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New Atheism’s Fatal Arrogance: The Glaring Intellectual Laziness of Bill Maher & Richard Dawkins

May 10, 2015 in Blogs

By Sean D. Illing, Salon

For all their eloquence, New Atheists show little interest in understanding how believers really think or feel.

Atheism has a storied history in the West. From the irreverent Voltaire to the iconoclastic Nietzsche, the godless have always had a voice. But the New Atheists are different. Religion, they argue, isn’t just wrong; it’s positively corrosive. If you’ve heard people like Bill Maher or Lawrence Krauss speak in recent years, you’re familiar with this approach.

New Atheism emerged in 2004 as a kind of literary and social movement. Led by such luminaries as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, New Atheism became part of the zeitgeist, a well-timed reaction against religious fundamentalism. The New Atheists are notoriously pugilistic. In print or on stage, they never run from a fight. Whatever you think of their tactics, they’ve succeeded at putting fanatics and moralizers on the defensive – and that’s a good thing.

But there’s something missing in their critiques, something fundamental. For all their eloquence, their arguments are often banal. Regrettably, they’ve shown little interest in understanding the religious compulsion. They talk incessantly about the untruth of religion because they assume truth is what matters most to religious people. And perhaps it does for many, but certainly not all – at least not in the conventional sense of that term. Religious convictions, in many cases, are held not because they’re true but because they’re meaningful, because they’re personally transformative. New Atheists are blind to this brand of belief.

It’s perfectly rational to reject faith as a matter of principle. Many people (myself included) find no practical advantage in believing things without evidence. But what about those who do? If a belief is held because of its effects, not its truth content, why should its falsity matter to the believer? Of course, most religious people consider their beliefs true in some sense, but that’s to be expected: the consolation derived from a belief is greater if its illusory origins are concealed. The point is that such beliefs aren’t held because they’re true as such; they’re accepted on faith …read more


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