on 6 August 2014
A literature review of ‘The New atheist novel: fiction, philosophy and polemic after 9/11’ and a health warning for the pioneers of atheist persuasion and leaders of secular rationalism.
The authors; Bradley and Tate open by highlighting the key authors of post 9/11 literature which opposes religion and tends to focus on Islam as the proponent of evil. The introduction sets the stall for Bradley and Tate’s concern of Islamic anti locution not to dissimilar to that suffered by European Jewish community in the lead up to and during the Second World War.
Though this book opens by highlighting the overtly anti-theist authors; Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, Bradley and Tate focus their attention on atheist novelists; Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Phillip Pullman and Salmon Rushdie looking at the New Atheist narrative they expound.
When discussing McEwan, Bradley and Tate describe how he does not present as atheist as non-belief is not a belief system, Bradley and Tate state McEwan’s beliefs are in life, love and art. Life, love and art are not dissimilar with Humanist values to appreciate what one has and taking a holistic approach of fulfilling ones ambitions while yet not being to the detriment of others.
Bradley and Tate discuss McEwan’s ‘End of the World Blues’ as a piece of fiction in which religious faith is described as a human method for coping with ones own insignificance and that McEwan is attempting to create a scientific narrative for the future as stories or myths become the perceived reality.
Bradley and Tate do put meat on the bones of this description by stating the New atheist narrative can be seen as the scientific foundations of future beliefs and that this is the logical conclusion of the story of creation. This explanation proposes the New atheist novel is creating an anti-religious narrative for society as it attempts to actively push religious influence out of public discourse and as such, out of the public psyche.
Bradley and Tate express concern regards the distinctions made by Martin Amis in respect of Islam and Islamism due to blurred descriptions and a clear bias toward populace control of the Muslim community.
Bradley and Tate describe Amis views of ‘Violent Islamist’ who see the fulfilment of their prophecy in death, the Islamists are said to have targeted symbols as the impact is more profound and has more longevity. The irony is that by creating a narrative of the events he also immortalises the horror, though without the narrative society would lose an opportunity to learn how to avoid similar tragedies. Bradley and Tate highlight Amis views that the Muslim community should suffer until it learns to mange it’s self within society. Bradley and Tate describe Amis suspicion that there are individuals who will become Muslim to commit mass-murder as portrayed in Amis novel ‘The Last Days of Mohammed Atta’. The problem with this theory is the presumption that being a Muslim is a by word for killer whether in pursuit of religious or personal ideology.
Just as anti-Semitism featured heavily during the Flavian Empires overthrow of Judea to create the New Christian narrative of the day are the founders of New Atheism persecuting Islam in the same manner? Could it be that New Atheism is fighting a multi-faceted war on all religion but Bradley and Tate overly focuses on criticism of Islam? Though Bradley and Tate may be overly focused on Islamic persecution this is still a real concern that should be addressed as they have clearly evidenced some of Amis disturbing views of Muslims.
Bradley and Tate describe Pullman’s pre 9/11 Dark Materials trilogy as important in addressing the ‘public’s role of belief’ though the trilogy may be seen as a re-write of Nietzsche’s ideology and Christian resentment. Bradley and Tate describe the trilogy’s criticism and praise by Christian scholars and how Pullman comes across as having Humanist values, however they state Pullman’s claim to have an atheist agenda in his writing. Bradley and Tate highlight the irony of Pullman’s position as without the religion he so vehemently opposes he would not have much else to write about.
Bradley and Tate describe how Pullman tries to dispel the myth of god but in doing so creates another if not equally fantastic story, they state that literature is a force forum for ideas and over time ideas are reshaped. The difference between Pullmans story, is that he presents this as fiction and not as a reality, while the religious institution he writes of ‘the Masgisterium’ portrays it’s myth as fact. As the science illuminates the previously unknown or fills the gaps of knowledge, literature removes god from these voids in place of the new evidence based truths.
Bradley and Tate illustrate Pullman’s description of the fall from grace as a coming of age, to partake of knowledge is to become conscious and with consciousness comes responsibility. Bradley and Tate superbly describe present day society when illustrating Pullman’s authority ‘the Magisterium’ as corrupt, bullying and obsessed with adult sins and the innocence of adolescents. Bradley and Tate describe Pullman’s God character as a dictatorial angel desperate to cling onto power while the Satan character attempts to free everyone from ignorance. With this description in the context of wider Abrahamic religions, who is truly good and who is evil? What loving god would require everyone to worship them and create such division with blind faith?
Bradley and Tate describe how Rushdie distanced himself from New Atheist rhetoric while keeping humanist ideas; Rushdie is described as a moderate Atheist as his fiction borders mystical and mundane while asking questions such as, can New Atheist novels explore spirituality impartially.
The implication appears to be that Atheist and Humanist are one. Atheist, Humanist and Secular are competing definitions used throughout the book which are often merged into one though they are distinctly different:
• Atheist – disbelief in god and thus religious institution.
• Humanist – belief in innate morality and values, belief in freedom of choice provided this is not detrimental to others and belief in equality.
• Secular – Belief in equality, no institution should have dominion.
Bradley and Tate do highlight Rushdie’s observation that ‘religion seeks to privilege one language above another’ and novels are about quarrels between different languages, values and narratives. Bradley and Tate describe Rushdie’s ‘quarrel’ as polite when compared to the ‘violent clashing civilisations’ imagined by New Atheism.’ One might argue that narratives of clashing civilisations are infamously within the remit of religious imagination that New Atheism opposes.
In concluding Bradley and Tate state that for New Atheist authors such as Dawkins and Harris, New Atheism may not be Atheist enough owing to their militant approach almost, if not commanding the fact there is no god whereas Amis, McEwan, Pullman and Rushdie see a secular vision of imagination and ideological freedom.
For Bradley and Tate the New Atheist novel is part of the classical metaphysical story of theology embracing science, history, love and art providing the transcendence usually attributed to god. To further this point Bradley and Tate describe James Wood’s thoughts on fiction as being a ‘special realm of freedom’ as one can choose what to believe which differs to religions enforced reality.
Bradley and Tate suggest that religious novelists can only truly write of losing ones faith owing to their ability to believe, even though justification for this view is seemingly evidenced in McEwan’s eulogy to John Updike. This argument seems flawed as all humans are made of the same physical building blocks so imagination cannot solely fall to those raised as religious as this is an environmental factor, is there some divine force only illuminating the minds of the faithful or do Bradley and Tate prefer the narrative of the religious novelist?
Bradley and Tate suggest the New Atheist novelist can be just as irrational as what they attempt to repudiate and that sensitivity is needed when approaching religious dialogue. One could argue that Amis, McEwan, Pullman and Rushdie are portrayed as the serpent in the tree, tempting society with the fruit of freedom, or could they be trying to enlighten their readers by illustrating the un-wielding power and control of religious institution and the perils of blind obedience.
Throughout the discussion Bradley and Tate refer to Atheism in the same context as Secular Humanism yet Atheism is a declaration of disbelief in a deity and also leads to anti-theism, one can be an immoral murderous atheist as one can also murder in the name of god. Humanism is independent of Atheism; one cannot act with such impunity against another if they truly hold Humanist values as described below;
‘a commitment to the perspective, interests and centrality of human persons; a belief in reason and autonomy as foundational aspects of human existence; a belief that reason, scepticism and the scientific method are the only appropriate instruments for discovering truth and structuring the human community; a belief that the foundations for ethics and society are to be found in autonomy and moral equality’ (Concise Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy, p365)
Humanism is a positive belief in humanities innate morality and shared pack values which are independent of religious preference. If religious institutions take credit for providing morals to humanity, precisely which denotation can truly be credited with moral supremacy? They cannot all be right and there must be a starting point, as they did not all begin in the same instance. Is the starting point the humans that wrote the religious narrative as metaphor? Could the human’s innate values of morality have been contextualised and taught and did these metaphors subsequently evolve into myth and thus become reality.
Bradley and Tate are generally critical of the full frontal atheist attack on religious dominion, though in respect of minority represented Atheist they may feel this is the only way to be heard above the power houses of religious institutions which have had thousands of years to embed into every house, whether domestic, education or lords.
Though Bradley and Tate appear critical of the Atheist approach, they are enlightening as they highlight that being Atheist does not instil values or make one a more tolerant person, as evidenced with Harris and Amis. As such a declaration of Atheism does not automatically a line one with Humanist values.
Whichever side of theology one stands and regardless of how this review is read this book provides great material to stoke the fires of debate. Through reading this book one can learn to structure meandering thoughts on theology, atheism, humanism and philosophy, what more can be asked for?
1. Bradley, A., & Tate, A. (2010). The New atheist novel: fiction, philosophy and polemic after 9/11. Bloomsbury Publishing.
2. Routledge (Firm). (2000). Concise Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. Psychology Press.