Here's some good news about the newest form of the "new atheism."
It isn't just content to challenge theological propositions and supernatural world views, but also says prove it when religious believers cite personal experience as their reason for having faith in whatever they believe.
At least, this is one of the conclusions I got from an interesting New York Times essay by Gary Gutting, "Beyond 'New Atheism.'"
For atheists like Dawkins, belief in God is an intellectual mistake, and honest thinkers need simply to recognize this and move on from the silliness and abuses associated with religion.
Most believers, however, do not come to religion through philosophical arguments. Rather, their belief arises from their personal experiences of a spiritual world of meaning and values, with God as its center.
In the last few years there has emerged another style of atheism that takes such experiences seriously. One of its best exponents is Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia. (For a good introduction to his views, see Kitcher’s essay in “The Joy of Secularism,” perceptively discussed last month by James Wood in The New Yorker.)
Instead of focusing on the scientific inadequacy of theistic arguments, Kitcher critically examines the spiritual experiences underlying religious belief, particularly noting that they depend on specific and contingent social and cultural conditions.
Your religious beliefs typically depend on the community in which you were raised or live. The spiritual experiences of people in ancient Greece, medieval Japan or 21st-century Saudi Arabia do not lead to belief in Christianity. It seems, therefore, that religious belief very likely tracks not truth but social conditioning.
Amen to that.
I used to consider that the notion of a spiritual Perennial Philosophy had some basis in fact. Namely, that underlying the obvious significant differences between the world's many religions, mystic teachings, and other forms of spirituality, there was a common denominator, a foundational ground floor if you will -- a solid universal reality upon which cultural conjectures flowered in myriad illusory patterns.
Well, there is little or no evidence of this in religious theologies.
For example, Christianity is poles apart from Hinduism. It's possible to find some common ground, particularly in the realm of ethics, but God is far different from Brahman, as Jesus is far different from Krishna.
So if there's something true about religious belief, it won't be evidenced through theological analysis. Which leaves personal experience. Yet here too, there's little common ground.
The number of Tibetan Buddhist meditators who end up professing a belief in Christianity after having an inner experience of Jesus' divinity must be close to zero, if not precisely that number. (I'm assuming no prior cultural acquaintance with Christianity that could influence the "experiment" of meditation.)
Give Gutting's essay a read. I've focused on the implications of only one of the "newest new atheist" points he makes in his piece. Just about my only quibble with his essay was this statement:
This “cultural relativism” argument is an old one, but Kitcher shows that it is still a serious challenge. (He is also refreshingly aware that he needs to show why a similar argument does not apply to his own position, since atheistic beliefs are themselves often a result of the community in which one lives.)
OK, I can agree that the prevalence of atheism in a society is dependent on cultural factors. But I don't agree that atheism is a "belief" in the sense that religious belief is. Atheism is the absence of belief, not a belief per se.