The ‘new atheism’ is spearheaded by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. Slightly in the background are a handful of others such as A C Grayling, P Z Myers, Victor Stenger and Susan Blackmore. These unofficial leaders quote each other and recommend each others’ work, with Dawkins as the best known in the public arena.
The intelligence of these individuals is undoubtedly much higher than mine, and their academic excellence is not in question. However, a cat may look at a king, so I put the following proposition: despite the individual talents of the ‘new atheists’, they fail as a group to present a convincing case for their beliefs. The support for my thesis falls under three main headings.
1 Cultural Commentary
The writings of Hitchens and Harris in general, and of Dawkins and Myers at times, cover many subjects in which they have no greater expertise than thousands of other commentators. Some of these commentators would agree with them on any specific subject, some would not. Atheists can be found on both sides of such divides; at the same time, some non-atheists would agree with some atheists in many areas. A good example of such diverse opinion would be the war in Iraq.
It seems an obvious deduction that ‘new atheist’ opinions on these subjects cannot be derived in any objective sense from atheist beliefs. If they were, we should expect to see the great majority of atheists in agreement on such points, with the great majority of non-atheists in the opposite camp.
My deduction is not in itself a criticism – after all, diversity of opinion and open debate is at the heart of a democratic society. The problem is that this diversity persists as one moves closer to the core beliefs of the ‘new atheists’ – and that brings me to my second category.
2 Pronouncements on Religion
When ‘new atheists’ make broad comments on religion they are almost invariably criticised or ignored by many other atheists. Take, for example, their constant attacks on Christian fundamentalism. Myers is especially virulent in this area, with Dawkins a close second. Yet there are many ‘unbelievers’ who point out that fundamentalists do not represent the whole of Christianity, either in the present or historically. Michael Ruse often makes this point, while Ken Higgs, of Boson fame, recently made the same criticism in an attack on Dawkins (see The Guardian 26th December 2012).
We have moved from the outer circle, if you like, of general cultural commentary, closer to the core of ‘new atheist’ thinking. Diversity of views on general matters is to be expected, but it would be reasonable to think that this diversity should lessen as we moved towards core beliefs. It does not, and the anticipated convergence remains absent when we move to the claim of the ‘new atheists’ that religion is immensely harmful in itself, not merely when taken over by fundamentalists. Here there seem to be several areas of debate – the historical role of religion, the origins of religion, and the theology lying behind religion, particularly Christianity.
It can safely be said that ‘new atheists’ are careless with history, preferring to echo old mantras about the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, wars of religion and so on. They ignore the complex mingling of religious and political power that has pertained in most of these situations, and the not infrequent attempts of religious bodies to improve the human lot. They also ignore the effects of atheism in giving ideological validity to fascist and communist despots, often fatally coupled to theories of race. For the ‘new atheist’ religion is the ‘root of all evil’, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
Again, diversity is apparent. Niall Ferguson, one of the initial faculty members of the Grayling-founded New College of the Humanities, is firmly on record as stating that religion is a vital contributor to social and ethical behaviour. Lewis Wolpert is unremitting in his criticisms of religious superstition, but likewise warns of the consequences of the loss of religious belief. Alain de Botton believes that Dawkins’ views are too narrow minded and that atheists should attempt to rescue the good aspects of religion from religious people, suggesting the building of atheist temples. Julian Baggini is famously conciliatory in attitude, while maintaining a strong atheist position. The distinguished neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, although a secularist herself, regards moderate religion as broadly a good thing (New Humanist 117:4).
Concerning the origins of religion, the general atheist view is that religion is a natural phenomenon which, like everything else about us, is part of our evolutionary development. Again, though, we note the differences. There are many views as to what factors in religion might have contributed to the survival of small and then large groups. Dawkins and Dennett, however, stand out from scholarly consensus in their attachment to the role of memes in this process, a view enthusiastically extended by Blackmore. Yet Wolpert is extremely sceptical about the meme, beyond the superficial meaning of the word as a unit of belief. He is not alone in that scepticism – meme theory as a scientific discipline seems to be dead in the water.
If we now consider the ‘new atheist’ understanding of theology, Terry Eagleton’s famous comment in London Review of Books (19th October 2006) says it all. He accuses Dawkins and others like him of putting forward ‘vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.’ Though an atheist, Eagleton regularly shows his own theological knowledge, as does Ruse. Eagleton has carried his critique forward into his published talks, and Ruse seeks reconciliation between science and Christianity, rather than conflict.
3 The ‘New Atheist’ Core
I think it is clear that in their general cultural comment, and in their sweeping condemnations of religion, the ‘new atheists’ rarely, if ever, succeed in putting forward a reasoned and distinctive position. In some matters there are many non-atheists who would agree with them. Occasionally they disagree among themselves. Most strikingly though, there are other highly-qualified atheists and agnostics who flatly contradict many of their assertions.
I suppose that if we could draw a line at this point and show the credibility of the ‘new atheist’ core beliefs, then divergence on lesser matters might be overlooked. However, the trends I have shown continue right into their inner sanctum, which is, of course, the belief (carved in tablets of stone) that our modern scientific understandings of cosmology and of evolution have removed the need for any kind of God.
Part of Dawkins’ writing technique is to pay attention to the ‘mood music’ before setting up his main argument. This prepares the reader to agree with the main argument, and it also creates space for the presentation of softer evidence. For example, he often creates the impression that nearly all scientists and philosophers are atheists, and those that are not are a tiny minority. I have long thought that to be untrue, and this is confirmed by Higgs in the article already quoted; he states that a lot of scientists is his field are religious believers.
Further, a recent article by the atheist American philosopher Quentin Smith estimates that between a quarter and a third of American philosophers operative in universities are theists (Philo 4:2). Even among those who would not go that far, there is a range of philosophical beliefs not limited to the materialism (or, perhaps more correctly, the physicalism) of Dennett. In fact, Dennett’s view of mind and consciousness leans heavily on Gilbert Ryle, his Oxford mentor in the ’60s, and is only one of many contemporary views. Greenfield, who has unrivalled knowledge of the brain, points out that in trying to understand the workings of consciousness we do not even know what kind of phenomenon we are considering, let alone how to analyse it correctly.
Finally, the ‘new atheists’ demand support for one particularly narrow version of evolutionary theory, the neo-Darwinian. This has never been accepted as exclusively as Dawkins pretends – names like Margulis, Woese, Eldredge, Gould, Goldschmidt and Kimura come to mind. Over the last two decades further complex questions have arisen from epigenetics, ‘evo-devo’ thinking, genomics, information science and, most recently, the results of the ‘Encode’ project. This is all very inconvenient for the Dawkins-Dennett view of evolution as a simple, quasi-mathematical numbers game, which is, of course, particularly amenable to the ‘blind watchmaker’ narrative. These new views do not spring from crazed religious fanatics, they are propagated by scientists with no particular religious axe to grind.
I hope you can now agree with me that, despite the individual intellects involved, the case brought by the ‘new atheists’ as a group is extremely weak. Across a broad swathe of issues, from popular commentary to the central arguments against God, they are contradicted by many in their own fields of expertise, including many atheists. I suspect that is why, despite an extensive PR campaign and much media support, they have not even succeeded in rallying their own troops.