National Review, founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley, Jr., was a widely read magazine—probably the most important such organ for American conservatives. It has an online version, and I really should be reading it (all of us should read at least one site or magazine that opposes our own philosophy); it came to my attention only when it took out after me for my views on infant euthanasia.
Now, in a section called “The Corner”, which Wikipedia characterizes as representing “a select group of the site’s editors and affiliated writers”, there’s an interesting atheist-bashing piece,”What ever happened to the New Atheists?“, that makes three points, two of them half right and one dead wrong. Total evaluation: 1/3, or 33%, correct. Here are their points (in bold) and below them my responses; the article’s quotes are indented in my discussion:
1.) New Atheism is dead since it’s been rejected by both ends of the political spectrum.
2.) New Atheists are rejected by the Left because they criticize Islam, something that offends Leftist sentiments that favor the underdog and people of color.
3.) New Atheists are rejected by the Right because their arguments against God are silly and superficial.
Let’s take these one by one:
1.) There really isn’t a New Atheist movement; what we have are some people, like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and so on, who have gained renown (or, in the eyes of many, infamy). What distinguishes New Atheists from Old Atheists is said to be that the former are anti-theistic: they explicitly criticize religion instead of keeping their nonbelief to themselves, and they give public talks and write bestselling books.
But the claim that anti-theism is dead is simply wrong; there are many people who criticize religion, and there’s plenty of evidence they’ve been effective rather than moribund. First, look at the testimony on Dawkins’s “Converts Corner“, which has 159 pages of individuals’ testimony on how Richard Dawkins not only helped people to accept evolution, but also to abandon their faith. These are more than just anecdotes: they’re data destroying the claim that Dawkins’s supposed “stridency” has actually prevented people from becoming nonbelievers. In contrast, there is not a jot or tittle of evidence for the claim that the New Atheists have, by their stridency, actually prevented “deconversion”, or hardened people in their rejection of evolution; there is no “Anti-converts Corner.”
And, as we know, America is becoming more secular over time; the religious believers who run the National Review are in the ever-waning minority. We can debate how much of this is due to the inevitable loss of faith in a progressing Western society (see Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”), but I’m pretty sure that bestelling books like Dawkins’s “The God Delusion”, “The End of Faith” and “God is Not Great” helped this along, for many people cite these works as pivotal in destroying their religious belief.
But anti-theism is not new: many “Old Atheists”, like Robert Ingersoll, H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain, Bertrand Russell, and even Carl Sagan, were antitheistic.
At any rate, I don’t see “New Atheism” as a real movement. Yes, there are atheist meetings, but most of the organizations that actually accomplish things beyond mutually reinforcing nonbelief are secular and humanist organizations, and aren’t strongly anti-theistic. If “New Atheism” consists simply of its major exponents like Dawkins, Harris, and the late Chrisopher Hitchens, then it’s not a movement, but a collection of a few individuals. If they vanished, anti-theism would remain. There are plenty of non-famous antitheists, for I’ve met them. These people, because they don’t have a public forum, are not demonized by the Left and have not been rejected by the Left. When people say that “New Atheism is dead”, they simply mean that its major figures have been vilified. That does not mean they’ve been ineffective, because they still pack meetings and talks, and their books remain best sellers. They are far more effective than the “non-strident” atheists who spend their time accusing New Atheists of white supremacy, racism, and misogyny (false accusations, by the way).
Now it is true that the major New Atheists have been demonized, with the possible exception of Dan Dennett: National Review says “The only actual philosopher of the bunch, [Dennett] is far too boring and ponderous to be noticed, let alone denounced, by anyone”. But that slur on Dennett is false. He’s neither boring nor unpopular!
It was inevitable that there would be criticisms of the New Atheists, for much of the “Silent Left” has a sneaking sympathy with religion, if for no reason other than faith is conceived as keeping the “little people” satisfied. Society, these people say, would fall apart without faith. (That’s false, too: viz., Scandinavia.)
I also feel that beyond this residual respect for religion, the accusations of stridency—along with the deliberate distortion of the words of people like Harris—are helped along by simple jealousy. Much of the criticism of New Atheists comes from those people who have not been successful in gaining the public ear (I won’t name them); and I think they’re simply envious.
2.) National Review is partly right when claiming that the Left has demonized New Atheists because they criticize Islam and see that faith as the most dangerous of going religions. As National Review argues:
Confirmation bias deserves at least a part of the blame. The New Atheists have long harbored an irrational fear of Christianity, but Christophobia doesn’t worry the Left. Combatting Islamophobia, however, is a progressive priority, and so it is noticed and addressed when it strikes.
However, the argument that the liberal obsession with Islamophobia stems from a healthy regard for the status of minorities only goes so far. As Michael Walzer, the socialist intellectual, has written in Dissent, “I frequently come across leftists who are more concerned with avoiding accusations of Islamophobia than they are with condemning Islamist zealotry.” There is a reason, after all, why many Democrats stubbornly and proudly refuse to say the words “Islamic terrorism,” preferring to speak of generalized “extremism.”
. . . New Atheism pleased the Left as long as it stuck to criticizing “God,” who was associated with the beliefs of President George W. Bush and his supporters. It was thus fun, rather than offensive, for Bill Maher to call “religion” ridiculous, because he was assumed to be talking about Christianity. Christopher Hitchens could call God a “dictator” and Heaven a “celestial North Korea,” and the Left would laugh. Berkeley students would not think to disinvite Richard Dawkins when he was saying “Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion.”
Where the piece goes wrong is equating the Left as a whole with the Regressive Left. The latter folks do criticize people like Dawkins and Harris, but remain atheists. Yet there are plenty of Leftists who don’t criticize “New Atheism”, and it’s a flaw in the article that it doesn’t make the distinction between the Progressive and the Regressive Left. Also, while much of the vilification of New Atheist “leaders” comes from misguided Regressives who feel they’re virtuously protecting Muslims of color by attacking criticism of Islam, a lot of the public criticism is based on jealousy (indeed, Michael Ruse had admitted that he’s jealous, and that his books don’t sell as well as Dawkins’s.) Accusations of bigotry are confected to support the critics, leading to claims, always given without data, that women and ethnic minorities used to be fine with New Atheism but have left the “movement” in droves.
The unholy confluence between the progressive Left and the Right in criticizing Islam is real, but stems from different motives. The right doesn’t like Islam because it’s not Christianity, and because Muslims are said to endanger the American way of life. The Left doesn’t like Islam because it is both regressive and theocratic, and, for many adherents, promotes values inimical to social equality. (There is some agreement by both sides on the dangers that Islam poses to democracy.)
But this claim about why New Atheists are rejected by the Left is largely true, so long as we’re talking about the Regressive Left.
3.) The arguments of New Atheists against god and religion are neither superficial nor wrong; they’re based largely on a lack of evidence for the tenets of religious belief. The way National Review defends religion (they are, after all, conservative) is both interesting and familiar. They claim that New Atheists ignore Sophisticated Theology; that we don’t need evidence for God because it’s self evident; and that there is evidence for God in the “first cause argument”. I quote at length:
Truth be told, New Atheism was always fundamentally unserious. It does not even try to address the theistic arguments for the existence of God. Indeed, philosopher A.C. Grayling insists that atheists should not even bother with theology because they “reject the premise.” Our new “rationalists,” it turns out, will not even evaluate arguments that do not conform to their prejudices. Battering a fundamentalist straw-man with an equally fundamentalist materialism, New Atheism is one big category error. Over and over, its progenitors demand material proof for the existence of God, as if He were just another type of thing — a teacup, or perhaps an especially powerful computer. This confusion leads the New Atheists to favor the rather elementary infinite-regress argument: If God created everything, then who created God? But as the theologian David Bentley Hart replies:
“[God is] not a ‘supreme being,’ not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates. . . . Only a complete failure to grasp the most basic philosophical terms of the conversation could prompt this strange inversion of logic, by which the argument from infinite regress—traditionally and correctly regarded as the most powerful objection to pure materialism—is now treated as an irrefutable argument against belief in God.”
This is just an attempt to immunize religious belief against disproof by redefining god as “the infinite act of being”, but also to say that there simply has to be “a transcendent source of all existence and knowledge” because of the First Cause Argument. Well, we already know the fallacies of the Infinite Regress (one being “Where did God come from?”), and the rest is the kind of gaseous piffle that Hart is prone to emit. And of course “New Atheists” do attack the theistic arguments for God’s existence; see “The God Delusion” or my own book, “Faith Versus Fact.”
The article continues:
The rest of the New Atheists’ arguments can be handled even more quickly. Dawkins sees God as a complex superbeing subject to natural evolution and then deems him to be statistically improbable. He may be right, but why he thinks he has in the process critiqued anything resembling “religion” is beyond me. Dennett, who endeavors mainly to show that religion is a natural phenomenon, seems to confuse his validation of a religious claim with its refutation. Hitchens offers no real argument and plenty of historical inaccuracies. He is generally content to list the bad deeds of believers, explain away or ignore the good deeds of other believers, and then pretend that he has somehow disproven Christianity. Harris, to quote David Bentley Hart once more, “declares all dogma pernicious, except his own thoroughly dogmatic attachment to nondualistic contemplative mysticism, of a sort which he mistakenly imagines he has discovered in one school of Tibetan Buddhism, and which (naturally) he characterizes as purely rational and scientific.”
This itself is a superficial and misleading analysis. If there’s one thing that really distinguishes New Atheism from Old Atheism, it’s the influence of science on the former. New Atheists say, “Where’s the evidence that your religious beliefs are true, as opposed to the beliefs of other faiths?”
It is a perfectly valid critique of religion to ask “What’s the evidence for your truth claims?”, for at bottom all religions—save perhaps the numinous species espoused by people like Hart—are based on claims about reality. If those claims are wrong—if Jesus wasn’t crucified and resurrected, if an angel didn’t dictate the Qur’an to Muhammad, if Joseph Smith didn’t really find those golden plates—then religion is based in lies and fairy tales. And where’s the convincing evidence for a divine being, one that takes a benevolent interest in our species?
That is a perfectly valid line of criticism, and one that National Review ignores. If religious truth claims are false, then religions are false, even though they usually come with a moral code that may be partly salubrious. Yet you can have an even better moral code without gods, and atheists—New and Old alike—do.
If New Atheism is really dead, why does it refuse to lie down? Religion will eventually go away, with a few pockets of resistance, and we see this happening before our eyes in poll after poll. People like David Bentley Hart and the editors of National Review may remain, bawling their faith in the wilderness, but the rest of us will find our solace in rationality rather than fairy tales.