Madeleine Bunting is having a go at Richard Dawkins today and for once I've got to hand it to her, she makes some valid points against him. So let me begin with those, as summarized by me: first, any serious approach to religion has to start from its centrality throughout history and try to make some sociological sense of that; second, if religion and religious identity have often been the source of horrible violence, it has had no monopoly there - ethnic and other identities, other types of belief system, have played a very full part; third, parents do shape children, 'for both good and ill', but they do so in many ways and not only through religious education.
This is all 'fair dos' in my book. But, referring to an 'increasingly shrill chorus of atheist humanists', to their 'unsubstantiated assertions', 'sweeping generalisations' and even 'straw men', Bunting rather errs in this regard herself - only, with her, it's in the characterization of atheist humanism rather than of religion. Thus:
Secularisation was supposed to be an inextricable part of progress.I'd call that a sweeping generalization. There may have been atheists and humanists who believed this, but it's been a long time for the more simple-minded variants of the idea to be tested, and there are now many people of non-religious outlook who don't hold to it. Some of them may have read Marx, Freud or Durkheim (to speak only of these), and have learned something from doing that. Next:
[W]hat secularisation there has been is accompanied by the growth of weird irrationalities from crystals to ley lines. As GK Chesterton pointed out, the problem when people don't believe in God is not that they believe nothing, it is that they believe anything.Here Bunting simply helps herself to the assumption that 'weird irrationalities' flourish better in a secular than in a religiously devout milieu; and I'd say that that is a very big assumption. I haven't myself done any empirical research on it, but I doubt that Madeleine Bunting has either. I can think of at least some reasons for doubting it, one of these being that religion depends, as a secular outlook does not, on beliefs about the state of the world that are not subject to falsification by evidence. Finally:
Atheist humanism hasn't generated a compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos; where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires.I'll step around the usual Buntingisms at the end here: there's nothing at all wrong with football or Strictly Come Dancing or many of what are referred to here as 'passing desires', whatever one might want to say about consumerism; and this casual contempt for them is just the attitude of what Richard Rorty calls the 'ascetic priest'. As to atheist humanism not having a compelling narrative of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos, well, so you say, Madeleine. This is an argument I've engaged with once before, though for the moment I can't find the post, but what the anti-atheist-humanist types who say this have failed to digest is that we atheist humanists can draw on everything in the entire known universe and the whole human story within that - including, even, the story of religion, every religion, and the stories which those religions all tell - as part of our narrative of what it is to be human. Think about it.
Update: See also this post by Shuggy.