The New Atheism, Myth, and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion
Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018
My interest in Nathan Johnstone’s book comes from my lifelong experience of a diversity of religious thought. I was born and raised in Indonesia, a majority Islamic nation. My global studies and travels have exposed me to a plethora of philosophies, beliefs, and arguments. Having nearly become an atheist myself in my early 20s, and having read many of the New Atheist publications as well as the writings of their detractors, I consider myself well versed in the arguments of both sides. I enjoy and respect my discussions with atheists.
The self-described “New Atheist” movement began arguably in 2004 with the publication of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. This was the first book to be associated with New Atheists, although the term “New Atheist” itself was not born until 2006. Since then there have been a plethora of books, articles, and other media posts written by atheists in support of the new atheism and by theists criticising and countering the moment.
Nathan Johnstone may not be the first author to join in the fray, but his book is the first to approach the issue from a historical perspective as opposed to a philosophical or theological perspective. What is distinctive about this book and its author’s approach is that he is not arguing for or against atheism or theism. In fact, the author freely criticises both atheist and theist arguments where he deems it necessary.
If Johnstone has a bias, it is a historical one, not a philosophical one. The author is a specialist in cultural and religious history and is also the author of The Devil and Demonism in Early Modern England. He has taught history at Canterbury Christ Church University and at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. As a point of interest, the “Black Legends” in the title of the book refers to a term coined by author Julian Juderias in 1914 to describe the attacks on the Catholic Church being launched by some intellectuals of the day based on erroneous interpretations and incorrect reporting of historical events such as the Inquisition and witch hunts.
Johnstone focuses on the use of history in the New Atheist’s arsenal of arguments. He looks at the accuracy of the historical claims made and the objectivity or lack thereof which is applied, and then tackles those arguments.
Johnstone’s basic thesis is that the New Atheists are not accurately representing historical reality and, in fact, are largely relying on historical myths long since overturned by historians. Further, they are exhibiting a concerning bias and questionable approach towards the humanities in general. In his own words,
What is…remarkable…given the scale of their [new atheists historical] claims being made…is how few secularists have seriously asked whether Harris or his colleagues are right…. It is the authority of science that the New Atheists claim for their attacks on religion and so it is as scientists….they should be judged….. [M]uch of the New Atheist critique of religion is actually based in areas such as politics, sociology, ethics, philosophy, cultural studies, education…and of course, history. (Pp. 2-3)
The author begins by looking at three major historical “moments” oft targeted by the New Atheists as proof of religion’s dangers: specifically, the infamous mediaeval witch hunts, the executions of heretics, and the Holocaust. In great detail Johnstone dissects the historical archives and relevant writings on each point. He brings up several issues, including the use of inaccurate data, unreliable sources, and unverified claims. For example, he robustly and evidentially overturns many of the claims made about deaths of “witches” at the hands of the Church. Not only are the numbers used by the New Atheist significantly inflated, but the New Atheist arguments miss out on cultural and political realities of the time. These same realities change the focus of what happened (or did not happen) in the witch hunt from a primarily religious motive to a sociopolitical motive. This is not to say that the Church did not play a role. Rather, the author provides proper facts, context, and clarity.
From that discussion he moves on to rationalism (Atomism, anti-rationalism in the Church, and the incident with Galileo) and the dangers of skepticism at the hands of the Church. As in the earlier section, Johnstone brings a certain clarity to the conversation backed up by facts and historical evidence. It becomes clear that the Church was not, by and large, anti-intellectual with a bent on ferreting out and killing heretics. The data used by the New Atheists in these claims range from incorrect to a form of cherry picking whereby the context is removed, changing the meaning of said data. The author refers to quotes that the New Atheists have used to justify their arguments which,upon investigation, knowingly or otherwise, are actually “quote-mines.” That is to say, they have had key words or context removed, which changes the meaning of what is actually being said.
The rest of the book focuses on what the author deems the false “science vs religion” narrative and the inconsistency in New Atheists’ claims of what Atheist regimes have done in history. Johnstone examines the claims by some New Atheists that “such regimes are not truly atheist” or that “religion and science can never meet” with strong, fact-based analysis which debunks what he deems to be, in fact, myths. The author’s writing on what happened in Stalinist Russia is bleak and honest, and demonstrates that atheism was very much at the heart of the regime. However, he also points out that just as an atheist regime committed great evils, so have many religious ones, and thus one cannot draw a conclusion from such regimes about the morality of atheism or, for that matter, religion.
The conclusion of the book looks at the militancy and missionary zeal of the New Atheists. Quoting various New Atheists, Johnstone brings out a disturbing pattern of pseudo-religious zeal with an implication of militancy. The author expresses concern that the New Atheists are simply becoming what they claim to fight, and that they have hijacked atheism for an agenda that is more than merely atheism. Their lack of respect for objective historical facts, their misuse of some of the sciences, and their militancy all show a movement that differs little from the religions it claims to be opposed to. Yet he ends on a hopeful note:
I do not argue, that atheism, even in its more militant “New” form, is naturally inclined to fulfil the worst expectations of its theist critics. Rather, it should…avoid cavalier assumptions of moral superiority that allow history to be ignored…and a lack of self-reflection as to the potential consequences of claiming anti-religion is the key to societal improvement. (P. 279)
This book should be required reading for Orthodox priests and indeed anyone who partakes in or follows the debates between atheism and theism, particularly those that involve the New Atheists. It has a unique, almost neutral approach which is a breath of fresh air in these debates. The majority of these debates tend to focus on theology/philosophy with little academic attention given to the historical claims made by the New Atheists. Often, because Orthodox tend to frame their arguments in “faith” and “mystery,” they receive little audience with the atheist. When an atheist hears those two words what they actually hear is, “We (the religious) cannot intellectually defend our position, so we just fall back on ‘God did it.'” By bringing the discussion around to the historical claims, both sides can meet in an equitable middle. Too often the Orthodox faithful approach these discussions as if the atheist is a delusional, evil fool. In turn the atheist views the faithful as rejecting reason and thus a superstitious fool.
By focusing on the historical claims, both sides can move beyond the vitriol of the flame wars one often sees on mainstream and social media and enter into rational, evidence-based discussions. Sadly, because both sides—especially amongst the Orthodox—have taken these polar views of each other, discussions become shallow and mocking. Often both sides deny the intellectual capacity and validity of at least some of the other side’s arguments. The point of the discussion should not be to prove atheism false and theism correct or vice versa. The initial step should be to establish that both religion and atheism can do great good and great harm and that religion is not the primary driver of the world’s ills.
Christians should converse with atheists in a respectful and intellectual manner because they act, in the words of a friend, as “God’s quality control.” They help us think through our faith and find our hypocrisy and failings. Often atheists are religious folks’ best friends. Once this middle ground is walked upon by both parties and a détente is established, perhaps then the arguments can move into the sphere of philosophy and abandon the vitriol that so often describes these discussions.
Iain Elabo holds an Honours BA in Political Science/Social Development from Guelph University in Ontario, Canada, and two diplomas in Indonesian tax and criminal law. He currently works as a consultant in community development. He is an Orthodox Christian and lives with his wife and children in Papua, Indonesia.