Blog Post

Angry Atheists Strike Back

In Defense of Religious Moderation is due out this week, but a foretaste of the critical reaction is already starting to seep in. Already last August I was eviscerated by the biologist Jerry Coyne on his truistically-named blog "Why Evolution is True" as an "accomodationist" who believes in "other ways of knowing."

Now I have the distinct honor of having my work angrily dismissed by the great Daniel Dennett in a profile about me just published in the Johns Hopkins Magazine. Now, if angry dismissal sounds to you vaguely oxymoronic, along the lines of superlatively mediocre, you have a point. So here are his exact words: "Skimmed it. Not worth rebutting. It's a mixture of sneering caricature and egregious misunderstanding. If this is the best critique of atheists as 'fundamentalists' that can be wrought, the defenders of agnosticism and 'moderate religious belief' are on the ropes."

Really, one has admire the honesty of admitting to not having read a book one has already judged as not worthy of rebuttal. But if there is one common theme I can already see coming, from Dennett's as well as other reactions I have read, it is that I am unfairly characterizing atheists' characterization of religious believers. As Gregory Paul is quoted as saying in the same article, "He contends that assertive atheists have to make all Christians into ideological Bible literalists. I am not aware of a single, well-known atheist who does that. We are all quite aware, for example, that Catholics who make up half of Christendom are not literalists."

Well, at least we got that cleared up! Considering that one of my primary motivations for writing the book was to show that the most prominent atheists were precisely making arguments that depended on interpreting religious belief as being necessarily literal, having atheists openly repudiate that does indeed represent progress. As it happens, I don't characterize atheists at all in the book, much less caricature them; I quote specific arguments and respond to them. In fact, as those who read the book will note, I ultimately commend those atheists who practice toleration for agnostics and moderate beliefs, and offer a defense of their choice of belief as well.

Of course the other major point of contention is the "aiding and abetting" argument: that moderate believers are enabling their more noxious counterparts with their watered-down version of faith. Many of my arguments involve showing how this is not true, and how the opposite may even be the case. But then, rebutting those arguments would entail reading them first.

William Egginton's picture
William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).