Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What Is the New Atheism?

Andrew Brown blogs at Helmintholog and also at AndrewBrown's Blog, part of the Guardian website. Andrew and I met in London a few years ago. We had an interesting discussion.

Yesterday Andrew posted a provocative article where he attempts to define the New Atheism [The New Atheism, a definition and a quiz]. He is not a fan, to put it mildly.

So, who does he rely on to construct a definition of the New Atheists?
The ideas I claim are distinctive of the new atheists have been collected from Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Jerry Coyne, the American physicist Robert L. Park, and a couple of blogging biologists, P Z Myers and Larry Moran. They have two things in common. They are none of them philosophers and, though most are scientists, none study psychology, history, the sociology of religion, or any other discipline which might cast light on the objects of their execration. All of them make claims about religion and about believers which go far beyond the mere disbelief in God which I take to be the distinguishing mark of an atheist.
That's very distinguished company. I'm flattered. I guess it means I'll have to take the quiz!

Quiz? Yes, that's right, Andrew proposes that we atheists 'fess up to six propositions that represent the New Atheist position, or at least the Andrew Brown version of New Atheism.
All of these propositions will be found in the authors I have cited as well as in the comments to religious articles here. I sometimes think that only the last two are unique to the new atheists: you can certainly find the others in earlier authors. But those are the six doctrines which I would reject when saying rude things about the new atheists.

What would be interesting in comments is if people would score themselves out of six. I expect that one of the most common forms of disagreement would be to claim that you are a three or a four, but none the less the believers are so repulsive and dangerous that the other two points just don't matter. That's how politics works, after all, and the new atheism is interesting as a political or social movement, not an intellectual one.
Challenge accepted.

Here are the six propositions and my position on each of them.
1. There is something called "Faith" which can be defined as unjustified belief held in the teeth of the evidence. Faith is primarily a matter of false propositional belief.

I agree.

2. The cure for faith is science: The existence of God is a scientific question: either he exists or he doesn't. "Science is the only way of knowing – everything else is just superstition" [Robert L. Park]

I agree, as long as we understand that science is a way of knowing that relies on evidence and rationality. The other, undefined, ways of "knowing" will reject either evidence or rationality.

The question before us is whether supernatural beings exist or not. I fail to see why a scientist isn't as competent to answer that question as those who study "psychology, history, the sociology of religion, or any other discipline which might cast light on the objects of their execration." The object of my attention (not execration) is supernatural beings. Why would a psychologist or a sociologist know more about their possible existence than I do?


3. Science is the opposite of religion, and will lead people into the clear sunlit uplands of reason. "The real war is between rationalism and superstition. Science is but one form of rationalism, while religion is the most common form of superstition" [Jerry Coyne] "I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented." [Dawkins]

I agree, except for the minor quibble that science is not the opposite of religion. Religion is a set of beliefs based almost exclusively on the worship of supernatural beings. I think that religion is silly because these supernatural beings do not exist. Belief in such beings is not the opposite of the scientific way of knowing: it is outside of the scientific way of knowing. Such beliefs are based on some other, undefined, way of knowing that we may refer to as superstition for want of a better term.1 The battle is between rationalism and superstition.

4. In this great struggle, religion is doomed. Enlightened common sense is gradually triumphing and at the end of the process, humanity will assume a new and better character, free from the shackles of religion. Without faith, we would be better as well as wiser. Conflict is primarily a result of misunderstanding, of which Faith is the paradigm. (Looking for links, I just came across a lovely example of this in the endnotes to the Selfish Gene, where lawyers are dismissed as "solving man-made problems that should never have existed in the first place".)

I agree.

5. Religion exists. It is essentially something like American fundamentalist protestantism, or Islam. More moderate forms are false and treacherous: if anything even more dangerous, because they conceal the raging, homicidal lunacy that is religion's true nature. [Sam Harris]

I don't agree with all of this. While it's true that even moderate forms of religion are based on the irrational belief in non-existent beings, that only makes them false—not treacherous, and certainly not homicidal. Most modern religions are trying to promote good things that I support. The mistake theists make is in assuming that you have to believe in non-existent beings in order to be good.

6. Faith, as defined above, is the most dangerous and wicked force on earth today and the struggle against it and especially against Islam will define the future of humanity. [Everyone]

Nonsense. We will be better off when people abandon their belief in supernatural beings but that's a far cry from saying that such superstitious beliefs are the most dangerous and wicked force on Earth.2

I have never singled out Islam for special attention. As a matter of fact, I am very much opposed to characterizing the current struggles as a war between Islam and Christianity. I may not be an historian but I know enough history to understand that Islam has a solid track record of tolerance and understanding. Probably a better record than Christianity.
What's my score? I agree with the first four propositions and disagree with the last two. I guess that means I'm not a true New Atheist. I should have known that those other guys were too good for me.

Oops, PZ only gives himself 2 out of 6 [Oh, no! The New Atheists are getting attacked again!]. I guess I'm more of a New Atheist than he is. Go figure.


1. I anxiously await Andrew Brown's next essay when he defines the New Theism and reveals to us these other ways of thinking.

2. Earth, the planet, begins with an upper-case letter, just as the names of all the other planets do.

[Hat Tip: Richard Dawkins.net]

15 comments:

  1. The Best mohammed T-shirt art is from Sweden. Watch and read the info at,
    http://www.mohammedt-shirt.com
    Please don´t translate read in English.

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  2. (Looking for links, I just came across a lovely example of this in the endnotes to the Selfish Gene, where lawyers are dismissed as "solving man-made problems that should never have existed in the first place".)

    I agree.


    Hey! Watch it, Bub! ;-)

    It is a strange comment however you slice it. Admittedly, lawyers can complicate the law (it's called "marketing") but the law itself is solving "man-made problems that should never have existed in the first place" only in the sense that there'd be no need for law if H. sapiens were incapable of creating culture and societies above the level of clans and troops. But then we wouldn't be what we think of as H. sapiens, would we? In effect, the comment is saying that we should have stayed at the evolutionary level of chimps and avoided the conflicts inherent in complex societies that law is needed to address.

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  3. "They are none of them philosophers and, though most are scientists, none study psychology, history, the sociology of religion, or any other discipline which might cast light on the objects of their execration. "

    Excluding the "though most are scientists" this sentence effectively describes 90%+ of the religious practitioners out there as well. This author discounts the negative statements as being without formal knowledge or study while assuming those who venerate faith have some special insight that supersedes such educational demands. Isn't there some logical fallacy this falls under?

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  4. Larry: thanks for doing the quiz. I stuck you and PZ there -- well, PZ for obvious reasons, and you because in your arguments with John Pieret you seemed to exemplify most of the things I dislike about the NA view on religion. So I was at least two thirds right :-)

    In addition, because the science bits of Sandwalk are so good and thus stand in contrast to the other stuff.

    If you ever want to write on the Guardian's site, you're welcome.

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  5. @gb: I am not claiming you need to be a student of religion to disbelieve it (or, obviously to be a believer); only that you need to study it to understand it.

    @John Pieret. But surely lawyers deal most of the time with real conflicts of interest some of which might arise among chimanzees, too? They may not have property, but they have territories, and sexual jealousy. Dawkins' remark seems to me all of a piece with an antinomian streak about human nature ("We alone can escape the tyranny of our selfish genes") which also comes out in the passages about the Zeitgeist in TGD. In the animal kingdom he is happy to write about ruthless selfishness etc, but when it comes to humans we're al of a sudden capable of transcending conflict, by some mechanism never made clear.

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  6. Andrew says,

    So I was at least two thirds right :-)

    Yes, but what is it about those two thirds that upsets you so much?

    Do you have some secret knowledge of another way of knowing about things that are correct? Please share it with us.

    Do you have a very different definition of faith that you'd prefer to use?

    Do you think religion is winning the battle between rationalism and superstition?

    Perhaps you could take the quiz and enlighten us?

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  7. well, when people go by simplified, stupid ideas, it is easy to predict their way of thinking. It's called a stereotype, and Larry is it in the flesh. Hardly annoying, rather we shoul thank him for existing.
    Of course the fact he sticks his chest out about is just all the funnier....

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  8. oh, I disagree with all six. That's why I chose them.

    If science is the only form of knowledge, it follows that nobody knew anything before about 1600AD at the earliest. Do you really believe that? If you suppose that religion arose to explain the things that science explains better, why did anyone know these things needed explaining? Or even that they happened? Before science, and without science, people knew -- amongst other important facts that they would die, that the sun would come the next day, that fire cooks things ... almost everything in fact that everyone knows in the highlands of New Guinea today.

    I distinguish, as you don't, between religion and superstition and I think that scientific rationalism is losing out to superstition and woo, even in Europe. Have you seen the poll of British science teachers showing that 37% of primary and secondary teachers think creationism should be taught in the classroom? I can believe many things about that figure, but not that it was higher 20 years ago.

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  9. Dawkins' remark seems to me all of a piece with an antinomian streak about human nature ("We alone can escape the tyranny of our selfish genes") which also comes out in the passages about the Zeitgeist in TGD.

    I see your point. In a way, it's the flip side of the tendency of strict materialiats to casually speak of "evil" (particularly in regard to religion) without accounting for how evil can be defined materialistically.

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  10. Andrew says,

    If science is the only form of knowledge, it follows that nobody knew anything before about 1600AD at the earliest. Do you really believe that?

    Of course not. Just as I don't believe that the scientific way of knowing (evidence + rationality) spontaneously arose in 1600. Do you believe that?

    If you suppose that religion arose to explain the things that science explains better, why did anyone know these things needed explaining? Or even that they happened? Before science, and without science, people knew -- amongst other important facts that they would die, that the sun would come the next day, that fire cooks things ... almost everything in fact that everyone knows in the highlands of New Guinea today.

    What's your point? People knew things thousands of years ago. If they were true things—as opposed to superstitions—then they were based on evidence and rational explanations of that evidence. Just because they didn't call it "science" doesn't mean that the way of thinking didn't exist.

    What a bizarre notion.

    I distinguish, as you don't, between religion and superstition ...

    I do too.

    ... and I think that scientific rationalism is losing out to superstition and woo, even in Europe. Have you seen the poll of British science teachers showing that 37% of primary and secondary teachers think creationism should be taught in the classroom? I can believe many things about that figure, but not that it was higher 20 years ago.

    Are you serious? Do you actually believe that Brits are more superstitious today that they were several hundred years ago?

    Your country is in worse shape that I imagined. :-)

    Like you, I don't know what to make of the response of science teachers. All I can say is that if I were asked the question I would also reply "yes," creationism should be taught in the classroom. The fastest way to make it disappear is to expose it to teenagers, most of whom will have a good laugh.

    There are parts of America where you might not be able to count on students mocking creationism but in Britain any teacher who seriously tried to promote creationism would be in for a rough ride. I say, go for it.

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  11. The reason that I have zero empathy for neoatheist (being a plain ole atheist myself) is that, there being so much to be done, and re-done, in science, they have advocated themselves to become some kind of moral pontiffs as if al the solutions were already available in science and all we have to do is enforce them. Which also tells us abou the smug self-satisfaction and triumphalism, a "chauvinism of class" that affects these types, which in the long run alwasy seem to send out the message that where nothing doen by scientists is ever wrong (they may add some disclaimers, but that, in the end, is the message they want the public to take homne. Love yer scientist!!!!)

    I mean, c'mon... before dawkins starts a crusade to save the workd from supersition, maybe he should stop two minutes to make sure he's figured out the evolution thing right. Now the reason he doesn't is becuase he obviously thinks hsi cartoonish "selfish gene" view has already got everything quite figured out, an insuperable model or an empirical reality...many of these neoatheists, by the way, knwo about as much natural history as hairdresser does. Even dawkisn can't even think straight about phylogenetics...I've seen it, and it's an ugly sight.

    The stupidity of the whole thing is overwhelming... in the ned, sciencie itslef is postponed in the name of some stupid crusade against religion, while at the same time making scientists just another social clique of assholes sucking each other's dicks that can't ver be wrong...
    I thought we had enough religious people already to fill that kind of niche.

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  12. Neoatheists: Get back to science. There is lots, lots to be done there, and you're only distorting things and mixing it up with your personal motivations.
    Get lost, suckers.

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  13. A Vargas... ever heard the phrase "its a free country"? Not to mention the fact that most atheists aren't scientists, just like most Christians aren't theologians.

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  14. So, waht's your point? I'm not begging for censorship of neoatheist, you know. I'm free to express my own opinion, namely, that neoatheists suck.

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  15. Armageddon Thru To You

    If you've been wondering why it seems like the world around us is unraveling, it's because the last days as foretold in the bible are now upon us. Just as it was 2000 years ago, many were unable to discern the signs of Jesus Christ's first coming (Mat 16:3), as will many concerning his second coming, which will occur very soon. Yes many have proclaimed a similar sentiment many times in the past, but their errors have no bearing on today other than to lull you into spiritual apathy, and that too was prophesied to occur in the last days.


    If you're not a believer in Jesus Christ because you're an atheist, consider that the underlying impetus for your disbelief is most likely borne of pride and here's why:

    When we die, if you as an atheist were right, then there is no upside or downside for anyone regarding the afterlife. We will all simply cease to exist

    However if we Christians were right about our belief in the afterlife, then we will be given eternal life and you as an atheist will receive eternal damnation

    Given the choices, the position held by an atheist is a fools bet any way you look at it because the atheist has everything to lose and nothing to gain. It is tantamount to accepting a “heads I win, tails you lose” coin toss proposition from someone. And that someone by the way is Satan (see Ephesians 6:12).

    The only way to explain the attitude held by an atheist is pride, pure and simple. The intellectually dishonest and/or tortured reasoning used by atheists to try and disprove the existence of God is nothing more than attempts to posture themselves as superior (a symptom of pride). And as anyone who has read their bible knows, this is precisely the character flaw that befell Lucifer, God's formerly most high angel. (Isaiah 14:12-15). Is it any wonder then why the bible is so replete with references to pride as the cause of mankind's downfall?

    Pride permeates our lives and burdens us in ways that most of us seldom recognize. Ironically, pride is the one thing that can blind someone to things even the unsighted can see. And sadly pride will blind many with an otherwise good heart, to accepting the offer of eternal salvation that Christ bought and paid for with his life.


    In any event, if you're an atheist, I wish you only the best for every day of the rest of your life because for you, this life is as close to heaven as you'll ever get, but for believers in Christ, this life is as close to hell as we'll ever get.





    If you're not a believer and follower of Jesus Christ because you are of another faith, please take the time to very carefully compare your faith to Christianity and ask yourself, why is the bible the only religious book with both hundreds of proven prophecies already fulfilled as well as those being fulfilled today? No other religion can claim anything remotely close to this fact. Many Christians who are serious students of bible prophecy are already aware of the role and significance of bible prophecy in foretelling end time events. God gave us prophecy as evidence of his divine holiness to know the begining from the end (Isa 46:10). God also believed prophecy to be so important that to those willing to read the most prophetic book in the bible, the Book of Revelation, he promised a special blessing (see Rev 1:3), and this is the only book in the bible that God gives its reader a special blessing for reading. Something to think about.


    Don't risk losing Christ's offer of eternal life by not accepting him as your savior and by thinking that the bible is nothing more than a compilation of unrelated and scattered stories about people who lived 2,000 plus years ago. If you take the time to study (not just read) the bible, you will literally be shocked to learn things you would have never imagined would be revealed in it. Did you know that like parables, God also uses particular months and days in the Jewish calendar, Jewish Feasts and customs, solar and lunar phases, celestial alignments, gematria (Hebrew numerology) early bible events and more as patterns and models to foretell future events?


    Consider the following interesting facts about the bible that testify to its God-inspired authorship:

    Did you know that in Gen 12:2, God said he would bless Israel?. How else can you explain the grossly disproportionate level of success achieved by Jewish people as a tiny minority in the world, especially after all they have gone through? And how can you explain the success achieved by the tiny nation of Israel, surrounded by enemies outnumbering them 100 to 1 and yet still they remain victorious in all their wars?


    Did you know that as evidence to indicate that Israel is the epicenter of the world from God's point of view is the fact that languages to the west of Israel are written and read from left to right as if pointing to Israel, and languages from countries to the east of Israel are written and read from right to left, again as though pointing to Israel. Just a coincidence, you say? I think not.


    Did you know that the six days of creation and seventh day of rest in Genesis is a model for the six thousand years of this age (ending very soon), that is to be followed by a 1,000 year millennial reign by Christ (see 2 Peter 3:8)? Adam was born sometime prior to 4000 B.C., therefore our 6000 years are almost up.


    Did you kow that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is hidden in the meaning of the Hebrew names listed in the genealogy of the book of Genesis (Research it online)? To deny this was God-inspired, one has to instead believe that a group of Jewish rabbis conspired to hide the Christian Gospel right inside a genealogy of their venerated Torah, which is not a very plausible explanation.


    Did you know that solar eclipses, which the bible describes as the sun being black as sackcloth, and lunar eclipses, which the bible refers to as blood red moons, have prophetic meaning? Research it online. God showed Adam (and us) his plan for man's redemption through the use of celestial alignments. (research Mazzaroth online)

    Did you know that much of the symbolism in the book of revelation refers to planetary alignments that will occur when certain events occur as prophesied? These planetary alignments also explained the birth of Christ, just search out The Bethlehem Star movie on the Internet.

    Did you know that the references in Eze 39:4-17 and Rev 19:17-21 in the battle of Gog/Magog and Armageddon respectively, in which birds of prey will eat the flesh of the dead in battle from two enormous wars is based on fact? The largest bird migration in the world consisting of bilions of birds (34 species of raptors and various carrion birds) from several continents converge and fly over Israel every spring and fall. Coincidence? I think not.

    Did you know that Hebrew numerology, also known as Gematria, and the numbers with biblical and prophetic significance are hidden in the Star of David? Google the video called "Seal of Jesus Christ"

    Did you know that the seven Churches mentioned at the beginning of the Book of Revelation describe the seven stages the Church will go through?

    There are literally hundreds of hidden messages in the bible like these that testify to the fact that the bible was God inspired, and statistically speaking, are all exponentially beyond the likelihood of any coincidence. You can find them yourselves if you only take the time to look into it. Remember Proverbs 25:2 "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings".


    And finally, if you are Catholic, or one who subscribes to the emergent Church or seeker-friendly Church movement, please compare the doctrine taught, advocated or accepted by your Church, with the actual bible, notwithstanding some new-age version of the bible. And remember that although the bible is often referred to as the living bible, the word "living" was never intended to imply in any way that the bible "evolves" over time to meet, or be consistent with, the standards of man. It's just the opposite.


    Well, am I getting through to you? If not, the answer might be explained in the response given by Jesus Christ in his Olivet discourse when he was asked by his disciples why he spoke the way he did (in parables, etc.) in the book of Matthew 13:10-16. What Jesus said could have easily been paraphrased more clearly as "so that the damned won't get it". Why did Christ respond the way he did when asked why he spoke this way? Is there something about pride (the bible says there is) that closes one's heart to seeing or hearing the messages supernaturally hidden in bible parables, models, typologies, and similes, etc.? That should give you something to think about, but don't take too long. Time is now very short.


    If it sometimes seems like there are powers at work behind the powers we know, remember what it says in Ephesians 6:12 "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." If you study the bible, it will become clearer.


    And by the way, if you are a scoffer, this too was prophesied to occur in the last days. See 2 Peter 3:3.


    Thank you and God Bless you!
    Armageddon.thru.to.you (at) gmail.com

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