The Failures of New Atheism

Introduction

As for social and intellectual movement, the term ‘New Atheism’ is a diverse and contested notion, potentially encompassing a wide diversity of positions and ways of thinking. My subsequent discussion of the differences between ‘New Atheism’ and ‘Old Atheism’, therefore, should be understood as explicating general tendencies, rather than presenting an absolute binary dichotomy. This caveat being made, however, I believe that the New Atheist movement does exhibit sufficient regularities and commonalities for us to make some tentative general observations.

In contrast to Old Atheism, by which I mean atheism as it existed roughly prior to the turn of the Millennium, New Atheism has tended to be much more assertive in the public discourse, much more eager and willing to make its views heard, and much less concerned about respecting the religious beliefs or faith of others. New Atheism also has tended to focus, to an even greater degree than did Old Atheism, on the social and political harms of religion, especially fundamentalist religion. New Atheism has also placed a much greater emphasis on creating a sustained mass movement, and of developing a socially and politically engaged atheism. All three of these trends are themselves worthy of much deeper analysis, however in this article I want to focus on a fourth major trend that I observe in New Atheism, one which I find to be a much less positive development. Simply put, I believe that New Atheism represents an intellectual retrogression from Old Atheism, doing away with the sophisticated philosophical positions of old, and replacing them with a crude form of scientism and general disinterest in rigorous philosophy. In this essay, I will argue that this trend represents a profoundly negative development in the history of atheistic thought, and puts atheists and rationalists in a poor position to counter increasingly sophisticated apologetic arguments.

Atheism: Old and New

New Atheism is undoubtedly a movement thoroughly infused by scientists and the scientifically minded. Beginning with the canonical ‘four horseman’, we find that Richard Dawkins is a biologist, Sam Harris a neuroscientist, and Christopher Hitchens a journalist. Daniel Dennett is the only professional philosopher of the four, though he too represents a particular strain of highly scientifically-minded philosophical thought, and is not himself a specialist in philosophy of religion. Other prominent figures associated to varying degrees with new Atheism include Victor Stenger (physicist), Laurence Krauss (physicist), Jerry Coyne (biologist), PZ Meyers (biologist), AC Grayling (philosopher), Michel Onfray (philosopher), Dan Barker (former pastor), Michael Shermer (historian of science), Bill Nye (biologist), and Neil degrasse Tyson (physicist). Though this list is hardly comprehensive, it is I think representative of the strong (though not exclusive) domination of New Atheism by scientists, particularly biologists and physicists.

This preponderance of scientists in the New Atheism contrasts greatly with the much larger proportion of prominent philosophers among Old Atheists. Key atheist figures from the twentieth century include Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul-Sartre, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, Anthony Flew, Michael Martin, John Mackie, and Richard Rorty. All of these figures, with the possible exception of Freud, were notable philosophers who provided robust and challenging arguments against religion. Such thinkers, as I have indicated, are much less preponderant among the New Atheists. Indeed, a number of New Atheists or allied thinkers, such as Dawkins, Krauss, and Tyson, have publically expressed their disinterest and indeed active distain of philosophy in general, or philosophy of religion in particular. From their public remarks, many New Atheist thinkers and their supporters seem to endorse some form of scientism, a view (not widely accepted even by scientifically-minded philosophers) which asserts in essence that science is the only legitimate way of acquiring knowledge about the world. New Atheism has largely turned its back on serious philosophy, embracing science as the queen of all human knowledge.

The Christian Resurgence

Contrasting sharply with the New Atheist turn away from philosophy, since roughly the late 1960s there has been a surprising resurgence of theism in general, and conservative Christianity in particular, within the Anglo-American philosophical world. This resurgence has been manifested in several ways, including the publication of a series of highly influential works by thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Robert Adams, and William Lane Craig. Supporting this burgeoning Christian scholarship have been two academic societies, the Evangelical Philosophical Society was (founded in 1977), and the Society of Christian Philosophers (established 1978). Both these societies have their own peer-reviewed academic journals, respectively Philosophia Christi and Faith and Philosophy, which regularly publish articles relating to Christian theology, philosophy, and apologetics.

This resurgence of conservative Christianity with the academy has been mirrored by the rise in popular evangelical apologetics. A simple Google search reveals a positive cornucopia apologetic ministries and organisations: The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (founded 1995), Creation Ministries International (founded 1977), The Christian Apologetics Alliance (established 2011), Reasonable Faith (founded 2008), and Cold-Case Christianity (founded 2013) are just a few representative examples. Many of these groups and thinkers are financed and publicised by evangelical Christian universities such as Biola University, Denver Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Southern Evangelical Seminary, all of which also over masters degrees in apologetics. Needless to say, organised atheism lacks anything like this degree of institutional support.

This new brand of evangelical apologetics bears little resemblance to the uneducated, scientifically illiterate caricature that New Atheists frequently present of theists. On the contrary, many of these Christian thinkers utilise a wide range of cutting-edge discoveries and concepts from both philosophy and the sciences. In his Kalam Cosmological and Fine Tuning Arguments, for example, William Lane Craig synthesises old philosophical arguments with new scientific discoveries and ideas such as the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem, Boltzmann branes, and quantum cosmology. Alvin Plantinga has constructed a sophisticated and much-discussed version of the Ontological argument using modal logic, and has also built upon recent work in reliabilist epistemology to develop a careful argument defending belief in God as properly basic. Richard Swinburne has used principles of inductive logic and bayesian inference to argue for the Resurrection of Jesus. Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins has argued on the basis of modern findings in biology and neuroscience for the compatibility of Christianity with evolutionary biology.

New Atheism’s Intellectual Shortcomings

What do the New Atheists have to say in response to this rising tide of increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced evangelical apologetics? With a few exceptions, such as the excellent writings of Dawkins and PZ Meyers against creationism, and the work of Stenger critiquing the Fine Tuning argument, on the whole the answer seems to be relatively little. One searches in vain through the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and others for detailed, careful examination of the apologetic arguments raised by Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig, and others. Indeed, as I noted above, generally New Atheist thinkers express considerable distain for philosophy of religion, and evince little or no interest in presenting carefully-crafted responses to apologetic arguments. A related severe shortcoming of the New Atheist movement is its predilection towards outmoded scientistic approaches to philosophy, harkening back (though generally without attribution) to the early-twentieth century Vienna School in holding that claims which are not scientifically or empirically verifiable or testable are meaningless and not even worth discussing.

The New Atheist movement is also particularly poor at advancing any positive arguments in favour of atheism as a worldview. A common approach is to mock religion for its many absurdities, denounce its many negative social and political consequences, and then make various self-aggrandising statements to the effect that modern scientific discoveries in biology, physics, neuroscience, etc, have made theism obsolete and indefensible. The multifarious epistemological, ontological, ethical, and other assumptions which underpin such beliefs are rarely addressed, and almost never with reference to contemporary literature on the subject.

There are a number of atheist philosophers who have produced sophisticated, thoughtful responses to Christian apologetic arguments, including Kai Neilsen, Theodore Drange, Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, and Michael Ruse. Such thinkers, however, have substantially lower profiles than either their New Atheist or Christian apologist counterparts, and also typically have not been much associated with the New Atheism movement. Indeed, Michael Ruse has been highly critical of New Atheism, describing it as ‘a bloody disaster’. Similar views have been echoed by other philosophers, for example in The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, it is remarked that ‘New Atheists are largely seen as bush-league by professional philosophers of religion’.

My assessment of New Atheism as a movement, therefore, is that it represents a shift in atheist thinking away from the philosopher and towards the scientist, and consequently has led to a relative decline in the intellectual standing of atheism as a worldview. Indeed, whilst New Atheism has been successful in raising the profile of non-belief and in drawing greater attention to the harm and injustice perpetrated in the name of religion (both noble pursuits to be sure), I believe it has failed in its endeavour to provide a rigorous, carefully constructed, philosophically defensible account of the world around us and our place within it.

Why it Matters

Why should we, as rationalists and critical-thinkers, care about these developments? I think there are several reasons. First, as freethinkers we have an obligation to the pursuit of truth through examination of the best available evidence, careful argumentation, and critical analysis of reasons given for different beliefs. It reflects very poorly upon our position if we continue to repeat the slogan ‘there is no evidence for the existence of God’, whilst turning a blind eye to the many rigorous, carefully-development arguments that have been and continue to be advanced by Christian apologists and theistic philosophers.

Second, inquiring minds who seek out the best evidence and arguments increasingly are encountering the writings of Christian apologists and philosophers, and then searching in vain for persuasive responses in the New Atheist literature. This leads some, I suspect non-trivial, number of people to either adopt or maintain strong evangelical convictions. This is of concern to me because it represents, particularly in the case of young thinkers, a diversion of talent and intellect away from potentially more productive endeavours such as science or humanist causes, towards Christian apologetics programs, theology, or Christian ministry. To me it is a tragedy that even a single person would devote their life in pursuit of a false set of beliefs, let alone that this may happen in part as a result of the failure of New Atheists to provide clear and robust refutations of apologetics material. A corollary of this is that atheists themselves might also be concerned about holding false beliefs, particularly if they cannot provide adequate responses to apologetic arguments.

Third, the prestige and influence of any intellectual movement is, in the long run, substantially affected by its ability to add to the store of human knowledge, and to produce new and insightful ways of understanding the world. For the most part the New Atheists, (in disturbing contrast to the new apologists), have failed to do this, and I believe it is partly as a result of this failure that their influence in intellectual circles is waning, and will continue to wane unless the movement substantially lifts its intellectual game.

All of my criticisms of New Atheism would not be so much of a concern if this represented but one among many competing brands of atheistic belief, since if New Atheism proved not up to the challenge of providing rigorous philosophical responses to the new apologetics, other approaches to atheism could fill its place and step up to the intellectual mantle. Unfortunately, given the relatively small monetary and organisational resources of atheist, freethought, and humanist groups (certainly in comparison to the many incredibly well financed Christian churches and universities), it seems that there is not really room for more than one significant ‘brand’ of atheism. New Atheism seems to have ‘crowded out’ other approaches to atheism, at least in the popular consciousness and discourse. Consequently if New Atheism fails to present a philosophically rigorous and persuasive response to the new apologists, this will be taken to represent a failure of atheism or freethought as a whole to provide such a response. To avert this deeply concerning outcome, we as rationalists, freethinkers, skeptics, and atheists, must learn to better combine the New Atheist passion not to be silenced with the Old Atheist respect for careful philosophical argumentation. Anything less represents, in my view, an abdication of our intellectual and social responsibilities.

Sources

Craig, William Lane. “Does God Exist?” Philosophy Now (2013).

Dougherty, Trent, and Logal Paul Gage. “New Atheist Approaches to Religion.” In The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, edited by Graham Oppy, 2015.

Ruse, Michael. “Why I Think the New Atheists Are a Bloody Disaster.” Science and the Sacred (2009).

Taylor, James E. “The New Atheists.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015).

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