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The new atheist denial of history : hijacking the past in the name of…

by Borden W. Painter

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In this work, professional historian Borden Painter (Trinity College, Hartford CT, USA) takes on the so-called "new atheists", whom he accuses of having distorted history in their wholesale attacks on religion. His primary targets are Christopher Hitchens (author of "God is Not Great"), the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (of "The God Delusion" fame), and Sam Harris ("The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation"). Painter's main argument is that these individuals and their atheist allies (such as Vincent Bugliosi, Steven Weinberg, and Victor Stenger) have failed to draw competently on the historical record in their attempts to advance their anti-religion views.

As an expert in European history, Prof. Painter is well- qualified for such an evaluation. Although Painter is himself religious (as an active Episcopalian) his book does not advance theistic/ Christian arguments; rather, his goal is to evaluate the historical claims that have been made by his "new atheists". Thus, his book is a work of scholarship, not theology.

The first three book chapters successively with history of the 20th Century; Europe from 1600 to 1900; and Europe before 1600. Each of these chapters first presents the "New Atheist" version of history, and then a "History 101" version that corrects the record, followed by an "Issues" section that sums up the discrepancies and their significance. In Chapter 4, "Back to the Present: History In and Out of Bounds," Painter sketches the development of history as a field of scholarship as compared to the dubious "new atheist historiography". The final chapter, "What's at Stake," sums up why it matters that influential scholars and writers who lack appropriate expertise use "pseudohistory" to promote their anti-religion agenda.

Painter accuses his targets as having relied on sources that are outdated, disreputable, and of limited value. For example, he criticizes them for adopting an outmoded model of the warfare between science and religion. He argues that the use of unreliable sources leaves the New Atheists "free to indulge in a finger-wagging moralistic view of history that is not conducive to helping us understand the past." Likewise, he accuses them of cherry-picking from history to make their points. In so doing, "they marshal historical evidence to prove religion morally culpable of the greatest crimes of the past." Among the many interpretations that they put forward, he lists the following: that war is chiefly caused by religion; that medieval Europe was ruled by the popes; that Stalin mainly supported the church in Russia; and that the Nazis of Germany "acted as agents of religion."

I have read works by all of the so-called "new atheists" named above, and have found many of their arguments quite convincing. Thus, I was taken aback by Painter's counter-arguments. Not being an historian, I cannot evaluate the claims and counterclaims, but the author's arguments generally strike me as well- substantiated. However, in a few cases, I wish the author had been more explicit about what he found fault with in his targets. For example, he criticizes Richard Dawkins for relying on work by John Toland on Adolf Hitler, and cites another historian who labeled Tolland's work as less than reliable. More convincing than such an ad hominem argument (pitting one historian against another) would have been a demonstration, with empirical evidence, on precisely what he thinks that Toland, and Dawkins, got wrong. In other words, trying to refute Dawkins by citing a historian who disagrees with Dawkins' source only documents a disagreement; it doesn't reveal who is correct.

Painter makes a strong case against the practice of labeling the totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century (e.g., of Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, and North Korea) as basically "religions" under another name. While he has a valid point, such regimes do have a great deal in common with religion in its worst guises: dogma, "faith"; and undemocratic authority that is not to be questioned. Such similarities deserve to be recognized for what they are. Likewise, while science and religion may not be at "war" in secular Europe, they arguably have been in the past and are elsewhere in the world, including in the USA, where the battle for teaching evolutionary science in the public schools continues to rage. (That same battle has been lost in private schools that indoctrinate children with anti-scientific views in the name of "religious freedom" -- something that Daniel Dennett has labeled a form of child abuse). Furthermore, science and much of what we can label "religion" are in fact fundamentally opposed in their methods and in their conclusions. To deny this obvious fact in hopes of salvaging a space for both (as Stephen Jay Gould and others have tried and failed to do) is less than honest intellectually. In short, the consilience that enlightened theists hope to have achieved with science mainly reflects the fact that their particular religions have largely stopped making empirical claims about the universe (including origins of the earth and of the human species). It also reflects their adoption of a mushy sort of god-directed evolution that leaves a safe space for their theism. But such a science- lite set of religious beliefs is very much a minority view in Christianity and Islam, where scientific facts and evidence are more commonly recognized as a direct threat due to their incompatibility with religion.

Borden Painter's book is the only serious response that I have seen thus far to the historical arguments made by Hitchens et al. I wonder if his book is being read; I have yet to find a professional review online and there are only a handful of comments at Amazon. Perhaps the book would have benefitted from being actively promoted by a publisher, since it seems to have had little to no impact on public discourse. Furthermore, I fear that the book comes across stylistically as rather dull, a feature that obscures the value of its arguments. (I noticed only one sentence with any humor; and the only sentence that truly sparkles in the book was a direct quote from Hitchens' "God is Not Great"). Nevertheless, the arguments in "The New Atheist Denial of History" are substantive and deserve a broad appreciation. For that matter, they also deserve a response from those on the atheist side of the dialogue. ( )
6 vote danielx | Aug 28, 2017 |
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This compact, forcefully argued work calls Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and the rest of the so-called 'New Atheists' to account for failing to take seriously the historical record to which they so freely appeal when attacking religion. The popularity of such books as Harris's The End of Faith, Dawkins's The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great set off a spate of reviews, articles, and books for and against, yet in all the controversy little attention has focused on the historical evidence and arguments they present to buttress their case. This book is the first to challenge in depth the distortions of this New Atheist history. It presents the evidence that the three authors and their allies ignore. It points out the lack of historical credibility in their work when judged by the conventional criteria used by mainstream historians. It does not deal with the debate over theism and atheism nor does it aim to defend the historical record of Christianity or religion more generally. It does aim to defend the integrity of history as a discipline in the face of its distortion by those who violate it.… (more)

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