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How Ignorance Insulates the New Atheists

Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True is all excited that London Guardian columnist Julian Baggini appears, to Dr. Coyne, to be coming around to a view more sympathetic to the New Atheists. The New Atheists, you remember, are a group distinguishable by the way their aggressiveness in attacking religion is matched by their ignorance of the experience, philosophy, and evidence for faith. In the good old days, they would have been dismissed as village atheists, except that back then the village atheist didn’t, like Dr. Coyne, hold forth from a professorship at the University of Chicago.
What is it that Baggini, who also edits The Philosopher’s Magazine, has to say? Mainly that in answering critics, it isn’t sufficient for defenders of religion in general or one religion in particular to make do with the dismissive reply, “You don’t understand my religion.” Instead you have to show substantively where Coyne, Dawkins, Hitchens, or other detractors get things wrong.
That’s a fair point, and it’s why I wrote a book called Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History, a 2000-year history of the argument between Jews and Christians. In that debate, it really is not enough to say “You don’t understand my religion.” Both sides offer substantive critiques and rebuttals that need to be addressed. However in the case of Jerry Coyne and the other New Atheists, Baggini’s point doesn’t really apply.
First, that’s because the key argument against belief in God lies, as it always did, in the attempted critique of the design argument. New Atheists like Richard Dawkins recognize this, and so does Coyne. Otherwise why would he name his blog, a venue overwhelmingly devoted to religion bashing, “Why Evolution Is True”? Yet the New Atheists have uniformly kept themselves just as ignorant of modern expressions of the design argument as they have of adult religious beliefs. When Dawkins goes after Darwin-doubters, he ignores — will not debate, will not grapple with in print, probably doesn’t even read — proponents of intelligent design, a credible scientific alternative to and critique of Darwinian evolution. So too with Coyne. When Dawkins or PZ Myers or the rest does critique a Darwin doubter, it’s always some hapless creationist, apprehended unarmed in the Internet wasteland and presenting a nice easy target. Like a schoolyard bully, they will pick on the little kids, but never on an opponent their own size.
Intelligent design isn’t an argument for religion but it, or something like it, would have to be true if any traditional faith is to be taken as true. Yet the New Atheists do not seriously contest the evidence that ID offers. So, despite what Baggini says, what is there really to say in reply to them?
Second, while Coyne makes a point from time to time of noting his credentials as a “cultural Jew” or “apostate Hebrew,” I’ve never come across an instance where he wrote anything of even seeming substance about his ancestral religion, which is my own. It’s not even as if he had launched a crude, vulgar attack on Judaism like he did on Catholicism in his now celebrated debate — well, it’s celebrated by Dr. Coyne, anyway — with theistic evolutionary Catholic scholar John Haught.
Because he’s the most “Jewish”-flavored of the New Atheist leading lights, I look at Coyne’s blog with some regularity. The only time that I can recall his having anything to say about Jewish matters, it was to attack a purported group of “Jewish creationists,” a group that had several hallmarks, for anyone not utterly tone deaf to Jewish religious culture, of being a hoax, presumably a Darwinist jest. So with Jerry Coyne it doesn’t even get to the point where a fellow Jew could say to him “You don’t understand my religion.”
Judaism is a faith with a vast and profound tradition in which it expects Jews to school themselves. I don’t think there’s a faith in the world that assumes more in the way of self-education by its adherents — knowledge of texts, interpretation, law, philosophy, mysticism, and much else. It’s for precisely this reason that Judaism is so susceptible to lampooning by the shamelessly ignorant. It remains, as my wife likes to say, the world’s most unknown religion. Unknown by most Jews too! Not that this has stopped many an ignorant Jew from lecturing others about the laughable deficiencies of his ancestors’ faith.
It may even be that Coyne is to be commended on this score. It is a safe bet that he knows nothing about his inherited faith, but at least he says relatively little about it. In general, he keeps his voluminous writings against religion pretty generic — a further indication of his untutored na�vet� but maybe also of a certain surprising, even endearing humility.