The New Atheism

Last Friday marked a historical landmark for this blog: the blogpost with the shortest life-span.

It was simply a humorous list of 21 “instructions” that aimed to point out some characteristics of the attitude and apologetics of the New Atheists. I admit that the tone leaned a little towards the sarcastic, but certainly no more than what is allowed in this blog, and definitely nowhere near than the usual vitriol fired by the New Atheists when they attack those who are “simple-minded” enough to still hold onto theist positions.

It didn’t fly. Within an hour of posting the list it was obvious that it wasn’t going in the right direction: one atheist blogger commented in counterattack sarcasm, one guy wrote something that sounded supportive but didn’t make any sense, and five hours and an “astonishing” 18 hits after the blogpost went up, I thought it wiser to take it down. Trouble is inevitable and well-expected with the content of what I usually write, but trouble because of the tone of what I write is something we can all live without. So, apologies to all atheist readers who I unwillingly offended – I didn’t mean to, but that’s hardly an excuse.

So, having said all that, I’d still like to return to the subject, and occupy our minds a little with the rise of the New atheism today. What we’ll say below will actually still echo elements from that list of contentions, but I will try to steer clear of forming “straw-men” as I was accused.

It’s no news that atheism is currently seeing a new day in the sun. Aggressively propagated by eminent academics like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, the idea that God does not exist is crossing rapidly from its old elitist intelligentsia home right into the world of mainstream thinking. It’s no longer something discussed at philosophical symposia in incomprehensible German terminology; it is now vehemently debated and defended in the public square.

Of course, geographically speaking, this isn’t really news to us who live in the Old World. Western Europe has been progressively secularised in terms of social structure and worldview since the Enlightenment, and even the famously religious Victorians embraced a strange, moralistic form of atheism (“I’m a Christian in my body, but not in my mind”).

Thus, I wonder if the alarms sounding from all fronts about the New Atheists don’t have more to do with the sudden spread and wide appeal of their ideas in the US; even though hyper-modernised as a country, even Richard Dawkins finds it necessary to specifically address the “religiosity” of his US readers in “The God Delusion”. But whatever the reason, what is most interesting is the reception of these ideas by a much wider audience than before.

In the following paragraphs I don’t aim to put forth a full-blown apologetic against every single argument of the New Atheism. Others, much more knowledgeable and intelligent have done so, and, even though there is much left to answer, I will give some references throughout. This article will just take an overarching view of New Atheism and pick up some of what I think are its more stringent arguments – in particular, as a scientist, I am interested in the way the New Atheists argue their case by claiming that atheism is the only place that science can lead us.

Before we start, it’s probably best to understand why we refer to this as the New Atheism. Here I will summarise the eight distinctive characteristics of the New Atheism that Dr Albert Mohler gives in his recent book Atheism Remix: A Christian confronts the New Atheists (pp 54-63):

1. It is marked by an unprecedented new boldness.

2. There is a clear and specific rejection of the Christian God of the Bible.

3. There is a rejection of Jesus Christ with a new explicitness and intensity.

4. It is specifically grounded in scientific argument.

5. There is a new refusal to tolerate moderate and liberal forms of belief.

6. There is an attack on religious toleration, which seems to include religious freedom of speech.

7. There is a questioning of the right of parents to inculcate belief on their own children.

8. There is the argument that religion itself must be eliminated in order to preserve human freedom.

Now, discussing the roots of the New Atheism is always an interesting conversation. It usually instigates emotional accusations from both theists and atheists, and – in my personal opinion – demonstrates very quickly the understanding that a person of either camp has on the subject. But it does bring two things into focus:

1) A perceived failure of theism/religion to respond to the modern (and post-modern) concerns. In human words, this means that people today feel that the notion of a God cannot satisfy our big questions. Under this I would tentatively put the general negative-to-hostile feeling that has been generated by the abuses of organised/institutional religion and the often-extreme conduct of the members of various religions (whether such extremism and fanaticism is actually allowed or justified by the core theology of their religion is something that seems unhelpfully ignored by the New Atheists).

2) A perceived uselessness of theism/religion in current ideological models. This is best demonstrated in the current vicious Evolution/Creation debate, which, essentially, runs much deeper than the fossil record and is a great example of how the interpretation of scientific data can quickly transform into a philosophy on the actual purpose of our existence. As a personal note, it saddens me as a scientist to see the almost intentional blurring of the de facto boundaries of Science; boundaries that even Prof Dawkins has admitted in a recent debate with his main critic Alistair McGrath. Pure, real, unadulterated Science can only look with a degree of confidence for the what, when, where and how of our existence as a cosmos; the why has always been outside of its scope because it must be beyond its grasp if it still wants to be called Science and not Metaphysics.

So in those two elements there is immediately much to find and understand about the New Atheism and in particular the growing hostile, militant attitude of its proponents. For the New Atheists God is not only dead, He is also useless. Theism, and in particular biblical theism, is not just passively pointless, it is dangerous, a disease; a mental virus that infects the entire human consciousness. So it logically follows that religious people are also dangerous (as Christopher Hitchens would have it), and ample evidence of that can be found from the Crusades to every suicide bomber attack today. Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. lamenting “If God is God He is not good; if God is good He is not God” still echoes through this idea, which some would – unjustly – simplify like this: “I can’t believe that there is a God because there is so much evil in the world”. But clichés aside, it is important to understand that the effects of believing in God today are seen as an active threat.

Nor are they perceived as useful either, as we mentioned above. In fact, Religion and Theism are seen as downright debilitating. Religion is the Big Leash; it’s holding us back with its viral epidemic, making people comfortable with the Unexplained and complacent with the world’s defects and problems. In the greater scheme of things, the New Atheists would argue, belief in God is holding us back from spreading our evolutionary wings, of “becoming all that we can be” in terms of human evolution. Religious belief might have had some evolutionary benefit once (though what that could be has not been proposed by the New Atheists to my knowledge) but it is time to grow out of our infantile minds, as Nietzsche would say, and let Nature take us to the next step.

I always get some flak when I’ve replied to this last one, and not unjustly. Because it is unavoidable that this sort of language immediately evokes some spine-chilling terminology used by some very “destructive” forces in the recent past – namely Nazism and Stalinism. Now, if we disagree with the straw-men attacks of the New Atheists, we really ought not to do the same and accuse them all of wanting to bring about a Fourth Reich. But isn’t it fair to at least mention that their assertion that a completely evolutionary worldview is needed to “save” mankind has been experimented with in the past with far-from-salvific consequences we are still reaping decades later? As a biologist, I am not aware of any new dimensions in the Theory of Evolution and Darwinism that would prohibit such a “logical evolution” in the future. Isn’t it practically an axiom that without a God there is no absolute; that without absolutes morality is relative, and a relative morality can easily redefine itself to anyone’s whim? What honest Evolutionist could argue that whatever Greater Good we devise under a completely naturalistic (and thus, atheistic) worldview will stand forever without fail?

But that, the atheist camp would argue, is irrelevant (hence the flak). Arguments from moralism don’t prove anything – and I fully agree. Besides, religious regimes also have volumes of dark pages in the books of History, and we’d be naive to think that Religion is a safe and proven way to social bliss. Thus, like Prof Dawkins would argue, whether or not we like the Darwinean/Nietzschean dystopia has nothing to do with reality. In other words, if the truth is that God doesn’t exist and evolution/naturalism is all we have, who cares about who likes what and what is right or wrong? Or, put differently, God doesn’t exist just because we’d like Him to (conversely, of course, we can say that God doesn’t not exist just because we’d like Him not to). The existence or not of God must be an absolute – He’s either there or He isn’t. This is why, I think, the New Atheists don’t particularly support the postmodernist philosophy, which decries any claim to propositional truth – including that God exists or does not.

The major question then, to my mind, is whether or not the “God hypothesis” is true or false, since it is from here that all other – theistic and atheistic – arguments follow. Now, in The God delusion Dawkins creates a scale of 7 degrees of belief in God:

1. Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.

2. De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.

3. Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.

4. Pure Agnostic: God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.

5. Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be sceptical.

6. De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.

7. Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.

Dawkins classifies himself as a number 6 on the scale, saying that no sane person can say with absolute certainty that God exists or does not exist. He does, however find that God is highly improbable. His view is rather peculiar (to say the least) since he reaches this conclusion by way of a philosophical fallacy (in my untrained eyes): Dawkins rightly states, in several places, that the designer of a thing must be at least as complex as the thing itself, if not more, and complexity is inversely proportional to probability. Thus, he extrapolates and says that God – the ultimate Designer of all things – must be so vastly complex that He inversely becomes vastly improbable as a being.

This is where things become intensely philosophical – and it is important to understand this. If, for example, you read through Alvin Plantinga’s in-depth critique of The God delusion, your head will spin – not because of pretentiousness, but because of necessity: Dawkins himself opened Pandora’s box (good for him, of course) by understandably thinking that he could dismantle theism by taking apart every historical argument for the existence of God, including Anselm’s ontological argument (a God that exists in reality is greater than a God who exists only in our imagination; we imagine/understand God as the greatest being of all; thus God cannot exist in our imagination/understanding only, He must exist in reality as well).

So what is Dawkins’ fallacy concerning the improbability of God? Simply put, the whole argument assumes that God would also be part of His creation, where the inverse relationship between complexity and probability applies. But, by definition, God, would transcend His creation, or otherwise He would not be God. Furthermore, there’s the question of whether or not God should be thought of as complex in the Dawkins sense of being composed of multiple parts. In classical theology (e.g. Thomas Aquinas), God has been thought of as simple in that He is immaterial and in that He is without “distinction of thing and property, actuality and potentiality, essence and existence, and the like” (Alvin Plantinga – see link above). In this sense again we can say that a simple, immaterial, spiritual God would not, by definition, fit into the complexity-probability model, even though His creation might.

But what is of particular interest to me is Dawkins’ own declaration that the “God hypothesis” is, by its very nature, an untestable scientific hypothesis (i.e. there is no experiment we can devise and perform to equivocate it), there is no good reason to accept it as true. Now, this might ring like the right tune to our “rational” ears, but I think that it has a central flaw: Since the “God hypothesis” is by nature untestable, it cannot, by nature, be treated as a regular testable hypothesis (according to Karl Popper’s definition). In other words, since God, by definition, must transcend the material world (and thus transcend the realm of Science), what makes anyone think that God should be “discovered” by any scientific means? In fact, if He could be conclusively discovered by a microscope or telescope, then He wouldn’t, by definition, be God – certainly not a God any theist would believe in.

I’m sure this argument won’t dismantle the New Atheism machine, but I hope that it demonstrates two things: First, that one of the central arguments of the New Atheism makes a very mistaken assumption (that God is part of His creation) and second, that the perceived division between Science and Religion seems more artificial than real.

I’ll have to end this “lengthy discourse” here, but I hope that it will stimulate some thinking and discussion. The New Atheists have put forth more arguments than the ones we’ve briefly touched upon here, and hopefully we’ll be able to address more of them in time.

Furthermore, I appreciate that I haven’t even touched upon the arguments from Evolution and how all that fits into the conversation of the New Atheism. This was intentional, mostly because there simply isn’t enough space here. But I do plan to revisit the whole issue and we can look at it in some depth, hopefully in the context of the current Creation-Evolution debate. Here I just aimed to introduce the New Atheism and dissect it a little. We also haven’t looked at the other New Atheists, but I thought that looking at Richard Dawkins would cover some good ground. In the same way, I’m also aware of the fact that we haven’t looked at John Lennox, an Oxford mathematician who has raised some substantial arguments against Atheism’s claims through the Philosophy of Science. All that at a later time.

Finally, I’d also like to recommend Peter S. Williams’ extensive critique on The God Delusion, which you can find here.

For now, I’d like to close with the Bible’s calm, confident, and very unpretentious way of responding to atheism – in my mind, the Bible itself is the ultimate proof that a personal God does exist:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. – Rom. 1:18-23

One thought on “The New Atheism

  1. 1 Yes, completely unlike, say, Ignersol… opps! For the past 300 years we have had active atheists. There is zero differance in their stridency- although for a period they were convinced that religion was dying.2 Included in the definition of atheist.3 Included in the definition of atheist.4 ? I’m positive this isn’t new- didn’t the Epicureans have the same MO? Or almost all atheists for that matter?5 Included in the definition of antitheism.6 Included in the definition of antitheism.7 Included in the definition of antitheism.8 Included in the definition of antitheism.Come on! You can do better! I can’t believe it- religious people always bringing up secular atrocities and forgeting the antitheism of the French revolution! Of course, there is the case of the British version of India- they tried to crush their religious traditions. Backwards and barbaric. Burning widows- no servant of the crown should ever do that!Generally the righteousness of antitheism depends on the insanity it is facing and how badly things spiral out of control. It works as badly as democracy during a revolution and as good as humanism in stability.I’ll hit the rest of your post later, but I would like to point out science DOES answer why questions- see archeology. It is just that there is no why answers in the rest of science- why presupposes a purpose and meaning.

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