In recent years, we have started to hear a lot about the New Atheism. This is a term used by a lot of people involved in the debate about religion, atheism, secularism etc. Generally it’s used to describe the more aggressive atheist polemics that began to appear in significant numbers in the middle of the last decade, books like Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great.
Some non-believers take objection to the phrase. This cartoon, for example, does the rounds on social media from time to time...
If I have understood the implied argument correctly, the suggestion is that religious believers use the term New Atheist to disparage confident, knowledgeable, courageous atheists whom they can no longer compel to keep silent and whose arguments they otherwise have trouble rebutting.
No doubt there is a grain of truth to this charge. Perhaps there are religious believers who use the term to shut down debate or change the subject. There are undoubtedly religious believers who are too quick to complain of “persecution” or “silencing”, or mistake strong opposition for oppression.
However, I do think that New Atheism is a useful term. I personally use it in quite a specific way. To me, it refers not to atheism in general, but to a particular, sadly common, style of atheist polemic: belligerent, ignorant, snarky, dismissive, and imbued with an unshakeable and unearned sense of moral superiority. It need hardly be said that this is not the only form of atheist polemic in existence. Thomas Nagel is an example of an atheist writer who eschews easy sniping against religion in favour of clear-eyed and mature reflection on how to make sense of a godless universe.
I appreciate atheism. I enjoy (if that is the right word) reading and hearing intelligent, well-informed, morally serious criticism of religious belief. Scepticism of religious claims is an immensely important current in Western intellectual culture, not least because religious obscurantism, like ideological dogmatism of all kinds, has often stood in opposition to important scientific and social advances.
My problem with modern atheism is not that I feel intellectually insecure in the face of its “fearless” barbs, or that I regret the loss of the Church’s ability to counter its foes with violence, social pressure or various kinds of state coercion. Rather, my objection to most modern atheist polemic is that is really, really bad; neither interesting, nor thoughtful, nor serious-minded. Books like The God Delusion or Christopher Hitchens’ ludicrously overpraised God Is Not Great are riddled not only with errors of fact, but with tendentious and incoherent arguments made in bad faith.
Intellectual sins abound. Straw men are knocked down with gay abandon. The focus is generally on the weakest possible version of arguments for theism, made by their least articulate and credible adherents. There is no charity in interpretation of ambiguity and uncertainty. The wickedness or stupidity of opponents is assumed. The rightness of modern received wisdom about sexuality, society and the individual is taken for granted in an immensely complacent and self-righteous way.
It is noticeable that the New Atheists tend, with exceptions, to be dismissive of philosophy and to cling to an outmoded logical positivism which believes that the only real truths are material facts. This is a shame, as a humble reading of some philosophy might lead them to write better books.
This is not really a polemical blog, so I will draw these brief thoughts to a close with a suggestion for some points that atheists might wish to bear in mind to keep their writing free of the faults mentioned above:
- An atheist worldview raises serious moral, epistemic and metaphysical problems, in the same way as adherence to most religious creeds does.
- There are good reasons for belief in God, and strong arguments for certain Christian truth claims.
- Modern attitudes to sexuality, gender and other issues are not so self-evidently correct, coherent and conducive to happiness and flourishing that it is outrageously wrong even to question them.
- The Christian with whom you’re arguing has probably thought about these issues just as deeply as you have, and perhaps even more deeply.
- Whatever your objection to Christianity, it has almost certainly been considered, reflected upon, written about and examined by people cleverer and more perceptive than you. Look at what such people wrote.
- Consider, from time to time, the possibility that you are wrong, and/or that you don’t fully understand something.