Jun 8, 2013

How New Atheists are like Victorian-era bishops

The secularization thesis -- the most traditional version, rather crude, which predicted religion would disappear from the modern world -- is dead. I don't know that there's a generally agreed upon moment when that theory died. Certainly by the late 90s it was clear to sociologists that while certain social relationships, such as that between the general population and religious authorities, were changing, and that many religious beliefs and practices were morphing and diversifying, religion itself wasn't going away.

About a decade later, there were the New Atheists. While of course this movement made arguments about the validity of theistic beliefs, a major emphasis was actually on the moral imperative of secularization. The argument was that religion was a destructive, negative force that should disappear from the modern world. The New Atheists didn't rely on secularization as an empirical claim, particularly, saying that religion was, observably, disappearing (though sometimes they said that too), but made, more, a normative moral claim that religion ought to disappear.

Is there a connection between the demise of the sociological theory of secularization and the emergence of New Atheists' arguments for secularization?

Philosopher Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age, said that there might be during an international, interdisciplinary graduate seminar at the University of Tübingen this last week.

Asked about the New Atheists during a question-and-answer period, Taylor said:
They are people who are really in a position where they’re, where they have a feeling ... of being besieged. I think I understand why they’re so upset. They had this sense that history was on their side and then this didn’t happen. It’s rather like bishops in the Victorian church and then there was Darwin.... That’s a very interesting phenomena. It used to be the picture, where dogmatic views were dying and freethinkers felt they owned the future. I don’t really understand this development. I’m just reporting on it. But it’s very interesting that there’s been this reversal, so that they now feel besieged.
Taylor's suggestion was that the much commented-upon style of the New Atheists -- the "militancy" and aggression -- comes from a sense that history is arcing in the wrong direction. In that way, if not in any other, these public atheists might be compared to American fundamentalists.

For their part, at least some of the New Atheists remain committed to the sociological thesis of secularization that sociologists have now either completely abandoned or dramatically modified (into various neo-secularization theories, including Taylor's own). In an interview to promote their recent documentary, both Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss said they thought theistic beliefs would, eventually, come to an end.

Krauss said, "When I was a kid in the ’60s, I was sure that by now there would be no religion. In a way it’s very surprising that there are these momentary resurgences. I think it’s going to be a long road."

Dawkins was more adamant that religion is vanishing, even if not as evenly and as quickly as was once commonly predicted. He said, "If you look at the broad sweep of history, then clearly we’re on the winning side. I think things are moving in the right direction, probably not as fast as I would like to see."

Only time will tell "who owns the future." There's an interesting question, though, that could be further explored, about how the sense of whether or not historical trends are tending towards or against one's position shape the way that position is articulated and the tenor of the general arguments.