James Wood has written one of the most elegant and intelligent critiques of the 'new atheism' of Richard Dawkins et al, initially given as a lecture and then published in Saturday's Guardian. He argues that the 'new atheism':
parasitically lives off its enemy. Just as evangelical Christianity is characterised by scriptural literalism and an uncomplicated belief in a "personal God", so the New Atheism often seems engaged only in doing battle with scriptural literalism; but the only way to combat such literalism is with rival literalism. The God of the New Atheism and the God of religious fundamentalism turn out to be remarkably similar entities. This God, the God worth fighting against, is the God we grew up with as children (and soon grew out of, or stopped believing in): this God created the world, controls our destinies, sits up somewhere in heaven, loves us, sometimes punishes us, and is ready to intervene to perform miracles. He promises goodies in heaven for the devout, and horrors for the damned. Since militant atheism interprets religious faith, again on the evangelical or Islamist model, as blind – a blind leap of faith that hurls the believer into an infinite idiocy – so no understanding or even interest can be extended to why or how people believe the religious narratives they follow, and how often those narratives are invaded by doubt, reversal, interruption and banality.
There is a venn diagram connecting the 'new atheism' with the 'new biologism', with Dawkins himself sitting proudly in the middle. The combined movement does for The Enlightenment what neo-conservatism does for democracy: defends and extends it so vigorously as to destroy most of its residual value. Paul Wolfowitz values democracy so highly, that he cannot leave it to the demos; Dawkins values Enlightenment so highly, that he no longer trusts the deliberative public sphere, which Kant saw as its animating force, to secure it. For a brilliant tour of the 'new biologism' and its errors, see this NYRB review of David Brooks's strange new book.
The great virtue of the original Enlightenment, over this post-modern, pastiched version, was its discovery of two things, which the 'new atheism' and the 'new biologism' appear to have forgotten. Firstly, that even if history appears to be moving in a certain direction, it doesn't stop moving altogether. This motion and contingency engulfs science as much as politics or culture. Secondly, that there is a distinction between knowledge and truth. If one wanted to combine these two insights in one, it would be that human civilisation is evolutionary. Dawkins is apparently entirely blind to the non-biological forms of evolution, which would surely have to include the 'meta-evolution' of evolutionary theory itself (I am not aware whether Darwin himself was interested in the broader implications of evolutionary theory, though Marx, Nietzsche and the American pragmatists certainly saw such implications in Darwin's work).
My question to Dawkins, Brooks and much of the neuro-brigade would be the following one. If human beings have existed for several hundred thousand years, and evolved from other species over millions of years, and if they could feasibly remain in existence for another hundred thousand years (potentially to evolve to a higher species over millions of years!), why should 2011 be the point at which we hold the truth of this process, and the truth of who we are? Why indeed should it be the 21st century, or the 19th century or the last 400 years of modernity? Why, if you believe that 'truth' about humans is possible, would it not appear in 3011? Or perhaps in the year 45627?
Do you think that the craniologists of the late 19th century went around saying "this is only an approximation of the truth; to get to the real truth, we'd have to know which parts of the brain 'lit up' when a child was hugged, which probably won't be possible for at least another 100 years"? Do you honestly think that scientists in 2100 will be citing neuroscientific or primate research from 2011, regarding the 'truth' of who we are? Does David Brooks honestly think that scientists in 2011 cite believe that we have discovered the 'truth' of who we are?!
A silly version of postmodernism would suggest that contemporary scientific claims are identically as valid as those made in the dark ages, whereas really they are valid in different ways. Whereas a smart critique of rationalism (and of the Dawkinsesque pastiche of Enlightenment) is one which recognises the evolutionary nature of science, capitalism, culture, such that we cannot throw off our current mindset, culture or language, but nor are we imprisoned in it. We recognise the present as constitutive of who we are, but also as a single moment in an unfolding drama with no apparent conclusion.
This was the approach to modernity that enabled Nietzsche to take biology seriously, as contributing to the death of god, but also as undermining the capacity for certainty (for if we are part of nature after all, then we lose any privileged perspective upon that nature). It is also exhibited in Foucault's engagement with Kant, in his own 'What is Enlightenment?'. From these post-Enlightenment perspectives, the central characteristic of Enlightenment that needs reviving is the great new uncertainty that it unleashed. Dawkins, by this account, is an anti-Enlightenment thinker, as James Wood's article implies.
This same challenge needs posing to economic policy-makers and intellectuals today. Paul Mason recently chaired a BBC radio debate between Keynesians and Hayekians, to discover which thinker had the most convincing analysis of the current crisis, or the best policy advice. But one wonders whether either thinker would have been happy being turned into a rationalist totem in this way (which isn't to devalue the great work that Mason is doing in furthering public understanding of this crisis). Marx famously said that he was not a 'Marxist'. Would Keynes today be a 'Keynesian'? Would Hayek be a 'Hayekian'? Surely thinkers with such an acute awareness of uncertainty as the central problem of human existence (and not only of capitalist institutions) would have been loathe to have their ideas packaged up and offered as potions for the sick patient, 80 years after they were formulated.
Regulationists, pragmatists and post-Keynesians would argue that we are currently operating without any rational basis on which to resolve the current crisis, because the old ones contributed to it. Only when a new paradigm has emerged will the crisis begin to subside - but we have to appreciate the fact that the new paradigm may look nothing like the old one, in fact it may not even be recognisable as a stable paradigm at all, as I wondered as the banks were collapsing. Surely that is the most important insight of the evolutionary perspective.
Nietzsche had a particular notion of the 'hero', as the figure who provides an example, but not an instruction. For him, modest fellow that he was, this included Socrates and Jesus Christ. The 'new atheism' and the 'new biologism' offer instructions, but few heroes (which makes Christopher Hitchens' alliance with Dawkins all the more unfortunate). Equally, its protagonists look to the 18th and 19th century in search of instructions, just as the Left currently turns to Keynes's General Theory in search of instructions. From a Nietzschean perspective, Kant, Darwin, Marx and Keynes can be heroes, inasmuch as they recognised the incomplete nature of human progress and the uncertain nature of human knowledge, yet charged on regardless. By comparison, their particular instructions are somewhat less helpful several hundred years later, except as articles of faith and comfort blankets.