While I have sometimes been critical of Jerry Coyne and his fellow New Atheists, it’s not because I think they are generally wrong. In fact, I can’t recall reading much in Jerry’s blog, Why Evolution Is True, with which I have disagreed. Coyne thinks clearly, writes well, and argues persuasively. Despite all this, I stopped reading his blog years ago, at about the time I stopped reading all the New Atheist stuff. It had, at least for me, gotten redundant, boring, and shrill.
When the New Atheists engage with the masses who believe in an anthropomorphic or loving-angry God, it is like shooting ducks in a barrel. When the ducks shoot back, as they frequently do, the deafening and often delusional din is just too much. When the New Atheists engage with theologians, which is a Coyne specialty, the ducks are at least on the wing before being shot. It is certainly more sporting, but still unsatisfying.
Why is this? It’s because, I suspect, the New Atheists are engaged in what amount to Christian debates. These debates have two poles, or at least polarities. There are the easy to dismiss ideologues (i.e, fundamentalists and creationists) and the not as easy to dismiss intellectuals (i.e., theologians and apologists). But regardless of which pole is being addressed, or metaphorically shot, the debate still occurs within the theistic confines of a mostly Christian box. By equal opportunist extension, Muslims and Hindus become occasional targets because they too believe in anthropomorphic gods. But for New Atheists the primary audience is English speaking and this means Christian.
The problem with all this (aside from New Atheist overconfidence about what is actually known) is that it artificially confines our debates and investigations. They become culturally parochial and historically provincial. In Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, John Gray touches on the issue:
Unbelief is a move in a game whose rules are set by believers. To deny the existence of God is to accept the categories of monotheism. As these categories fall into disuse, unbelief becomes uninteresting, and soon it will be meaningless. Atheists say they want a secular world, but a world defined by the absence of the Christians’ god is still a Christian world….Atheism is a late bloom of a Christian passion for Truth. (126-27)
As much as I would like to agree, the dialectical categories of theist-belief and atheist-unbelief are not falling into disuse. They are, in fact, ascendant. This explains why New Atheists (and their duck counterparts) sell so many books.
Despite all this, I can still appreciate it when Coyne lambastes theologians as he does here in the New Republic. As I’ve said before, this is dirty work but someone has to dive into in the gutter and do it. Those who do so will become sullied by binary association. They also run the risk of falling into the categorical-conceptual traps laid by theism.
One such trap is to think that theistic religions are simply modern growths or progressive offshoots of earlier traditions or other worldviews, particularly those of hunter-gatherers. I have seen a few New Atheists dismiss these as forms of “primitive” superstition even more vulgar than modern theisms. This is a category mistake that New Atheists can’t perceive because they are locked in theist debates and concepts. Animist worldviews are not “religions.” They are not simply the byproducts of ordinary, but faulty, cognition. They are not simply the products of hyperactive “agent perception” or “theory of mind” modules.
Animist worldviews are, in toto, the adaptive products or outcomes of hominin cognitive, social, and linguistic evolution. Those who take animist worldviews seriously, as all evolutionary scholars should, will eventually escape the suffocating confines of the theist box.