The Conundrum of New Atheism

If we define atheism as the lack of belief in God, gods, or the supernatural in any way, or even if we define atheism as the positive belief that gods do not and cannot exist, it’s clear that atheist philosophy is based on one simple, negative statement about reality. If things ended there, there would be little or nothing to discuss. My own atheism, which was of the stronger version (no gods exist), was not something I thought about, or spent any time on. I’m pretty sure that was true for the majority of atheists I knew, and I think its probably true for the majority of atheists now as well.

For most atheists in days gone by, the only time their atheism ever came up was if someone said something like “pray with me” or “Do you believe in God?” For me, working in an academic scientific setting, this was a very rare occurrence.

But times have changed. Militant “New Atheism” is a modern movement that is based on taking atheism out of the closet and loudly proclaiming it to the world as an important and proud vision of reality. The slogan on the side of London buses—“There is probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life”— is one of many examples of this new in- your-face public expression of atheism.

The original “Four Horsemen” of atheism—Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett— have made it very popular to go far beyond politely declining an invitation to go to someone’s church or to pray for a mutual friend. The public is exhorted to confront theists, demand rational evidence for their harmful and foolish nonsense, and proclaim the truth of atheism in the public square by publishing books, giving interviews, writing articles, and producing TV shows, films, and online videos—getting the word out that gods are not real by any and every method imaginable.

The original four have been joined by scientists like Krauss, Coyne, Tyson, Carroll, and Atkins; entertainers like Teller, Maher, and Gervais; and YouTubers like Dillahunty, Ra, Andrews, and a slew of others. There are now atheist conventions, atheist rallies, and many atheist organizations.

And there are also a whole set of brand new atheist conundrums, all of which stem from the problem that atheism is supposed to have no common belief system other than a simple negative statement. As it turns out, this is not completely true for a very large number of the followers of the new atheists. If one looks into the ideas expressed by the leaders and routinely echoed by the followers of the new atheism, a great many positive statements about how they see the world can be discerned. Here is a partial list:

  1. Science and the scientific method are the only legitimate epistemology. This view has been called scientism, a term rejected by the new atheist dogma.
  2. Free will does not exist. Strict determinism is the rule in the universe, and therefore free will is an illusion.
  3. Human life is nothing special compared to other life, and human consciousness is an illusion.
  4. Our planet is tiny, insignificant, probably one of millions of such planets with all kinds of sentient life, and there is nothing at all special or even interesting about the earth or its inhabitants.
  5. The concept of purpose, meaning, or anything beyond physics and chemistry is nonsense. Reductionism is the answer to everything, and logical positivism was right after all.
  6. Evolution is not only true, but it provides the answers to all questions not yet answered by other scientific means, such as why is there good and evil, why do we have delusions of meaning and grandeur, what is the origin of love, beauty, emotions, etc.

There are more, but these are enough to get the picture. It could sound pretty gloomy, but there is some light in this philosophy as well. The famous statement that we are all stardust sounds at first somewhat spiritual, but it is in fact based on the scientific fact that we are constructed from the carbon and other atoms thrown into space by exploding stars. Nice. And it’s science!

But there remains a problem. Science (as all real scientists know) is not a philosophical position, but a method to find natural truths. One can use this method (originally formulated by people who were believers) no matter what one’s religious or philosophical beliefs are, which is why scientists are not all atheists, but also Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc. Atheists cannot claim science as their specific and exclusive domain of knowledge or worldview.

Another problem that modern atheism as a movement faces isn’t philosophical but political. Some atheists see their movement as part of a larger, radical movement for social justice in opposition to the often conservative, oppressive Christian (and for some, Muslim) viewpoints regarding gay rights, the role of women, racism, male privilege etc. But many other atheists challenge this view and reject the progressive brand of atheism as being just as intellectually weak and even unscientific as religious faith.

Dawkins and Harris have spoken in terms that other atheists have considered to be outright misogynistic and racist. Some younger atheists, who simply want nothing to do with the churchiness of their elders, are part of various neofascist or alt-right ideologies stimulated by 4chan, the incel movement, Gamergate, and related cultural trends.

The political rift within “organized” atheism has resulted in bitter feuds and disputes, including the cancellation of a number of atheist conferences, online and in-print hostility and antagonism between atheists, and a dawning realization that atheists have really nothing in common to talk about other than the stupidity of believers— which can eventually get old.

Attempts to forge a philosophical consensus of what kind of ideas should replace belief in God have so far failed. There are so many current and past theistic scientists (including scores of Nobel Laureates) that atheism cannot legitimately claim scientific thinking as its own. The same goes for liberal and social justice political activity. Yes, Christians endorsed slavery at one time, but both the abolitionist and civil rights movements were led by Christians. I have seen atheists on Twitter resort to using historical (especially biblical) references to burning witches or stoning gays as a last resort in condemning Christianity as morally bankrupt.

If it makes no sense to conflate atheism with science, or with social justice, what should be the positive content of modern atheistic philosophy? If all that’s left is their original core belief that there are no gods, there isn’t much to have a movement about. If Christians accept evolution and mainstream science (as the majority do), and if LGBT rights are well established, as is separation of Church and state, it’s hard to discern what religious dangers atheist defense organizations like FFRF need to fight against.  If atheists are unable to come up with some sort of positive message (other than “stop worrying”), it could spell the eventual demise of the New Atheist movement. I predict that within a few years, someone will coin a new phrase: “New Atheism is dead; God, not so much”.

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4 Responses to The Conundrum of New Atheism

  1. To quote Anton Chekhov, “An enormously vast field lies between, ‘God exists,’ and, ‘There is no God.’ The truly wise man traverses it with great difficulty.”

    As neither an “Atheist” nor a “Christian”, I’ve written a great deal about just this, some quite recently. “Science” is an epistemological approach based in using our senses to discern patterns, usually described by some type of mathematics. Aside from the rather mysterious nature of mathematics itself, science is thus merely a descriptive version of what we sense. Obviously, there’s something more than we can sense. But that also implies a perhaps different means to knowledge of that nature, assuming a nature that’s even knowable. So I think it important to distinguish these domains, and especially where we must rely upon our senses in order to make useful and constructive decisions. Prayer may be helpful. But I wouldn’t substitute it for simply not stepping in front of a bus.

    I’ll lift the words of Max Planck from one of my own articles…“…scientists have learned that the starting-point of their investigations does not lie solely in the perceptions of the senses, and that science cannot exist without some small portion of metaphysics. Modern Physics impresses us particularly with the truth of the old doctrine which teaches that there are realities existing apart from our sense perceptions, and that there are problems and conflicts where these realities are of greater value for us than the richest treasures of experience.“
    — Max Planck, The Universe in the Light of Modern Physics, 1931, translated by W. H. Johnston.

  2. SheilaDeeth says:

    I think you just coined the phrase. Getting it onto the side of that London bus may take a little longer.

  3. Sally Hawksworth says:

    Lightness Travelling, I’d agree that there is more than we can sense, either directly or aided by technology ( currently, obviously, and probably even in the distant future when, if we have managed not to wipe ourselves out, we will presumably have access to greater knowledge).The universe, or the multiverse, or whatever it might be, is very big, and old, and we are very small, and recent, and short lived, and limited. But I don’t think science is merely a descriptive version of what we can sense, as you claim. It’s BASED on our sense experience, but it involves logic and reason. And all other areas of study,including metaphysics, are based, ultimately, on what we can sense, though they too involve logic and reason. Religion, whether religious experience, as categorised by the religious believer, or religious teaching, is perceived by us through our sense organs and nervous systems and brains, like all our other experiences.How else? We are physical, material entities. If there is some intelligent consciousness in existence that can do without any material substance at all (and I’m including energy in a physics sense as being material, rather than non-material – it registers on senses and can be transmuted into matter and vice versa) then that immaterial consciousness, should it wish to interact with human consciousnesses, must still do so by having a physical, material effect on the human it communicates with. And so it is always described as doing in the stories that we humans tell. Gods, angels, demons, ghosts manifest visibly, in humanoid or other forms ( eg a burning bush ) or audibly. They strike people down with thunderbolts or cause objects to fly around rooms or cure diseases miraculously, or issue commandments to their chosen prophets for later general dissemination. At the very least they alter the brain patterns and emotions and memories of their worshippers/witnesses. If they had no physical effect on a human then that human could not perceive that he/she had had that “spiritual” experience. I don’t myself think it likely that any such non physical entities exist. I think that the supposed encounters with ghosts, or personal relationships with a deity, are explicable in ordinary material ways. It’s easy to understand how early humans came up with the concept of the supernatural, and why so many people still cling to belief in it, but this is to do with human psychology, rather than the truth of its objective existence. IMO, of course. 😉

    • Thank you…Sally… for the deeply thoughtful, well-stated response. At the bottom of all we experience is indeed the vaporous but inflexible rule of logic (and by extension, mathematics), through which we reason via the mechanisms of our existence. Our minds and our senses emerge out of nothing more or less than some underlying and uncompromising order. And yes, everything we can rationally “know” relies upon the boundaries of that order, including the knowledge of its boundaries. But it might surprise you that I’m not so certain that the waves and the quanta that manifest as the universe of our existence is everything that we can come to know.

      My simple mind tends toward the reductionist; why I bailed on medicine when confronted with the complexities of bio-chem. Still, there exists a nagging sense of something -other- than mere order… though admittedly as perhaps but an affective response to the barren aesthetic of determinism. Could this universe-of-our-senses be a reflection of that “something”… a burning bush upon which to hang stories, nascent glimpses of meaning held within? And if that’s the case, then there must be something of our experience that can’t be quantified by substance or even mathematics… not the striking of thunderbolts or the clatter of troublesome ghosts, or books of instructions, edicts from God, or even words like these. I have yet to relegate my mind to the thought of reducing the amazing qualia from wind-in-my-face, the red and gold of a sunrise, or anything of overwhelming beauty to little more than hormone-enhanced loops of firing neurons. 🙂

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