Be that as it may, let us examine this manifesto critically.
BACKGROUNDThe New Atheism is a name given to a movement represented by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom wrote best-selling books that were highly critical of religion.
Religion? What is that? The meaning of this word is hotly debated in academic circles, as I am sure Avalos and Gagne realize. By some definitions, as for instance some Peter Berger and Paul Tillich discuss, Secular Humanism can also be considered a "religion."
Although the New Atheism does not eschew the classical arguments against the existence of God, its focus is primarily on the immorality and harmful consequences of religious thinking itself. For some, the New Atheism is not merely atheistic, but also anti-theistic.
Another main feature of the New Atheism is a secular apocalyptic outlook born out of the events of September 11, 2001. A secular apocalyptic outlook refers to the view that religion has the potential to destroy humanity and our entire biosphere.
Odd that such a criticism should be made just a few decades after the end of the Cold War, in which the West (secularist and Christian) faced "religiously" atheistic Soviet and Maoist geopolitical blocks that possessed vastly greater resources for destroying humanity than anything, say, Iran possesses today. Can Avalos and Gagne already have forgotten the 20th Century?
The communists did a number on the biosphere, too. (Although some species appear to have flourished after humans were forced out of Chernobyl and the No-man's land along the North Korean border, apparently.)
However, many secular and religious critics of the New Atheism have charged the New Atheism with a number of flaws. One is a lack of expertise in scriptural and religious studies that has led Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens to make pronouncements that are rightly viewed as simplistic or inaccurate in some cases.
Got that right.
This situation has led to the perception that the New Atheism has no experts in scriptural and religious studies that could challenge religious counterparts with as much or more expertise. Others have conflated all New Atheists as followers of a neoliberal or capitalist ideology. Still others note that all the representatives of the New Atheism are white males.
The latter would be peculiar set of charges, to anyone who follows the movement. Most "Gnus" are decidedly left-wing, with many proponents well to the left of the American Democratic Party, for instance. (As, indeed, was the Marxist-Leninist movement, the world's most successful anti-"religious" movement of all time.) While most New Atheists do indeed seem to be male -- and often rowdy males, some women attending their conferences have complained -- of course there has long been a female contingent as well, led by people like Greta Christiana and (for color) Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Accordingly, there is a need to identify a Second Wave of the New Atheism. Such a need was discussed briefly in Hector Avalos, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015), but it received no elaboration.
The First Wave focused on the problems that religious thinking can cause. Since religion was the focus of the First Wave, then a Second Wave seeks to rethink how self-identified atheist scholars of religion and scripture approach the issues that the First Wave raised.
The original band of New Atheists could stand for some help from scholars who know more about religion than they do, I concede.
The recent uprising of terror attacks across the globe from groups like ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and others, is also one of the reasons why scholars of religion and scriptural studies who identify with a Second Wave of New Atheists should speak out against the catastrophic effects of religious violence and ideology.
Oddly enough, all three of these movements belong to just one of the world's major religions. I wonder how many of the signatures of this document are scholars of that religion? Those few I recognize, are not.
But again, notice that no mention is made of prior "(religious) violence and ideology" by atheistic Marxist-Leninists. Have the deaths of 100 million innocent people, many after prolonged torture and deprivement, already slipped the minds of Avalos, Gagne, & Co? If it happened "once" -- actually protracted over many decades, on five continents -- why should we be so confident that atheistic-based ideologies are now neutered of the potential for harm?
The authors of this statement, Hector Avalos and André Gagné, thought it useful to identify the main characteristics of what can be called a Second Wave of the New Atheism. Our hope is that other secular scholars who have similar ideas might join us or help us to clarify the nature and purpose of scriptural scholarship and the study of religion as it relates to current global events in the coming decades.
All right, let's see what proposals Avalos and Gagne come up with.
A MANIFESTO FOR SECULAR SCRIPTURAL SCHOLARSHIP AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES
Insofar as we believe that religious belief has the potential to incite actions that could ultimately lead to the destruction of our planet, we identify ourselves with what is called “the New Atheism.”
Insofar as atheistic ideology almost DID incite destruction of the planet, I don't see why we are supposed to assume that this "cure" is better than the "disease" -- which may, after all, have something to do with human nature.
We affirm that a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists insofar as that descriptor encompasses self-identified atheist scriptural scholars or scholars of religion who:
- Are academically trained experts in the study of religion and sacred scriptures (e.g., the Bible, Quran, and any other text deemed sacred on religious grounds);
- Regard activism as a fundamental orientation of all scholarship insofar they agree with Noam Chomsky’s view that “[i]t is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies”;
- Uphold and defend freedom of expression;
- Question the notion that religious thinking is itself good or ethical;
- Acknowledge that human ethics need not depend on religion;
- Welcome as wide a diversity of scholars as possible in terms of ethnic self- identification, gender, or sexual orientation;
- Recognize that most of biblical scholarship is still largely part of an ecclesial-academic complex that renders it very distinct from other areas of the humanities and social sciences, especially insofar as it seeks to protect and preserve religion as a valuable feature of human existence;
- Aim to expose the bibliolatry that still lies at the core of biblical studies insofar as most biblical scholars believe the Bible should be a vital part of modern cultures or bears superior ethical values;
- Advocate the discontinuation of the use of any sacred scripture as a moral authority in the modern world;
- Acknowledge that the traditional scriptural canons are an artificial theological construct, and encourages scriptural scholarship to study all texts considered authoritative or sacred by ancient religions;
- Call attention to the ethical advances or positive features of texts in the ancient Near East that have not received due attention;
- Seek to make scriptural and religious studies relevant by encouraging scholars of sacred scriptures and religions to engage in public discussions and/or use cyber-media to educate the public about issues such as the role of religion in violence and the use of sacred scriptures to oppose gay rights, contraception, gender equality, and other social and human rights issues that should be adjudicated on non-religious grounds;
This sounds to me like a call for one-sided, left-wing anti-Christian propaganda. Don't Drs. Avalos and Gagne wish to be contradicted, despite their mention of freedom of speech?
- Encourage secular scholars of religion and sacred scriptures to help establish policies that are based on reason and democratic values instead of religion; they should be the guardians of a strict separation between religion and state;
- View cooperation with scientists as a necessary strategy to challenge those who use sacred scriptures to deny the existence of evolution or anthropogenic climate change, among other general scientific conclusions;
- Work to ensure that professional organizations of scriptural and religious studies, such as the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, insist on methodological naturalism, and not theological methodologies, in their basic approach to all research presented at its meetings, as is the case with all other areas of the humanities and social sciences;
- Affirm that religious obscurantism can only be countered through education;
- Insist on critical education that focuses on a historical and social understanding and development of religion; that is, teaching and education that is fact-based instead of faith-based; people should know ABOUT religions and religious texts, not in the sense of maintaining the value of any religious tradition, but to develop critical thinking about religions;
- Regard the study of the Bible, the Quran, and other sacred scriptures as important in understanding western history and modern culture, but without seeking to retain their moral authority.
Scholars who share these views may not identify themselves as any sort of New Atheists or as part of any Second Wave of the New Atheism. Indeed, some of the following signatories do not necessarily apply those labels to themselves. When the co-authors say that “a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists...” they are affirming the existence of people who already think this way, but may not have identified as such explicitly up to now.
However, we invite all scholars who share these views to join us in expressing, or putting into practice, any or all of the ideas and goals that we have outlined here.
All in all, this manifesto seems rather Johnny-Come-Lately to me. The "objective" study of religion has been used as a weapon against "religion" for at least a century, already. The Bolshevik Revolution, which set the "League of Militant Atheists" to bother, pester and persecute believers by the million across Eurasia, and send millions more to the Gulag, many never to return, came to power a full century ago, next year. Nor do I think any American Christian would expect a friendly pat on the back when entering a Religious Studies program in the United States.
I will say this for Karl Marx. He and Engels did, at least, master the bombastic style. ("A spectre is haunting Europe . . . ""You have nothing to lose but your chains!") I doubt this one is going to catch on, even if its goals have already largely been fulfilled.