White is a nonbeliever, but like a lot of nonbelievers—me included—he’s frustrated with the so-called New Atheism’s refusal to engage with anything but the narrowest and most reductive understanding of religious experience, and its insistence on the scientific method as the only legitimate approach to truth. He starts out here by taking some well-aimed swipes at the Dawkins-Hitchens-Dennett Axis of Reason, but the book’s interest isn’t so much in the New Atheism per se as in the broader ideology of which it is the militant wing: scientism. Science often looks like the only show in town when it comes to considering things like the nature of consciousness and the meaning of human existence, and White is convinced that the demotion of the humanities—of poetic, philosophical, and spiritual approaches to truth—is a demotion of humanity itself. He’s aggravated, in particular, by the mechanistic model of personhood advanced by neuroscience, whereby consciousness is seen as something that can be “mapped,” explained in terms of “wiring” and “connections,” as though the mind were actually (as opposed to just metaphorically) a kind of computer. And so he’s arguing for a return to the spirit of Romanticism, to an intellectual culture that looks to poets and philosophers and artists, rather than scientists, for insight into what used to be called “the human condition.”
Jerry Coyne unloads on O’Connell:
Aren’t these anti-New Atheism pieces getting tiresome? They have three characteristics: 1. The author is an atheist or agnostic; 2. The author takes New Atheists to task for presenting a caricature of religion and not engaging with religion’s “best” arguments (i.e., academic obscurantism that uses big words), and 3. They call out New Atheists for the horrible crime of scientism.
The response goes on to call out the “nuanced” understandings of religion that New Atheists supposedly fail to engage:
Sometimes I wonder if people like O’Connell have really read the purveyors of obscurantist religious bullpucky: people like Karen Armstrong, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, or even Tanya Luhrmann. Their “nonreductive understanding” is either an attempt to evade spelling out what they really believe, or a wordy justification for garden-variety religion. And O’Connell also neglects that fact that most religious people aren’t theologians, do not read theology, and have a pretty straightforward (and “reductive,” whatever that means) set of beliefs. Jesus existed, was divine, and was crucified to save us from sin; Mohamed was the prophet and his words are not metaphorical; Joseph Smith revealed the visit of Jesus to North America and you can baptize your ancestors post mortem; you can get “clear” by investing thousands of dollars in analysis with the e-meter, and so on. I venture to say that at least 90% of the world’s religious believers fall into the class that Dawkins criticizes. Why on earth do critics like O’Connell always equate “religion” with “theology”?
Meanwhile, Pat Finn takes the debate in a different direction, emphasizing White’s re-appropriation of Romanticism as an alternate way forward:
Between the scientific rationalism of the neuroscientists and their allies in the New Atheist camp and the religious dogmatism of, among others, the Christian right, White advocates for a third mode of conceptualizing reality that he traces to Romanticism, which swept through Western Europe in the 19th century. What White sees as central to Romanticism is a commitment to the interminable re-imagining of society, and he considers its legacy to be intimately bound up with the various counterculture movements that sprung up in the second half of the 20th century, when millions of people throughout the Western world expressed dissatisfaction with their culture and tried to change it. To protest requires an act of imagination or will, the type that the scientific worldview tends to de-emphasize or even outright deny with its vision of man as an elaborate piece of machinery. This isn’t a new idea. As White points out, Isaiah Berlin made a similar argument in the 1960s when he said that “[s]cience is submission, science is being guided by the nature of things.” Many other secular thinkers throughout the past two centuries have expressed a similar form of dissatisfaction with the constraints science threatens to impose on human potential, both individually and collectively. To leap beyond the given – to see the world not as a collection of bare facts but as material to be transformed – is, for White, the essence of a progressive political culture. Scientism threatens to extinguish this belief in possibility and freedom that has always been at the heart of progressive cultural and political movements.