The ‘New’ Atheists

As most of you clever people will know, in 2006 the British Biologist/Arch-Atheist Richard Dawkins let loose his bestselling and controversial book The God Delusion. It is a book remarkable in its incoherence, yet an entertaining read. In pretty much any bookstore you visit, it can almost always be guaranteed to be seen near the entrance. This is a fact that has come to irritate me recently (I visit a lot of bookshops). Irritation aside, The God Delusion obviously struck a chord among the public as it has sold over 2 million copies worldwide since it was first published. In his highly entertaining book he argues that faith in a God is irrational, dangerous and mentally degrading. His main aim in the book is to show the reader how religion is harmful and a hinderance to society and he also attempts to refute traditional arguments for the existence of God, claiming that God almost certainly doesn’t exist. This is by no means the first time he has expressed his contempt towards religious belief and sentiment because some of Dawkins’ previous literature contains anti-faith rantings too such as The Blind Watchmaker. In it he argues against Creationist explanations for our existence, and attempts to show that evolution by natural selection is the answer to the mystery of creation. Including his many books, he has also made several TV documentaries for channel 4 such as The Root Of All Evil , The Enemies Of Reason and Faith Schools Menace? which can all be purchased on DVD. Dawkins has now become something of a major celebrity and his work has become extremely influential. He is a darling to the media and can often be found waddling lamentably into discussions to offer his opinions on God.

‘I am utterly fed up with the respect we have been brainwashed into bestowing upon religion’Richard Dawkins

So what is this New Atheism? Around the time The God Delusion was published, militant Atheism gained considerable momentum giving rise to many other anti-faith books. Two years earlier American author Sam Harris wrote a book called The End Of Faith, so things had already taken off and the seeds had already been planted for this movement to grow in America. Other influential books that were published in the following years include Breaking The Spell by Daniel Dennett and God Is Not Great by the strangely flatulent Christopher Hitchens. Several other authors in more recent years have followed in their stead with God The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist by physicist Victor Stenger and Against All Gods by philosopher AC Grayling.This growing movement is usually referred to as the New Atheism and the bestselling authors just mentioned are its megaphone.

Ironically, Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Dennett often refer to themselves as the Four Horsemen (taken from the book of revelation) but the Four Horsemen are only a small part of a much larger movement across the world. Their primary agenda is to eradicate faith and to urge society to stop having any respect towards belief in God of any kind. Basically they believe that the sooner religion is dead, the better. One of the main motivations behind the New Atheism seems to be the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, as it was a prime example of the dangers of religious fundamentalism. Those events disturbed everyone but after 9/11 it was extremely tempting, yet foolish, to argue that the fundamentalists who killed so many innocent people, represented religious people in general. Regrettably, this temptation obviously has not been resisted.

‘Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience’ – Christopher Hitchens

So what’s new about the New Atheists? Well the answer is nothing much. They basically have they same objections and arguments as the atheism that came before it, but they are different in their attitude towards faith. The attitude they have seems to be aggressive, intolerant and vitriolic. One of the chief characteristics of the New Atheists is their scientistic attitude and their attempts to use science to support their ardent disbelief in God. According to them science has killed God and any attempts to reintroduce him would be to commit intellectual suicide. Over all, they have many other objections, but science seems to be their primary weapon and they wield it like a sword which, unfortunately for them is extremely flimsy. The tremendous outrage and indignation against religious belief that has been put forward by these atheists, is not something completely new in recent times. After the Second World War there was the existentialist craze led by Jean-Paul Satre and then the ‘Death of God’ movement in the 1960s which bear a close resemblance to the recent resurgence of vocal atheism. In reality, the New Atheism is not new at all.

 

The front cover of Time magazine in 1966

Today the God debates are now firmly back in the public square and in many ways people like Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have done a good thing. Ironically the first reason is that in many people’s eyes, they have made atheism a less plausible position. I think it is fair to say, although many would disagree, that the New Atheists have received some pretty damning criticisms towards their approach and arguments. Secondly, in light of the scathing criticism that has been issued towards faith communities, many believers have been compelled to think more about their worldview and to present reasons for their beliefs in a more robust way. Such movements as the New Atheism have inspired countermovements with a renewed interest in these important questions. Interestingly, since the 1970s there has been a great renaissance of christian philosophers who have genuinely contributed to the progress of western philosophy. Alvin Plantinga was primarily responsible for this movement and philosophers like William lane Craig, Richard Swinburne and William Alston joined Plantinga in leading a resurgence of serious christian thought with many others following. Christians once again, have a seat at the table.

“The renaissance of Christian philosophy has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in natural theology, that branch of theology that seeks to prove God’s existence apart from divine revelation”.-William Lane Craig

The front cover of Philosophy Now magazine in 2010

Since all the God bashing literature sold so well over the past few years and the New Atheists war cry has been heard, there has been a large amount of responding literature and effective criticism from Theologians, Philosophers, Scientists and even other Atheists. Some notable responses have been by Oxford theologian Alister Mcgrath, philosopher William Lane Craig and the venerable John Lennox who is a Professor of Mathematics and Philosopher of Science. Many of these responding books are listed on the ‘recommended reading’ page. In April, I was fortunate enough to attend one of Lennox’s lectures in Oxford, which was fascinating. Mcgrath, Bill Craig and Lennox have debated several times with the New Atheists and many of these can be viewed online.

In future posts I will attempt critique the New Atheists philosophical and scientific arguments and try to show that a theistic worldview makes much better sense out of our reality and existence in the universe. I feel that the issues put forward by them and others need to be addressed properly in civil discussion and debate. Although my main objectives are to challenge the claims of the New Atheists and to defend Christian theism, my intention is also to open up the discussion a little and hopefully take it further….

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15 thoughts on “The ‘New’ Atheists

  1. “The attitude they have seems to be aggressive, intolerant and vitriolic.”

    The Church, in its various incarnations and flavors, has lashed, scourged, torn out tongues by the root, and committed whole bodies to the fire, all in the name of their dogma. Dawkins et. al. will at most give you a sneer and a tongue lashing.

    Perhaps some judiciousness in adjectives is called for.

  2. No you really are misreading Sam Harris. Perhaps you’re reading too much Madeleine Bunting!

    Faith is not by it’s definition about evidence at all and the veracity of a belief is not about numbers. If it was then the truth would fluctuate over time according to the number of adherents. Atheism is not a belief. It is the absence of belief. You dismiss fairies and Santa yet cannot offer any concrete proof of their non-existence. Is non-belief-in-Santa itself a belief?

    I’m not suggesting that science can explain everything but it is slowly explaining more and has replaced much which was once considered myth. The important thing about science is that each fact or explanation builds consistently on other proven and consistent facts. I’m not sure what you think lies outside the natural world (an unnatural one perhaps) and how d do we define observable now that individual atoms and distant galaxies can be visualised. Are there places science cannot go? Yes of course but how do we choose which religious or faith-based explanation we favour. Why do you choose Christianity? Why not Islam, Hinduism, Wicca? What evidence and experience leads you to decide one is true and the others not and looking at other believers how does this process of weighing different faiths allow them to consider killing those who believe differently?

    1. Im sorry I really don’t see that I am…explain?? I haven’t read Madeleine Bunting but I ‘ve heard bad things about her so I don’t think I will. I think its clear as day as to what Harris thinks.
      Blind faith isn’t evidence based but not all faith is blind. The problem is when Atheists try to define faith as blind faith.there is a difference between faith and gullibility. I recall a humorous dialogue between Dawkins and John Lennox.

      Dawkins: Faith isn’t evidence based!
      Lennox: I presume you’ve got faith in your wife..is there any evidence for that?
      Dawkins: Yes, Yes! Plenty of evidence!
      Lennox: Hmmm!

      Atheism IS a faith…obviously you would then assert that its not but please answer this question…Do you believe Atheism? i believe there is a God and you believe the universe is all there is.those are both statements of faith. That was exactly my point Tim you cannot off any concrete proof of God’s non-existence yet you dismiss him outright. incidently I cannot offer concrete proof santa doesn’t exist but there is no reason to believe he does, there is no evidence for him (there is for God) Also humans made santa up so we know he doesn’t exist. we didn’t make god,he made us. It depends how you use the word belief. yes i believe santa isn’t real so really it is a belief but that doesn’t mean the belief is false.
      I agree with what you said about science but by observable I mean matter and energy. I think what lies outside our natural world is a SUPERnatural world not UNnatural. there are plenty of things science cannot and will never explain.
      I choose Christianity because it makes the most sense out of our reality, existense and purpose. jesus fulfilled the prophesies and rose from the dead. that is central to christianity.as far as i know, no other religion can claim this.

  3. A little short of substance I’m afraid. Firstly you can’t fling words like militant around without justifying them and as you say this isn’t really New Atheism at all just a few people asking for some proof of God’s existence. As you should know the onus is very much on the believers to back up their “beliefs” otherise I’m off to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Simply asking for some evidence and at the same time explaining how we can rationally explain our existence hardly counts as militant or as “twisting science”.

    Let’s also consider that The God Delusion is being placed prominently in book shops because it sells. You obviously missed the shelves filled with all manner of religious writings so the book sellers can hardly be accused of discrimination. Perhaps you could campaign for truly secular education so that all forms of favouritism and bias can be removed. That would only be fair wouldn’t it?

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m afraid it seems you may have misunderstood me a little. As I mentioned in the article I refer to the new atheism as militant because its become intolerant and aggressive. I haven’t got any problem with debating these issues in a sensible and respectful way but dawkins and the lot don’t have any respect for people with other views and often resort to mockery. I quote Sam Harris ‘some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them’. This sounds like he is talking about some sort of mass murderer but he is talking about religious belief! so I think the word militant is justified.
      Also the new atheists aren’t just asking for proof of god’s existence, their aim is to completely eradicate faith as I mentioned.
      yes believers should try to back up their beliefs…that just so happens to be the aim of this blog and with regards to the flying spagetti monster this is an old dawkins chesnut. Its completely irrelevent as you’re offering false alternatives eg…either we take the universe on its own or the universe plus the flying spagetti monster,santa clause or fairies. Christianity says creation has a creator and that creator is God.
      We can rationally explain our existence to a very small degree despite the advances of science. Science is a wonderfull tool to try and explain how the universe works but our existence can’t be reduced to mere matter and energy. science is the art of the soluble!
      Of course the God delusion is placed prominently in book shops because it sells. It was merely a remark in passing and I didn’t say anything about discrimination.

      1. Thanks for replying. I’m not sure I did misunderstand – militancy suggests a call to arms and the atheists you quote are not doing that. The atheist you misquote did not advocate killing religious believers but was discussing the very nature of destructive and pathological beliefs; see http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com/2007/05/08/misquoting-harris/ for a discussion of this fallacy.

        I disagree; Dawkins et al are only asking for proof and Dawkins himself explains how difficult this is when talking about “belief” in God at the very beginning of The God Delusion and explains that he cannot be 100% certain that God does not exist. Do you not see that all beliefs are equivalent – fairies, Santa, God all finally require faith and this is ultimately refractory to reason.

        Science is about the soluble but it was ever thus and over the centuries the soluble has vastly expanded and is slowly replacing the insoluble, the myth and the fairy tale.

        1. Ironically one of titles of Dawkins talks was named ‘an atheist call to arms’. With regards to the Harris quote I think its pretty clear what he is saying. He is attempting to justify murdering religious people on the grounds that they might act violently because of their belief. This attidude would only result in retaliate towards an atheist for fear they might attack them. Fundamentalism and intolerance work both ways whether its religious or secular. Harris suggests its could be ethical to kill people for their beliefs not their acts. An act is never a proposition.

          The blanket statement ‘religion is dangerous’ followed by a list of all the evils done by religion is about as useful as saying Science is dangerous followed by a list of the evils of science for creating the atomic bomb, napalm and poisoning the environment.

          Im afraid your not properly taking into account the new atheist movement. yes he is asking for proof but they go much further than that. Listening to their overall message there is no denying there impassioned crusade is to get rid of faith.
          If you believe all faiths are equivalent then Atheism is included in this…as you pointed out you can’t disprove the existence of God so you have to live by faith that there isn’t one. I have yet to find someone who comes to believe in fairies or santa, but millions of people all around the world come to believe in God, not because of blind faith but because of…experience, evidence and revelation. Faith can be evidence based and reasonable and I believe the christian faith is although it isn’t its most important factor.

          So you are saying science explains every element of existence? or could? Science by definition can only explain observable phenemenon and the natural world so it can say nothing on spirituality. This is the view of Scientism.
          thanks

  4. I would agree that many of the atheist thinkers that you have outlined, in so many ways, appear to mock and patronize their readers. Although, I do have a soft spot for Daniel C Dennet. His book ‘Freedom Evolves’ was a good read. The problem with much this ‘new atheism’ is that its not new, its old and its rather boring, same old post enlightenment modernic atheism which basically seems to state that science wins. This stuff isn’t new, its almost a bitter bias against faith, even a prejudice towards those who believe in ‘something’. Interestingly enough this is also a problem that we see in the communication of Christianity – a prejudice to those who don’t beleive in something or a specific way of belief.

    A point I would like to make is that the central place which ‘new atheism’ could be said to occur is actually within Christianity itself. The divine dereliction where Christ doubts God…”my God my God, why have you forsaken me.” Doubt begins with Christ and is a core component of faith.

    Spirit

    1. Hello “spirit”. “a prejudice to those who don’t beleive in something or a specific way of belief.” (your last entry) people may come across this way but putting all christians into the same pot and saying the reliion is prejudice is a little bit silly, the Bible preaches the opposite tolerance and understanding, e.g 1. love your neighbour. 2. he who hateth his brother is a murderer and no murderer shall enter the kingdom of god (paraphrased).

      Doubt coming from Christ?? What may i ask id the next thing Jesus says?? “your will be done” if Jesus was not full human AND fully divine then God sending his son as his representitive would have been pointless…

      1. Hi Jonny,
        I don’t recall putting ‘all Christians’ in the ‘same pot’ ?
        I’m trying to understand the point you’re making about Jesus’ doubt? Be great if you could clarify.

        As a point of interest could explain what it means to be both fully human and fully divine…I’m not sure I understand that idea.

        Thanks

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