefer Hall’s charity to Harris’s intolerance.The article may be a bit long for some, but it is an excellent read, if for no other reason than to expose you to the writings of Hall! I thank Dr. Dalrymple for his care for the human condition and his honesty and clarity in one more problem with the New Atheist movement—for all their sound and fury, they fail at elevating the human spirit.
Image courtesy Richard001 and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.