I’m going to give my personal problems with the New Atheism. Of course first, I need to answer what the New Atheism is. New Atheism is a movement which from what I can understand is made up of two points:
A. Religion should be countered by “reason” wherever it is found.
B. A purely Naturalistic, Neo-Darwinian, Materialist, “Scientific-Realist” view of the world.
Some of the writers may stray from these concepts, but that is at least what I’ve understood. The New Atheism is represented by writers such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet (the only one with sense), and the notorious Richard Dawkins. These four together are known as the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism”. Of course, these people although college educated and intelligent seem at least to me to have a very naive view of the world. Although I’m sure they would say the same
about me. It still seems as if they did not look very hard for the truth; attempting to critique there own thoughts along the way. Dennet is the only one I know of with a background in actual philosophy. Still among philosophers Dennet is known for always claiming to have disproven your theories years ago, but he does not have the time to explain it now, because it’s very complicated and not for lesser minds. Searle said of him that he “always has his knockout argument just off stage” (paraphrase). There are other authors associated with New Atheism such as Victor J. Stenger and others whose work I’m not very familiar with. I am only familiar with the work of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris through comments from Atheist friends, citations in other books I’ve read, and internet articles.
Now let me add some disclaimers. First of all in my critique I am not attacking certain types of Atheism. If you want to be an Atheist and actually ask good questions then go right ahead. Bertrand Russell, Thomas Nagel, Roger Penrose, and others have done that. However, they are actually good philosophers meaning they actually understand what follows logically from certain conclusions, know how to ask good questions, and understand the limitations of materialist science. Another disclaimer is I’m not touching on Marxist Atheism, Agnosticism, or any other brand of Atheism. I am only attacking the common objections and complaints I hear from followers of the New Atheism.
The first thing I’d like to start with is something which angers me. The redefining of Atheism. Before the New Atheist propaganda one of the definitions for Atheism was “The doctrine that no God exists”. When I speak against Atheism this is the definition I always use and always clarify that to begin with. At any time, any person seeking to do philosophy, if they set down their definitions clearly before hand, can use a word differently from the common usage of that word. For instance, Heidegger’s use of the word Daesin which means in German “to be” if I recall correctly. Another example would be “intentionality” or even something as simple as “thought”. If I wanted to say that I was using “All animals with four legs” as my definition for Cow, then I claimed “most cats are cows” I am correct as long as I qualify what I’m actually saying first. Now in normal understanding a cow is not a cat, but I c
an make it such if I redefine the word. In philosophy giving correct definitions to words is very important, and some words are extremely hard to define causing problems since at least Socrates, such as the word justice.
The New Atheists seek to redefine Atheism as “the rejection of claims about God”. Now again, let me clarify, as long as you are willing to accept all logical conclusions from your definition and clarify at the beginning of the debate that this is the definition of Atheism you are using then you are completely within your bounds as a thinker to use that definition and draw conclusions from it. However, it is very short sighted to use that as a definition of Atheism. One of the funniest things I find about it is that it makes Atheism responsible for the so called “religious atrocities” that Atheists claim take place. To explain, let me put aside the question over whether these things are actually true. So in order to show the absurdity of that definition of Atheism allow me to temporarily accept that the inquisition, terrorism, and genocide are side effects of religion. Let me temporarily accept that these things happen because religion asserts a certain truth and religious people persecute those who do not accept the truth that these religions assert. So far so good for the New Atheist. The problem we encounter is that by their definition as soon as these religious people identify those they disagree with they become Atheistic to a certain group’s conception of God. So all religious violence would flow not from accepting a religious belief, but by a rejection of the victim’s religious beliefs. Of course, rejection of the victim’s beliefs is by their definition Atheism. It logically follows that all religious violence, if it does exist, exists because of Atheism. This is a very shortsighted redefining of the word Atheism and whoever invented it was not very logical.
To explain even further, a friend of mine who I would describe as ascribing to these things posted an analogy which is supposed to make me accept his definition of Atheism. I’ll paraphrase such a thing.
“Imagine there is a container with bubble gum in it. The question is whether there are an odd number of gum or an even number of gum. There are only two options; just like God either exists or does not exist. Now imagine that you assert there is an odd number of gum in the container. I believe it is impossible to know such a thing and therefore reject your claim. This does not mean I accept the claim that there are an even number of pieces of gum in the container. Atheism means “not-theism” or “without theism”. It does not mean I am asserting there is no God.”
Now at first glance this seems like a very plausible explanation. The only problem is we already had a word for those who did not believe there was enough evidence to assert the existence of the divine. We called those people agnostics. If there are two choices just like in the analogy and you reject my assertion then you are left with either taking no position (agnosticism) or taking the opposite position (atheism). That is what Atheism is it is the opposite of Theism.
Redefining words are very dangerous. We of course all know of 1984 and “newspeak” in which the ministry charged with disseminating propaganda was called the “ministry of truth”. The ministry charged with rehabilitating anyone who strayed from the official version of the story was “ministry of love” and on and on. There is a very interesting movie I want to watch called “Pontypool”. Pontypool is a zombie horror movie in which people get infected and become zombies. There is an interesting twist though, the infection spreads not by being bitten, or air borne germs, or drinking poisoned milk or whatever writers have come up with now. Pontypool’s infection spreads by words. Certain words cause the mind to completely break down and you become a zombie. I’m told that in the movie the word kill is infected and the main character only survives by making himself think of the word kiss everytime he hears kill. Certainly an interesting concept, but our news media, culture, and government changes words on us everyday in order to try and make us think a certain way. The New Atheism is no different. Neither is changing “gay marriage” to “marriage equality”, nor is the new academic standard that unfortunately people have fell into by using She instead of He or even “He or she” in sentences.
Language is a very powerful tool and launching an attack on it is the best form of brainwashing.
The next major problem with the New Atheism is their materialism. As Thomas Nagel (A brilliant man self-describing as an agnostic) points out in his Mind and Cosmos, that materialism is almost certainly false, because it can not give an account of consciousness. The problem of consciousness is a very perplexing one for any materialist and most materialists at this point have just given up like McGill. Materialism asserts that the material world is all there is so there is no place for consciousness, no place for feelings, and no place for God. Of course, Nagel carries this even farther and says there is no place for values or morality in the materialist worldview. Of course a materialist will give you a vague answer if you ask him where did consciousness come from. He’ll likely invoke a future science that knows everything or just evolution, a major tenant of the new Atheism. However, evolution does not explain why consciousness evolved like David Chalmers points out. If a natural process operating by natural law are the forces that created consciousness why did they not operate by the most simple mechanism and create what is called “philosophical zombies”? There are other things unasnwerable by materialism such as miracles and other things, but these things are just denied and then even sometimes used as justifications to attack religion. Of course, as Chesterton says (paraphrase) “The believer in miracles believes because he has proof. The disbeliever because he has a doctrine that says it can’t be true”.
The final point is the “myth of progress”. The New Atheist likely believes that society has evolved from a worse off position to the position it is in now. Of course does this mean that it will
continue to evolve and debunk the things we believe? The New Atheists says yes, but he refuses to accept that that may mean it may debunk the New Atheism itself. There was a famous scientist who once met with Napoleon named Pierre-Simon Laplace. Laplace when asked where God fit into his system remarked “I have no need for that hypothesis”. Science ended up not needing most of his hypotheses either though, most of his work was replaced by the work of Newton. The postmodern theorist are very good at showing just how silly the idea of progress is. Even the great Karl Popper debunked some of the ideas of an inevitable march of the science that will know everything. For some reason Popper still used the myth of progress in his work The Open Society and its Enemies, which is a good read, but dreadfully wrong and without any metaphysical justification. It’s interesting that Popper’s Open Society was attacked by much more intelligent man than himself, such as Strauss, Spengler, and Schmitt.
Overall, the New Atheism is filled with polemical attacks against belief, but never once have I seen it put together a convincing argument. Its founders lacked philosophical knowledge, and it has been picked up by hipster kids who believe that by welcome science as the ultimate answer they are throwing off the dark belief of their religious parents. For that reason, I hope the New Atheism slowly dies out with a whimper as this people begin to make peace with where they came from and their tradition. Of course, we can only hope and pray such a thing happens.
Unfortunately, this is all I have tonight.