Atheists In The Trenches

Over at Maverick Philosopher Bill Vallicella cites, with apparent approbation, an essay by the atheist author Julian Baggini that criticizes the agenda of “New Atheism”, exemplified by the “Four Horsemen” Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, as misbegotten and counterproductive. What Bill does not link to is a piquant response, at the same website, by the Canadian philosopher George Williamson.

Dr. Baggini begins by confessing that he hasn’t bothered actually to read any of the loathsome foursome’s books; he reassures us that this shouldn’t really matter, though:

Not reading The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith is perfectly reasonable. Why on earth would I devote precious reading hours to books which largely tell me what I already believe? These books are surely mainly for agnostics and open-minded believers. In fact, I think atheists who have read these books have more of a responsibility to account for their actions than I do my inaction. As the posters on the sides of British buses rather simplistically put it, “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” God’s non-existence is a fact atheists live with, not something that they should obsessively read about…

…[M]y opinions are not so much about these books as the general tone and direction the new atheism they represent has adopted. This is not a function of what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived, and the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews. All this, I think, has been unhelpful in many ways. In short, the new atheism gets atheism wrong, gets religion wrong, and is counterproductive.

This is a common assertion: that the “new atheism”, which addresses itself to the truth-claims of the major religions as believed by most of their adherents, “gets religion wrong”. Sophisticated theists are often as scornful of the God of the common believer as the atheists are; as James Wood recently wrote in the New Yorker: “They accuse atheists of wanting to murder an overliteral God, while they themselves keep alive a rarefied God that nobody but themselves actually believes in.” But the New Atheists have no real quarrel with the handful of philosophers and theologians for whom God has become nothing more than an ineffable abstraction, a attractor for numinous feelings and reflections that transcends even the ascription of properties, or the subjecthood of propositions. Such people, and their ideas, are not the problem. Were that the extent of religion, and religious influence, in the world, atheism would be as Dr. Baggini suggests it ought to be:

When I wrote my own book on the subject, I believed that atheism was widely misunderstood as being primarily a negative attack on religious belief, on which it is parasitic.

But this can’t be right. Imagine for one moment that atheism triumphs and belief in God is eradicated. On the view that atheism needs religion, then this victory would also be atheism’s extinction. This is absurd.

It is only because of historical accident that atheism is not widely recognised as a world-view in its own right. This world view is essentially a very general form of naturalism, in which there are not two kinds of stuff, the natural and the supernatural, but one. The forces that govern this substance are also natural ones and there is no ultimate purpose or agency behind them. Human life is biological, and thus does not survive beyond biological death.

Such a worldview needs defending, and a special name, only because for various reasons, it is not the one that most humans have adopted. But the view itself is true whether or not there are people who disagree with it. In a totally atheist world, we may stop noticing that it is a view at all, in the same way that most people do not notice that they believe objects exist whether we perceive them or not. But it would still be a view.

But the Four Horsemen have gone too far; they have co-opted this passive, apophatic sort of atheism, and turned it into something active, and distastefully hostile, and therefore counterproductive:


The new atheism, however, is characterised by its attacks on religion. “There is a logical path from religious faith to evil deeds,” wrote Richard Dawkins, quite typically, quoting approvingly Stephen Weinberg, who said, “for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.” Hitchens goes so far as to explicitly say that “I am not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist.”
This antitheism is for me a backwards step. It reinforces what I believe is a myth, that an atheist without a bishop to bash is like a fish without water. Worse, it raises the possibility that as a matter of fact, for many atheists, they do indeed need an enemy to give them their identity.

Dr. Baggini further accuses the atheists of claiming a monopoly on reason. We read:

A second feature of atheism is that it is committed to the appropriate use of reason and evidence. In order to occupy this intellectual high ground, it is important to recognise the limits of reason, and also to acknowledge that atheists have no monopoly on it. The new atheism, however, tends to claim reason as a decisive combatant on its side only.

This is a critical error. The point that the atheist authors stress is not that they alone attempt to organize their worldview using reason — after all, the theological libraries are densely packed with twenty centuries of Christian philosophy — but rather that, in contrast to the community of the faithful, they attempt to organize it on the basis of reason alone, rather than upon professions of faith and reliance upon sacred texts and third-party accounts of divine revelation.

Dr. Baggini goes on to warn the New Atheists that if they are going to suggest that reason is so easily impaired by cognitive snares and delusions as to have failed so many intelligent believers, they should be wary of their own susceptibility in this regard:

But if very intelligent people are so easily led astray by such things, then shouldn’t the new atheists themselves be more sceptical about the role reason plays in their own belief formation?

Dr. Williamson responds to this point:

Perhaps the answer lies in Mr. Baggini’s complaints of the new atheists’ use of reason and evidence. The new atheists “claim reason as a decisive combatant on [their] side only”, and must “recognise the limits of reason” and “acknowledge that atheists have no monopoly on it”.

That they might claim reason for their own is implausible, considering the diligence and detail in which they have scrutinized the reasoning and evidence of their theist opponents, whose books they appear to have bothered to read, in spite of the likelihood that they have seen much of the same calibre. But the new atheists go on from this examination to assert, on the strength of reason and evidence, that their case is the better supported.

This is hardly ‘claiming a monopoly on reason’, nor can it reasonably be transgressing the limits of reason – it is only being intellectually responsible enough to draw the warranted conclusions.

Are we now required to be skeptical and tentative of conclusions carefully worked out and supported by the best reason we can manage, so as not to appear arrogant to believers in the opposite conclusion, even if they support their conclusions with nothing better than supposition and declarations of faith?

Really, there is no special use of reason that counts as recognizing the limits of reason or acknowledging that you have no monopoly on it. There is just the use of reason to diligently support your claims and to attend appropriately to criticism. Mr. Baggini has supplied no evidence that the new atheists fail in this.

Returning to the topic of counterproductive incivility, Dr. Baggini writes:

The new atheism has also, I think, created an unhelpful climate for atheism to flourish. When people think of atheists now, they think about men who look only to science for answers, are dismissive of religion and over-confident in their own rightness. Richard Dawkins, for example, presented a television programme on religion called The Root of all Evil and has as his website slogan “A clear thinking oasis”. Where is the balance and modesty in such rhetoric?

To which Dr. Williamson replies:

The only strength of his case rests on finding the new atheists’ saying objectionable things in the press: as I have pointed out, he has failed to show that there is anything wrong with their opposition to religion or their reliance on reason, and he is in poor position to reply or to further support his claims without better grounds than the ‘perception’ of the new atheism.

Given that, it seems to me that his complaint in sum is this: tactless and harsh comments in the media by new atheists have soured the otherwise benign, friendly atmosphere in which believers and non-believers usually meet.

So, although religious believers have persecuted and murdered atheists, and anyone else who disagreed with them; while religion has happily promoted genocide, slavery, the oppression of women and other races, sexual repression and the use of force to ensure conformity (this being only what the Bible flat-out recommends); and while religious authorities have fought tooth and nail the liberalization of our ethics and politics, to say nothing of steadfastly opposing progress in scientific knowledge and technical ability, what is really counter-productive is that atheists have the temerity to think their tendency to base belief in reason means they might have something to say about the truth of matters, and are downright arrogant in expecting those who disagree with their conclusions to do so on reasoned grounds.

Unfortunately, I must admit that this makes sense, in a certain context, a context which is our present one. Given the general presumption of the righteousness of religion, simply mentioning that one is an atheist already gives offense.

A spirited exchange. Better than either of these is James Wood’s review, quoted briefly above, of Terry Eagleton’s book “Reason, Faith, and Revolution” in the August 31, 2009 issue of the New Yorker. It is here, but it is, unfortunately, available to subscribers only. Here is its poignant final paragraph, which captures what is for many the pain of outgrowing God:

What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief. Such atheism, only a semitone from faith, would be, like musical dissonance, the more acute for its proximity. It could give a brother’s account of belief, rather than treat it as some unwanted impoverished relative. It would be unafraid to credit the immense allure of religious tradition, but at the same time it would be ready to argue that the abstract God of the philosophers and theologians is no more probable than the idolatrous God of the fundamentalists, makes no better sense of the fallen world, and is certainly no more likable or worthy of our worshipful respect — alas.

Meanwhile, read Dr. Baggini’s essay here, and Dr. Williamson’s reply here.

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One Comment

  1. youcantpronouncemyname says

    I’m not overly fond of the new atheists brand of attack-dog atheism. I’ve seen comments on some of their blogs that border on ‘kill them, they’re only cockroaches’. religious nuts have the same problem. maybe they should all just shoot themselves and be done with it.

    Posted October 5, 2009 at 3:59 pm | Permalink