The shortfall of New Atheism, or Conversation with Tina Beattie

April of last year, one month before I started this blog, I had published some work I did on atheism and Christianity. I had been doing a lot of research on violence in those two particular strands, and qualifying the political and religious aspects of both, seeing me draw much inspiration from writers such as Alister McGrath, John Milbank, Tina Beattie and other writers from a religious nexus, who in turn pointed out the shortfalls of the so-called new atheist project, writers such as PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

As an atheist, it always seemed problematic to me that other atheists had to operate in such an aggressive manner to the religious, but not because I hold rather meek, freedom of diversity opinions, but rather because those of faith were just as free to scorn behaviours, ideas that damage their community as anyone. Further, new atheism seemed only to attack a cherry-picked religious history, tarring scripture literalists as operating correctly, in order for them to show religion to be inherently bad (from my own reading of the gospels, I felt that to be a literalist would mean to hold many incongruous opinions anyhow).

I came to respect a contingent of atheist writers who either utilised Christian ideas or saw themselves the trite chapters of the new atheist movement, writers such as John Gray, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and Julian Baggini.

In my research, I was lucky enough to hold a decent sized email conversation with Tina Beattie, who is the Professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University and author of among other books The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion. For future reference I shall print this conversation here.

5th April 2009


My name is Carl Packman, I enjoyed reading your book The New Atheists very much, and despite being an atheist myself, found myself agreeing with most of your objections towards them, especially Christopher Hitchens, who I really cannot stick. I don’t know if you’ve read a recent article by Julian Baggini whose criticisms are much the same as your own, only he writes from an atheistic perspective.

My question is simply this, you cite a book called violence in your book, and if I remember rightly the book is about aspects of religious violence, a study in the history. But could you remind me, if possible, of the author’s name of this book, there are many books on violence and almost as many relating in some way to religious violence but I specifically wanted to read this one.

My work interest at the moment is on what aspects of the Christian legacy are worth politicising, following from considerable studies being done on whether government policies should implement religious obligations. The Golden Rule is an obviously good one, but I’m more interested in aspects of Christian attitudes to violence that might be worth embracing. Would you happen to have any spontaneous comments on this?

Kind regards,

Carl Packman


Dear Carl,

Thank you for this. I just read and enjoyed your New Statesman piece, ‘An Evangelical Atheist’, and was amused to see that you attracted the kind of defensive comments which seem to be a knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of Dawkins, however considered and reasoned. In fact, having attracted the ire of both the Catholic Right and the Dawkins fan club, I sometimes have trouble telling them apart as far as the quality of their arguments goes.

I’m not sure which book on violence you’re referring to in The New Atheists, but I wonder if it might be Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective (1978). He was an influential Christian pacifist thinker. Stanley Hauerwas is also worth reading on this topic – although his style can be rather bombastic. He has published numerous books, but Against the Nations might be the best to look at. Other books I refer to are:

Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (2001), and
John Gray, Black Mass

I continue to reflect a great deal on what contribution Christianity might make to secular politics with regard to violence, its causes and prevention. Rene Girard is interesting on religion, sacrificial violence and the social order. Slavov Zizek has some interesting reflections from a Lacanian perspective and may share some of your questions about the Christian legacy and its political significance, but he’s infuriatingly convoluted to read. I thought John Gray’s Black Mass was very interesting, and written from an agnostic if not an atheist perspective as far as I know.

At the risk of over-simplification, I think there are two possibilities which Christianity offers towards a better containment of violence, at least as far as war is concerned. First, the Christian just war tradition – although now thoroughly secularised – has shaped western attitudes towards the justification and conduct of war in profound ways, and still offers important rules and restraints for holding political and military leaders accountable for what they do and why. Second, there is a radical tradition of pacifism in Christianity, rooted in an ethos of self-sacrificing love, which would not translate into politics and policies but which could perhaps become increasingly significant as a form of resistance to war by radicalised Christian minorities and those who share their pacifist vision.

With regard to the Golden Rule, my current research involves grappling with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic problematisation of the call to love my neighbour as myself, because it risks unleashing violence rather than benevolence since love of self is rooted in the Freudian oedipal conflict. Lacan (an atheist) argues that post-Enlightenment liberalism has failed to take seriously enough the capacity of fear and desire rooted in the unconscious to destabilise progressive projects based on rationality and duty. I may want to ask if Christianity can help modern liberalism to lose some of its inherent optimism about the rationality and progressive potential of the human condition, without thereby plunging us into a Calvinist vision of total depravity. Here, Thomas Aquinas may be a neglected resource for secular thinkers, because his theology is rooted in the fundamental goodness of creation and of the human within it, and the necessity of self-love as the condition of love of other. This is all research I’m doing at the moment so it’s tentative and exploratory, but it is part of an attempt to open up more creative conversations between secular thinkers and theologians on questions of politics, society and the environment which challenge us all. (It’s for a book to be published by OUP called Nature, God and Gender after Postmodernity – more academic than The New Atheists, and will be rather heavy on footnotes)! Does any of this resonate with you, or does it seem too theologically biased to be of much use?

All best wishes, and many thanks for taking the time to contact me.


Dear Tina,

Your reply was fantastically helpful, I’m so glad to hear that the current direction of your work includes a Christian perspective of political groundwork. I can’t wait to read it. I, too, am very interested in how Christianity can help modern progressive politics. And in fact I’m well versed in the work of Slavoj Zizek, who is of inestimable help with where I’m going. My paper on Zizek’s theology, here, is a sort of preamble to the direction I’m heading.

As I mention in this paper, but only really in passing, if there is to be anything like a Christian progressive politics – which given how religion is being utilised at the moment by the right is kind of necessary – it has to embrace some of the more radically charged positions of Christ’s words, initially I’m thinking of ‘think not that I am come to send peace on earth…’, something that on first reading looks terrifying and brash, and a line that is very often quoted by The New Atheists, notably Sam Harris. But, after reading GK Chesterton’s interpretation of this line in his Orthodoxy I realised that it’s a lot more careful than I originally thought. That it’s more about identifying the present enemy to a working, progressive society, for Jesus, a society that is more people-based than of the autocracy of the Roman Empire.

For me, I find it kind of ironic that those belligerent atheists – I’m picking mainly on Harris and Hitchens here – use the ‘sword’ as a way of criticising some of Christianity’s attitudes, when indeed they utilise a perverted version of it in their politics, regarding the Iraq war, which I know you picked up upon in your book. It’s their belief that war will bring peace, and this is the context with which I place Jesus’ words in, identifying the enemy in order to formalise political freedom. I certainly want to avoid appearing like a crazed warmonger, I was against the war in Iraq because I didn’t believe it was a war to secure peace, nor did I think, even by chance that this would be achieved. But I guess my lefty politics has to include some appeals to at least an understanding, an appropriation of violence, in the very sense that Jesus appropriated violent knowledge and peace.

But this is just one aspect of my interest in Christianity. Humanistic ethics for example – of the present Toynbeeian (?) kind – I see as being a kind of disavowal of their Christian root, and I intend to explore this further. This is where Zizek is a great help, his Christian atheism is a rallying cry against New Age postmodernism, relativist ethics, and hands-off liberalism.

With the Lacanian problem, as far as I know, the neighbour is seen as a way of rendering formal the other as a problem, or too close. I was able to hear a lecture given by Zizek called Why only an atheist can believe which explains Lacan’s position, but he didn’t go into it too much. I think it ties in with the disdain he pours on multiculturalism, that it structures politically the existence of ‘the other’. With what started out as a means of including ‘the other’ into the fabric of mainstream society – whether a foreign person or a homosexual say – and loving them as thyself, it has worked in the opposite way, making explicit the true arrangement of cultural hegemony and so on. A kind of reversal of the Romans’ reply to Paul, do good that evil may result. He then told a joke about ex-Yugoslavia and moved right off the subject, which he is notorious for.

As for that article, I was really amazed at the reaction that it received from some; a lot of people appeared to take that rather personally, as a personal vendetta against their philosophy, when in fact the article was actually a criticism of Dawkins’ logistics. Though I think it renders the whole thing absurd, I don’t doubt that the rumours are true that Dawkins’ plight has encouraged certain people to become creationists. But, as you know, he is directing his anger in the wrong direction. Politically and philosophically unpalatable groups appear on either side of feelings towards religion. This really comes out in Dawkins’ work, especially where he tries to re-write the history of certain historical characters. Dawkins stands up and says Hitler, Stalin, Eichmann might have been atheists but of course their politics was a kind of religion replacement, they being the deities. But Einstein, Hawkings and Darwin’s God was merely an appeal to a kind of pantheism. These are obviously motivated inconsistencies. His being selective, and trying to show that atheism will right all wrongs, is not only unprofessional, but deeply sad. It’s an exercise that, even as an atheist myself, I’ve pulled myself out of. So I don’t think it’s in any way contradictory for me to be an atheist and be a critic of Dawkins, which some commentators of my article seemed to think it was. Given the same logic, you, Tina, as a believer should really embrace George Bush, and how mad is that!!

I will look over those books; luckily my local library has some copies available of the Ellul title. Essex libraries continue to astound me.

Thank you very much for your reply,

All the best, Carl.


Dear Carl,
This is a timely conversation indeed. After a frenetic term in which I’ve neglected my research, today is the first day of the Easter break when I have an opportunity to feel my way back into what was motivating me in my study of these theorists. The problem is, when I drift away I begin to doubt my admiration for the clothing worn by emperors Zizek and Lacan – am I simply being drawn in by the dedicated followers of academic fashion, so that I fail to notice there’s nothing there? (A question which could of course have a theological twist)! Anyway, to read your essay on Zizek was engaging and stimulating, and reminded me why I think these are questions worth pursuing.

On the question of violence, I am much persuaded by Girard’s theory that the only way to interrupt the violence of the social order is to refuse to retaliate so that one exposes and defies its deadly mimetic power – but that refusal is only fully realized at the moment of death, so it’s when Christ dies that his example of non-violent forgiveness becomes possible as a different way of forming mimetic relationships. But by its symbolic potency, the act of non-violent resistance will be perceived as an act of violence against society. This is the violence of God to which you refer, put differently – the event which cuts through history and radically interrupts everything that has gone before. (I’d put the virgin birth in the same category, in order to show that the event can be a quiet and gradually realized beginning as well as a sudden and violent ending – both are acts of non-resistance, with a Kierkegaardian inscrutability of faith at their heart. In this context, I’d want to add that not every conversion is dramatic, and in my experience coming to faith is much more like your description of struggling towards atheism than Francis Collins’ epiphany in the form of a frozen waterfall.)
Although I’m just about willing to defend just war theory as a better option than ‘shock and awe’, there’s another, less pragmatic side of me that thinks it’s not a Christian option. (Do you know the work of Dorothy Day, an American communist turned Catholic who remained pacifist and anarchist until she died? She exemplifies an alternative Christianity for me, although very much along the lines of the Chesterton quote in your footnotes). Just war theory will always justify the violence of the political status quo. Interestingly, since the 1960s it has barely featured in papal writings – the Catholic Church has become pragmatically pacifist, but what a revolution there might be if it excommunicated all those involved in the war industry and the military! That would be perceived as an act of violence indeed – even Dawkins might be left speechless. (I’m not advocating that – I don’t think communion should be used to police the church, but unfortunately it is. The doors should be flung wide open to all comers, letting them be their own judges. How subversive would that be? I suspect fewer of us would go to communion than do now, and that in itself would invite analysis re law and transgression.)
I found your explanation of the difference between subjective and objective violence very helpful – and of course, it’s interesting to reflect on ways in which the implicit, objective violence of global freemarket economics has now been partially unmasked, although not in a way that threatens its foundations. Had I not been teaching last week I might well have joined the London protests, but from a distance they epitomised all that’s dishonest about our ostensible freedoms and the ways in which individualism corrodes the possibility for effective, coordinated political action. In this case, the transgression most definitely served to uphold the law, and there can be few more potent comments on the reality of our politics and freedoms than that image of the police herding protestors in and not letting them out again.
Your anecdotal examples re understanding Zizek are also helpful. I have to keep reminding myself to hold Lacan as well as Zizek up to the scrutiny of everyday experience – where often they do make more sense than in the rather abstract esotericism of their academic interpreters. The example of the Iranian car for women resonated with another interesting example I read of recently: a fatwa was issued by an Iranian cleric permitting raped Bosnian women to have abortions, and also more recently permitting women who cannot economically afford more children to have early abortions. On the one hand, one might ask what right a male clerical regime has to make such laws anyway, but one might also argue that the absence of any need for dissimulation translates into a transparent process which may serve women better in such instances than the masquerade of apparent sexual equalities against the masked background of profound inequality in the western democracies.
By the way, the World Parliament of Religions is a fiction, since there is absolutely nothing democratic or parliamentarian about it, given that it is comprised of self-selecting representatives who make cosy agreements on behalf of the world’s religious believers, while the latter continue to damn one another to hell much of the time and sometimes for good economic and political reasons which have little to do with dogma and doctrine. Beware the depoliticized hugs of inter-religious dialogue when the real issues about violence, economics and women are banished lest they expose the discord! The Golden Rule in such situations begs a Lacanian critique.
Do you know the work of Gianni Vattimo and John Caputo? I’ve been reading a dialogue between them, After the Death of God, which might interest you. I also wonder if you’re familiar with the Radical Orthodoxy movement, spearheaded by John Milbank and including thinkers such as Conor Cunningham and Marcus Pound? I find most of them too triumphalist in their Christianity and violent in their rhetoric, but they seem to have attracted interest from some Marxist thinkers.
Lastly, although I think the secular is a necessary space for creative conversations and shared political endeavours between philosophers and theologians, atheists and theists, I don’t believe in progressive politics although I do believe in the politics of transformation. Progress is one of the post-Enlightenment myths which needs to be set aside, so that we can recognize in every era what is/was good, life-giving and contributes to human flourishing, and what was/is manipulative, life-denying and sustained by human misery. As a modern western educated woman I have good reason to thank God for the times I live in, but not if I am mindful of the reality of these times for women in other contexts and situations who have little to be thankful for about modernity and its discontents. It seems to me that Marxists and Christians find much common ground in the call to liberate the oppressed and set the captives free, but where I’d part company from a traditional and perhaps no longer viable interpretation of Marx (and Hegel) is that I don’t believe that generations build on the freedoms and advances of those who came before. Every generation will create its own forms of oppression and tyranny and have its own unique opportunities for liberaiton and justice, and therefore Christians/Marxists must always be asking who in my time is at the bottom of the human heap, knowing that, once they get to the top, they will do their best to keep somebody else at the bottom. (We went to live in Zimbabwe six months after Mugabe came to power, and we were euphoric with his apparent wisdom of leadership and policies of reconciliation)!
Anyway, now I must get on with some more mundane admin tasks.
All best wishes, and thank you again for the conversation.




One Response to The shortfall of New Atheism, or Conversation with Tina Beattie

  1. Pingback: Morning Catholic must-reads « Editor's Briefing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: