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The New Atheism

Author: Peter S. Williams

Keywords: Atheism, science, belief, faith, God

Book title: The God Delusion
Author: Richard Dawkins
Publisher (h/b): Bantam Press (UK); Houghton Mifflin (USA)
Pub. date (h/b): 18 September 2006 (USA); 2 October 2006 (UK)

Book title: Letter to a Christian Nation
Author: Sam Harris
Publisher (h/b): Knopf
Pub. date (h/b): 19 September 2006

Book title: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Author: Daniel Dennett
Publisher (h/b): Viking (USA); Allen Lane (UK)
Pub. date (h/b): 2 February 2006 (USA); 2 March 2006 (UK)

 

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Buy Letter To A Christian Nation from Amazon.co.uk or from Amazon.com

 

'The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief.'
Steven Weinberg[1]

While theism has made impressive inroads into academia (especially in academic philosophy) since the middle of the twentieth century,[2] one would hardly expect non-theists to take this state of affairs lying down. A vocal minority of atheists (primarily scientists) have recently attempted to launch an aggressive counter-strike. Wired Magazine dubbed it 'The New Atheism' in a November 2006 cover story:

The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there's no excuse for shirking. Three writers have sounded this call to arms. They are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.[3]

All three authors have released high profile books attacking religious belief in 2006 (Dawkins' The God Delusion[4], Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon[5] and Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation[6]). They seem determined to revitalize the stereotypical confrontation of 'science vs. religion.' It is stereotypical because it depends upon the false assertion that, as naturalist Tom Clark writes in an attempt to clarify things, 'The root conflict is rather between science and faith, two different ways of justifying beliefs about the world which lead to naturalism and supernaturalism, respectively.'[7] Most fundamentally, as Albert Mohler observes, 'It is not so much that Dawkins is attempting to convince believers that they should no longer believe in God. To the contrary, Dawkins is attempting a very different cultural and political move. He wants to make respect for belief in God socially unacceptable.'[8] This approach has proved to be as controversial among atheists and agnostics as it is among theists.

 

Beyond Belief

On 5 November 2006, what amounted to the first New Atheist conference, 'Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival', was held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California (with Dawkins, Dennett and Harris in attendance).[9] This well-publicized gathering, covered by The New York Times and New Scientist, addressed three questions: 'Should science do away with religion?', 'What would science put in religion's place?' and 'Can we be good without God?'

The consensus view on the first question was naturally that science should do away with religion (narrowly defined as naturalistic explanations of natural phenomena) (defined in terms of a 'blind faith' which is quite unrecognizable to mainstream Christian orthodoxy). The agreed answer to the second question was, unsurprisingly, that science should replace religion with science. On the matter of being good, the consensus was that we can be good without God because of evolutionary group dynamics. In other words, as New Scientist said, 'science can take on religion and win.'[10] The spirit of New Atheism was perfectly encapsulated by the meeting's opening speech, in which Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg offered the concluding exultation that: 'Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.'[11]

 

A call to arms

The New Atheism combines a traditional naturalistic atheism, which asserts that God's existence is unlikely if not outright disprovable, with a moral imperative to eradicate traditional religion. It is a call to arms fuelled by the undoubted intellectual and moral failings of both Christian and Muslim fundamentalism. Indeed, one of the primary arguments of the New Atheism is that all belief in God is either directly or indirectly the cause of so much evil that it should be abandoned. Unfortunately, the New Atheism seems to illustrate the adage that we are in danger of becoming what we hate, with an attention-grabbing rhetorical superstructure that far outstrips the scholarship and philosophical substance of its intellectual foundations. As the United Kingdom's Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, comments concerning The God Delusion:

I only wish I had as much faith as the learned professor. It would be nice to believe that if you cured people of believing in God, you would thereby have cured them of hate, violence, anger, injustice, cruelty and the urge to control, exploit, dominate and oppress. Nothing in history suggests such a thing. On the contrary, if people do not commit evil in the name of God they have never been short of other reasons to do so: race, the war of classes, the political system, the march of progress, the Darwinian struggle to survive. In the perennial battle between our lowest and highest instincts, which is the human condition whether we are atheist or believer, people usually robe their most brutal acts in the mantle of high ideals. In this respect the history of religion, like the history of substitutes for religion, is all too human.[12]

Or as another commentator writes concerning the New Atheist movement as a whole:

As much as I respect the scientific accomplishments of Dawkins and Dennett (Harris, not so much), I have to regard them the same way I regard the most intolerant of the Christian right. It's not that science is bad, but that when science is thought to be all there is, all that there can be, it becomes another religion. And it isn't a tolerant, compassionate, or uplifting religion. It's just arrogant.[13]

 

Division in the ranks

Many otherwise sympathetic atheists and agnostics have critiqued the un-nuanced and stridently antagonistic rhetoric of the 'New Atheists'. In February 2006, agnostic Darwinist Michael Ruse had a notoriously ill-tempered exchange of e-mails with Daniel Dennett in which Ruse complained that Dennett's book Breaking the Spell is 'really bad and not worthy of you'[14]:

I think that you and Richard [Dawkins] are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design – we are losing this battle . . . what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues – neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas – it is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil, as Richard claims – more than this, we are in a fight, and we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will.[15]

Commenting on the 'Beyond Belief' conference, anthropologist Melvin J. Konner lamented that: 'With a few notable exceptions, the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?'[16] Dawkins' aggressive 'take-no-prisoners approach (religious education is “brainwashing” and “child abuse”) was condemned by . . . Konner, who said he had “not a flicker” of religious faith, as simplistic and uninformed.'[17] Indeed, Konner castigated Harries and Dawkins during the conference saying, 'I think that you and Richard are remarkably apt mirror images of the extremists on the other side, and that you generate more fear and hatred of science.'[18] Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, likewise advocated a more civil approach:

Persuasion isn't always, 'Here are the facts – you're an idiot or you are not,' he said. 'I worry that your methods' – he turned toward Dr. Dawkins – 'how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective, when you have much more power of influence.' Dawkins replied that he 'gratefully accepted' the rebuke.[19]

Joan Roughgarden, a professor of geophysics and biology at Stanford University, described the New Atheist views expressed at the 'Beyond Belief' symposia as depending upon:

[an] exaggerated and highly rose-coloured picture of the capabilities of science. They are entitled as atheists to generate more activism within the atheist community, but scientists are portraying themselves as the enlightened white knights while people of faith are portrayed as idiots… [People of faith are being antagonised, and this is] a lose-lose proposition.[20]

According to physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, the New Atheists' approach is 'inappropriate' and 'certainly not effective.'[21] Krauss argues that, 'Science's success does not mean it encompasses the entirety of human intellectual experience.'[22] He cautions, 'Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.'[23] As anthropologist Scott Atran complained:

This is Alice in Wonderland, it's just a neo-Christian cult. The arguments being put forward here are extraordinarily blind and simplistic. The Soviets taught kids in school about science – religiously – and it didn't work out too well. I just don't think scientists, when they step out of science, have any better insight than the ordinary smuck on the street. It makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.[24]

 

The need for civil debate

Having thoroughly investigated the New Atheism, Gary Wolf concludes:

The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob. Everybody who does not join them is an ally of the Taliban. But so far, their provocation has failed to take hold . . . I take this as good news. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn't necessarily mean we've lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there's always a chance we could turn out to be wrong.[25]

Debate about issues of religious belief can generate more heat than light, as the 'New Atheists' demonstrate. However, that is no more of an argument against having such a debate than the argument that food can choke people to death is an argument against eating. Disagreeing with a person's views does not necessarily mean finding them disagreeable. Christians are committed to rational debate with non-Christians, because they view the cosmos as the creation of a rational God, and believe that human beings are made in God's 'image' (cf. Genesis 1:27, Acts 17:27–28) and therefore are also rational, capable of discovering truth about the world for themselves. This understanding of human beings is seen in the Bible when God says, 'Come now, let us reason together' (Isaiah 1:18), and when the prophet Samuel stands before the people of Israel stating, 'I am going to confront you with evidence before the Lord' (1 Samuel 12:7). According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is to 'love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind' (Matthew 22:37, my italics). Jesus even said, 'Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves' (John 14:11, my italics). The apostle Paul wrote of, 'defending and confirming the gospel' (Philippians 1:7), and he 'reasoned . . . from the scriptures, explaining and proving' in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2-3) and reasoned and disputed with philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:17,18). Christians are commanded to, 'always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have . . .' (1 Peter 3:15). The Greek word translated here as 'reason' is 'apologia', which means 'reasoned defence', and from which we get the word 'apologetics'.[26] Hence Christians engage in arguments about their beliefs because they are passionate about truth, and because they believe that Christianity is true. It is perfectly legitimate for atheists or agnostics to present counter arguments with the same high-minded motivation. However, one might hope for a general agreement on all sides that the Bible is at least correct when it calls upon people to speak the truth as they see it 'in love' (Ephesians 4:15), and to engage those who have different beliefs 'with gentleness and respect' (1 Peter 3:15).

 



Footnotes

[1] George Johnson, 'A Free-for-All on Science and Religion', The New York Times, 21 November 2006

[3] Gary Wolf, 'The Church of the Non-Believers', Wired Magazine, November 2006

[4] cf. Andrew Brown, 'Dawkins the dogmatist'; Terry Eagleton, 'Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching', London Review of Books Vol. 28 No. 20, 19 October 2006; Alister McGrath, 'The Dawkins Delusion'; Albert Mohler, 'The Dawkins Delusion'; Albert Mohler, 'The God Delusion Revisited'; Thomas Nagel, 'The Fear of Religion', The New Republic Online ; Peter S. Williams, 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?'; Peter S. Williams, 'Calling Dawkins' Bluff'

[6] cf. David Segal, 'Atheist Evangelist', Washington Post, October 26, 2006; The Catechizer, 'Letter to a Christian Nation – Part 1'

[8] Albert Mohler, 'The New Atheism?'

[10] Michael Brooks, 'This Week: Beyond Belief', New Scientist, 18 November 2006, p. 11

[12] Jonathan Sacks, The Times, quoted by theconnexion.net

[20] Brooks, 'This Week: Beyond Belief'

[21] Brooks, 'This Week: Beyond Belief'

[22] Laurence Krauss, quoted by Brooks, 'This Week: Beyond Belief'

[24] Brooks, 'This Week: Beyond Belief'

[25] Wolf, 'The Church of the Non-Believers'

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