Seems like you can’t shake a stick lately without stumbling on a discussion about “the new atheism.” Kids’ birthday parties, water cooler conversations at work, barbershop, discussion lists. Sparked by the release of new books by Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett, all of a sudden it’s OK to talk about atheism. We’ve had some great conversations here recently on the subject, but it seems like the topic is bottomless.
In a recent Wired cover story, the state of modern atheism was compared to that of homosexuality slowly emerging from the closet a few decades ago. When pressed, many people who publicly claim agnosticism turn out actually to be atheists afraid of offending the present company. Because to declare yourself an atheist is to say “All that stuff that means more to you than anything, that belief system you hinge your life upon? I reject it entirely.” In other words, it’s not polite to declare yourself an atheist. That’s what the “new atheists” want us to move beyond.
Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, does an amazing job in this BBC interview of summarizing the views of contemporary atheism in ten minutes. Dawkins is extraordinarily well-spoken and charming, though some theists will no doubt find him strident.
Dawkins also has a great essay up on Yahoo: Why There Almost Certainly Is No God. Also worth listening to him describe the stunning predictive capacity of quantum theory to a Christian. If you’ve got an hour to spare, catch NPR’s interview with Dawkins. I found it fascinating and illuminating; a friend found it annoying.
iSquub is struggling with the paradox of feeling agnostic but agreeing with Dawkins’ line of reason:
Still, to me the most gripping part of this discussion keeps boiling down to that one thing: why is he an atheist, and I an agnostic? Why do I care? The god I’m agnostic about makes no perceivable difference in my life, yet I get frustrated when Dawkins uses what is pretty much an identical chain of reasoning to the one I use but suddenly leaps to an entirely different conclusion.
My take is that, for many of us, this is not a matter of being committed to agnosticism, but rather of not being prepared to make a positive statement that it’s insensible to base our personal or political lives on what amounts to myths. When quantuum theory can make predictions about our world with breath-taking accuracy while the story of the Trinity can make none, what are we waiting for? As Harris says, in no other field of human endeavor are we so willing to accept with indifference the possibility that an outrageous claim might have merit (as agnostics are). We’ve accepted agnosticism as safe and non-committal. It’s not impolite to be an agnostic, and agnosticism allows us to walk on the razor’s edge. Why not stand up and say “Fairies aren’t real?”
Perhaps agnosticism is just a “well, maybe” sort of allowance that we give. An allowance we would not allow in any other field of discourse when evidence is shaky.
Lighter side: Dawkins on Colbert. And Salon.com recently called Dawkins one of the sexiest men alive. On the other side, Francis Collins’ The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief promises to present equally convincing reason in the opposite direction. I’m interested.
I was going to link to Dawkins’ interview with fallen angel Ted Haggert, but YouTube has “Removed the content at the copyright holder’s request.”
Oh, and Daniel Dennett recently had a brush with death (to which he says “Thank goodness!”)