I’m not sure whether to blame Dawkins for his radical atheism or anti-atheists who use his arguments to make stuff up about Western atheists that a simple look at the history of 19th century socialism would refute. PZ links to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that is the religious equivalent of calling everyone who’s not an anarcho-capitalist a communist.
For a start, take op-ed author Sam Schulman’s contention that,
There are many themes to the atheist lament. A common worry is the political and social effect of religious belief. To a lot of atheists, the fate of civilization and of mankind depends on their ability to cool—or better, simply to ban—the fevered fancies of the God-intoxicated among us.
Naturally, the atheists focus their peevishness not on Muslim extremists (who advertise their hatred and violent intentions) but on the old-time Christian religion. (“Wisdom dwells with prudence,” the Good Book teaches.) They can always haul out the abortion-clinic bomber if they need a boogeyman; and they can always argue as if all faiths are interchangeable: Persuade American Christians to give up their infantile attachment to God and maybe Muslims will too. In any case, they conclude: God is not necessary, God is impossible and God is not permissible if our society—or even our species—is to survive.
Currently, the most radical well known atheists in the Anglo-American world are Dawkins and Harris. To my knowledge, neither of them has ever said anything that could be construed in terms of Schulman’s caricature. My knowledge may be flawed, but an article that creates a strawman without sourcing it is always flawed.
In almost five years of participating in atheist websites, forums, and blogs, the closest comment to Schulman’s “can argue” I’ve seen was a contention by an Orthodox Jew that the best way to combat Palestinian terrorism was to deconvert Muslims. The secularists, whose views on the I/P conflict spanned the entire gamut of possible opinions, responded uniformly negatively.
Nontheists are united by nothing except their lack of religious belief. In the US, they’re likelier than theists to be culturally liberal and vote Democratic, but hold very divergent opinions on other issues, including those about radical Islam. The new atheist movement Schulman talks about is a bit more unified in opposing American foreign policy, but only in the imaginations of ultra-conservative Christians does that equal thinking deconverting Christians is the best response to Jihadism.
For the new atheists, believing in God is a form of stupidity, which sets off their own intelligence. They write as if they were the first to discover that biblical miracles are improbable, that Parson Weems was a fabulist, that religion is full of superstition. They write as if great minds had never before wrestled with the big questions of creation, moral law and the contending versions of revealed truth. They argue as if these questions are easily answered by their own blunt materialism. Most of all, they assume that no intelligent, reflective person could ever defend religion rather than dismiss it. The reviewer of Dr. Dawkins’s volume in a recent New York Review of Books noted his unwillingness to take theology seriously, a starting point for any considered debate over religion.
Replacing a few keywords in the above paragraph can produce any run-of-the-mill dismissal of progressive movements: civil rights, feminism, labor liberalism, gay rights. To take an anti-libertarian analogy, it’s generally accepted that people like Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, and David Friedman are/were intelligent. It’s also accepted among serious economists that believing a single non-trivial thing they said about economics or society is a form of lunacy.
In the 19th century, the best known socialist was by far Karl Marx, a radical whose economic predictions have repeatedly failed to come true. By Schulman’s method, we must immediately dismiss any union activism, such as the strikes that convinced the US government to adopt an 8-hour workday.
Further, since Schulman insinuates that atheism is detrimental to society, we must conclude that to uphold society, unrestricted capitalism is necessary. Of course, history shows otherwise: capitalist countries that regulated the excesses of capitalism did not undergo a communist revolution or insurgence, while capitalist countries that did not either became living hells like most of Latin America or underwent destructive revolutions like most of East Asia.
Demanding that theology be taken seriously is in itself enough to stifle any discourse. It hasn’t always been so; but since the late Enlightenment and especially since Hume published his works, taking theology seriously has been akin to taking phlogiston theory seriously.
Critics of the scientific method always insist that factless assertions and discredited theories be taken seriously. It’s their way of leveling the enormous advantage secular humanism has, namely that it’s true. Given that no modern debate has produced any constructive results without making some kind of (non-deconstructionist) naturalist assumption, it’s safe to conclude that they’re wrong.