Book Review: After the New Atheist Debate

After the New Atheist Debate

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By Phil Ryan

196 pp. University of Toronto Press $22.95.

Of all the books written regarding the “New Atheist” (hereafter, NA) phenomenon, this the first that I’ve seen that has attempted to analyze it from a philosophical, sociological, and ethical perspective, while simultaneously refusing to take sides in what has often been a rather acrimonious exchange played out in the public sphere of Western Society.  To this end, Phil Ryan interacts with a number of the most high-profile popular writings of the NA’s on the one hand, and with several among the rash of ripostes from their religious opponents (whom he refers to as the “defenders”) on the other.  He unapologetically takes on the role of Mercutio in calling for “a pox on both your houses”.  To be sure, he has in mind only those more extreme elements of the debate, and is careful to point out examples of civility and constructive dialogue.  Those who, like me, are weary of the same old arguments and counterarguments (or what passes for them, at any rate) and are looking for a fresh perspective, need look no further.  For that reason alone, I can recommend this book.

But what of this fresh perspective?  Ryan opens the book with a clear description of what he’s not up to: “While this book critiques the debate, it is not about one of the central issues in that debate: whether it is reasonable to believe in God.” (emphasis original).  While a Christian himself, and thus presumably disagreeing fundamentally with atheism, he does an admirable job of maintaining a sense of neutrality as far as it goes, to the point where one would be hard-pressed indeed to work out where his loyalties lie if he had not identified himself as a believer. Instead, Ryan has set his sights on what he considers to be the key misapprehensions of the protagonists on both sides of this debate, when considering their respective opponents.  On the NA side he fingers it as the indefatigable mantra that “believers do bad things precisely because of their beliefs” (emphasis original), while on the defenders side he highlights the specter of “inevitable moral decline should the influence of religion in the world wane”, along with the suspicion that atheists are fundamentally intellectually and morally corrupt.

Ryan helpfully divides the book into two parts, the first of which surveys what he considers to be the most egregious sins of both the NA’s and the defenders in their various interactions, while also acknowledging refreshing examples of those on either side who do not fall into this trap.  I found this to be the strongest part of the book.  In particular, here Ryan eviscerates the common NA charge that religion has some sort of unique or special propensity to motivate individuals or groups to practice evil, while reason and critical thinking instead serve as checks against this behavior.  While acknowledging that religion can indeed be used in the service of evil, Ryan nevertheless points out the rather poor record of the various totalitarian secular regimes of the 20th Century.  Aware of the NA’s counterargument to this common response, namely that these regimes were either not using atheism as a motivation for their unspeakable evil, or were actually despite appearances religious in nature, Ryan makes a case that the NA’s (particularly Hitchens and Harris) are playing fast and loose with the term “religion”.  That is, they end up applying the religious adjective to anything evil about said regimes, while simultaneously ignoring the many explicitly secular or atheistic motivations for the same evil.  Thus, this charge is convincingly revealed to be one giant exercise in question-begging.

The defenders don’t get off the hook though: Ryan also has strong words against their caricatures of atheists as not coming around to their position on the basis of reason, but rather due to an underlying moral corruption and rage against God.  Rarely, Ryan points out, do these particular defenders acknowledge the actions of believers in at least helping to drive many toward atheism by their various public sins (such as the horrifying child sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church).  Accordingly, both the NA’s and the defenders tend to idealize members of their own “tribe” without stopping to examine the planks in their own eyes, as it were.

The second part dives into a long discussion of what Ryan sees as a fundamental problem underlying the entire debate: neither side has a proper understanding of the cultural and ethical milieu they are operating within.  In particular, as he sees it, most participants in the debate have an underlying sense that there exist “shared foundations” to morality and ethics within the public sphere, and are hell-bent on trying to convince everyone else that their particular understanding of these foundations is the correct one for all of society.  But, says Ryan, this simply isn’t the case: there are no such shared foundations.  We all live in a complex patchwork of social norms, and none of our beliefs come to us without a cultural context.  Neither however does culture dictate our beliefs.  Rather there is a complex and often strained interplay between the two.  He supports these assertions by giving examples of how the defenders claims that atheists have no moral foundations for their behavior can be turned inward on themselves.  In brief, each of the defenders points to a different systematic understanding of Christianity to ground their morality, and Ryan simply points out that these are often at odds with each other, or at the very least are open to debate amongst Christians, as indeed they have been since the very beginning of the church.  Perhaps so, but I think he misses a more subtle point of the defenders argument along these lines, or at least an abstraction thereof.  Namely, we believers still may maintain that the ultimate foundation for moral and ethical behavior is God Himself, however poorly we sometimes view it.  That being said, the point is taken, and it seems the defenders cannot so easily use this “moral foundation” argument as a trump card to stifle debate.

Finally, Ryan is quick to clarify that he is not advocating for a wishy-washy moral relativism or fatalism, and devotes the last three chapters to explaining why he thinks that society can and should operate without a universally agreed-upon underlying foundational framework.  Rather, what we have is more like a “fabric” of beliefs patched together into a centerless whole.   It’s here that I think it would have been helpful for Ryan to have given some more background into this ethical theory, as this part itself comes across (at least to one like myself who is unfamiliar with the field) like his personal theory of ethics to which his earlier critique of the NA debate is revealed as but a foil.  To those who are familiar with various theories of foundationalism and their critiques, this is perhaps not a problem, but I couldn’t help but wonder just how much complexity and nuance was being papered over, even while I found myself nodding in agreement through much of this part.  For one, I couldn’t determine whether Ryan thinks that we actually do not have such shared foundations, or merely that we cannot know what those shared foundations are.  In short, is his critique ontological or epistemological in nature?  Presumably the latter, but it would have been helpful to have this fleshed out.

In any case, I resonated with the final chapter where he makes the claim that perhaps the best way forward is to start with a more modest goal of “ethical dialogue” in which neither party necessarily tries to aim toward agreement, and in which neither side is viewed as favored in the public sphere.  For his part, Ryan rejects two opposing moves Christians have often made in our modern pluralist society: 1) the quasi-dominion theology of the Right, and 2) Hauerwas’ approach of cultural and political disengagement. Instead, Christians should become active participants in ethical dialogue, and willing citizens of our democratic society.  He is quick to stave off Hauerwas’ worry that this amounts to nothing more than a capitulation to secular forces and that views talk of pluralism as a mere “code word” to mean all viewpoints are welcome except explicitly Christian ones.  He does this by asserting that neither should secular norms (utilitarianism is his example) be taken for granted but rather subject to the same dialogue.  The latter, he says, is a “task that will not be pursued here.”  What a pity, as I very much would have liked to read his thoughts along these lines; it may have helped strengthen his case.  Finally, yet again while I found much to agree with in this chapter, I think Ryan fails to adequately appreciate the very real tension in the New Testament between being good citizens in the world by living as “salt and light” while simultaneously regarding ourselves as “in the world, but not of the world”.  Cannot both Ryan and Hauerwas be right?

To summarize, After the New Atheist Debate is a fascinating and far-ranging critique of the various participants of the NA debate and their arguments from the perspective of a philosopher and ethicist.  Professor Ryan tests and finds both sides wanting, and offers a plea for renewed and civil ethical dialogue.  On both counts I found much to recommend in this book, and Ryan’s optimistic tone is refreshing.  It remains to be seen, however, if those who are most in need of reading the book will do so, let alone if it will cause them to reconsider their own approaches.  For the rest of us, even if we find ourselves disagreeing with Ryan’s criticisms or proposed solutions at many points, this book offers a helpful, irenic, and all-to-rare perspective on this very important cultural moment.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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