No new atheism, but new problems?

I have gained the impression that the so-called ‘new atheists’ really have little that new to say, and that helps to make them a soft target for critics. This is a pity – to say no more – when contemporary efforts to revitalise religious thought and practice in today’s very difficult circumstances, like the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ launched by Professor Milbank,  have serious problems of their own.

Like many others, Milbank had made the error of confusing modernism and modernity, leading to a much exaggerated idea of the significance of ‘post-modernism’. Far more important, that exaggeration had the implication that a post-modernity is feasible simply because, as Milbank rightly says, the secular ideologies have withered. But the promises of secular modernisms and ideologies are one thing, and features of modernity like acceleration of trade, technology, and information; sceptical thought and moral uncertainty; or abstraction of organisation, are something else. Moreover, modernity has a complex history that can be traced back to the Middle Ages at least, whereas modernism(s) have proved more ephemeral.

Still deeper problems emerge when Milbank and others insist that religion (however defined) is a public matter, and not just a personal opinion or lifestyle. Now, it is entirely reasonable to point out that the liberal (loosely speaking) attempt to keep religious conflicts out of the public realm by holding faith to be a purely personal practice is not realistic. But the problem remains that we run democracies with religions having a place in public life on the condition that everyone has the civic right to differ on religious matters, be they theology or ritual and practice. So, each religious community can find its own niche within the public sphere alongside the personal faith of its members. That whole schema becomes problematic once theologians (or sociologists and politicians) introduce the essentially secular claim that morality has no secure basis without divine support, and even more if a claim is made of transcendent truth, which has to mean the possibility of transcendent error and falsehood. I am sure that Professor Milbank, and those sympathetic with him, have no wish to create an authoritarian theocracy, but it will be hard to reconcile the above positions with religion as a public presence unless at least some religious issues are off limits for public debate.

If atheists or secularists wish to challenge religious faith in the twenty-first century, I would sooner see them addressing these issues and working to resolve them, than merely returning to the theme that religious belief is irrational at a time when rationality is itself a problematic notion.

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