Thursday, June 10, 2010

Contemplating New Atheism's Effects

The other morning I read a brief interview with Bernard Beckett, a New Zealand school teacher and young adult novelist, who shifted from being a self-described atheist to being an agnostic after chairing an event featuring Richard Dawkins. He says he was put off by the kind of true-believer mentality of the fans that crowded in to hear Dawkins speak—and he was reminded of the kind of group-think and demand for orthodoxy that had turned him off of church. Here’s how he puts it: felt more like being in church. Suddenly, there were a whole heap of people who seemed to be responding as one. To me, that reproduced some of the things I disliked about the church I was brought up in, because leaps are made from atheism to other beliefs that you are meant to have as well.

One of those beliefs which Beckett disagreed with was the view that religion is evil, a danger to the world. A bit further on in the interview, Beckett invokes (in his own way) Kant’s distinction between reality itself (the noumenal realm, in Kant’s language) and the world as it appears to us (the phenomenal world). Beckett argues that ultimate reality is unknowable—especially if our cognitive faculties are the result of evolution through random mutation and natural selection. His idea (a contemporary adaptation of Kant) is that our brains evolved for survival, not for piercing the phenomenal veil to get at the ultimate nature of reality. Hence, even if science offers us some incredibly useful models for engaging with our environment successfully, there is no good reason to suppose that these models can provide us with the ultimate truth about the nature of reality.

Given this perspective, Beckett found himself put off by the confidence of those gathered to listen to their atheist hero—the confidence that they and Dawkins were right and everyone who disagreed with them wrong. Apparently, Beckett couldn’t identify with that confidence, and so found himself gravitating towards agnosticism.

This got me wondering about the broader effects of the new atheist movement (presuming that a cluster of bestsellers coordinated with online communities and speaking engagements, along with groups of avid followers, qualifies as a movement).

Dawkins expresses his own hope about these effects in his preface to The God Delusion. “If this book works as I intend,” he says, “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” He quickly concedes that “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument,” so that he really can’t expect to convert them. But he goes on to express the hope that there are “people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take,’ or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it. Such free spirits should need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether.”

In short, Dawkins—arguably the most prominent and influential new atheist leader—sees his aim as a kind of atheist evangelism (although he probably wouldn’t care for that term). But this evangelical fervor was part of what turned Bernard Beckett off, insofar as he was hoping to escape such things when he left religion behind. And I don’t doubt there are plenty of people like Beckett—people who’ve left religion or stayed away from it because so much religion is wedded to this attitude of “we’ve got the truth, those who disagree with us are idiots or victims or villains, and we must spread the truth to all who are able to hear.” Finding this attitude reproduced in the new atheist movement is therefore enough to drive people like Beckett away.

And then, of course, there are people like me. How does new atheism affect us? I wasn’t subjected to any kind of “childhood indoctrination” into religion (my parents were both agnostic preachers’ kids who responded to religion in much the way that Beckett did)—and, if I do say so myself, had I been I a victim of such indoctrination I’d likely be among those whose “native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it” (unless, of course, religious belief isn't as opposed to reasonableness as Dawkins supposes). In my case, theistic religion is something I came to out of a vague agnostic/atheistic youth—as the result of a personal journey that started in a moment of philosophical reflection in the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees library and carried me through several years of flirtation with charismatic Christianity, close to half a year in India fascinated by the diversity of faiths represented there, and then on to an academic career in philosophy.

Of course, my story isn’t typical of religious believers. But there are others like me. And how are we affected by the new atheist movement? It annoys us—sometimes enough to motivate us to write books about it. It annoys us because it entirely ignores us—that is, it argues against religion as if people like us, and religious faith like ours, doesn’t exist. (Not all atheist critics are guilty of this, by the way--but it is pretty characteristic of the new atheist movement.) And then when we defend our faith—when we say that it does exist and that the new atheist arguments don’t account for it—we get accused of “avoiding the new atheist arguments by redefining religion as something no one believes in.” Which, predictably, makes us even more annoyed.

The religious fundamentalists, by and large, are unaffected by the new atheists in much the way that Dawkins predicted—because, as he puts it in The God Delusion, they are protected by “immunological devices” such as the “dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely the work of Satan.”

I don’t doubt that there are some who have been grating under the weight of the kind of religion that the new atheists most directly attack (poised to reject it as my mother rejected her fundamentalist upbringing) for whom a new atheist bestseller or lecture served as the catalyst. But I also suspect that most of these would have rejected religion sooner or later anyway.

All of this leads me to wonder, first, who the real target audience is for the new atheist movement; and second, what is being offered to that target audience.

So who is new atheism’s target audience? It’s not non-religious free thinkers like Beckett, who are bothered by the movement’s group-think mentality. It’s not religious free thinkers like me (I've thought about devoting a post to complaining about the tendency for atheists to reserve for themselves the "free-thinker" label). We find the new atheists to be not only willfully ignoring our brand of religion but also reproducing in atheist clothes the very same in-group/out-group mentality, the very same demands for “correct thinking” and cries of heresy, that we take to be the crud weighing down the gems we find in religious life and thought.

And it'spretty obvious that the target audience is not devoted fundamentalists, who are mostly immune to atheist arguments.

It may be that those poised to shake off religious fundamentalism like a set of chains are among new atheism’s target audience—but if so they are part of a substantially broader group which includes (for example) those who have already rejected their fundamentalist past but harbor an ongoing resentment, and those who have never been fundamentalists but have clashed with them in various ways (over the teaching of evolution in school, or over the separation of church and state, or over homosexuality, etc.).

And what is it that the new atheist movement offers this loose collection of people? Despite Dawkins’ expressed hopes, new atheism is not ultimately about atheist evangelism. The disaffected fundamentalists are most probably heading towards some species of atheism in any event, and the others in the target audience are already there. What the new atheist movement offers them, I think, is precisely what Beckett saw when he chaired a gathering of Dawkins fans—namely, a church...or the atheist equivalent of one.

The new atheism is speaking to those who have rejected organized religion but who still long for its structures, its unity, the sense of belonging and purpose it has to offer. It’s such people who are most likely to be drawn to new atheism’s evangelical mission, its in-group/out-group mentality, and its established visionary leaders. But instead of gathering together every week in a shared building, they gather together online—listening to PZ Myers’ sermons (delivering their amens! and halleluias! in posted comments) or having small group book studies at—and then occasionally attending a big tent revival when Hitchens or Harris or Dawkins comes to town.

And so I conclude that the chief effect of the new atheist movement hasn’t been to substantially increase the number of atheists in the world. Rather, it has been to help build the atheist’s version of an organized religion—somewhat less organized, but complete with its characteristic vices.

And given the evangelical fervor with which this new church on the scene attacks its rivals, I’d be surprised if one of its most telling effects hasn’t been to exacerbate the ideological polarization and entrenchment in the world. If so, we can only hope that more atheists will have a moment like the one Bernard Beckett experienced at the Richard Dawkins event he chaired: looking at the new atheists gathered all around him and thinking, “Good God, this is just like church.”


  1. Hi Eric

    I'm the New Zealand school teacher in question and just wanted to let you know how delighted I am to see my short interview provoked such a stimulating piece from you.

    I find myself increasingly frustrated by the either/or thinking around religious belief, simply because it shuts down the most interesting discussions. Discussions not about whether God exists, but rather discussions about what we mean by reality, and where our sense of meaning and obligation comes from. That, it seems to me, is the stuff we really ought to be grappling with if we wish to live a rich and challenging life.

    As I type this my four month old twin boys are asleep in their cots. One day I suppose they will be curious enough to ask me 'do you believe in God' and although I do consider myself agnostic on these matters I do hope I have a series of answers ready that are more intellectually ambitious than' no of course not, don't be silly.' Better still, I hope I have a series of interesting questions ready, that will help them embark on their own personal journeys towards meaning.

    I won't go on, bit thank you for stimulating my thinking. I shall hunt down your book.


  2. Bernard and Eric-

    There is an interesting conflation going on here... "..what we mean by reality, and where our sense of meaning and obligation comes from." .. and then " 'do you believe in God' ".

    The idea that there is any connection between these two is the issue. Atheists cite reason after reason why there is none, indicating that even the question of god is completely unnecessary. If that does not suit your agnostic six-of-one-half-dozen-of-the-other approach, we are sorry, but that is how we see it, for very good reasons.

    You may have heard of the World Cup. That seems to supply many people with meaning. So does war. So does religion. So does birding. We make meanings out of our desires and instincts. If we weren't here to make meanings, they wouldn't exist- the universe would wend on in its blind and unconscious way.

    We have parent and father fixations- fine. We have superstitions by nature and have believed in god(s) forever- fine. That doesn't mean that in this modern age, when virtually all proximate phenomena have come under rational understanding and we are pursuing the most esoteric phenomena to the ends of the cosmos, the question of god remains in any way relevant in rational terms. Whatever one makes of ultimate reality, we have no right to expect our limited means to get in touch with it.

    The lessons of science and the enlightenment in general couldn't be more clear- that 1. theology has been completely useless as a way to actually explain anything, however consonant it is with our psychological makeup, and 2. the best we can do epistemologically is to do science- to observe, to experiment, to model, to critique, thereby using a truly humble approach to the world and to knowledge itself, patiently accumulating verfied models of reality while eschewing all-in-one spiritual revelations which carry great feeling, even conviction, but little knowledge.

    Religion has traditionally been in charge of meaning-maintenance, telling us where we came from, what we are doing here, and where we are going. But every part of this formula, as conjured by every religion in history, is either demonstably false or without any evidential foundation. It is a huge confection of stories we told each other when we didn't know any better, and while we still need stories, we can now do better on every count. Philosophically, we can also do better than plugging god into every remaining gap and mystery, not to mention trotting out every pleasant experience and spiritual feeling as some sort of evidence for god. It is time to look a little harder and deeper.

    "And so I conclude that the chief effect of the new atheist movement hasn’t been to substantially increase the number of atheists in the world."

    The facts speak for themselves- the number of declared atheists has risen over the last decade, as have the other classes of non-religious. Beating the drum has been effective, mostly to normalize and humanize what has otherwise been so easily demonized (Dawkins being a problematic messenger in his vociferous mode). Should we demonize others? Of course not.

    "The most recent ARIS report, released March 9, 2009, found in 2008, 34.2 million Americans (15.0%) claim no religion. Of which, 1.6% explicitly describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, double the previous 2001 ARIS survey figure."

  3. First of all--

    Bernard, I'm delighted you found something of value in my post, and thank you for sharing your thoughts here. I hope that if and when you do track down my book, it will help in the task of forming the kinds of questions we should wrestle with in our various pursuits of meaning.


    Burk, I'm not at all convinced that Bernard conflates "what we mean by reality, and where our sense of meaning and obligation comes from" with questions about whether or not we believe in God. His point, rather, is to distinguish these questions. As I understand his comment, he's saying that grappling with these broad questions about ultimate reality and meaning--although they may give rise to questions about God--plays a more important role in determining the character of one's life than does merely taking a stand one way or the other on the existence of God.

    As to the main thread of comments that follow, they pretty much reiterate the same claims we've been debating on this blog for the last year. So instead of just repeating things, let me say that I am in the process of writing something up in which I relate the naturalism/supernaturalism distinction to Kant's phenomenal/noumenal distinction--and I think it has bearing on your contentions here (as will my promised posts on Hegel).

    Finally, Burk makes an important point about increasing numbers of DECLARED atheists in recent years. But I think this actually relates to my point about the chief effect of the new atheism. I've known people who call themselves Lutheran not because they believe in God, but because that's the community they belong to. Give then an alternative community with which they can more closely identify, and they'll declare for it. The new atheism has, in a number of ways, made it safer for atheists to "come out" as atheists. My suspicion, at least, is that the statistics you point to are more about closeted atheists becoming increasingly uncloseted than about substantial increases in the number of atheists.

    I will say that to the extent that new atheism has made it possible for atheists to be truer to themselves and their understanding of the world without fear of being left out in the cold, it has offered something that in itself has value. But I worry about the polarization and villification of alternatives that it seems to produce. This actually relates to a much broader question that vexes me: To what extent can we enjoy a sense of belonging WITHOUT creation an out-group of those who do NOT belong? And how do we move towards that end?

  4. Eric,

    One effect of the New Atheism phenomenon is to lay bare the intellectual superficiality and fallaciousness that is present in most atheists’ thinking. To be fair thought the same superficiality and fallaciousness is found in most theists’ thinking too. The polemic environment that New Atheism has engendered will therefore move people on both sides to think more critically about the issues, and thus reach a better understanding. Which, one way or the other, is a good thing.

    One very serious misunderstanding that characterizes most peoples’ thinking is that the claim “God exists” is an existential claim like any other. But theism’s claim is not that beside the existence of “X”, “Y”, and “Z”, one more element, “God”, exists. Rather theism is a thesis about what “existence” actually is, namely that all existence ultimately rests on the presence and will of a personal being. (The claim that this being is moreover perfect in all respects is a secondary one which I will here ignore). One way to perhaps explain theism’s fundamental ontology is to say that the theistic claim is not so much “God exists” but rather “existence is God structured” or perhaps more simply “existence if personal”.

    Now atheism is the negation of theism. Therefore atheism’s claim is not “only X, Y, and Z, but not God, exist”, but rather the claim “all existence does *not* rest on the presence and will of a personal being”, which implies that all existence is autonomous, purposeless, and of a mechanical nature. The latter is pretty much what naturalism claims. It seems then that one can’t really conceptualize a non-theistic non-naturalistic reality (and I have never seen a coherent non-theistic non-naturalistic reality proposed). It’s a well-known fact that virtually all New Atheists are naturalists, but my point here is that atheism and naturalism refer to the same ontological position. Atheism then is a positive ontology which makes some extraordinary claims about reality (e.g. that electrons, which are physical primitives with no access to some computing machinery, can nevertheless behave in ways that are highly computationally complex). To rationally believe in such an ontology one must defend it with evidence or good arguments. And no matter how much I search I can’t find any such evidence or good arguments for naturalism, least of all in science, which concords very well with theism but which produces a lot of stresses for naturalism. Sooner or later I think people will note that atheism is not dressed with the splendid cloths of reason (and let alone of science); and New Atheism will help people on both sides realize this sooner than later.

    Which brings me to your previous post “A More Reasonable Naturalism”. I think that in his post “An Atheist’s Guide to What You Need to Know about Theology” John Shook makes several simplistic claims, but what most bothered me were his recommendations. In short he is telling people that they don't really need to study the issues, not even what atheists have to say, but if they felt like studying they should read Richard Dawkins. Why not instead recommend to atheists J. L. Mackie’s “The Miracle of Theism”? And if the latter book is deemed to be too challenging, why not recommend, say, Julian Baggini’s “Atheism: A Very Short Introduction”? Infamously, Richard Dawkins advices atheists not to read serious books on theology, but here we have an academic philosopher advising atheists not to read serious books by knowledgeable atheists either. Isn’t this a little strange? I think that what’s happening is that, perhaps unconsciously, atheists are realizing that it’s their emperor who is naked and are therefore starting to advice people not to look too closely.

  5. The facts speak for themselves

    correlation = causation?

  6. Hi, Dianelos-

    I would be quite interested in how you deduce a personal god from the electron.

  7. This exchange has inspired me to attempt to formalize Dianelos's argument as a deductively valid argument from the electron to a personal God--and then try to identify which premises are likely to be most controversial. But that's too big for a comment, so I'll make it my next post, which will probably come up tomorrow. Stay tuned!

  8. Burk,

    You write: “ I would be quite interested in how you deduce a personal god from the electron.

    What modern science has discovered produces a lot of conceptual problems for atheism and none for theism, which by itself increases the epistemic probability of theism vis-a-vis atheism.

    The basic idea is that according to theism all that exists is ultimately dependent on the presence and will of a personal being. Atheism denies this, and therefore claims that all that exists is ultimately independent of the presence and will of some intelligence. Now many atheists are under the impression that theirs is the default position, and I was pointing out that on the contrary atheism is based on many really extraordinary assumptions, assumptions which are far from given or obvious, and which are prima-facie extremely implausible. One example I gave is that of the electron, which according to atheism has capabilities that are nothing short of magical. Incidentally it’s not only that an atheist must assume that the electron is capable of behaving in a computationally highly complex manner without having access to any computational machinery. There are several more weird assumptions that the atheist must make, see for example the issue of “quantum non-locality”. Incidentally, none of these issues produce any stresses for theism, according to which all that science discovers (including of course the electrons and their behavior) are based on the design and continuous application of the will of God. Indeed, as the great physicist Sir James Jeans wrote, "The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine."

    Now you may ask: If science has produced so many stresses for atheism then how come there is so little discussion about this issue? I think the answer is that most scientists know little about philosophy, and most philosophers know little about science. (I dare say that, moreover, most scientists know little about fundamental physics, but no matter.) This problem has worsened of late, because today to be a scientist leaves little time to study anything else beyond one’s own narrow field of specialization.

  9. Hi, Dianelos-

    I'll take that as basically non-responsive. Claiming that the electron behaves "magically" is not an argument. Nor are unexplained facts arguments for any position, whether material or immaterial. Only phenomena and facts which are understood should be called in as evidence for an argument of this kind. Imagine if police called to testify at a trial told the court that they hadn't a clue about the contents of a hard-drive picked up at a murder scene, but that those contents were evidence against the defendent.

    It is funny that physicists and mathematicians might view the universe as run by a physicist or mathematician. Apparently narcicism is not the sole province of theology and other pop-psychologies.

    The fact is that we are forced to model the universe using mathematics. Balls falling in gravitational fields don't need mathematics or access to computational machinery, and nor do electrons for their activities, magical or otherwise. They just do what comes naturally, out of the nature of the universe and its fields/properties. They are computational machinery ... which we incidentally use to compute problems of interest to us, though that is another matter. No phenomenon that we understand derives from any intelligent being, other than life here on Earth.

    There are indeed many assumptions that physicists have to make, like constants and other observed facts. Especially the fine structure constant. Everyone is sure these things point to something fundamental about the universe. But no one knows what that is, and to run roughshod over these many other workers, and claim that you have the answer and it is god, is a little presumptuous.

    You might say that a god that pervades existence and even is existence is not something that can be detected as we would detect other phenomena. Thus it would have to be inferred by the most round-about ways, and coming up against brick walls in our explanations and models of the universe might be just such an indication.

    But again, this sells humanity short. We have been mystified before- by electricity, by biology, by disease. Our means are certainly small compared with the vastness of what we face. Some may see little difference whether we imagine the fine structure constant as a facet of god, or just an as yet inexplicable fact. But I'd argue that there are two crucial differences.

    First, physics itself must not assume that it has answers that it does not in fact have. Calling whatever mysteries remain god cuts short the investigative process, or else redirects it in unhelpful ways as some kind of quest to understand god, when what we are really seeking to understand is the fine structure constant. God has no known properties that would advance the quest, either. It has relentelessly been though history whatever we want it to be, as a psychological totem, as it is for Eric today. The lack of "stress" you feel on condsidering the god hypothesis is a direct function of its emptiness- it explains everything while explaining nothing. We have been through all that in the Enlightenment, and it took quite some time to put science on the productive basis it has today, purifying out all the chaff of theology.

    Second, such a formulation promotes exactly the personal god concept for which there is not a shred of evidence, yet which is obviously the point of theist's attempts to inject this formulation back into science. They have struggled mightily to inject god into biology, an effort which seems to have run out of steam, while being a monumental waste of everyone's time, pro and con. In physics, there is more mystery to apply the god concept to, but what's the point? It can't explain anything or advance the physics, which proceeds through the matryoshka layers of mechanism down to higher and higher energies. The deeper we go, the less personal things get, and the more mathematical and mechanistic. Awesome, yes. Personal and god-like, no.

  10. the new atheists have created the "anti-ecclesia"

  11. I certainly can't engage anyone on an intellectual level here, but I can tell you that if man had only his intellect upon which to rely, which is what atheism says we must do, we need only look around the world today to see where that leads us. We live in a time of material atheism, where regardless of the New Atheism movement, people chose the things over people, and over relationship to self and to God. We have our heads at the top of our bodies because intellect is indeed a good thing. But divorced from our hearts, intellect is useless, and utter foolishness (akin to an emperor with no clothes), marching about bomabastically pontificating.

    What must guide our hearts is not just intellect, but also love for self, others and the common good. Intellect does not lead us there. That is why people believe in a higher being/deity, that assists us to focus on the needs of others. Militant atheists and anti-theists, and I have one in my family, don't think a lot about doing good for others. They are as guilty of fundamentalism as the christian right, because their need is a need to be "right", versus seek ways to love others.

    Go on, and argue, and be "right" with your fancy intellect. But I will always choose what guides my heart as well as my head, to find the path that leads to love.

  12. Hi Lili,

    I agree with you that what is central in our life is our relationship with God and our living oriented towards God. But philosophy is an intellectual enterprise, and I think that what theistic philosophers try to do is to show that even though the intellect is not the best path towards God, it does lead to God when one carefully thinks about the whole of one’s experience of life and about what we have found out about reality. Conversely they try to show where those atheists who believe that the intellect leads away from God are wrong.

    Don’t you think that’s a good project? After all it’s God who has given us our mind, and surely God would not have given us a mind that would lead us away from God when we use it properly.

    This bit you wrote made me think: “We live in a time of material atheism, where regardless of the New Atheism movement, people chose the things over people,

    What most saddens me is that we also live in a time of material *theism*. Most theists, while believing in God, live their lives as if God did not exist. Sometimes I think that atheists are at least more consistent.

  13. I'm very late to this discussion, but I want to tell you how glad I am to have come across your post on this topic. I haven't been able to put it into words the way you have, but I've also noticed several of these things about New Atheism. I consider myself a "Christ Follower" with ultra-liberal theological leanings-- (certainly a "universalist" in probably every imaginable way and maybe more agnostic than I'm willing to admit), but over the years I've found great friendship with several atheists. However, what I've found among some of them is a stark commitment to what I've termed their "belief in unbelief." I've also noticed that many of those who wish to become agnostic or even Buddhists (which is non-theistic, but still a "religion" and therefore "evil" in some circles) are often ridiculed by other atheists.

    I've thought about this a lot, and the only thing I've ever been able to gather from what I've seen is that groupthink exists in both camps: among the religious and in traces among non-religious people.

    I don't know why this is... Maybe is sociological... Maybe as humans, there's something inside us that causes us to expect devotion from others to a cause-- whether that be a company's mission, a religion, or whatever.

    Once again, I really am glad to see how well you've tackled this topic. You certainly presented some food for thought. :)

  14. I think this is the most fascinating blog I've every encountered. The comments are always so meaty and dense with thought provoking ideas and debate as well.