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Sunday, December 23, 2007

The rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens will undermine liberalism, not bolster it

Atheism's Wrong Turn by Damon Linker
Mindless argument found in godless books. The New Republic Post Date Monday, December 10, 2007
It is with this enmity, this furious certainty, that our ideological atheists lapse most fully into illiberalism. Politically speaking, liberalism takes no position on theological questions. One can be a liberal and a believer (as were Martin Luther King Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, and countless others in the American past and present) or a liberal and an unbeliever (as were Hook, Richard Rorty, and a significantly smaller number of Americans over the years). This is in part because liberalism is a philosophy of government, not a philosophy of man--or God. But it is also because modern liberalism derives, at its deepest level, from ancient liberalism--from the classical virtue of liberality, which meant generosity and openness. To be liberal in the classical sense is to accept intellectual variety--and the social complexity that goes with it--as the ineradicable condition of a free society.
It is to accept, in other words, that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way--that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not. That, in the end, is what separates the atheism of Socrates from the atheism of the French Revolution.
Why does it matter that a handful of writers who refuse to accept this basic human reality have recently sold a lot of books? On one level, it obviously doesn't matter very much. The United States remains a very religious nation. While there are small communities of atheists, agnostics, and skeptics in every state, and substantial ones in a few--Washington state leads the country with 25 percent of its residents claiming to worship no God; North Dakota comes in last with 3 percent--there aren't nearly enough unbelievers to leave a significant mark on the nation's culture or politics as a whole.
Still, the rise of the new atheists is cause for concern--not among the targets of their anger, who can rest secure in the knowledge that the ranks of the religious will, here in America, dwarf the ranks of atheists for the foreseeable future; but rather among those for whom the defense of secular liberalism is a high political priority. Of course, many of these secular liberals are probably the same people who propelled Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens onto the best-seller lists by purchasing their books en masse--people who are worried about the dual threats to secular politics posed by militant Islam and the American religious right. These people are correct to be nervous about the future of secular liberalism, to perceive that it needs passionate, eloquent defenders. The problem is that the rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens will undermine liberalism, not bolster it: Far from shoring up the secular political tradition, their arguments are likely to produce a country poised precariously between opposite forms of illiberalism. DISCUSS ARTICLE [144]

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