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'The Once-Born and the Twice-Born'

6:01 AM, Oct 2, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Gertrude Himmelfarb, writing in the Wall Street Journal:

We have been witnessing in recent years a vigorous and almost concerted resurgence of atheism. The writers Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett—the "Four Horsemen of the New Atheism," as they have characterized themselves—have advanced a particularly militant form of non-belief. In best-selling books bearing such titles as "The God Delusion" (Dawkins), "God Is not Great" (Hitchens), "The End of Faith" (Harris) and "Breaking the Spell" (Dennett), they have launched a full-fledged war against religion. The "God hypothesis," they insist, is a scientific conjecture about the nature of the universe and must be judged as such, where it utterly fails. Nor can it claim to be a necessary basis for morality, because morality is sufficiently accounted for on naturalistic and evolutionary grounds. Nor can it be justified by putting science and religion in separate spheres ("non-overlappingmagisteria"), as the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed, with science presiding over the empirical realm and religion over the moral, because the two spheres are not distinct and science presides over both. For the four horsemen and their followers, religion, in whatever form, is both spurious and redundant.

Perhaps in response to the New Atheists (although he does not mention them by name), another self-proclaiming atheist has entered the debate with another provocatively titled book, "Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion." Alain de Botton does not attempt to refute religion; he simply stipulates that it is not true. It is, however, "sporadically useful, interesting, and consoling" and can, therefore, be enlisted in the service of atheists. For people trying to cope with the pains and difficulties of life, religions (not religion in the abstract but institutional religions) are "repositories" of goods that can assuage their ills. By appropriating those goods—"music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts" and the like—and introducing them into secular society, Mr. de Botton proposes to rescue that which is "beautiful, touching and wise" from religions that are no longer true and put it to use by an atheism that is indubitably true but sadly deficient in such consolations.

To anyone even casually familiar with the perennial debate between religion and science, both the New Atheism of the four horsemen and the "Neo-Atheism," as it might be dubbed, of Mr. de Botton seem peculiarly old-fashioned—retro, as we now say. And it is old-fashioned enough to recall a participant in that debate more than a century ago. The Harvard philosopher William James did not identify himself as an atheist. On the contrary, it was as a believer that he defended religion—but a believer of a special sort and a religion that the orthodox, then and now, would not recognize as such. If Mr. de Botton is a Neo-Atheist, James qualifies as a Neo-Believer.

Whole thing here.

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