Monday, November 24, 2014

What is the New Atheism?

Here's a piece I wrote for an on-line community of which I am a part, on the New Atheism.  Input is welcome.

What is the New Atheism? 

What is Atheism? Atheism is best defined as the belief that there is no God or gods. “A” is a Greek prefix meaning “not,” while “theos”was used by the Greeks for both God and the gods. (It is important to keep these concepts distinct, since in Greek as in other pagan religions, the polytheistic “gods” are conceptually far removed from God as conceived not only in Christianity but even by “pagan” theists. The “gods” are birthed and therefore dependent, limited in knowledge and wisdom, local, and possessed of lust, jealousy, ignorance, etc. Making a clear distinction draws the force of the New Atheist “We just believe in one less god” and the “Outsider Test for Faith.”)

It is incorrect to define atheism as “lack of a belief in God,” which would make not only babies atheists, but presumably Laborador Retrievers, redwood trees, and slabs of petrified wood. Atheism is the positive denial that such a being as God exists. However, in Christian psychology (St. Paul, Paul Vitz, Jay Budziszewski), one should keep in mind that a person can deny on one level of his being what he knows or affirms on another. This inner conflict may, indeed, explain some of the pique for which many atheists are famous, and why apologetics alone seldom persuades. Some atheists appear not only conflicted, but angry, wounded, and in Promethean or sexual rebellion against the God they claim to disbelieve (Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Sanger, being interesting case studies). Wise apologists should keep all this in mind, but also keep both ears and their hearts open, while engaging atheists on the intellectual level. (Self-declared atheists typically having a high level of education in western society, as is typical of religious minorities -- see Rodney Stark.)

What is the New Atheism? Beginning with Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in 2006, then books by Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, a wave of anti-religious and especially anti-Christian sentiments struck the collective consciousness of the English-speaking world like a tsunami. (Presaged, one might say, by the likes of Carl Sagan.) This movement has since broadened and includes a large number of other thinkers (and, yes, thoughtless ranters).

Some have sought to deny that “There is anything new about the New Atheism.” However, the following traits do tend to characterize this movement, and distinguish it not absolutely, but relatively, from most other forms of atheism:

(1) New Atheists (or “Gnus”) both attempt to refute old arguments for God and offer old and new arguments against God. Most of these seem a bit “seat of the pants,” since Gnus typically do not bother to study the prior conversation in great depth.  (It being a conceit of Dr. Carrier that theology is too silly to bother studying, a meme that has multiplied.)

(2) Indeed, intellectual immodesty and self-confidence typify the movement to an often astounding extent. This is often fueled by the conceit that “we rational thinkers” (Dennett promoted the term “bright”) are inherently more reasonable than those befuddled by religious “memes.” This in turn is often undergirded by blind adulation of “Science” without defining and recognizing its historical roots in theology (Medieval and even ancient Greek), its cognitive dependence on philosophy, or its practical dependence on history (all scientific experiments that we cite were carried out in the past, by fallible human observers and their machines).

(3) One of the New Atheism’s most pervasive themes is that religious belief is based on “blind faith.” Gnus often seem to positively refuse to learn what Christians really mean by faith, and revel in erroneous conceptions, by citing a few well-known quotes from Tertullian, Pascal, Kierkegaard, or (even more out of context), Jesus to Thomas, or a couple lines in Hebrews 11. Thus many Gnu books refer to “Faith” in the sense of "believing not only without evidence, but against the evidence" in their titles.

(4) Most Gnus are Secular Humanists, and there is therefore a strong moral dimension to their critique of Christianity. Christians are not only wrong, it is dreadfully harmful, they allege. Thus they tend to offer an exceedingly dark interpretation of Christian history, attempt to blame Christians for Hitler (Hector Avalos), and ignore all the good Christianity has done. (Which they seldom know anyway, since it seldom appears in text books.)

(5) New Atheists generally depend on a liberal Jesus spin (Jesus Seminar, Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman). Some have also developed their own theories, for instance Richard Carrier's (failing) recent attempt to make mythicism respectable academically.

(6) New Atheists tend to express fear of the political power of Christians, up to the danger of “theocracy,” especially in the United States. Originally this was stated in the context of Islamic theocracy in the Middle East and elsewhere, and 9/11, and the rise of New Atheism may in part trace to an attempt to draw a parallel between the two religions. Most but not all “Gnus” seem to belong to the political Left in the US, especially the left wing of the Democrat Party, with outliers bunched among the socialist left, and among the libertarian-leaning right.  This often lends a strong political element to discussions between American Christians and their secular opponents, with an underto of sexual Promethianism. 

Books For: Aside from the “Four Horsemen” named above, some influential New Atheists or affiliated skeptics include Hector Avalos, Richard Carrier, Greta Christiana, Stephen Law (perhaps), John Loftus, Bill Maher, PZ Myers, John Paulos, Michael Shermer . . .

Rebuttals by CAA Members: David Marshall, The Truth Behind the New Atheism (2007), Tom Gilson & Carson Weitnauer, ed, plus other CAA members, True Reason (2013)

Other good rebuttals: Tim Keller, John Lennox, Dinesh D’Souza, (personally not very excited over Alister McGrath’s two books on subject.)