Is there a spiritual dimension of reality? Some time ago you could be an atheist and answer yes. But the New Atheists not only deny the existence of God, they also deny the reality of anything spiritual in human existence. Along with attacks on religion, militant New Atheist philosophers like Dennett, Harris, Dawkins, Krauss, Coyne etc. have embraced an extreme form of materialism. In his book Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett proposes that human consciousness itself is pretty much a myth. According to him and his colleagues in the New Atheist movement, we are deceived by the neural networks of our brains, which evolved for other purposes, into thinking we are conscious beings with a clearly felt sense of self, when in fact we really aren’t. The concept of free will has also come under attack.
I used to be an atheist myself, and I would never have agreed with the view that human consciousness and free will are an illusion. I find this view scientifically untenable. Dennett’s approach extends that of the early behaviorists, who decided to ignore higher mental talents and insights to the point of denying their importance for study. Denying the existence of a phenomenon because it doesn’t seem amenable to scientific analysis is the height of folly for true science.
Along with spirituality, human consciousness, and any sense of higher purpose, the New Atheists denounce the reality of anything that makes human beings special. According to them, we are not at all much different from other animals. They are thrilled at every new discovery that birds use sticks to find termites, that elephants show grief, that chimps can paint pictures, recognize symbols, and so on. Their conclusion from these findings is that we are really nothing much out of the ordinary. They also delight in the data from astronomy showing how vast the unknown universe is, how many planets probably exist, and how many “advanced civilizations” must inhabit our own galaxy, let alone the whole universe. Our planet, they love to remind us, is a tiny insignificant speck in a remote region of a ho-hum galaxy. And with that they constantly remind us that we should also feel small and insignificant when confronted with the enormous reality of the universe.
Are they right? No. Do we need evidence that they are wrong? It’s easy to find. Look around you. Do you have any books (even books about the wretchedness of mankind) written by chimps? Have you seen any orangutans driving a car? Or making a car? Or inventing a car? Have you had any interesting conversations recently with any crows, or gorillas? Dogs are great, and they can have real spiritual bonds with people. But when was the last time you went to an opera composed and sung by dogs? I could go on, but it’s silly. The idea that humans are not that special is one of those insane myths that sometimes sweep through a culture, against all obvious evidence and logic.
I have always considered myself to be a humanist, in the strict sense of the word – namely I am in favor of human beings, and I think they are great. This is no longer a popular view, and for me the real problem with the New Atheists is that they reject the wonder of humanity. I think I know why. Once you are a humanist, and begin to see the divinity in common men and women, it’s pretty hard to continue to deny God’s hand in the creation of this magnificent creature. So in a way, secular humanism is an oxymoron. Today the real humanists are Christians.
Thank you for this concise critique of the New Atheist hate cult. Much like the irony of “New Atheism”—which isn’t new except in that it redefined atheism for its ignorant adherents—secular humanism is indeed an oxymoron. Why not secular lobsterism? Or any other secular organism-ism? On atheism, why are humans special? No, I am simply a humanist, as you described, in wonder of humankind as the magnificent work of God. “Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.” —St. Gregory of Nyssa