The real success story of the new atheism is that it was bought and sold after being intellectually panned by almost all the cognoscenti who weren’t atheist activists. In fact, as the circle closed around a tightly knit cadre of God-opposers, opposing God became virtually the sole criterion for what, in their parochial view, counted for anthropology, archaeology, sociology and the study of religion–about which all of the four (check the footnotes) were blissfully ignorant.
And I mean that in the most damning sense. Virtually all of the credible reviews alleged it of Dawkins, and the others didn’t fare much better outside the atheist camp. The reflexive answer was to accuse anyone who opposed the unscientific, malformed, and totally ignorant premises of these books of being “faitheists” and to say that dispute would be treated as treason against the higher purposes for which the books had been written.
If that didn’t stick, sane voices were denounced as jealous voices, as though reputable scholars wished they had written historical and philosophical travesty under their own names.
The repetitive accusation against Dawkins–that he was attacking a straw man, a sort of tertia res religiosa that did not exist–became the new framing device for every critique of new atheist tactics: its critics (despite manifold evidence to the contrary) were attacking a form of atheism that did not exist.
Sensible, if complex views like those of John Gray on the origin of humanitarian impulses, were conveniently set aside in favour of a new recipe for a scientific-evolutionary morality that floats above historical causality: Wrote Atran,
There is an irony of history that completely escapes Harris and other new atheists in their evangelical quest for a global morality rooted in scientific truth. As philosopher John Gray of the London School of Economics convincingly argues, it is universal forms of monotheism, such as Christianity and Islam, that merged Hebrew tribal belief in one God with Greek faith in universal laws applicable to the whole of creation that originated the inclusive concept of Humanity in the first place… Harris’s own messianic moral absolutism, based on devotion to “truth,” leads to some rather nutty proposals that defy common sense and are justified by made-up history that is patently untrue.
So much for Harris’s pop-psychology, or rather MRI-enhanced pop-psychology. Dawkins and Dennett were serious academics working out-of-field but who seem honestly to have believed that the methodologies developed in other disciplines were easily mastered and just as easily dismissed–a cavalier attitude toward critique that bordered on Dominican hubris at best and anti-intellectualism at the deep end.
Full text here. Long article, and a few months old now (Jan 2012) but well worth reading.