As a skeptic, I am suspicious of dogmatism in all its forms, particularly concerning matters that transcend the world of common experience. As a corollary, I am suspicious of polarization and false dichotomies in public discussion.
The nagging question is this: To what extent is the "new atheism" of Dawkins, Harris, et al., a form of dogmatism? One way to get the measure of this would be to ask: To what extent does the "new atheism" either presuppose or promulgate polarization?
Regarding the main question, the new atheists whose work I've read so far seem prone to very definite and by no means uncontroversial views about the basic nature of reality and about the basis and scope of human knowledge. Dawkins is a scientist and, even though he at one point avows otherwise (p.185), can be read as advocating scientism.
For one thing, Dawkins is an empiricist in practice if not in principle, which entails fairly narrow criteria of what counts as "evidence", and further entails that anything not open to proof or disproof by that narrow range of evidence is not worth considering. The idea that "the God Hypothesis" is necessarily a scientific hypothesis seems a gross oversimplification - but precisely the sort of claim to be expected from a dogmatic empiricist.
For another, Dawkins explicitly embraces philosophical naturalism, particularly the view that reality is basically material. His particular understanding of material reality informs the central claim of his argument against the existence of God: that God would have to be more complex (and hence more improbable) than the world He allegedly created. This is convincing for people who have already bought into philosophical naturalism, perhaps, but not so much for others.
Regarding the subsidiary question of polarization, Dawkins does have an unfortunate tendency to polarize the debate and to "poison the well" for anyone who wants to take a moderate position, though he does not go nearly so far in his well-poisoning as does Sam Harris in Letter to a Christian Nation. Still, the two would give the Bush administration a run for its money in their with-us-or-against-us rhetoric.
Two worlds stand opposed to one another, a world of light and a world of darkness . . . ahem. Where was I? Oh, yes . . .
According to Dawkins and Harris, there are only two sides to the debate. On the one side are rational people who reject superstition and embrace Science. On the other side are those whose minds have been hijacked by the toxic memes of religion - the fundamentalist evangelical Christian gloating over natural disasters, the Catholic priest abusing the minds if not the bodies of children, the Muslim suicide bomber, and the rest of that sorry lot.
What's in between? Nothing viable, they argue. Nothing worthwhile. Besides, moderate and liberal theists, agnostics, skeptics, and a whole of a culture that affords undue deference to religious belief only play into the hands of the fanatics. As Dawkins (p.346) puts it: "The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism."
There is another, more restricted polarization in both of these books, perhaps stemming from their authors' unsophisticated understanding of moral philosophy, and almost certainly fostered by their adherence to empiricism and naturalism. In treating the question of whether morality can exist without God, both of them fall into a false dichotomy: morality is either absolutist (a matter of duty, following rules) or it is consequentialist (growing out of an empiricist tradition in ethics, since suffering is something we can see and feel). There are no other options, and since theism tends to favor absolutism, it is just obvious that rational people will favor consequentialism (see Harris, p.23-24; Dawkins, pp.335). There are other options.
And yet, it's still not clear to me that a robust, positive atheism requires a prior commitment to empiricism or philosophical naturalism, or that it necessarily entails political polarization. In the interstices of Dawkins' book - though not in Harris' little screed - there is the possibility of a broader and more generous sort of atheism, the primary commitment of which is to pursue open, critical inquiry in whatever form it takes and wherever it leads . . . with a growing conviction that it leads away from any sort of theism.
The basic insight, to which Dawkins himself alludes on occasion (though I can't find the passages just now), is that science is just one, particularly powerful form of intersubjective critical inquiry, its evidence just one kind of evidence, among several. The point is that the inquiry has to be intersubjective and also critical.
I could cast this kind of inquiry in phenomenological terms (playing on "intersubjective"), or in terms set out by the American pragmatists (Peirce, Dewey), or in terms of the theory of deliberative democracy (Rawls, Habermas). In the end, not much may hinge on the distinction.
The point is that any claim I make, any policy I propose, would have to be backed up by argument and evidence that is accessible to and understandable by a wide range of interlocutors, many of whom will likely not share my particular beliefs and values nor even my basic presuppositions. In order to convince anyone, the evidence and argument I offer must be "public," that is, rooted somehow in the world of common experience. I happen to think that the common world is richer and deeper than the empiricists' sensorium.
As a skeptic, I am committed to holding only to those beliefs that can survive robust criticism in the public forum. I am further committed to holding those beliefs only provisionally, open always to the possibility that further public evidence and argument may lead me to revise them or even replace them.
Here is where atheism makes sense, at least if it is understood as the negative of a particular understanding of theism. Dawkins' target is not the broadly spiritual sense of awe and deep meaning experienced by, say, Einstein, but the particular beliefs of theists in the three Abrahamic traditions. He states "the God Hypothesis" as follows, on p.52:
there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.
If that's really what theism is, then it seems the approach to critical inquiry I have outlined is destined push me toward atheism, if not all the way there, for some of the basic reasons Dawkins' cites.
For one thing, claims in a particular religious text are only convincing to those who already accept the literal and compelling truth of a religious text, something that is notably difficult to establish on the basis of public reasons. It is only by the undue deference granted to religious belief that people get away with it at all. Even then, there are all the usual problems of authorship, transmittal, translation, cherry-picking, and so on.
For another, there are other well-established threads in public debate that undermine the God hypothesis or show the particular forms it takes to be utterly contingent and idiosyncratic. Evolutionary biology is one of these threads, the one on which Dawkins hangs much of his argument, along with threads from historians, anthropologists, neurologists, psychologists, and so on and on. There are also lines of inquiry in philosophy that have bearing on the question: I think particularly of Kant, for whom God was at most a regulative idea of judgment, and of the existentialist tradition from Nietzsche on down.
There are a lot of questions I have yet to address: What about "moderate" theism, or broader kinds of spirituality? Is theism okay in private as long as it is not pushed in public? Would this make moderate religion more understandable and more justifiable? (Certainly, even Dawkins acknowledges that atheists and moderate theists can find some common ground and make common cause in practical matters.) In that case, does my take on critical inquiry really push toward atheism in principle or just secularism in practice?