The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion, by Tina Beattie, Orbis Books, 2008.
Atheism has made a lot of headlines lately. A particularly vocal, politically active, and well-placed collection of nonbelievers consisting of figures such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and many others, have led the movement to abolish religion entirely. Their basic arguments include their insistence that there is no God and that religion is the central cause of all the world’s ills. They posit that a world without worship would be eminently peaceful and enlightened, deride the religious education of youths as child abuse, and sneer at professions of faith. They have had some success in their efforts; many people claim to have been won over to atheism by their arguments, and many European countries have passed legislation or produced court rulings to the detriment of the openly religious. Yet every action produces an opposing reaction, and when religion is involved, the reaction may be more than equal to the initial action.
In response to the New Atheists, numerous theists, especially Christians, have written counterarguments to the secularist thesis. Even some nonbelievers, like Theodore Darymple, who respect religion, believe that Christianity has enriched and protected Western civilization, and think (to use Darymple’s own phrase) that “Europe must re-Christianize” in order to survive. Tina Beattie, a theological scholar, is one of the most recent theists to address the challenge posed by militant atheism.
In her introduction, Beattie states that “My main aim in this book is not to defend religion against the new atheists, nor is it to deny the problem of religious extremism and its growing political influence.… I seek to broaden the discussion by situating it in a wider social and historical context. If we are to understand the role that religion plays in people’s lives, then we need to be more attentive to the many different ways in which religious and cultural narratives act as vehicles of meaning for those who inhabit them.”
What does this mean? One major concern regarding Beattie’s book is that it may displease potential readers who are expecting something quite different. There have been dozens of books by religious people who have attacked the new atheists’ arguments head-on, such as Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case Against God by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker, and Thomas Crean’s God is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins. Numerous Catholic bloggers have analyzed Hitchens’ polemic God is Not Great and found errors of fact on nearly every page.
Many recent defenses of religion have been boisterous, strongly worded, and as aggressive in promoting the case for God and organized religion as their antagonists are towards pushing atheism. Some have also been humorous: the new atheists’ self-righteous pomposity and untempered malice towards religious people is ripe for satire, and indeed, one recent C.S. Lewis-inspired riffing of the new atheists, The Loser Letters, by Mary Eberstadt, has gotten some substantial publicity. Another excellent defender of the faith is Mark Shea, Catholic blogger and author (http://markshea.blogspot.com/), who joyously lampoons the foibles and pretensions of the new atheists. These defenders of the faith tend to give as good as they take, although their writings are often much more charitable than those of the New Atheists.
Beattie, in contrast, seems to view many of the theist defenses as being in rather bad taste. Beattie appears to cast herself as a voice of mediation, acting above the squabbling and infighting over between the pro- and anti-God forces, which she treats as tacky. Beattie is a theist and a Catholic, but she is also a supporter of post-modernism, feminism, and post-colonialism, and her views color her arguments. One of Beattie’s pet peeves about the new atheists is their macho attitude. She seems to feel that the much of the bravado and anger of the new atheists boils down to nothing more than a show of masculine hubris. Her self-superior tone can at times be patronizing towards both believers and atheists alike.
Throughout her book, Beattie’s basic argument seems to be that since God exists, the new atheists are wrong, but nevertheless they do make a lot of valid points. Beattie spends plenty of time admitting to the injustices and errors committed in the name of religion, and though she addresses the iniquities and evils committed by the atheistic regimes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the latter calamities receive disproportionately less attention than the tragedies with religious roots. Her attempts to “broaden the discussion” would be more influential if she broadened her focus to explore the roots of horrific calamities with more scrutiny. Her analyses of art, literature, and culture focus mainly on atheistic works with a side of multicultural studies. Religious influence on intellectualism and creative endeavors goes almost completely ignored. This book is only meant to be an overview of certain historical movements and trends, but many passages have gaping holes in their narratives.
In particular, the review of the historical relationship between science and religion is a mixed bag. Beattie brings up a few names of prominent scientists who were deeply religious men, but her exploration of the compatibility between religion and science is at best perfunctory. Her historical overviews are hit-and-miss. Some, like her coverage of the Scopes Monkey Trial, fail to depict the events of the past in all of their contradictory complexity. In the worst case of historical superficiality, she comments that the clash between Galileo and the Church needs no recounting (and therefore she says nothing about it and merely implies that Church was utterly wrong), when in fact so much false information and so many misconceptions about the case have entered the public mindset over the years that the incident really does need to be re-evaluated. (Please see my February 2010 review on How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization for more details.)
Late in the book, Beattie makes it clear that she actually has some sympathy for the new atheists’ point of view. A surprising amount of space is devoted to lashing out at former U.S. President George W. Bush and the War on Terror, and attacking both Bush’s foreign and domestic policies, and approach to religiosity, going so far as to dreamily wonder how the world might benefit if the West lost its fight against violent terrorism. The comment that she “has more in common with the new atheists” than with what she stereotypes as American-style “guns and religion” sheds a different light on the first half of the book, where she gives the impression that she is leading up to a restrained but devastating slam of the new atheists. In addition, Beattie attacks several articles of Catholic doctrine, such as reproduction and ecclesiastical authority. By her conclusion, it appears that Beattie takes a self-styled “postmodern” approach to the Church.
The first part of Beattie’s subtitle, The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion, has a double meaning. For the first half of the book, The Twilight of Reason seems refer to the fact that the new atheists frequently lapse into mere shrill invective and angry rhetoric, ignoring the “reason” they claim to embody. Midway through the book, Beattie pronounces her own adherence to a postmodern, relativist mindset, where she claims that Western Civilization’s adherence to “logic” and “reason” is actually part of a patriarchal, imperialist, narrow-minded mindset that deserves to fall by the wayside. The postmodern alternatives she proposes are, however, nowhere near being convincing.
Beattie’s contentions about reason being increasing irrelevant in the contemporary world are not backed by thorough arguments, and in any case they fail to address the central role that reason can play in religion. In G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mystery, “The Red Moon of Meru,” the priest, having used his knowledge of religion and powers of reason to recover a stolen ruby, explains how he knew that something was not right, explaining that, “People will tell you that theories don’t matter and that logic and philosophy aren’t practical. Don’t you believe them. Reason is from God, and when things are unreasonable there is something the matter.” In another mystery, “The Blue Cross,” Father Brown observes that attacking reason is “bad theology.”
The New Atheists is a useful book for people who want to learn more about who exactly the new atheists are and what they are doing without actually buying one of their tomes. If one wants a more direct attack on atheism, one should read one of the other works cited in this review. Perhaps Beattie’s work can help believers understand the atheistic point of view without being chafed by the barbs of more overtly antireligious screeds. Nevertheless, the inadequacy of her historical analysis and shallow exploration of the societal impact of religion undercut her ability to live up to her own stated goals.
This book’s value lies not in its analysis of religion or atheism, or in its social or philosophical insights, but in the perspective it gives of the state of faith in England today. Hardly a day goes by when a prominent religious commentator or news blogger proclaims that a certain European country is no longer Christian to any measurable degree, and given the opinions of many of Europe’s intelligensia and the policies of many politicians, these pronouncements may be discomfortingly true. And yet… it is hard to forget the famous passage in Chesterton’s Father Brown mystery “The Queer Feet,” which so inspired Evelyn Waugh that he built one of the central themes of his novel Brideshead Revisited around it. In this scene, Father Brown explains how he caught a thief and retrieved a set of stolen silverware:
Father Brown got to his feet, putting his hands behind him. “Odd, isn’t it,” he said, “that a thief and a vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous, and without fruit for God or man? But there, if you will excuse me, you trespass a little upon my province. If you doubt the penitence as a practical fact, there are your knives and forks. You are The Twelve True Fishers, and there are all your silver fish. But He has made me a fisher of men.”
“Did you catch this man?” asked the colonel, frowning.
Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face. “Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” England may very well not be “post-Christian,” as Beattie seems to believe it is. To use Chesterton and Waugh’s metaphor, the country, new atheists and all, may just be a gigantic “fish on the line,” caught forever on an unseen hook and ready at any moment to be brought back with a twitch upon the thread.