atheism, Baggini, Dawkins, Dennett, Grayling, Hitchens, Michael Ruse, P Z Myers, Quentin Smith, Sam Harris, Stenger
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.
All atheists have in common is that none of them believe gods exist; it’s hardly surprising that atheists’ opinions on everything else is so diverse. You’ve only shown your own intellectual weakness.
Mark Silversides said:
If that’s all that atheists have in common, what’s the big deal? Why do they make so much noise? Even political parties spell out some kind of implications of their beliefs.
Generally speaking – a large cohort of us are drawn to issues involving church state separation, defending science classrooms against religious intrusion into spaces where it does not belong, the rights of groups targeted by religion and a number of other issues in the civic realm. Others, a strong subset are interested in challenging the basic evidential claims made by religions, attacking moderates for remaining quite in the face of the fundamentalists and extremists of their faith making incursions, bombing buildings, killing doctors…..and teaching hate to their children.
Atheism is not a religion and we do not have a holy book and we do not have marching orders. We do swarm when an issue emerges that interests us…. not all of us are attracted to the same issues at any given time. This is how the internet works… it is emergent. What comes from raising an issue like oh circumcision – female and male – is that those of us interested in the topic will go to that space and think it through out loud with others, argue with those who make special claims about their rights to sexually abuse minors in the name of tradition, or not – because perhaps we are somewhere else fighting another aspect of the hydra – as we see it.
You’re claim that we are intellectual lightweights is hilarious when generally we are taking on both people making money off TV shows featuring exorcism, prosperity gospel mega-church grifters, people who suck cash from poor incurious humans to get a glimpse of the Virgin on a piece of toast – AND attacks on stem cell research, circumcision and Dominionists across the globe working on things like the Kill the Gays bill in Uganda.
You fail to mention by the way that a large chunk of us are former religious people steeped in traditions who test out as having more knowledge about world religions than believers. Many of us are actually ex-pastors, rabbinical students, graduates of theological seminaries, former child evangelists…. the list goes on and on.
The implications of being a free thinking human are SO vast that the real light weight move is to imagine that we all work from the same place.
I am an atheist because as a child I realized that being moral because you fear “God” or fear hell….is not moral at all. It’s animal…like a dog is good because he fears being smacked….or like an abused wife makes dinner because she does not want a beating…. It is the ethic of a human reduced to quivering in fear. I know and knew we care intrinsically, that love is our nature…and was offended at the demotion of my person offered by the Church. This I figured out as a pre-teen in the 70s. Tell me again how this makes me your inferior.
All the “new atheists” are doing is making room for all of us non-believers to come out and tell you what we think, to sort things out in pubic discourse. And we are…. And you do not like it.
You should get used to it however.
Mark Silversides said:
I agree with most of what you say, particularly about religious cranks and extremists. By the way, I have never tried to be moral out of fear, or because someone says I will roast in hell otherwise. I try to be moral because it’s right, as do all the Christians I know. I am sorry you have had such a terrible experience from people in what sounds like an extreme old-fashioned Catholicism.
I do believe things should be sorted out in public discourse, and I believe in democracy. Contrary to what you assume, I do not consider you my inferior. Contrary to what I said in my post, I do not consider the new atheists ligthweight, far from it.
The point I was making in my post was simply that putting together a number of great intellects has not, in this case, produced an intellectually coherent movement. If it had, I doubt there would have been so much criticism of it from atheists.
I wasn’t aware that a number of great intellects were put together to produce a coherent movement; it looks to me more like a bunch of authors/speakers on the same subject. If you’re looking for movements, why not look at actual organizations, like American Atheists or the British Humanist Association or UK Atheists?
Mark Silversides said:
I think perhaps the impression of a movement is given by the media coverage, especially of Richard Dawkins. It certainly seems like he is leader of a movement, but I take your word for it if this is a false impression. I think my point about lack of coherence still stands.
I do look at BHA and Atheism UK web sites occasionally. I agree with much of what they say about abusive religion. Everything that humans are involved in gets corrupted. I dare say that will turn out to be true of atheist movements, if they get big and / or influential.
I enjoyed reading this entry very much. A lot of what you have written has given me cause to do some more reading; on specific topics no less. I would, however, ask a question and raise a point for consideration:
First, what do you feel to be the representation of “new atheist” core values? I see the phrase used a lot here but there is a lot of (no offense) vague dialogue surrounding its use.
Secondly, consider this: Atheism, as a social movement, is rather new still. We are just now emerging into a time of social change that embraces individuality and encourages free thinking. It wasn’t long ago though, that “atheist” was taken to mean “satanist” (an association of ignorance). My point being that we do not have the finesse or experience that belongs to other social groups. We are still taking the first teetering steps out of our hiding places; still admitting to our parents and peers that we don’t believe. Allowing this knowledge to temper our perspective, it is only logical that social movements to encourage free thinking are still a bit wobbly; uncoordinated and ill formed.
Mark Silversides said:
Thanks for your reply. I think the core of new atheism is faith in naked neo-Darwinism coupled with a strong materialist view of the universe and the self. But the views held by scientists and philosophers in general (even non-religious ones) are much broader than this. New atheism seems like a PR exercise.
Your second point is interesting. Over here in the UK it’s a long time since being an atheist was a problem. Yet although our culture is far more secular than the US, atheism as a social movement has never really taken off. In fact, I think it may have been stronger 50 years ago than it is now – but that’s just an impression. It’s obviously very different in the Bible belt!
Lee Turnpenny said:
The UK 2011 Census revealed those of no religion now constitute up to a quarter of the population. So, if ‘new’ atheism is a PR exercise (like PR is never a resort of the church now, is it?), it would seem to be doing something influentially right. The spear-headers of this ‘movement’ (as you might have it) are not presenting beliefs – they’re attacking the apathy that has allowed the authoritarian weakness of the faithful’s case to persist unchallenged. Discomforting, isn’t it?
Lee Turnpenny said:
The 2011 Census revealed those of no religion now constitute up to a quarter of the population. So, if ‘new’ atheism is a PR exercise (like PR is never a resort of the church now, is it?), it would seem to be doing something influentially right. The spear-headers of this ‘movement’ (as you might have it) are not presenting beliefs – they’re attacking the apathy that has allowed the authoritarian weakness of the faithful’s case to persist unchallenged. Discomforting, isn’t it?
Mark Silversides said:
What is being revealed is the nominal nature of so many people’s Christian belief. That is not a bad thing, and no, I am not troubled by it. I would rather people were honest about what they believe, or don’t. I also dislike authoritarianism once it goes beyond the proper bounds of free speech. However, I don’t think you can accuse me of being authoritarian in my post when all I have done is to quote atheists and agnostics.
Lee Turnpenny said:
Hi – please note that I was not accusing you of being authoritarian. (And apologies for the inadvertent duplication – can you remove one?)
I find this statement illogical. You seem to come from the position that ‘atheism is a belief system’, and then lambast the varying (nominal) nature of its ‘beliefs.’ Your argument seems to be that atheism is invalid because its spear-headers differ in those beliefs, yet conveniently ignore that the religious have have been dis-agreeing for millennia. On which…
This overlaps the egregious attacks on (atheism-conflated)secularism promulgated by the likes of Warsi, Pickles et al. Actually, they don’t ignore it.
I wouldn’t have thought this a problem for the religious. Unless, that is, they are of the evolution-rejecting bent.
Mark Silversides said:
I tried to get rid of dupe but it got rid of both!
I don’t agree with everything Warsi and Pickles say; even so, I don’t think you can compare them with the misuse of eugenics that was given a great boost by atheism after the Enlightenment, especially in Germany.
You’re right in principle about origins of religion, I guess I should have added that the evolutionary view when pursued by atheists usually seems to carry with it a negative assumption about the truth value of religion.
I’ll take your word for it that atheism is not meant to be a belief system, but it is hard to avoid that impression looking at the BHA web site for example.
Time to shovel snow.