R. Joseph Hoffmann, an atheist himself and the author or editor of numerous academic books—including Jesus in History and Myth (Prometheus Books 1986)—thinks so, writing at his blog recently the following:
The mode of critique [by New Atheists] is lodged somewhere between “Stupid Pet Tricks”- and “Bushisms”-style humor, a generation-based funniness that thrives on ridicule as a worthy substitute for argument: Blasphemy contests, Hairdrier Unbaptisms, Blowgun-slogans (“Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings”), and my latest personal favorite, Zombie Jesus Jokes (“He died for your sins; now he’s back for your brains”). The message of the Four Horsemen, now conflated into one big message, is that religion has been nothing but retardant and deserves nothing but contempt.
In other words, R. Joseph Hoffmann wishes that most New Atheists would behave less like Rush Limbaugh and more like Socrates, entering into productive dialogue, not just with theists, but their fellow secularists:
My own naivete about the deliberate sensationalism of the EZ atheist movement was profound. At the beginning, having seen Dawkins worthily opposed in debates at Oxford in the 1980s, I thought the discussion was an earnest attempt to enlarge the atheist perspective, that books that were extended polemics about the evils and ignorance of religion would lead to better books and better discussion.
But those better books and better discussions are, alas, still forthcoming:
[T]he only people who the News [New Atheists] wanted to debate, or wanted to debate them, were preposterous self-promoters like William Lane Craig, John Lennox and John Maynard Smith; serious “theists” (and loads of skeptics and critics of religion) had better things to do, and it became a mark of dishonor in the Academy to take News too seriously.
And so the post-9-11 movement atheists have proved disappointing to him:
Instead of discussion we got books and more books by people who didn’t seem to recognize that Dostoyevsky (and Tolstoy, Freud, Camus, Ionesco, Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Becket, Smetana, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood) had explored the ramifications of the post-God universe for the better part of a century, and even then were building on a crisis that was already fledgling in the nineteenth century.
The complaint that R. Joseph Hoffmann is lodging here is a historical one: New Atheists don’t seem to realize (or don’t care) that they are late to a discussion among intellectuals which has already far surpassed the mere critique of crass religious literalism. Given that the critique is obviously correct (fundamentalism is a dead-end), how does one then live and find meaning in a universe where God is either absent or hidden? Sensitive intellectuals like Nietzsche and artistic movements like Expressionism have been Jacob-wrestling with this existential question for more than a century:
Can you name one artistic movement, one literary school, or one serious poet, dramatist or musician of the past century who has not been affected by (or embraced) the death of God as angst, anxiety, ennui, nausea and chaos? Neither can the News.
In other words, sensitive and intelligent people—especially within the artistic community—have long absorbed the death of God with sobriety and complexity, but the New Atheists’ followers haven’t noticed this because, in Hoffmann’s characterization of them, they tend not, in the broad sense, to be all that culturally literate. Put another way, they are glib to the consequences—existential and sociological—of what it means to kill off God because they haven’t really thought all that hard about Modernism and read their T.S. Eliot. They’re basically promoting a stupidity: religion as humanity’s chief impediment to happiness and advance.
And here, I think, is where R. Joseph Hoffmann comes to a deeply powerful observation, a real zinger:
Instead of reflecting their superior knowledge of the artistic and literary contours of the twentieth century (the state of affairs Lippmann described in 1929 as the “acids of modernity”) the EZs wanted to locate society’s major cultural crisis in the backwater churches of Slicklizard, Alabama.
That’s quite stunning. Hoffmann is saying that the New Atheists tend to be wrong, not just in their choice of debating partners, but in the culprit they direct their attention and energies toward: our problems, Horatio, are not in the backwoods fundamentalist “other,” but in our secular humanist and Promethean selves. After centuries of heroic struggle, humanity has moved from the nightmarish fires of holy book literalism and supersition into the frying pan of nihilism.
So what do we do with ourselves now? Is the Enlightenment enough?
Contemporary fundamentalists are engaging in a rearguard and nostalgic reaction against the Enlightenment and the existential crisis of Modernism that has trailed in its wake; fundamentalists are thus a symptom, not the cause, of contemporary angst. The New Atheist focus on them is a distraction from the crisis of meaning that intellectuals and artists have been struggling with at least since William Blake wrote his 1794 poem, “London.” R. Joseph Hoffmann is alerting us to this fact, and directing those of us who are secularists away from the easy target, suggesting that we end the tiresome fundamentalist bashing, read our Dostoevsky, Beckett, and Camus, and generally catch up.
I’m inclined to agree with Hoffmann, but maybe there’s a place for both kinds of atheism (the atheism of angst and adult seriousness and the atheism of righteously angry didacticism and parody). Need it really be a zero-sum game?