Brand-New 19th Century Atheists

A reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog writes:

“Finally, one of the most galling things to me about the modern internet atheists is that in my experience, while they talk a big game about Science and Rationality and Learning, they can be remarkably intellectually unsophisticated.  John Gray hit the nail on the head so hard he blew it apart, I think, when he outlined how the framework behind most of the “New Atheists” is really just a crude mix of vulgar 19th century-quality positivism with some reflexive materialism and shallow humanism thrown in.  They ignore a century of rigorous, lively philosophical debate and criticism on ontology and epistemology, preferring instead the staid certainty of Victorian science.  I don’t mind having my beliefs criticized, but if you can’t at least discuss anything pertaining to the topic since before the Nietzschian turn, go away.”

One of the things that strikes me about this quote is that the seminal event in Western history for ushering the 20th Century – at least in the West – was World War I. If the Nietzschian turn did something to 19th Century humanist and/or rationalist beliefs in the academy, WWI surely impacted the popular social imagination. The war can be pointed to as one of the great destroyers of religious belief in Europe (religious practice actually was on the rise in England in the latter part of the 19th Century – yes in the wake of Darwin). Yet at the same time, such a catastrophic war surely undermined the Victorian faith in reason (and reason as best instantiated in the European races).

If religion had motivated people to die for God and King, surely reason and science had made the dying that much nastier through the innovations of gas, flame-throwers, bomber aircraft, bigger artillery and the like. I would submit that WWI offered an equal rebuke to European notions of religion and science, indeed a rebuke to all myths of Europe as someone superior to the rest of humanity.

The utopian promises held out by the New Atheists that the world can be greatly improved through the abandonment of religion and the taking up of reason and science sounds as enticing as any utopia. But like other earthly attempts at utopia, the historical record has not been pleasant. I can’t believe in the utopia of the New Atheists. Why? To borrow Bertrand Russell’s famous reply to God, not enough evidence!