Review of Peter Watson's book, The Age of Atheists, in the Atlantic Magazine

Emma Green has written a dismissive review of The Age of Atheists in the Atlantic Magazine. The review is online at:

Green's counter argument to Watson's complex account of the trend of intellectual history towards atheism seems to rest entirely on the fact that many people still believe in God, especially in the United States.

This is poor logic. People, especially in the United States, believe in many things such as angels, astrology, and alternative medical practices for which there is no supporting evidence beyond anecdote. Watson's book is a serious tracing of intellectual history on this theme and Green wants to counter it with the immense popularity of "Heaven Is For Real."

Green believes that Watson and other so-called "new atheists" can be refuted on the grounds of intellectual snobbery. As a former academic I find this line of argument obnoxious and invalid. It is in line with traditional American anti-intellectualism which finds any form of thinking which cannot be reduced to slogans and sentimentality as snobbery. Newtonian mechanics? Snobbery, but relativistic mechanics? Pure snobbery.

The idea is that anything the average individual has difficulty understanding must be false. Why would God make a world so complex that ordinary people can't understand it? People with this attitude are quick to dismiss the achievements of science as unimportant and to look upon those who celebrate scientific ideas as charlatans.

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I haven't yet received my copy of Watson's book—it should come very soon—but I have read several reviews and have gotten from them some idea of its contents. The book is long (740pp) and will take some time to digest.

These same people are the ones who enjoy their cable TV, get from Point A to Point B with their GPS, use computers and the internet without a qualm, work in buildings whose structure relies considerably on soil analysis, strength of materials, metallurgy, and multiple other considerations that they can't be bothered to acknowledge.  Any time, and I mean ANY TIME someone wants to disparage technology in front of me, said people are going to find their noses (along with their ignorance) rubbed firmly in it.  And here we go with the quotes again:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
― Isaac Asimov

No, their ignorance isn't remotely as good as the knowledge which gave rise to those and multiple other benefits of science and technology ... and they would do well to learn that.

A wonderful Asimov quote. Richard Hoftadter wrote in his 1970 book Anti-intellectualism in America:

…the heartland of America, filled with people who are often fundamentalist in religion,nativist in prejudice, isolationist in foreign policy, and conservative in economics, has constantly rumbled with an underground revolt against all the tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament.

He might now add that they are also opposed to the technology that makes their lives so much easier.




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