Review: The New Atheist Novel by Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate

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The New Atheist Novel by Arthur Bradley book cover
The New Atheist Novel: Fiction, Philosophy and Polemic After 9/11 (2010) by Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate is an attempt to consider the emerging genre of New Atheist fiction, which the authors suggest has grown out of the New Atheism movement driven by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens (occasionally described as the Four Horsemen) from around 2004. The authors acknowledge the difficulty of defining the New Atheist novel, but choose here to focus on four novelists: Ian McEwan, Philip Pullman, Martin Amis, and Salman Rushdie, to spark “an increasingly urgent debate about the quality of our public intellectual discourse on religion”. While they admit that The New Atheist Novel is “not always a neutral or dispassionate discussion that subscribes to the normal codes of academic politesse” - when they label specific members of the New Atheist movement "cronies", one is apt to agree - the authors do suggest that their positions (one an atheist, one a Christian) will have helped provide some form of balance.

It quickly becomes clear that Bradley and Tate are far from fans of New Atheism or its exponents, suggesting that “they seem to know comparatively little about the Enlightenment tradition they claim to uphold”. This intellectual impoverishment leads Bradley and Tate to conclude that New Atheism’s appeal is based not on its substance, but on its position as a counterpoint to the more extreme religious viewpoints that have been increasingly aired during the twenty-first century. They suggest that New Atheism seeks to replace religions with “a Neo-Lucretian reverence for nature, a Comtean scientific positivism, a Hegelian historical teleology, a Protestant-Capitalist work ethic and, finally, an entirely Judeo-Christian belief in the exceptional place of the human race at the centre of all these schemas”. It is in the aestheticising of this vision that Bradley and Tate begin to draw in the New Atheists’ influence on literature, claiming that New Atheist fiction not only reflects this aestheticising of science and nature, but also sets literature up as a symbol of secular achievement and freedom of thought.

Before discussing the book itself, it is worth considering for a few moments its organising principle, which is more than a little muddled. The title would suggest the project’s aim is to consider fiction influenced by the New Atheist movement, while the subtitle seems to place the focus more on the rhetoric that followed, and which was related to, 9/11. While Bradley and Tate suggest that it is the 9/11 attacks that enabled the popularisation of New Atheism (“the single defining political context for the New Atheism was the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks”), the broader scope suggested by the subtitle is beyond The New Atheist Novel. Ignoring the title, the best attempt at explaining the book’s rationale comes in the authors’ introduction: “[T]he New Atheist novel exhibits many of the strengths of its philosophical equivalent, however, we will argue that it demonstrates many of the latter’s well-documented intellectual, political and theological blind spots. In what follows, we will argue that (for all its claims to champion freedom of thought, action and expression) what defines the New Atheist novel is really a disturbing aesthetico-political dogmatism – about science, about reason, about religion and, in many cases, about Islam.”

It seems then, that the aim is to discuss novels influenced by the New Atheist movement as represented by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris. However, a look at the four main texts covered shows that one (Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy) was written before 2004 when Bradley and Tate date the New Atheist period to have begun with the publication of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (a significant chunk of work considered in the McEwan chapter also predates this), and one (Amis’s The Second Plane) is not a novel but a collection of essays. The last, Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, appears to be the only one that fully meets the criteria, and this section is distracted with positioning 1988’s The Satanic Verses as the first real New Atheist novel, confusing matters even more.

One might also note that none of the novelists’ religious positions changed significantly following 9/11 or the New Atheist movement, which makes book-ending a period with either slightly unnecessary (and one might suggest that using both as themes for this book was down as much to promotional value as intellectual necessity). In the section on McEwan’s literature, it is specifically noted that his world view pre- and post- 9/11 is consistent, and that it is only his imagery and way of elucidating his position that alters. In fact, the only one of the four authors discussed whose stated position changed after 9/11, was Martin Amis, who shifted from atheism to agnosticism. Hardly a startling leap.

In truth, the authors discussed here feel like they have been chosen not for their literary or intellectual links to New Atheism but for their personal links to the key members of the New Atheist movement. The result is a badly conceived vehicle which seems to have been contrived to attack perceived Islamophobia and pick apart – at times, judiciously – alleged problems with four prominent novelists who have taken on religion, and perhaps specifically, Islam(ism).

One of Bradley and Tate’s contentions is that the veneration of science, reason, and literature, is no more rational than religious faith and no less dangerous. That the authors they discuss, as well as New Atheism’s key members, seem to promote and cultivate a sense of wonder at the natural world, and the written word, places them as polar opposites of religious extremists but in an equally problematic position according to this logic. One is tempted to suggest that idolising something that exists is better than idolising something that doesn’t, but this is a matter of opinion, one must concede. A more interesting route for investigation might have been to question the surety of the New Atheists’ various positions. Bradley and Tate touch on this when they accuse them of being self-referential within their texts, and forming a type of in-group whose claims border on tautological. This begins to get at the more prescient point: that an absolute position is problematic, no matter how strongly one agrees with the general notion. A fuller consideration of whether the novelists took up such an absolute position following 9/11 would have enriched The New Atheist Novel considerably.

Bradley and Tate also skirt around the interesting topic of setting literature against religious extremism – surely what the book should have been about. Using Briony Tallis of McEwan’s Atonement as a model of someone who refuses to acknowledge the inner life of others, Bradley and Tate start on a good if underdeveloped examination of the way in which the New Atheist novelists other religious fanatics, depriving them of fully-formed personalities, and relegating them to dull-headed theocrats. There is room to go on and discuss further. For example, worth noting is a contradiction within Amis’s writing, which at times claims that terrorists, lacking imagination, are infecting the world with dull-headed boredom, but in other passages appreciates the orchestration of the 9/11 attacks as a symbol, an image, more potent than anything that literature could muster in response. This is one of the points on which Bradley and Tate’s political-literary analysis is strongest, and one could have stood a good deal more on the representation of religious characters in atheist novels.

The section on Philip Pullman is devoted largely to discussing the ways in which Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is borne out of the Judeo-Christian literary tradition, and typically religious concepts like grace, redemption, and sacrifice are used within the story in much the same way as they are in biblical tales. While moderately interesting, it’s hard to know what Bradley and Tate are attempting here as their points appear to be self-evident to anyone familiar with Pullman’s work, and, indeed, a conscious aping of religious style on his part.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the more complex moral position Salman Rushdie often reaches for in his fiction, as well as his personal brushes with extremism by virtue of the infamous fatwa placed upon him in 1989, Rushdie is the most sympathetically treated of the novelists discussed. There is a slight sense that The Satanic Verses and the fallout from its publication are what Bradley and Tate would most like to be discussing, but in keeping with the credo of The New Atheist Novel, they offer instead a rather flaccid discussion of Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence.

The conclusion, which imagines what post-Atheist fiction (note the dropping of ‘New’ here) will offer, is largely a glib liberal drone on the importance of understanding and balance, pointing to authors that do this more successfully than McEwan, Pullman, Amis, or Rushdie, while crediting the endeavour of the New Atheists in exposing religious behaviours that lead to undesirable discrimination, etc. Compassion for others is vital, as all four of the novelists discussed would likely agree, but quite why taking a position equates to lacking compassion for others, is not quite clear. Certainly, those around the New Atheist movement have nearly all been guilty of slips and short-sightedness at times, as any fallible human has, but there is an underlying assumption in The New Atheist Novel, which seems to suggest opposing religious belief is in itself problematic, as though potentially causing offence to people who disagree is a reason not voice a deeply held opinion at all. In The Second Plane, Amis asserts that the opposite of religious belief is not atheism but freedom of thought, a position that Bradley and Tate seem to take issue with. However, their own position is too vague and this leads to a lot of the problems in their analyses. One could easily have stood for less on the problems of New Atheism being reiterated and more on authors who Bradley and Tate suggest tackle the infinitely tricky issues of religion, god, and secularism in the modern world most judiciously, offering the reader a real insight into how these problems can be sensitively addressed.

Atheism in fiction is an interesting topic for discussion, particularly in relation to the increasingly polarised positions that seem to be treated as representative of both Atheist and Religious views by the media. New Atheism, too, is an area that could well do with a serious critique. Sadly, The New Atheist Novel offers only sporadically an engaging literary examination of the novelists discussed, and too often the book becomes bogged down in critiquing or sniping at New Atheism, and this detracts and distracts from the more interesting literary analyses, which should form the book’s core. One of the key problems here is the woolly definition of the New Atheist novel, and the confusing interweaving of the response to 9/11, which, while associated, seems to be an issue beyond the reasonable scope of a short work like this. Added to this the self-evident bias within the text, which leads to numerous misinterpretations or partial reportings of the position of the authors discussed, and the almost incomprehensible organising principle, and one is left having to extract what is of value and disregard the rest. Ultimately, the book lacks the deeper, more refined reasoning that its authors admire in Rushdie’s novels, seeming to fall into just about all the problems they cite with the novelists discussed.

There was some good stuff in here, but the problems and distractions ended up spoiling it for me.


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