One of the criticisms of Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris is that they erect strawman, simplistic caricatures of religion which they them eloquently knock down. Despite being firmly in the 'new atheist' camp I have always felt that there was a grain of truth in the allegation. In particular the assertion that those with a religious faith who genuinely perform good and heroic deeds do so only because they are frightened of the big stick seems rather glib. So it is with interest that I saw the new book 'The Case For God' from the sophisticated religious scholar Karen Armstrong. I confess to so far only having read the introduction, but her views are well represented in several accessible places that I encourage you to read or listen to. These are
• A response in the Wall Street Journal
by both Dawkins and Armstrong to the question ‘Where does evolution leave god’
• A discussion on the NPR show Fresh Air
with the ever wonderful Terry Gross.
• An earlier discussion with Bill Moyers
• I also read her very enjoyable memoir ‘The Spiral Staircase’ where she describes her flight from organized religion after leaving the convent.
The trouble is that Karen Armstrong’s conception of religion and god differs from that held by essentially all of modern Christianity, and as far as I know of Islam. She rejects any idea of the personal, interventionist god. Karen Armstrong claims that her view is true to the real history of religion and tat what we have now arose only after the 17th century. I not equipped to dispute that, though I find it rather a dubious conception. Terry Gross asks “What do you think religion is for?” and is answered “Religion is about helping us to deal with the sorrow that we see in life”. Richard Dawkins makes the most eloquent rebuttal in the final two paragraphs of the above quoted piece in the Wall Street Journal.
Armstrong criticizes Dawkins as being too strident – and that has also been aired by other atheists. That it his approach does not win friends. I heard Neal de Grasse Tyson (again with Terry Gross) espousing a similar line. Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris (and I do exempt Dennet from this) are not particularly subtle in their discourse and that is perfectly fine. I see the initial forays of the ‘New Atheist’ movement as somewhat akin to the initial stages of the women’s and the gay liberation struggles. Loud and proud. There is a place for nuanced discussion – I hope that can occur here, but that place is not right on the front lines.