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The Dying of the Brights

DawkinsKrauss

“We have to make this planet as good as we possibly can and try to leave it a better place than we found it.”

The crowd, gathered to hear Richard Dawkins debate the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, responds to the trite apothegm with unsurprising applause. But off-stage, after the cameras are turned off, the proverbial devil of the details rears his ugly head.

A weary Dawkins—one almost gets the sense that he’d rather not talk to anybody at all—kneels besides a disabled woman in a wheelchair, handing her a signed copy of his book and forcing a smile for the camera. The woman looks ecstatic to meet her hero; Dawkins seems to still be busy pummeling on Pell in some dusty corner of the same restless mind that gave rise to The God Delusion almost a decade ago.

We see this all play out in the 2013 homage to the New Atheism, "The Unbelievers", a sort of promotional travelogue which follows Dawkins and fellow atheist Lawrence Krauss around the globe to—like two real-life Hazel Moteses—spread the gospel of unbelief.

But Dawkins recently admitted something about people who, like this particular fan, suffer from a lifelong disability: it would have been better for them to have never been born.

Contemplating over Twitter what a woman pregnant with a Down Syndrome child ought to do, Dawkins said: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” The controversial and callous remark—certainly not the first from Dawkins—was not so much walked back as walked forward in his formal apology.

Dawkins is not the only New Atheist that has been mired in public controversy in recent years. From Krauss' cringe-worthy debate with a Muslim scholar to Sam Harris' recent comments about Islam on Bill Maher's show, bizarre, off-color public statements from the New Atheists—often made, or at least said to be made, because of an unflinching commitment to naturalism—are resulting in charges of brutality, misogyny, bigotry, and the same kinds of unflattering associations Dawkins had hoped to keep squarely on God’s head.

Of course, no mountain of personal controversies could discredit the claims of these self-styled “brights” or of atheists more generally. To suggest otherwise would be to engage in the very ad hominem attacks of which some of them are all too fond. But these headlines are, in their way, a visible symptom of what seems to be the diminishing traction and declining vitality of the entire New Atheist movement.

To put it in no uncertain terms: the New Atheism, if not already dead, is quickly dying.

This is first evident in a very literal way, in their fallen ranks. The “fifth horsemen” of the New Atheism, Victor Stenger, passed away a few months ago, but the loss of their leading horseman Christopher Hitchens in 2011 immediately comes to mind.

With Hitchens’ death, the New Atheism lost its scintillating, seductive flair. The wittiest, most likeable new atheist may not have converted as many as he would’ve liked, but certainly won the attention and admiration of many in the Christian community. In one of the first articles at Strange Notions, titled “Why I Loved to Listen to Christopher Hitchens,” Father Robert Barron confesses:

“I think I watched every Hitchens debate that I could find on YouTube; I subscribed to Vanity Fair largely because Hitchens was a regular contributor; I read every one of his books...No one wrote quite like Christopher Hitchens. Whether he was describing an uprising on the streets of Athens, or criticizing the formation of young men in the British boarding schools of the 1950s, or defending his support of the Iraq war, or begging people to let go of what he took to be their childish belief in God, Hitchens was unfailingly intelligent, perceptive, funny, sarcastic, and addictively readable.”

If Christopher Hitchens was the most stimulating New Atheist, the erudite Santa-lookalike Daniel Dennett was always the most scholarly. But, like Saint Nick himself, the philosopher has vacated the public eye so suddenly as to cast doubt on his very existence. Dennett has made no new enemies, inflamed no Twitter wars, and penned no blog screeds about the stupidity of faith. Instead—perhaps with an eye toward securing his legacy as a serious philosopher—he’s been sitting down with respected Christian thinker Alvin Plantinga for a civil, serious dialogue about science and religion.

And here, we see the root cause of the New Atheism’s decline: its lack of a sturdy philosophical foundation. Any organization can withstand its bad press if it’s grounded in something human, something wise, something timeless. But all along, scholars have grumbled that—unlike the writings of a Nietzsche, Sartre, or Russell—the New Atheism lacked intellectual depth and was doomed to self-destruction.

And they were right. Krauss looks like a farm team player brought up to revitalize a crumbling organization, trying (and failing) to recreate Hitch’s signature rhetorical jukes. Meanwhile, Dawkins is resorting to odd trick plays which never get off the ground. (His bizarre mutations of the mind art show comes to mind.) Nothing is meshing the way it used to, and the overcompensation on the part of the remaining leaders—and pushback from their rank and file—is telling.

Meanwhile, less vociferous unbelievers are gladly rushing in to fill that profitable cultural space. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example, has rightly been accused of bungling the history of the Church with relation to science in his new "Cosmos" series—but he’s also quick to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to God. “The only ‘ist’ I am is a scientist,” Tyson says in a Big Think interview. “What is my stance on religion, or spirituality, or God? I would say if I’d find a word that came closest, it would be agnostic...Atheists I know who proudly wear the badge are active atheists. They’re like in-your-face atheists, and they want to change policies, and they’re having debates. I don’t have the time, the interest, the energy to do any of that. I’m a scientist.”

Then there is Thomas Nagel, a renowned philosopher who—going beyond Tyson—is an avowed atheist. Nagel’s recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False drove fellow atheists up the wall, not only for its defection from the creed of naturalism, but for its alignment with the arguments of Alvin Plantinga—the same Christian enemy who has been sitting down with Dennett for tea.

Lastly, there’s physicist and atheist Sean Carroll who—going even beyond Nagel—is committed to the materialist conception of nature. Carroll penned an insightful piece recently titled “Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things About Philosophy.” While men like Dawkins, Krauss, and Stephen Hawking routinely dismiss philosophy as obfuscating gibberish that only serves to embolden the theologians, Carroll acknowledges that philosophy adds quite a lot to the modern scientific project. “The point, I take it, is to understand how nature works,” Carroll writes. “Part of that is knowing how to do calculations, but another part is asking deep questions about what it all means. That’s what got me interested in science, anyway...It’s a shame that so many physicists don’t see how good philosophy of science can contribute to this quest.”

This, happily, is the new tenor of the conversation. The apparently intramural rivalry between two fundamentalist spins on the world looks increasingly at odds with the problems and possibilities an open-minded majority face on the ground, and warriors from each side are deigning to say to the other, like Pound to Whitman:

I have detested you long enough...
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root –
Let there be commerce between us.

That’s not to say that passionate disagreement has ended—it hasn’t, and never will. But the tone and style of "The Unbelievers" seems a decade too late; the moment has passed. As celebrities like Bill Pullman and Cameron Diaz offer public support for this un-dynamic duo, and Krauss proudly holds up a tweet from Miley Cyrus with his picture and the quotation “forget Jesus,” the only real message that gets across is that intellectual fashions, like all fashions, come and go.

And as things continue to change where philosophical substance is concerned, the New Atheists and their readers will either change too, or fade away, raging against the dying of the brights.
 
 
(Image credit: YouTube)

Matthew Becklo

Written by

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.

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  • Krakerjak

    I think that is only fair that we have some clear recognition as to the defintion of "New Atheist" lest we confuse them as being nothing more than vociferous "enemies" of religion.

    "The New Atheists make substantial use of the natural sciences in both their criticisms of theistic belief and in their proposed explanations of its origin and evolution. They draw on science for recommended alternatives to religion. They believe empirical science is the only (or at least the best) basis for genuine knowledge of the world, and they insist that a belief can be epistemically justified only if it is based on adequate evidence. Their conclusion is that science fails to show that there is a God and even supports the claim that such a being probably does not exist. What science will show about religious belief, they claim, is that this belief can be explained as a product of biological evolution. Moreover, they think that it is possible to live a satisfying non-religious life on the basis of secular morals and scientific discoveries."

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/

    • Doug Shaver

      "The New Atheists make substantial use of the natural sciences in both their criticisms of theistic belief and in their proposed explanations of its origin and evolution. They draw on science for recommended alternatives to religion. They believe empirical science is the only (or at least the best) basis for genuine knowledge of the world, and they insist that a belief can be epistemically justified only if it is based on adequate evidence. Their conclusion is that science fails to show that there is a God and even supports the claim that such a being probably does not exist. What science will show about religious belief, they claim, is that this belief can be explained as a product of biological evolution. Moreover, they think that it is possible to live a satisfying non-religious life on the basis of secular morals and scientific discoveries."

      http://www.iep.utm.edu/n-athei...

      All that was true of a great many atheists before anybody coined the term "New Atheism."

      • Krakerjak

        I agree the term "new atheist" is redundant at best.

      • William Davis

        If you are trying to create a movement, you need a creed. It's tough with atheist, they tend to be an independent lot, but I give them credit for trying.

    • BrianKillian

      "They believe empirical science is the only (or at least the best) basis for genuine knowledge of the world, and they insist that a belief can be epistemically justified only if it is based on adequate evidence."

      In other words, they are characterized by scientism. Here are some other characteristics that I've come to associate with 'new atheism'.

      1. Arrogance (who else would want to call themselves 'brights').

      2. Ignorance. Not interested in grappling with the substantive philosophical and theological arguments offered by theists from Plato to today. Not acquainted with the background literature and the present state of debates on substantive issues which they nevertheless offer opinions on as if their word were authoritative.

      3. Juvenile and hostile. They interact with religious people much like I imagine Beavis and Butthead would interact with them, mostly by standing around pointing and laughing while congratulating themselves on how much more rational and bright they are.

      • Krakerjak

        Just exactly are you trying to say.....

        • Garbanzo Bean

          "Atheists don't refer to themselves as "brights" it was the author of the article who made that reference"

          Dawkins and Dennett have both popularized the New Atheists calling themselves "brights".

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brights_movement

      • William Davis

        What's with the character attacks on an entire group of people? You demonstrate your own ignorance. I love philosophy, but most branches end up being an artistic rendition of psychology. What we all have tendencies to believe has much more to do with how we think than any objective reality. Reason only works with sound premises, and truly sound premises only come from observation. If you study the entire body of philosophy (not just classical) it become clear that we can let reason take us anywhere, depending on our postulates. Englishmen tend to expect different things from a normal rational mind than Frenchmen and Germans if you care to venture into an enlightment. Most of the classical arguments you speak of have been dealt with over 100 years ago by enlightenment philosophers, were you? Selective reading I suppose. I prefer to take it all in. Art is often more helpful in understanding people than cold psychological analysis.
        There are some atheists who fit your profile, just like their are some Christians, Muslims, Adventists, whatever. Save you stereotypes for a dimmer audience.

      • Luke Cooper

        The atheists who get the most publicity are the more sensational ones (this goes for pretty much any person, actually), oftentimes as a result of their sometimes lack of tact and moral stances that many find to be abrasive.

        In reply to point 1: What about Christians who refer to themselves as "saved" and to the rest as the "lost?" That's pretty arrogant to me (as is "brights," by the way, so I agree with you there).

        In reply to point 2: Having the whole backstory of a tradition is great, but if the works cannot be supported with empirical evidence or withstand logical reasoning, then I think that they can rightfully dismiss it.

        In reply to point 3: Juvenile and hostile? Sometimes. Just as many Christians are with atheists, but I do not condone this type of behavior from anyone. Think of this: You are constantly asked to reason with people who wanted to argue with you that 2 + 2 = 5. They always accuse you of not being open-minded enough to consider their claims. Wouldn't you eventually get annoyed at dealing with this type of person, too? They might even call you hostile if you got frustrated enough from dealing with them.

        Closing question: If you could wave a magic wand and make these atheists read with an open mind your choice of a handful of convincing arguments for the existence of God, what sources would you choose?

        • BrianKillian

          I'm somewhat a Pascalian in this regard since I don't have a lot of confidence in the power of proofs for God's existence to convince people, even presuming their validity. I think that the matter of belief is more complicated than that. Or as Pascal might say, "the heart has reasons that reason knows not."

          I would recommend maybe "The Religious Sense" since it's more about method and touches on the scientism etc.

          • Luke

            If you're referring to the "wager" part of being Pascalian, I think that Neil Carter from the Godless in Dixie blog on Patheos brings up a great point. In effect, he (and the commenters) bring up the dilemma that occurs when adherents from two different religions (e.g., Islam and Christianity) both try to use Pascal's argument. Whose God should you choose in that case? Since you cannot satisfy both proposed Gods, I don't see any way to solve that dilemma. Do you?

            Link: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godlessindixie/2014/11/23/why-i-reject-hell-and-why-you-should-too/

            If you're referring to something else Pascalian, could you clarify? Sorry--I'm not too sure of everything that goes with a Pascalian belief system.

            Thanks for the recommendation. I will look into it.

  • Mike O’Leary

    I would agree that the tenor of the dialog between atheists and theists has changed since what was dubbed the New Atheist movement began. I think though that's a natural progression, as any such movement does between when it's initially introduced to the present. The feminist movement is drastically different from the pre-sufferage days to the sixties to today. The tone that a political party has will naturally fluctuate, become aggresive or contemplative as needed. The tone has no bearing on the validity of the arguments.It's also important to understand that rarely are such things done with a singular voice. One person may focus on a certain aspect of belief without being concerned about other aspects. Also each person may present their ideas in a different manner. For example, you mentioned how Neil deGrasse Tyson is not interested in getting into debates on religion and focusing on the science (including at times where religion is incorrect about science). To say that because NGT doesn't approach the same set of questions that Dawkins does or that the two don't present their ideas in the same manner that New Atheists or atheists/agnostics in general lack a sturdy philosophical foundation.Strange Notions is a perfect example of this. Some posters who are atheists, doubters, or even theists who disagree with certain beliefs and philosophies presented here do so in varying manners. There are those that are aggressive and others that are quite the opposite. Some of them are deep into the philisophical aspects of the ideas presented, while some are experts in the material sciences or in the Biblical scholarship. The important question is not the tone of the argument but the argument itself.

    • Michael Murray

      The important question is not the tone of the argument but the argument itself.

      Apparently the tone of the argument is more important here at SN than the argument. Hence the large number of atheists banned.

    • Jim Dailey

      As someone who has visited other blogs inhabited by"New Atheists" I must disagree with you. There is substantial overt hostility on many of the other blogs, and quite a bit of it is juvenile, at best.
      I do agree that the atheists who visit this site put up pretty formidable arguments.
      My big problem with Neil Dgt is that while he is happy to unfairly blast the Church, he does not acknowledge the Church's contributions. To me, that is pretty unscientific of h, and weakens his sho, and ultimately his validity.

    • William Davis

      Good comment, not painting with broad strokes as many do but getting to the real nuances. Like your avatar as well, great album ;)

  • Ignatius Reilly

    To put it in no uncertain terms: the New Atheism, if not already dead, is quickly dying.

    Not at all. I think if you substituted "religion in first-world democracies" for "New Atheism" you would come closer to a true statement.

    The main thrust of New Atheism is that religion does more harm than good, is irrational, and should be countered at every opportunity. These ideas have been around for a very long time, so we shouldn't expect that the death of a couple of their proponents will lead to the death of those ideas. If anything, the ideas are gaining traction, at least in the UK:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/11/03/religion-beyond-belief_n_6094442.html

    I found this piece to be rather smug and certainly dismissive of New Atheists, by insinuating that with Hitchens passing they are all either boring, intellectual lightweights, or backing away from their previous positions, while the smart atheists are rejecting the core of the New Atheists' philosophy.

    It would be interesting to have a piece on the utility of religion, which is a main focus of the New Atheists.

    • Steven Miller

      To me the heart of the article seems to be that the trouble with individuals like Richard Dawkins is that when you play atheism out to its logical conclusions, you end up with some fairly savage beliefs (reductio ad absurdum). On the other hand, if you take pro-life, for one example, to it's logical conclusions, you end up with the height of compassion and optimism. To say that someone is not of value because of a birth defect opens doors that have been opened before. And I don't mean to be hyperbolic or anything like that. Darwinian evolution (which has since been augmented incredibly) opened the door to eugenics both in the U.S. and Europe. Forced sterilizations were one product here in the States and you of course know some of the others.

      As a philosophy with internal consistency, atheism seems to be doomed--at least socially. And, if you want to know my humble opinion, this seems to be true about many philosophies currently at play in the world--not all secular and not all outside of Christian thought. However, I fully believe that Catholicism offers a consistent, objective, reality--one that I try my best to live by in all the details of my life and one that has enriched my life in ways I did not know were possible.

      • Doug Shaver

        As a philosophy with internal consistency, atheism seems to be doomed

        Atheism is not a philosophy. And since it makes only one affirmation, there is nothing for it to be internally consistent or inconsistent with.

        • SJH

          True, but atheists often seem to think of one mind tied together with a common philosophy. This is why I think "New Atheism" is different than general atheism. Many issues that atheists have common beliefs in are not atheist issues at all. As an example, abortion. There is no reason that atheists should in general be pro-choice. You can make non-religious arguments on both sides. But for some reason, atheists generally seem to be of common mind on it. Perhaps, the commonality is that they are anti-religion and therefor prone to disagree with religion for the sake of being opposed to it.

          • Mike

            I think that's bc imho most ppl who self identify as atheist are actually just anti-religion and therefore generally left wingers politically.

          • Doug Shaver

            but atheists often seem to think of one mind tied together with a common philosophy.

            That does seem to be true of those atheists who like to express their opinions on the Internet, but you can't assume that we're a representative sample. My opinion of Christians in general would be very different from what it is if I thought the ones I met online were typical.

            But even in the online atheist community, if you know where to look, you can find some substantial philosophical disagreements. But I'll admit that certain political viewpoints seem to be predominant. My own political opinions are generally conservative, and I'm definitely in the minority in that regard. (But please, do not construe that as an endorsement of anything that the Republican Party is up to these days.)

            If it's a fact that atheists tend to be politically liberal, it's because people don't acquire (or reject) any particular belief in an intellectual vacuum. Everything we believe is connected in some way to everything else we believe. For most atheists, apparently, the kind of thinking that leads them to reject theism also leads them to reject certain principles on which political conservatism is based.

            As an example, abortion. There is no reason that atheists should in general be pro-choice. You can make non-religious arguments on both sides.

            The secular arguments against abortion don't seem to persuade many people whose minds are not antecedently made up by their religious commitments. It's quite an emotional issue, really, and without an appeal to the divine will, arguments for the personhood of a fetus have to fall back on ideas that just don't engage people's feelings, no matter what intellectual merit they could have.

        • Steven Miller

          While that's true--I don't argue that atheism as a single claim is not an entire school of thought--any approach to life that stems from that supposition is going to tend toward the savage. Or rather, what I would call savage.

          Pro-choice is a great example. Thank you SJH. If I don't have value as a person--or any value greater than an iguana--then why should an unborn human? Or, if my only value is material--how much work I can produce--then why shouldn't I have more value as a man than a woman who has to take maternity leave? If we're nothing but mammals, then why should men stay with their wives, why should thieves go to jail, and why should countries not always invade their weaker neighbors?

          Perhaps I'm going overboard, but I do not believe decency is biological. I believe it's human--as in Aquinas' "rational animals." I don't see, and maybe I'm being dense, how an atheistic world view can make value claims about individual human beings. But I am open to any suggested readings, especially short essays with solid, logical arguments.

          • Doug Shaver

            any approach to life that stems from that supposition is going to tend toward the savage. Or rather, what I would call savage.

            I don't know what you would call savage, but I assume you intend a pejorative connotation. Whatever . . . I don't see why a godless approach to life would tend toward anything I would call savage.

            Perhaps I'm going overboard, but I do not believe decency is biological. I believe it's human

            If you think there is any sense in which humans are not biological, that could account for our disagreement about the origin of decency.

          • Steven Miller

            Right, so we are biological, just like monkeys. Monkeys live in community because of instinct. They breed because of instinct. They do not realize they are monkeys. They do not ponder the stars or write long treatises about their nature or how they should cooperate with each other. We do. Therefore, we are biological plus, the "plus" being everything we do beyond other mammals. This plus gives us culture, intellectual endeavors, and it frees us of instinct. We have the freedom to decide how to treat our fellows--beyond survival instincts concerning survival. SO, if this "plus" is a evolutionary fluke, then why should we treat others equally? Why should we value the lives of people not ourselves or our direct kin for whom we have some residual instinctual closeness? Why should I care about a child in Africa is she is just a clump of matter like myself?

            I suppose "savagery" was the wrong word. What I really meant was apathy.

          • Michael Murray

            Why should we value the lives of people not ourselves or our direct kin for whom we have some residual instinctual closeness? Why should I care about a child in Africa is she is just a clump of matter like myself?

            Because evolution is not a precise tool. It doesn't evolve a trait that exactly matches the requirements. You evolve some general instinct to care for other humans which is beneficial because most of the other humans you see in need of care are your kin. Roll forward a few million years to now and you are seeing lots of other humans who are not your kin but the care response still kicks in.

            It's even cruder than that. We tend to get the same emotional response to anything that looks vaguely like a human or human baby. Hence anthropomorphism for teddy bears and cartoon characters.

            Of course being rational creatures as well you can build a logical theory of why a society in which we care for all other humans not just our immediate relatives is a better place to live.

          • Jim Dailey

            Eh- not a great answer. Youv've done better.

          • Chad Eberhart

            How does this comment advance the conversation?

          • Steven Miller

            So in essence to care for others is intrinsically good, therefore even though it's just an evolutionary instinct it's worth keeping. OR are you saying that caring for others is neutral but explained through clan-like survivalist instincts?

            What's your take on the refugee problem in Jordan? (Mostly Syrians, I believe.) Should the Jordanians be incorporating so many foreigners?

          • Michael Murray

            I don't know what "intrinsically good" means.

            I think that caring for others is an evolutionary instinct that we can make a reasoned case for keeping rather than suppressing. But that reasoned case depends on some assumptions like the golden rule or some variant thereof that I can't give you a justification for.

            I don't really know where refugees in Jordan come into this discussion but I would have thought refugees should be regarded as a problem for the world not just Jordan.

          • Doug Shaver

            Therefore, we are biological plus, the "plus" being everything we do beyond other mammals.

            That conclusion does not follow from your premises. You have enumerated certain differences between us an other mammals -- certain characteristics we have that they lack. You have not presented a reason for believing that biology cannot produce those characteristics.

            Every species that exists has some characteristics that no other species has. That is how we identify them as distinct species. The compulsion to pick out the traits that are unique to us and treat them as markers of an uncrossable gulf between us and all other life says more to me about human vanity than about the natural world and what it is capable of producing.

            SO, if this "plus" is a evolutionary fluke, then why should we treat others equally?

            Notwithstanding all the commonalities between us and other animals, there are a few differences. Those differences are relevant to how we should treat one another.

            Why should I care about a child in Africa is she is just a clump of matter like myself?

            If no reason can make any sense to you other than "God commands it," then I hope you keep your faith.

          • Steven Miller

            Your first point I can certainly see. Humans are vain. In fact, we're the only animal capable of vanity. However, the caveat is of course that we're the only animal capable of contemplating the concept of vanity, which was more my point.

            Your second point is above my head. Can you rephrase it?

            Your third point is my fault entirely. The Law of Nature, as I understand it, is not a decree, as in "You will love others." Rather it's like the law of gravity--a statement of fact based on deduction from observation. What you heard, if I can make a bold presumption, is "I love others because I believe in God" (i.e. I only love them for the possible reward and to avoid punishment). However, what I meant was, "I love others because God created me in such a way." And all people for that matter. Do you see the difference?

          • Doug Shaver

            Your second point is above my head. Can you rephrase it?

            By my count, you're referring to : "Notwithstanding all the commonalities between us and other animals, there are a few differences. Those differences are relevant to how we should treat one another."

            You were asking for a justification of the ethics of equality, given the assumption that evolutionary biology tells us everything we need to know about our origins. My comment was an attempt to answer that question with a sound bite, which is pretty much impossible. I will make another attempt, though, to give a hint of an answer.

            The notion that ethics are simply optional in a naturalistic worldview is absurd. Biologically, we are a social species, and you can't have social interactions without social rules. Call those rules whatever you like -- laws, morals, customs, traditions, fashions, you name it -- you've got to have them. "Morals" or "ethics" is just the label we apply to certain rules of a certain kind.

            The intellectual study of rules of that kind is the subject of ethical philosophy. It's been going on at least since Socrates' time, and there is no immediate prospect that any of its major questions is going to be answered to everyone's satisfaction. There are some historical trends, though, that seem to be moving toward something like a consensus. One suggests that moral relativism, in anything like a pure form, is incoherent. Another is the understanding that any ethical code that arbitrarily assigns greater weight to the interests of certain groups of people than those of other groups is probably indefensible. And to whatever extent that ethical philosophers are coming to agree on these notions, most seem to be doing so without any appeal to divine intentions.

          • Doug Shaver

            I don't see, and maybe I'm being dense, how an atheistic world view can make value claims about individual human beings.

            I don't see the difficulty, unless you're assuming that nothing can have value unless God says it has value. I can think of no reason to make that assumption.

          • Steven Miller

            Great, then show me THAT argument. I really am serious, is there anything out there that makes a sound argument for the value of human life that begins from the atheistic proposition? Open to suggestions: essays, talks, authors. And feel free to give a short summary.

          • Doug Shaver

            I really am serious, is there anything out there that makes a sound argument for the value of human life that begins from the atheistic proposition?

            I am aware of no argument that infers anything about the value of human life from the premise of God's nonexistence. However, any argument for the value of human life, if it does not include any premise that presupposes God's existence, is an atheistic argument.

          • Steven Miller

            One clarification that I don't think I've been able to convey thus far: I don't think that atheists don't value human life. On the contrary, I DO! It is, in fact, the crux of my argument. The natural law says that life is valuable. We were created with the natural law imprinted within us, and I don't think atheism offers a proper explanation for that inherent knowledge we carry around with us.

            As Christopher West puts it: "A deer sees a dead deer on the ground and keeps walking. Humans stop." Why? Catholicism says, "The Natural Law" imprinted within us at creation. What does atheism say--new or old--really I'm curious.

          • David Nickol

            What does atheism say--new or old--really I'm curious.

            Atheism does not say anything about what to do in any situation. Atheism is not a religion of philosophy of life. Why is this so difficult for people to understand?

          • Steven Miller

            Right, but humans are social animals, "political animals" as Aristotle says. SO, where does atheism lead those humans? Our beliefs all inform us in how we lead our lives.You must see where I'm going with this, right?

          • David Nickol

            Our beliefs all inform us in how we lead our lives.You must see where I'm going with this, right?

            I assume you are heading in the direction of saying atheists cannot ground morality in anything, since morality is ultimately grounded in God. And so atheists cannot be moral, or if they are moral, ultimately they don't have any reason to be. If so, I disagree.

            By the way, there are Natural Law theories that do not depend on the existence of God.

          • Steven Miller

            Really? Can you direct me to a good source on that?

          • Michael Murray

            As Christopher West puts it: "A deer sees a dead deer on the ground and keeps walking. Humans stop." Why? Catholicism says, "The Natural Law" imprinted within us at creation. What does atheism say--new or old--really I'm curious.

            An elephant stops, most of the apes, monkeys and chimps stop. Some animals evolve these kinds of feelings for fellow animals. Humans are such an animal.

          • Steven Miller

            Wacky! I will have to blame my long absence from African savannas of my youth. No, I've barely left the states. Thanks for this anecdote, though. I do like elephant anecdotes.

            I once heard a story about a man's dog. After the owner died, the dog went to his grave and sat there. He refused move, not for water or food, and even eventually he died. And then of course there are many more stories of animals saving their owner's lives. So perhaps West has his zoological facts wrong, or I've misremembered him. His main point, though, was this: Humans have greater dignity than animals and should be treated thus. Unless your a vegan, I assume you at least agree with this point.

          • Michael Murray

            I'm not sure what "greater dignity" means. My cat is pretty dignified. I value human life above animal life with some restrictions. I don't like to see animals mistreated. I don't think filling the world with 20 or 30 billion humans and driving all the large mammals extinct is a good thing. I suspect that in 100 years time if we actually survive we will look back upon meat eating as something we don't understand like we now look back upon keeping slaves.

            I think moral progress in humans is associated with expanding the group of kin we are altruistic towards and shrinking the group of non-kin. I think part of Jesus' message (love your enemy etc) can be seen as contributing to that.

          • Michael Murray

            Speaking of dogs I posted this yesterday but it got deleted. I'll leave out the sarcasm this time. The story is interesting enough.

            http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/20/ciccio-the-dog-attends-ma_n_2511351.html

          • Michael Murray

            Another mourning animal. This one keeps going to Mass. Shame it isn't going to heaven.

            http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/20/ciccio-the-dog-attends-ma_n_2511351.html

          • Doug Shaver

            I don't think that atheists don't value human life.

            I got that. I understood you to be expressing a kind of bewilderment as to how we could value it.

            The natural law says that life is valuable. We were created with the natural law imprinted within us, and I don't think atheism offers a proper explanation for that inherent knowledge we carry around with us.

            It isn't supposed to.

            Catholicism says, "The Natural Law" imprinted within us at creation. What does atheism say--new or old--really I'm curious.

            Atheism as such has nothing to say on the subject of natural law except that if there is such a thing, it didn't come from God.

            The only thing atheists have in common is our unbelief in any gods. Aside from that, we are as diverse as the rest of humanity -- no more alike than the people who do believe in at least one god. Most people in this world get their values from the cultures in which they were raised. So do most atheists.

          • Steven Miller

            So in essence altruism is a social construct in your view? In that sense do you at all feel that you owe your own values to Judaism and Catholicism for shaping Western Civilization in the way that a doctor owes Darwin for their understanding of how viruses change over time?

          • Doug Shaver

            So in essence altruism is a social construct in your view

            Social constructs are ideas. Altruism is a kind of behavior. I place no value on altruism per se. I place value on its consequences.

            do you at all feel that you owe your own values to Judaism and Catholicism for shaping Western Civilization in the way that a doctor owes Darwin for their understanding of how viruses change over time?

            Darwin discovered the principle of natural selection, which is fundamental to our current understanding of biology, and we accordingly credit him. If it can be demonstrated that a particular religion discovered some analogously fundamental moral principle in the same sense that Darwin discovered the principle of natural selection, then I will similarly credit that religion for the discovery of that principle.

          • William Davis

            Atheists just recognize we are creating the value system, not God. European countries are becoming increasingly atheistic, or at least non-religious, for decades, yet they are often ranked as the happiest and most productive countries in the world. Almost all world religions have a similar morality for an obvious reason, it is built in to our psyche. The key is to understand that altruism has almost always been directed at INGROUPS. Outgroups don't qualify. Recognizing this rule, and the fact that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but altruistic groups beat selfish groups, you have an uncanny recipe for explaining the basics of not only human nature, but human history. The explanatory power of modern rational thought is overwhelming compared to any ancient religion, for obvious reasons. That said, the older religions are valuable as the art of leaving. Not only do we create the meaning (though part of who we are is forged by natural selection) we make it beautiful through mythology. God just doesn't add that much value to anything, depending on how you look at it. God is useful for claiming authority. Democratic societies give authority willingly, so they don't need god. They do need culture and art, history and a view of their place in the world.

      • Ignatius Reilly

        As a philosophy with internal consistency, atheism seems to be doomed--at least socially

        Can you name two propositions that follows from atheism that are contradictory and thus render it inconsistent?

        Catholicism is amazingly inconsistent. Firstly, the idea of an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-good God is completely incompatible with the world we observe. Secondly, this same all-merciful God metes out infinite punishment for humans for all eternity for finite offenses. Thirdly, the Catholic Church claims absolute certainty on faith and morals, while ignoring the fact that her doctrines change over time. Fourthly, we have the internal inconsistency of the bible.

        We can also talk about the positive social harm the catholic church has done by, moving known pedophiles to different parishes instead of defrocking and turning them over to the proper authorities, espousing methods of family planning that lead to poverty, teaching a form of sexual ethics that leads to improper guilt, and feelings of depression (which has lead to suicide) among those who have same sex attraction. This just scratches the surface of how Catholicism has made the world a worse place. Perhaps the some of the good Catholicism once had done outweighs the evil, but we have reached the point that we no longer need it and the evil outweighs the good.

        • Steven Miller

          OH I see, I don't mean consistent with the World! I mean consistent with itself. One need look no further than the treatment of the sanctity of life within the Church's doctrine to see it's utter consistency.

          Additionally, I don't believe atheism is contradictory either. There are few things that seem very consistent to me. One is atheism and the other is Catholicism.

          The positions of the Church are not easy to accept or live, I will grant you that, and you seem to very personally upset by them. I'm very sorry for any harm that has personally befell you or your loved ones, but I assure you these issues you reference are isolated--and they are not unique to the Catholic Church. People are verbally abusing priests just for wearing their collars, but how many parents are angrily attacking public school teachers on the streets? That being said, Pope Francis is taking the right actions now about that issue, as was his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI.

          Her teachings on morals were given authority to St. Peter through Jesus Christ Himself so that what was bound on earth would be so bound on Heaven, and they do not change from Pope to Pope. In order for doctrine to change the whole of the bishops on earth must agree that that is what their people believe. Take for instance the doctrine that Mary was assumed into Heaven. This wasn't made doctrine until the 19th Century, but it was popularly believed since the 1st century. In fact, there has always been a feast day for the Assumption of Mary. Doctrine is just official, so it often takes awhile.

          With the amount of people fed and educated and give medical treatment--how many hospitals in the world are named after a Catholic saint?--it seems like a large claim to say the church has done more harm than good.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            OH I see, I don't mean consistent with the World! I mean consistent with itself. One need look no further than the treatment of the sanctity of life within the Church's doctrine to see it's utter consistency.

            Isn't the world that we observe part of what Catholicism needs to be consistent with? For instance, if the world contains suffering that is irreconcilable with the Catholic conception of God would that not make the Catholicism inconsistent with what we observe?

            The problem with religion is that it can and does posses and extraordinary power over men's minds. In many ways, this power is greater than the power of the state, because it is a power over minds. A state could incarcerate a person physically, but religion incarcerates the mind. This is the first problem I have with religion in general, and since we usually discuss Catholicism on these boards, Catholicism in particular.

            Of course, in certain times and places (even in the modern world and I would say even in the United States), religion also gains political power. I believe the maxim power corrupts is largely true, so I prefer a world in which men have as little power over each other as possible.

            Sometime the Church uses this power for good. For instance, like you mentioned, their are numerous catholic charities and hospitals. These are goods that the church is partially responsible for, however, I do believe that humans would care for the unfortunate without the guiding presence of religion.

            There are still times that the Church uses her power for evil. In the first world, the damage is usually psychological. It is perhaps the only institution outside of Orwell's fiction that encourages guilt over thought crimes. It is the only institution that I know of that believes that a person can be condemned to eternal torment for a thought crime.

            Finally, because the church does posses enormous power, there is always a danger that the power can be abused. This has happened on numerous occasions throughout history, but it also happens in the microcosm of the individual. There are priests, who should not be hearing confessions, giving spiritual advice, life advice, or put in a position of trust. Not everybody has the wisdom to advise others, and the religious laity are all to eager to place trust in the "wise" words of a priest, when in many cases the priest lacks the skill set to properly advise the parishioner. I can't tell you how many times a Catholic acquaintance has told me with absolute surety about fact Y, because Fr. X said so, even though I personally thing fact Y in completely bonkers and I can always find a Fr. Z do back me up.

            There are some priests, who infest the church with a culture of fear. Obviously, many Catholics ignore them, but this does not change the real impact they have on the Catholics who take them seriously. I was a serious Catholic for most of my life (I'm relatively young though), and I definitely came across a lot of priests, who through no fault of their own, were not making a positive impact on the people they ministered to, because of the culture of fear they created. A good public example would be Gabriel Amorth, who writes on how Satan is absolutely everywhere, especially in the Church and Rock music. There is a non-negligible population that takes is words seriously, and I think that population would be better off without religion.

            Edit: I see my earlier comment was deleted. It was not my intention to violate the discussion rules. I hope this post clarifies my thinking on the matter without coming off has offensive.

          • Steven, Fidei Defensor

            Ignatius, you bring up a very deep theological question: What IS sin? The view you have, while understandable, is very legalistic. The Catechism has this to say: 1849
            Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is
            failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse
            attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures
            human solidarity. It has been defined as "an utterance, a deed, or a
            desire contrary to the eternal law."

            It has also been described to me as "that which separates you from God." So (and you'll have to take these conditions if we are to talk about sin, rightly defined) IF God is the source of love, THEN a hateful heart is separated from God. Hate is not a crime, and yet is drives one away from God. IF Hell is the permanent separation from God, THEN a hateful heart can lead you to Hell. In this way our desires can lead us to negative ends, and while this may not have a basis in democratic legal codes, I believe it's a common subject in psychology and psychiatry.

            Hope that helps!

      • Michael Murray

        To me the heart of the article seems to be that the trouble with individuals like Richard Dawkins is that when you play atheism out to its logical conclusions,

        An atheist is somebody who has no beliefs in gods. It's not a philosophy it's a statement about the beliefs that person holds. I don't see what playing it out to its logical conclusions even means.

        you end up with some fairly savage beliefs (reductio ad absurdum).

        Why are tragedies absurd ? I would have thought they are tragic.

        On the other hand, if you take pro-life, for one example, to it's logical conclusions, you end up with the height of compassion and optimism.

        Ah yes women forced to bear children or go to dangerous backyard abortionists like in the good old days. Do you know anything about life pre the 1960s when women gained effective control over their fertility ? The Midwives series of books by Jennifer Worth is good. You might revise your views on compassion and optimism though. I think you will also find many of us will fight pretty hard before we go through the gates of this particular Catholic Utopia.

        However, I fully believe that Catholicism offers a consistent, objective, reality

        There is only one reality. Catholicism is a collection of ideas that is supposed to be a description of reality. Many of us of course disagree that it describes reality.

      • William Davis

        Odd argument coming from a Catholic. Do you realize your church has been bleeding members for decades? A little sad, in a way. The most beautiful churches in the world are Catholic.

        • Steven, Fidei Defensor

          There are easier ways to live than the one set down by the Catholic Church, but I do not believe they are better. Or, in the long run, easier :)

      • Luke Cooper

        How does Catholicism provide you with a sense of an consistent, objective reality?

        As an outsider looking at Catholicism, I see how it has changed over time. You might think that that's a positive thing, like that it's keeping up with the times or it's being amenable, but I interpret your faith as a unquestioning belief in a changing institution.

        And no, taking the "pro-life" stance out to its logical conclusions is not always compassionate. Many adherents will say that an abortion should not be performed even when things like ectopic pregnancies occur, in which the mother and/or baby will likely die.

        • Steven, Fidei Defensor

          An ectopic pregnancy is not a viable fetus. However, one thing that greatly increases your chance of a ectopic pregnancy is the use of IUDs. FYI the Catholic Church is against IUDs, because they are pro-life. But resolving an ectopic pregnancy is certainly not abortion.

          • Luke Cooper

            Define "resolving" a pregnancy.

            If you're attempting to defend the Catholic church's policy on contraception, maybe you should think about how many unwanted pregnancies and STD transmissions that they could prevent worldwide. I'd be willing to wager that it far outweighs the slightly increased chances of having an ectopic pregnancy.

          • Steven, Fidei Defensor

            It seems difficult to be a Christian and still support contraception. I don't know what position you're coming from, but you may give Humanae Vitae by St. Pope Paul VI a read. I found it very enlightening.

            Furthermore, there is an old argument that contraception reduces abortion--though from your wording I wonder if you are pro-choice. The truth is that no contraception is fool proof, even when used very accurately. People are given antibotics and forget it cancels out their oral contraceptive. Condoms are incredibly prone to the spread of STDs, including HIV. In fact, they're only 85% effective against HIV/AIDS according to NIH (2000). Compare that to the Catholic Church's response to the epidemic (100%).

            As men, I believe we've been sold a bill of goods: That we NEED sex, as if it were some basic component to life. Because we feel it's a need, we're obsessed with minimizing risk instead of maximizing benefit. What we NEED is love, and that can be found in it's purest form in our Savior Jesus Christ.

          • Luke

            1) Once again, I ask that you define what you mean by "resolving" a pregnancy.

            2) Why does is it seem "difficult to be a Christian and still support contraception?" If you switched "Christian" with "Catholic," I would understand (dogma), but I'm not familiar with the non-Catholic, Biblical argument.

            3) I don't have a hard and fast stance on the pro-life / pro-choice spectrum, but I lean MUCH further toward the pro-choice side.

            4) I know the stats on the effectiveness of condoms and other contraceptives. What you failed to acknowledge, though, is that people are not choosing abstinence.. In that case, condoms reduce the transmission of STDs and other contraceptives reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancies.

            5) I agree with you that we do not NEED sex. But why shun or minimize it? Sexuality is part of our humanity and can be beautiful when expressed consensually. There's nothing inherently wrong or evil about it.

            6) I'm an atheist. I don't need saving, and I much prefer the love I get from Earthly beings. The sole reason being that I prefer to receive love from sources I can actually experience.

          • Steven, Fidei Defensor

            1) That really depends on the particular situation. The Catechism does not explicitly restrict medical procedures that treat ectopic pregnancies. Some are because of faults in the fallopian tube and are best treated by removal of that tube or part of it. Other cases have resulted in successful pregnancies. I'm not an OBGYN. And as far as I'm aware that's a matter for a couple to discuss with their physician. Catholic moralists have varying opinions, but not one says, "Oh just let it run it's course, even if it kills the mother."

            2 - 6) I believe you may have us confused with the Shakers! Devout Catholics will tell you that it is the secular world that undervalues sex. If you read some of the Catholic theology on human sexuality, you'll be pleasantly surprised. I would start with Christopher West or Jason Evert. They build off of St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body. They have numerous books, but you can also find their talks online. Just Youtube them!

  • Mike

    Interesting piece thanks. i remember all too well what the cultural mood was like then; but i think alot of that excitement started to diminish once we found out that hitchens had cancer and wouldn't be able to beat it back; he was the star and he's unfortunately gone to meet his maker and i am sure to continue to argue with him about one thing or another. Atheism seems cool in your 20s and early 30s but then you grow up maybe start a family and other things seem to take priority; if we all lived only to 40 there might be more hope for this old religion called atheism.

    • Krakerjak

      Hitchens had cancer and wouldn't be able to beat it back; he was the
      star and he's unfortunately gone to meet his maker and i am sure to
      continue to argue with him about one thing or another.

      Very poor choice of words to describe the event of the passing of a great man.

      I hope that you are proud that you have done your duty on the part of theists.

      • Mike

        er, thanks.

    • Doug Shaver

      I might possibly argue with my maker after I meet him. I cannot possibly argue with him now. I can only argue with people who say that the maker exists.

      • Mike

        Very true.

  • Vicq Ruiz

    But all along, scholars have grumbled that—unlike the writings of a
    Nietzsche, Sartre, or Russell—the New Atheism lacked intellectual depth

    There are millions of theists out there who lack "intellectual depth". They have never read Aquinas or Ratzinger or Lewis. Yet they believe, because they were brought up to believe or because they have had a personal experience they hold to be divine or because it just "makes sense" to them.

    Why is their position valid, while the position of a non-believer who is similarly unread is not?

    This is the sort of "bigger bibliography = more truth" argument which has cropped up at SN more than once.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      There are millions of theists out there who lack "intellectual
      depth". They have never read Aquinas or Ratzinger or Lewis. Yet they
      believe, because they were brought up to believe or because they have
      had a personal experience they hold to be divine or because it just
      "makes sense" to them.

      Indeed there are. Not everyone has the time, skills, and inclination to dive very deeply into any subject. Theology is no different from organic chemistry in this regard. There are many people who buy things in the stores without any understanding of how a marketplace works; many people who drive cars who could never explain the thermodynamics of the Otto or Diesel engines.

      Why is their position valid, while the position of a non-believer who is similarly unread is not?

      "Valid" is not the right word, although you may be thinking of the Late Modern desire to be "validated" by his peers, meaning recognition and approval.

      The longer answer is that the superficial adherent can sometimes rely on a substantive body of thought, placing trust (in Latin, "faith") in reliable spokesmen who have given the matter great thought. Thus I might place my faith in Einstein, Lemaitre, Guth, and others with respect to the Big Bang theory, even if I can no longer work the tensors unaided.

      If there is no substantive body of thought to rely on, the superficial adherent is weak and is reduced either to bluster or apostasy. This is why the nihilism of "I just don't believe in X" is a cop-out. If someone came along and said, "I don't have to give reasons; I just don't believe in Darwinian evolution," others might well suspect that his case was weak or his understanding was uncertain.

      • David Nickol

        Imagine a public debate (perhaps a whole series of debates) between a theist and an atheist takes place and everyone who watches agrees that the theist is devastatingly outargued on every point. If the theist announced at the end that he didn't care how badly he had been outargued, he still believed, I think theists would regard him as a man of faith, to be admired. But imagine if it were the atheist who was outargued and maintained he still did not believe. I think the theists would consider him to be totally discredited and lacking a leg to stand on.

        P.S. We only got to see a tiny snippet of the debate between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal Pell in The Unbelievers, but Pell clearly didn't know what he was talking about with regards to evolution.

  • If you think Dawkins and Krauss are representative of atheist philosophical leadership, you have not been paying attention.

    There is nothing "new" in atheism. What Dawkins and Hitchens did was make it more popular. You can see their arguments from Ancient Greece to Robert Green Ingersoll to Sam Harris.

    If you are looking for the real philosophical arguments against god, see the debates of Justin Schieber, Jeffrey J Lowder, Matt dillahunty.

    Read the philosophy of Dan Dennet, A C Grayling, Paul Draper

    On biblical history, see Bart Erhman, and even Richard Carrier

    Yes our community is filled with people who make sexist and awful remarks. Others are firebrands making ridiculous claims. But so is theism and if we are going to make this conversation about the views and conduct of individuals, rather than arguments, Theism and Catholicism is going to lose.

    Yes there are firebrands like Dawkins, David smalley, and others. But there are also Seth Andrews and Hemant Mehta, check out Dawkins' debate with Archbishop Rowan Williams and you will see an entirely different demeanour that you might expect.

    And ask me if you want to know about the state of the movement, atheist groups continue to pop up and thrive around the world. Our conferences and meetings are well attended and we are growing. Unlike the Catholic Churches that see dwindling and aging attendance.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    I think this post is inappropriate for Strange Notions.

    • Krakerjak

      I think this post is inappropriate for Strange Notions.

      May one ask why inappropriate?

      • Kevin Aldrich

        SN is supposed to foster dialogue with atheists and agnostics and this post disses New Atheism.

        • Krakerjak

          Are not not "new atheist" actual atheists ?.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            They say they are.

        • Michael Murray

          I also don't see how it bears on the question of the existence of God. We are always told, correctly I think, that the behaviour of Catholics has no bearing on the rightness of Catholic theology. But it follows then that the behaviour of so-called New Atheists, Dawkin's thoughts on aborting Down Syndrome foetuses, Harris' thoughts on gun-ownership, Hitchen's wit, Dennett's beard,etc, etc also have no bearing on the question.

          • David Nickol

            Excellent post, but unless Kevin is being ironic or something, the point that he is making is (to quote him in full), "SN is supposed to foster dialogue with atheists and agnostics and this post disses New Atheism." I think he is correct. Or rather, I think this post "disses" a handful of people often described as New Atheists. I don't think there is any such thing as "New Atheism." As I have said elsewhere, it looks to me like Matthew Becklo personally dislikes the people he is writing about. He is trying to put them, personally, in a bad light.

          • Michael Murray
  • Doug Shaver

    And here, we see the root cause of the New Atheism’s decline: its lack of a sturdy philosophical foundation.

    In that respect, it differs not at all from whatever the old atheism was. There are many philosophical foundations on which any atheism can rest, and nothing about atheism per se dictates which foundation a particular atheist should prefer, if any. No particular belief needs any foundation, and insofar as atheism is a particular belief, it is no exception. But insofar as atheism is just the absence of a particular belief, it makes no sense to demand a foundation. It may be better to build a house with a foundation than without one, but you certainly don't need a foundation if you don't build a house at all.

  • David Nickol

    A weary Dawkins—one almost gets the sense that he’d rather not talk to anybody at all—kneels besides a disabled woman in a wheelchair, handing her a signed copy of his book and forcing a smile for the camera. The woman looks ecstatic to meet her hero; Dawkins seems to still be busy pummeling on Pell in some dusty corner of the same restless mind that gave rise to The God Delusion almost a decade ago.

    I just finished watching The Unbelievers (available on Netflix), and I must say I am surprised Matthew Becklo gets a whole paragraph out of what can't be more than a second (or two, at most) of the film. What are we to make of Becklo's phrase one almost gets the sense? Why not one get's the sense, or better yet, I got the sense?

    I would have to say that this second or two of film made no impression no impression on me at all. I wasn't able to read the mind of Richard Dawkins.

  • David Nickol

    We see this all play out in the 2013 homage to the New Atheism . . .

    It may be handy to refer to the "New Atheists," but there is no such thing as the "New Atheism."

    I get the feeling (which is quite different from saying "one almost gets the feeling") that Matthew Becklo personally dislikes the people he identifies as "New Atheists."

  • David Nickol

    But Dawkins recently admitted something about people who, like this particular fan, suffer from a lifelong disability: it would have been better for them to have never been born.

    I think it is quite different to say it is the right thing to do to abort a fetus which will be born with serious disabilities than to say it would have been better for a person with serious disabilities never to have been born. Saying it would be better if someone had never been born is an illogical statement that "does not compute." How in the world is it possible to determine the truth or falsity of saying it would be better if a particular living person had never been born? It's in the realm of science fiction, at best, and probably in the realm of fantasy.

    I have grave reservations about abortion based on genetic testing (particularly in the case of Down syndrome), but it does not follow (it seems to me) that those who advocate abortion in the case of severe genetic defects believe that those who are born with genetic defects ought to be exterminated or ought not to be alive.

  • Krakerjak

    Perhaps all who are genuinely interested in this topic would do themselves a favor by visiting the following website.

    http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.ca/2014/11/estranged-notions-dying-of-brights.html#disqus_thread

  • Michael Murray

    A weary Dawkins

    No doubt the result of jet lag with a busy schedule at the Australian end. The 24 hour flight from London to Australia plus the time difference is pretty wearing particularly if you have to perform when you get there. Worse for us older blokes.

  • Michael Murray

    And as things continue to change where philosophical substance is concerned, the New Atheists and their readers will either change too, or fade away, raging against the dying of the brights.

    As more and more people stop having a place for god in their lives then of course atheism as some sort of political movement will die away. That's what is happening in most of the developed work except the US.

  • Joe Ser

    A powerful must see video:

    The Magician's Twin: C.S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism

    The Similarity Between Science and Magic

    1. Science as religion

    2. Science as credulity

    3. Science as power

    Evolution is an alternative religion
    http://idvolution.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-magicians-twin-cs-lewis.html

    • Doug Shaver

      A powerful must see video:

      Why must I see it? I have seen lots of apologists arguing against something they call "scientism" or promoting notions about science being a religion, an exercise in credulity, and an instrument of power. Does this video add anything new to those arguments?

      • Joe Ser

        Watch it and see.

        • Doug Shaver

          I've wasted way too much of my life trusting people who say that.

    • Doug Shaver

      I'm not sure there is any such thing as scientism. Whenever science supports a position they don't like, some people seem to think that "That's just scientisim" is a good counterargument. It's not obvious to me that there is anything more to it than that.

      • Joe Ser

        Not really, scientism claims only they have any meaningful claims. (religious claims have none) In many cases, scientists don't even know they have crossed the boundary into philosophy with their pronouncements. Many times this has the effect of showing disdain for religion, since the turht can be known only through science. But, by its own admission it has an a priori bias built in that it can say nothing about the supernatural. Much of the public has swallowed the claimed superiority of science. Of course most have not take philosophy 101.

        • Doug Shaver

          scientism claims only they have any meaningful claims. . . . by its own admission it has an a priori bias built in that it can say nothing about the supernatural.

          How do you know? Who is admitting this? As far as I can tell, nobody claims to be an adherent of scientism.

          • Joe Ser
          • Doug Shaver

            Are you admitting the supernatural then?

            I admit its possible existence. I doubt its real existence.

            And is there something in that video that you'd like to talk with me about?

          • Joe Ser

            OK. The fact you doubt it though is based on science claims?

          • Doug Shaver

            I doubt it because I see no good reason to believe it.

          • Joe Ser

            Something influenced this.

          • Doug Shaver

            Something influenced what? The video?

          • Joe Ser

            Something someone revealed to you lead to your doubt.

          • Doug Shaver

            Everything that everyone among us thinks was influenced by something that somebody told us.

          • Joe Ser

            Exactly.

      • BrianKillian

        Someone else on this thread defined New Atheists in part with this text:

        'They believe empirical science is the only (or at least the best) basis for genuine knowledge of the world, and they insist that a belief can be epistemically justified only if it is based on adequate evidence. Their conclusion is that science fails to show that there is a God and even supports the claim that such a being probably does not exist."

        That's pretty much the definition of scientism. Note the problem of self-referential inconsistency (what empirical evidence is there that supports the proposition that empirical science is the only or the best basis for genuine knowledge of the world?).

        It's scientism because science isn't the only form of genuine knowledge of the world, and not all 'adequate evidence' is empirical evidence.

        BTW, if science fails to show that there is a God, and supports the claim that God probably doesn't exist, how does one falsify that?

        What must be true for science to succeed in showing that God exists or that his existence is probable?

        • Doug Shaver

          That's pretty much the definition of scientism.

          Right. The use of science in support of a proposition that you disagree with. Isn't that what I said?

          Note the problem of self-referential inconsistency (what empirical evidence is there that supports the proposition that empirical science is the only or the best basis for genuine knowledge of the world?).

          It's a problem easily solved by a sufficiently competent epistemologist. Every belief system has to start with some axioms, which by definition are propositions that cannot be proved within the system.

          According to the source you quoted, the new atheists "insist that a belief can be epistemically justified only if it is based on adequate evidence." Epistemologists are familiar with that proposition, and they don't call it scientism. They call it evidentialism, whether or not they agree with it. This is in contrast to "scientism," which seems to be used only as an insult.

          It's scientism because science isn't the only form of genuine knowledge of the world

          I don't get this. You have implied that if it were true that science was the only form of genuine knowledge, it would not be scientism to believe that it was the only form of genuine knowledge. In other words, it's only scientism if it's wrong. Again, that's kind of the point I was making.

          not all 'adequate evidence' is empirical evidence.

          If you think there is some other kind, we can discuss it if you'd like. Would you like to discuss it?

          BTW, if science fails to show that there is a God, and supports the claim that God probably doesn't exist, how does one falsify that?

          The discovery of scientific evidence for God's existence would falsify the claim that science fails to show that there is a God.

          What must be true for science to succeed in showing that God exists or that his existence is probable?

          The same sort of thing that was used to demonstrate the existence of subatomic particles. The existence of any postulated X that is not directly observed is demonstrated by the undisputed observation of phenomena that are inexplicable except on the assumption that X exists.

        • Rationalist1

          It's less that science is the best form of finding knowledge but more that what has been called the scientific method is the best form of obtaining knowledge and keeping one from avoidably fooling oneself.

          If there is a better way to determine the validity of our assertions that holding them to be tentative, testing them, making predictions from them to test and when fault is found either reform or discard our assertions then I'm open to suggestions.

          That's the investigative principle behind science and applicable to all fields of human inquiry.

          Science doesn't say there isn't a God any more than it says astrology doesn't work. It just states there is not evidence to support either claim.

    • Ignatius Reilly

      The video failed to make a case for all three. Definitely not a must see.
      The video attempted to link science with Hitler's anti-Semitism, when centuries of Catholic/Christian anti-Semitism played a much larger role. The video of course ignores how the bible is and has been used to promote all sorts of morally reprehensible institutions such as slavery.

      1) The reason for Darwin Day is that various religious groups try to cast evolution as pseudo-science, because evolution conflicts with their religious beliefs. The day does not have religious or ritualistic significance for most atheists of scientists. You should not confuse humanities desire for community and ritual with a desire or belief in religion, nor is it correct to mischaracterize those rituals as religious. Is a birthday religious? Thanksgiving? Independence day?

      2) Mischaracterized evolution. Failed to understand how modern psychology views Freud, his influence, and where he was incorrect.

      3) Can't say I have ever met a scientist who was interested in Science for power. Not saying that they do not exist, but I don't think it is the norm. Most scientists are interested in research and or teaching others about their passion - not dominating the world. It is usually the religious that are interested in telling others how to live, who to sleep with, what church to go to, what to believe, and with sufficient power religious groups have started wars and persecuted minorities. I don't think anyone has ever burnt someone at the stake in the name of science.

  • Joe Ser

    In the midst of atheism we see -

    China on course to become 'world's most Christian nation' within 15 years

    The number of Christians in Communist China is growing so steadily that it by 2030 it could have more churchgoers than America - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html

    What's the biggest threat to Asia? Atheism, this cardinal says - http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/whats-the-biggest-threat-to-asia-atheism-this-cardinal-says-23060/

    • Doug Shaver

      In the midst of atheism we see -

      The presence of X in the midst of Y does not mean Y is in the midst of X.

  • The term "new atheist" is a semantic trick that threatened religious apologists use to downplay popular atheist writers that renewed interest in the subject in the last 15 years or so. The implication being that religion had dealt with the old atheists who were polite and intellectual philosophers. This new breed didn't us thoughtful arguments but angry bluster and scientist. This is false.

    Richard Dawkins is a famous man that began a personal public campaign against religious belief, he has started a foundation to advance secularism. He is possibly the most famous atheist, though many might claim he is not a true atheist. He has done a great deal of good work but has made a number of troubling comments about sexual assault. There is nothing wrong with looking at his work and accepting that some of it is brilliant, though tarnished by his other conduct. But it is a mistake to consider him to speak for atheists, as representative of "new atheism" a term most of us reject.

    Mel Gibson is famous man that began his own version of the Catholic Church and a personal campaign to promote Christ's message. He is possibly the most famous Catholic, though many might claim he is not a true Catholic. He has done a great deal of good work, but has made a number of troubling comments and conducted himself very badly. There is nothing wrong with looking at his work and accepting that some of it is brilliant, though tarnished by his other conduct. But it is a mistake to consider him to speak for Catholics or as a representative of Catholicism.

    • Arthur Jeffries

      Pope Francis is the most famous Catholic.

      • David Nickol

        Pope Francis is the most famous Catholic.

        Quite possibly, but I don't see what your point is. It would not be a mistake to consider Pope Francis as a spokesperson for Catholics or as a representative of Catholicism. However, by its very nature, atheism does not have representatives or spokespersons. I don't even think it is quite accurate to say that people like Dawkins, Krauss, and Harris are promoting atheism. I think it is more accurate to say they are advocating scientific materialism. I think it would be correct to say that all scientific materialists are atheists, but not all atheists are scientific materialists.

      • What about Jesus? Or was he a Jew?

  • Michael Murray

    An excellent response from Geena Safire who is banned from posting here.

    http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/2014/11/guest-post-geena-safires-response-to.html

  • Thank you everyone for the great comments! I'm late to the party, so I'll try to address just a few of the themes I've seen pop up here (and elsewhere).

    I was hesitant at first to bring this piece to SN, but that didn't last long. It's not the first time that SN has tackled broader social contexts, and I think it's very appropriate. Of course, they're peripheral questions - we're focused primarily on arguments for and against God's existence - but no one reasons from an isolation chamber. We all begin with and experience the cultural milieu, and these kinds of discussions about the "interstitial fluid", so to speak, of the personalities and movements in which philosophical arguments take place is not only unavoidable, but significant.

    Second, the article was not an attack on atheists or atheism per se, so defenses of the two with regard to the article's claims are not necessary. Actually, given the high praise for Hitchens and Dennett, it wasn't even really an attack on the New Atheists per se! As for the negative press on Dawkins, Krauss, and Harris, that stems from scores of recent headlines from major news outlets on various incidents (including a Salon piece by Reza Aslan on Dawkins and Harris just the other day); the extrapolation from these incidents and the criticism of "The Unbelievers", of course, was all mine.

    I noticed too that a few people tried to turn the tables by bringing up declining numbers of churchgoers and professed believers. First, I'm doubtful that these types of polls do much to give us a snapshot of reality. (Does going to church make you a Christian? Does checking "God does not exist" on a poll make you, in your heart of hearts, an un-believer? This kind of sociological reductionism is an injustice to the mystery of the human person.) But even assuming they do, public esteem of the leaders of one faction of a movement is a separate matter from the growth or decline in that movement's total numbers, and both are separate matters from the truth or falsehood of its claims. I certainly hope I didn't imply that these things always go together! Instead, my argument here is that the declining esteem of the New Atheists is a symptom of their philosophical shallowness; that atheism as a checked box may rise in the midst of this trend is perfectly plausible.

  • Irish Shilelegah

    Nah. I'm still a New Atheist fan...I just can't lie to myself and mentally "square the circle" necessary for theist belief. I have no problem with Deism (belief in a God) but then you purport to know his "will" to it's exactitude (my definition of a theist) --- now you inevitability encroach on my own freedoms. Organized religion always attempt to legislate (on believers and non-believers alike) it's propitiations, laws, and rules where it is able to do so.

  • Manuel Buen Abad Najar

    A great article on a hint to the end of "The New Atheists". And what a punchline!: "Raging against the dying of the brights.". Dylan much?