Wednesday 12 September 2007

'The radical energy of religious faith'

Tristram Hunt makes one or two reasonable points in his critique of the so-called 'new atheism' in today's Guardian. Like John Cornwell in his riposte to Dawkins last week, Hunt's response to Christopher Hitchens argues that religious faith can serve progressive as well as reactionary causes, and his point about the Protestant roots of the Enlightenment is a fair one.

But what might have been a reasonable contribution to the debate is undermined by Hunt's unnecessarily accusatory language. He casts religion as the victim of a 'new atheist orthodoxy', as if we were dealing with an organised conspiracy to abolish religion, rather than a couple of polemical books. Hunt accuses atheists of 'needlessly belittling our public discourse' and 'infantilising public debate', but his own use of terms such as 'stupid', 'ignorance' and 'arrogance' to describe Hitchens and Dawkins hardly helps.

Hunt concludes by claiming that these authors represent 'a milquetoast, left-liberal consensus unnerved by the radical energy of religious faith'. Leave aside the fact that one or two writers don't equate to a consensus: but yes, Tristram, atheists and secularists are certainly 'unnerved' by the 'radical energy' of some contemporary believers. 'Radical' faith can of course mean the kind that inspired Martin Luther King, but it can also mean the less benign variety that motivated those behind 9/11, 7/7 and recent murderous threats against novelists and cartoonists. If liberal believers were quicker to condemn rather than find explanations for these manifestations of 'radical energy', then progressive secularists might be more willing to see them as allies rather than antagonists.

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