After the New Atheist Debate

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Phil Ryan
UTP Insights
  • Toronto: 
    University of Toronto
    , October
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In After the New Atheist Debate, Phil Ryan offers an exceptionally balanced account of the arguments put forward both by the so-called New Atheists and by those who defend religion against New Atheist attacks. Ryan employs a useful courtroom metaphor throughout the book: the New Atheists represent the prosecution; the Christian thinkers who engage with New Atheist arguments represent the defense; and religion (i.e., Christianity) represents the accused. In the first section of the book, Ryan offers a vivid account not only of the arguments put forward by each side, but also of the vitriol present on either side of the courtroom. The prosecutors depict religion as irrational, violent, and divisive, and describe religious individuals as infantile, dishonest, and cowardly. For their part, the defense depicts atheism as immoral and atheists as degenerate, hormone-driven, social losers. In other words, both sides employ caricatures of the other. While this strategy may be common, it fails, as Ryan argues, to allow for meaningful disagreement.

Ryan ends the first section of the book by examining the New Atheists’ claim that serious religious belief entails a literal reading of scripture, which necessarily leads to violence. Here, Ryan provides a valuable insight. Turning to Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo, Ryan shows that non-literal interpretations of scripture have existed within Christian thought for centuries. Yet Ryan’s careful debunking of the new Atheist claim that serious religious belief entails a literal reading of scripture notwithstanding, some religious individuals continue to justify violence with reference to literal interpretations of scripture. To this point Ryan counters, “when it comes to understanding heinous acts, relying on the perpetrators’ explicit justifications is particularly unwise” (67). But while hidden motives—including uncertainty exploited by new organizational contexts (i.e., terrorist organizations)—may indeed be responsible for “religious” violence, perpetrators’ reliance on religious arguments remains an issue in want of exploration.

In the second section of the book, Ryan turns to ethics. The key problem, for Ryan, is that both sides of the New Atheist debate erroneously presume that their ethics rest on a secure foundation. By assiduously challenging the claims put forward by both sides, Ryan concludes these apparent moral foundations are merely convenient fictions. Moreover, the ethical foundations put forward by both the prosecution and the defense are unlikely to ever reach any shared ethical foundation. Here, Ryan provides another valuable insight: rather than imagining morality as requiring a foundation, he envisions morality as a fabric of beliefs that has no starting point and is never fully transparent, even to the person holding it (141). The key to working on and with this normative fabric, for Ryan, is dialogue. Thus although Ryan carefully criticizes the content of the New Atheist debate, his most important critique is centered on its tone. In order to productively work on society’s normative fabric, Ryan argues we must engage in non-polemical sharing, which is exactly what the acrimonious tone of the current debate discourages.

Ryan sets out to explore arguments and styles of argumentation. Given this focus, this book sensibly ignores many of the other social, economic, or political motives that might lead atheists and religious individuals alike to resist dialogue and retreat ever further into their own particular views and positions. Yet occasionally, Ryan relies on social scientific research to support his claims. When criticizing Sam Harris’s scientific ethics focused on happiness and suffering, for instance, Ryan argues that happiness research has found that individuals who believe in God are happier than those who do not; and argues that Harris’s scientific ethics must therefore “accept the empirical finding that religious belief is associated with happiness” (93). Yet if empirical findings are to play a role in this courtroom drama, then perhaps some additional scrutiny concerning the ways religion and non-religion contribute to individuals’ lived realities should be considered.

Biblical exegesis also plays a role in Ryan’s arguments. While Ryan is justified in turning to biblical exegesis in the chapter dealing with exegetical arguments put forward by the defense, exegesis is perhaps less justified when employed by Ryan himself to counter New Atheist arguments. Ryan’s claim that Harris’s ethics “represents a regression relative to the ethical consciousness developed within the Bible” (94), for instance, detracts from his overall neutrality, and reminds readers that Ryan is writing from a Christian perspective. Although Ryan mentions other religions—especially Islam, which has received the brunt of New Atheist attacks—much of the book is concerned with Christianity. This focus can be justified in light of the fact that the book deals mostly with the ways the New Atheist debate has played out in majority-Christian communities. Yet religious studies scholars will likely object when Ryan occasionally attempts to generalize from Christianity to all religions (82).

At the end of the introduction, Ryan includes a word to specialists in which he urges them to “cut him a bit of slack” (19). This book is not meant for specialists. Yet even specialists will benefit from Ryan’s astute observations, balanced critique, and apt suggestions for weaving a workable—if not shared—ethical fabric in the wake of the New Atheist debate. After the New Atheist Debate offers a fascinating glimpse into the arguments, polemics, and caricatures this debate has inspired along with innovative suggestions concerning how we might better navigate our shared social context through meaningful dialogue, and with an aim not to determine which side is finally right, but rather to ask how we might create a world in which it is at least “a little easier to be good” (164).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is Baker Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen's University, Kingston.

Date of Review: 
November 3, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Phil Ryan is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University. His most recent book, Multicultiphobia, was shortlisted for the Canada Prize in the Social Sciences in 2011.


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