POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

The New Atheists...Guest Essay by Timothy Dees

Today we have another guest essay from Timothy Dees one of the founding members of Jacob's Well who has already relocated his operations to New Jersey.  If his Fact of the Day (FotD) is not on your radar it should be.  Here is the link to his site.

Today's installment touches a subject familiar to the readers of the POCblog - The New Atheism.  Dees essay should be read along with the excellent essay What the New Atheists Don’t See - To regret religion is to regret Western civilization by Theodore Dalrymple in the City Journal.  Dalrymple is not a believer but sees through much of the vitriol of the new atheists to some of the beautiful gems of Western Christian culture.  Highly recommend you reading Dalrymple and then Tim's essay below.  Hat tip to Ben Vastine for pointing out Dalrymple's essay to me last week.  Enjoy.

The New Atheists
by Timothy Dees 

Today we have a book review / essay on the New Atheists.  It mentions the following books:

  • God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens
  • Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett
  • The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
  • The End of Faith, Sam Harris

It's a simple enough question: either there is a God or there isn't.  But there are some special properties to that question that make it exceedingly difficult, especially because the game is rigged against the atheists.  I say that as a theist, but I also say that in agreement with prominent atheists such as Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins.  The existence of God, as a philosophical proposition, is non-falsifiable; in other words, you cannot prove that God doesn't exist.

Russell, the patron saint of atheism, unpacked this idea when he said:

"As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods."

What this means is that atheists cannot prove that God does not exist, so they are forced to consign themselves either to rebutting arguments for God's existence, or attempting to demonstrate that if God existed, he would be a nasty fellow.  It's not that they don't have their reasons, but as a philosophical statement it is impossible to prove there is no God. 

Fighting a non-falsifiable idea is a Sisyphean task, and throughout history atheists have generally accepted modest expectations for what they can and cannot do.  Thus Bertrand Russell's legendary atheist tract is not entitled Why I Am an Atheist, but Why I Am Not a Christian.  In it, he goes through many of the classical arguments for God's existence and offers a rebuttal of each.  On these grounds he rejects Christianity and the Christian conception of God, but as a philosopher he cannot honestly say that he has proved that God doesn't exist.

Lately, however, a new flavor has emerged in the debate over God's existence.  The New Atheists, as they have been called, are a group of atheists who, in the wake of September 11th, have decided that belief in God isn't just wrong, it's evil.  It's a varied group, consisting of a legendary scientist (Richard Dawkins), a journalist (Christopher Hitchens), a graduate student (Sam Harris), a philosopher (Daniel Dennett), and a number of other people of different stripes.  The one thing they all have in common is that they write books on atheism, and those books sell at a fever clip.

Their tone is different from the atheists of the past: at times their books can be funny, rude, scientific, arrogant, self-assured, condescending, or caustic; I can assure you that they're never boring (with the possible exception of Daniel Dennett).  Sometimes their rhetoric descends into the despicable, as in this passage in Sam Harris's The End of Faith:

"The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably.  Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.  This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live."

This is a truly striking claim, but generally the New Atheists are more measured than Harris.  What they have in common is a belief that religion has been coddled too long, and a belief that religion only leads to evil.  They believe this second point quite scrupulously, as for instance, neither Christopher Hitchens nor Richard Dawkins mentions one good thing a theist has ever done, acting as though religion prompted the Crusades and the Inquisition, but not Mother Theresa and the Sistine Chapel.  Just as it isn't fair to judge atheism by Stalin, it isn't fair to judge theism by Osama bin Laden.  At its worst, this sort of argumentation turns into a spew of ad hominem attacks.

Not to say that these indictments against believers aren't worth noting.  If there's something inherent in religion that makes people mistreat others then that's obviously a bad thing, but most of the world's billions of religious people don't kill anyone and generally treat others with a certain fundamental decency. 

But all this is neither here nor there.  One can defend and attack believers and non-believers from dawn till dusk, but very little would be accomplished.  The central question is "Does God exist?" and on this question the New Atheists seem to misunderstand the philosophical challenge of the question.

They dispatch God in different ways, but all of them have holes.  In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett (the most even-handed of the New Atheists) argues that religious faith is an evolutionary adaptation and thus has no correspondence to reality.  But this argument crumbles quickly: sight is also an evolutionary adaptation, and I would imagine that most atheists would believe that what they see represents reality.  Dennett's book takes an interesting thesis and tries to contort it into more than it is.

Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion propounds an innovative argument against God's existence - but it's an argument that ultimately doesn't hold water.  Essentially, Dawkins's argument is: God, if he (or she) exists, would have to be very complex because the things that God created are very complex.  Complex things are less likely, so a very complex God is very unlikely.  Since God is improbable, and (Dawkins argues) since the world could have been created without God through unguided Darwinian evolution, God does not exist.  Like I said, it's innovative, but it has huge holes.  One: there's no reason to suspect that complex equals improbable, and two: there's no reason to suspect that improbability implies non-existence.  Alvin Plantinga's response to Dawkins's argument is worth reprinting:

"You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class."

Christopher Hitchens's argument is more straightforward.  For Hitchens, God is a jerk.  This is more of sticky wicket for believers than Dawkins's "improbability" argument or Dennett's evolutionary argument, but Hitchens brings no new ideas to the table, besides implicating God's followers with God.  Hitchens basically says "God's bad, and if you don't believe me, look at believers."  The problem is that Hitchens can't see any difference between Osama bin Laden and Ned Flanders.  A believer is a believer for Hitchens, and they're all vile people, corrupted by the scourge of religion.  Hitchens seems unable to see shades of grey.

After reading through the assembled corpus of the New Atheists, I was exasperated.  The New Atheists have a few novel ideas, but most of the time they're merely spouting invective about how bad believers are.  Orwell discussed this argumentation style in Homage to Catalonia: "It is as though in the middle of a chess tournament one competitor should begin screaming that the other is guilty of arson or bigamy.  The point that is really at issue remains untouched."  That's the real innovation of the New Atheists: they don't care for the central question of theism vs. atheism; instead they prefer to shout.  It's enough to make even the most committed believer nostalgic for Bertrand Russell.  Yes, give me that old time atheism.