The “New” Atheists and what is supposedly so “wrong” with them…..

329_patience-with-god1What is so “wrong” with them? I’ve read a number of critiques, rants, diatribes and screes, mostly from the religious or spiritual, often from the fundamentalist who are their primary focus. Here is what is wrong with them.

They aren’t as formidable as the “Old” Atheists

You wouldn’t think this would be a basis for criticism. One might actually rejoice that their opponents were not a formidable as they used to be. They aren’t like Hume, Russel, and Spinoza. I’ve also seen Nietzsche mentioned. Those were the days when men were men and atheists were intellectual powerhouses, deep thinkers, quietly influential, if anyone read what they wrote at all at the time. The new atheist are brash Johnny-come-late-lys” without the intellectual acumen or the moderation of their predecessors.

It’s ridiculous to discount the criticisms of the New Atheist by saying Dennett is not a Russell or Nietzsche, Dawkins is no Darwin and Sam Harris is no Spinoza. I mean, who is? Perhaps they are not as original thinkers as these others. Perhaps their intellectual prowess is not up to these giants. They would probably agree. That does not mean their popularization of arguments against theism are to be discounted.

They are just as fundamentalist as the religious fundamentalists

Apparently it is not okay for atheists to be definite about what they think. All levels of certainty are equated to fundamentalism. Humble uncertainty in the face of the vast and unknowable universe especially where the “Big Questions” are concerned is more the fashion. Of course, the “Old” atheist were pretty definite. Just read Russell. Peruse Twain, dip into Nietzsche. Read some of the more common speeches and writings of Robert Ingersoll. None of these men were shy about what they thought. None of them failed to advocate for the truth of what they said and wrote.

This seems to be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Just because the certainty espoused by the religious is noxious, doesn’t mean all certainty is equally to be avoided especially certainty about what is wrong. I can be open to the actual age of the universe while being certain it was not created in six days. If you read the New Atheist carefully you’ll see this sort of agnosticism.

They are just as evangelical as the fundamentalist evangelicals

It’s also not okay to actively seek to communicate what you think especially to the populace in general. While the “old” atheists wrote books, those books were not broadly consumed and are only being more recently appreciated. They didn’t have a very wide circulation and their target audience was not necessarily the “man in the street”, so to speak. The New Atheist are active, outspoken proponents of what they thing and active critics of fundamentalist religion. Of course fundamentalist religion as been doing this as a matter of creed for centuries.

In the realm of ideas communication is the key. Ideas that are not communicated die and have no impact. It’s not the evangelicalism of fundamentalism that is the problem. It is the content of what they are communicating. To borrow a phrase from Sam Harris, “it is the mother load of bad ideas”. What else is one to do when face with bad ideas but to counter them with good ideas; at least what you consider as good ideas.

Actually Schaeffer, while being critical, nonetheless hit the nail on the head.

“Most New Atheists are no more anti-religious than the atheists such as Russell who denounced faith as “regretful hankering after the past,”–they’re just louder. And for all their in-your-face “attitude,” the New Atheists are positively polite compared to the religious fundamentalists. Incidentally, if some of the earlier atheists (what I guess we should call the Old, Old Atheists), such as Baruch Spinoza and David Hume, were more polite than today’s New Atheists they had good reason to be: fear of bigoted religious believers ready to kill people who challenged their ideas.” – “Patience with God” Frank Schaeffer

Nonetheless Schaeffer goes on to criticize them in the ways I’ve outlined. He also echos the tired and clearly wrong headed criticism that atheism has been the cause of more killing and torture than religion in all it’s varieties naming Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Castro and “scientists”. If what he means is that fundamentalism of all sorts, dogmatism of all varieties can also motivate bloodshed. He is absolutely right. If he is laying this bloodshed specifically at the door of atheism or even secularism or humanism, he is, once again, very wrong headed.

Was Hitler and atheist? No, he was not.

“Besides that, I believe one thing: there is a Lord God! And this Lord God creates the peoples.”  [1]    ~Adolf Hitler

 “We were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations; we have stamped it out” [2]   ~Adolf Hitler

Was Castro an atheist?

“According to Washington Post, former President of Cuba Fidel Castro‘s letters from prison suggest that he “was a man of unusual spiritual depth – and a fervent believer in God.”

Stalin was the only confirmed Atheist. Pol Pot was probably Buddhist. The issue is whether it was their religious views or lack thereof that motivated the bloodshed. In none of these cases was atheism in particular the motivation for their reigns of terror. Dogmatism of one sort of another was certainly behind all of these heinous regimes. Rational atheism and humanism was not.

Where Hitler and Castro, “true Christians”? Did they act in a way consistent with the supposed “love” of God fundamentalist Christians are so fond of espousing (a love that will send you to hell, BTW)? This is a species of the “True Scotsman” fallacy where every negative characteristic of which one is accused is laid at the door of “not being a true whatever”.  The defense of atheism is different. Those like Hitler and Castro did not even espouse atheism. Those like Stalin and Pol Pot didn’t declare atheism to be the motivation behind what they did. They did not claim they were advancing the cause of atheism or non-theism by doing what they did. Perhaps they saw religion or theism as an obstacle to their goals, and so were anti-theist, but atheism and reason were not the stated driving force behind their reigns of terror.

It’s all such a mystery…….

329_patience-with-god1Those who defend religion are fond of “mystery”. Once they have abandoned the plebeian confines of fundamentalist literalism and the slavish enthrallment to “the book”, the core of the religious enterprise becomes mystery. It becomes the raison d’etra of the entire religious enterprise and represents the best, the deepest, the most genuine religious sentiment. In fact, it becomes what compels them to be religious in spite of themselves, in spite of their reason, and in spite of the “knowing better”. They are flummoxed by mystery and they lie bewildered and speechless in the face of it and moved to devotion.

Science on the other hand is the supreme buzz kill it seems. When intoxicated and high on mystery, science comes along and tries to explain everything. Wonder is not enough. Awe is insufficient. Being humbly, staggeringly stunned at the immensity and complexity of the universe is apparently inadequate to escape the charge of hubris leveled at those who reject “mystery” as the foundation of the universe and as the unassailable and purist motive for the religious sentiment they eschew.

In this sense Mystery does not represent the unknown, science certainly bows to what is unknown. Mystery is about the “unknowable”. It reserves some aspects of reality to a special class of the real which cannot ever be known. It isn’t just that it can’t be known by reason and empirical investigation and evidential proof. It cannot be known at all! It is beyond the pale of words, or concepts of thoughts and even perhaps intuition. It can only be hinted at, fleetingly glimpsed on the periphery of ones consciousness and felt rather than known or even conceived. As a result, it cannot be in the proper magisterium of science or what we normally know and how we know it.

This is the Wizard of Oz Syndrome. People want there to be a Wizard! When Toto sniffs out the Wizard and Dorothy draws back the curtain, everyone goes “awwwwww, that’s disappointing, we thought it was REAL magic”. The “Wizard”, gives the Scarecrow a diploma, the Lion a medal and the Tin Man a heart shaped watch and says, “you know, you had it in you all the time, you didn’t need a Wizard or magic”. Dorothy could have gone home at any time, all she needed was to want to, “There’s no place like home”, rather than running away. What you need for transformation is in yourself or in you in relation to others. In fact, they had already changed as the result of their journey together. Then again, that’s humanism and not the new theism.

We still want the mystery. So, anything that isn’t explained or currently explainable becomes, “mystery”, unknown and unknowable….until it is, known that is. The current candidate is “consciousness”. Because the relationship between the physical and the mental and how the latter arises from the former is the “hard” problem, it has become the intractable problem, the unsolvable problem, the ultimate mystery and the ground of all honest religion. The presence or rather the sense of “what is is like to be me” to experience Beauty, Truth and Goodness, to have the sense of all those ineffable feelings, means that must be a God. Frank Schaeffer in his book “Patience with God”, calls it “Hopeful Uncertainty”. Not knowing and essentially refusing to consider it knowable, is the new Faith.

Distilling this mystery, even in imagination, to something that could be known and explained is like drawing back the curtain. Faith becomes the virtue of humbling accepting that I just cannot know and will not know and must bow before Uncertainty. He accuses the “New Atheists” of being just as fundamentalist as the Christian Fundamentalist from whom he has fled. However, fleeing from that malformed and crippled religion he cannot simply accept naturalism in spite of what his reason tells him and falls back into a sort of faith, which he assure himself is virtuous, desirable, and appropriately humble, in bowing to “not knowing” and worshiping the “unknowable” and “ineffable”.

As seemingly profound and sophisticated as it seems, it’s really little different from fundamentalism. Yes, it does back down from the absolute certainty of dogmatism, but it still proffers another source of knowledge, one that is essentially subjective and personal and thus untouchable and non-falsifiable. It is a knowledge which is called “not knowledge”, which is placed outside the realm of reason and conception and can thus be delightfully and comfortingly vague, unchallengable and unexplained. It brooks no pesky and troubling questions. Any objections are dismissed with a wave of the hand and a pious nod to it’s deep and profound unknowable-ness; the true God that cannot be named or understood but only vaguely pointed at. In it’s vagueness, ironically, it is offered as a certainty, just not a clear, concise and precise certainly. Just meditate as long as I have, and you’ll know! Just relax you demand for answers and you too will know what I know.

The result is that you can make statements or pronouncements about some of the most significant questions human being have ruminated over for centuries, probably millennium, assert they are true yet, frame them in the vaguest of terms with no attempt to mount an even plausible argument or the merest whiff of evidence. When challenged they can fall back on assertions that they are not interested in proselytizing or convincing anyone, that if you only follow a similar line of thought, perform the same practice or adopt the most appropriate mindset, you too will see the truth. You can assert the truth without asserting, state it without stating it or explaining it and believe it in spite of just about all reason to the contrary. You can, in short, continue to believe in The Wizard and his magic and hope for your brains or heart or courage or home even though it is all on you. You can believe the world is warm and snugly place when it clearly is not. You can hope someone is looking out for you when the universe really doesn’t care and will kill you at a moments notice. You can adopt a fantasy or choose to struggle to live with things as they are.

It’s all still just smoke and mirrors.