New Atheism (1): Sound and fury, signifying nothing

Over the next several posts I’m going to outline some of my thoughts about the relative strengths and weaknesses of New Atheism, and things I think people should keep in mind as they think about addressing its claims and its criticisms of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This series is aimed primarily at Christians who have some sort of public evangelistic or teaching role. It’s not a ‘how to’ guide on dealing with specific New Atheist positions—there’s a lot of great material around that does that, and it would be highly unlikely I could offer anything that hasn’t already been done much better by someone else. As a consequence I don’t really address any of New Atheism’s truth claims; I focus more on the reasons why I think it has the influence it does, reasons that are generally irrespective of its truthfulness or falsehood.

In no sense is this series about whether New Atheism is true or not. Obviously I think it is basically wrong on almost everything it has to say. But the series isn’t trying to establish that or discuss it. Its interest is more narrow—in getting Christians to think about how New Atheism’s dynamics and distinctive features should shape our response to it.

This is a series of reflections—first on why I think New Atheism is much less of an issue than I think it might sometimes appear, then on the dynamics at work in its influence on different groups outside and inside the church, with some thoughts that might guide how we address that. It finishes by seeking to show that there are other forms of atheism around that don’t have the endemic weaknesses of New Atheism, with some suggestions as to how that might also inform our responses to New Atheism. The idea is to stimulate some thought about New Atheism as a phenomenon and its rhetorical (or polemical or communication) strengths and limitations, and to then harness that for some things to keep in mind when addressing New Atheism in public ministries.

I think the New Atheists are overrated. I find myself underwhelmed at their bus campaigns, their books, the way that journalists throw softball questions in response to their every problematic pronouncement, and their whole position. I have been scratching my head for years trying to work out where all the interest in them comes from, let alone why they are treated as some kind of serious attack on religion in general, let alone the Christian faith in particular.

Recently I discovered that I am not alone. Nathan Campbell on his blog discussed a particularly strong gaffe moment for Richard Dawkins, where Dawkins argued for deliberate discrimination against scientists with religious beliefs, and got taken to task by the commentators who would otherwise be thought to be natural allies. Before that Scott Stephens riffed on the ABC website on a theme covered several times in places like the First Things website—the lack of philosophical awareness and moral seriousness among the celebrity New Atheists. Overall, the movement looks more like a fad than a sober cultural movement.

I’d like to add my couple of cents as to why I think ‘New Atheism’ will get old fairly quickly from here, as its current crop of celebrity names fade from public view. I’ve got two closely-related basic reasons, and a third that supplements them.

Both the main reasons are captured by an incident related by a friend of mine here at Oxford University. The resident atheist, secularist, and humanist societies host an annual ‘Think Week’ to promote their point of view.

A few years ago one speaker lectured on the question, “Can the natural sciences answer all questions?” To my surprise, it turns out his answer was: “Yes. The natural sciences can answer all real questions.” He apparently argued strongly that asking questions like “what is the meaning of life?” or “what is good and evil?” or even “what does it mean to be a human” are not real questions. Real questions involved the chemical composition and molecular make-up of bits of the human body, questions about the rate of fusion in stars and the like. Only questions that can be answered by scientifically analysing nature are real. All other questions are merely errors in thinking.

I was surprised that student societies trying to get people to consider their point of view seriously in a context where many people studied not just theology but philosophy, history, literature, the social sciences and the like would put someone with such a view up as a speaker. However, not only was he the speaker that year, he was apparently one of the speakers again the following year. The fact he was asked back says volumes to me about how short-lived this current expression of atheism will be.

There’s two problems here, and it seems to me that they are endemic whenever New Atheism raises its head.

First, this isn’t primarily an assault upon God. It’s primarily an assault on everything other than the natural sciences. Yes, obviously he is attacking the validity of theology as a discipline and whether there is a God to be known. But he’s also throwing philosophy under the bus as well. Not just philosophy—history, questions of what happened in the past are not ‘real’ questions either. Literature—the study of great written works, is also out. But it goes further—psychology, education, sociology, anthropology, the ‘social sciences’ also ask fake questions—because they are also interested in questions that can’t be answered by the natural sciences. It is a rejection of the validity of any discipline other than natural science. Only natural scientists ask real questions. Everyone else is wasting their time.

This is a kind of radical empiricism that would warm David Hume’s heart. But its appeal is only ever going to be to a very small group of people—natural scientists, and people who wish they were natural scientists. The vast majority of the human race have to deal with questions that cannot be answered by the natural sciences, and value those disciplines that help them to come to grips with them. This extraordinary shrinking of what human beings are allowed to ask questions about just doesn’t ring true for most people. Life is more than the lab.

This leads to the second issue. It’s a terribly dehumanizing viewpoint—somewhat ironic given that atheists tend to join forces with humanists. Removing the validity of all questions of our human experience results in saying that pretty well all the things that makes human beings distinctive are lacking any substance. “To be or not to be”—not a real question. “What does it mean to be human?”—not a real question. “What is the meaning of life?”—not a real question. “What is the good life?”—not a real question. “How should we respond to the threat of terrorism?”—not a real question. “Should we encourage societies to be based on human rights?”—not a real question. Almost every question that normal people ask in daily life and in affairs of state are, on this view, not real. Only the natural sciences have the answers, and only questions they can answer are ‘real’.

And this kind of idea gets repeated so often by New Atheists in different forms that it is hard to miss. You only have to read for a little while in most threads online where atheists are beating their chest to find something like, “Don’t be stupid, ‘meaning’ is not a term that applies to human life”. Or “Good and evil are just constructs to validate behaviour that helped us survive and evolve”. The problem is not just the viewpoint. It is the contemptuous way it is put forward. The complete dismissal of the sense people have that life should be meaningful, that right and wrong are not arbitrary creations we make for ourselves.

And it is not just the comment-thread debaters who stomp on people’s humanity. The celebrities take the lead. Steven Hawking recently is reported (in The Guardian) to have said that the human brain is nothing more than an organic computer and:

There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

The point here is not that Hawking doesn’t believe in heaven. Bully for him. It is that he compares a human being facing their own death to fearing turning off a night light. It is breathtakingly inhumane. I turned off a light and wasn’t scared of that. So I shouldn’t be scared when I get turned off. There’s no difference between the dark and the death of a human being. Why fear either? There is nothing to be afraid of—your fear of your own death just shows you are so much less rational/intelligent/brave (take your pick) than us New Atheists who are not scared of the dark.

And if you reflect on that you’ll realize that if I shouldn’t be afraid of my death, then I shouldn’t grieve your death either. Did your husband or wife die? Did a child die? Well, would you be sad because a light was turned off? It’s no big deal. Stop being scared of the dark. Throw the broken computer away. Death is just the end of some biochemical processes, the turning off of a light, the breaking of just one of many computers, any of which can reduplicate the work of the one that has ceased functioning. (Reflect on this for a bit and one can see why New Atheists seem to, on the whole, support euthanasia.)

Bluntly, this worldview can only be really accepted by a very small group of people. Yes, they’ll be very, very convinced of it—they’ll have to be, in order to hold something that so cuts against the grain of their own humanity. But most people will never become New Atheists. Most people will never come to the view that being afraid of dying is like being afraid of the dark. And most people will never come to the view that the natural sciences ask the only real questions. People simply cannot live anything like a rich and full human life on the basis of what New Atheism offers. Human existence is more than what the natural sciences can investigate. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being afraid of death.

The third reason is more simply stated. Most New Atheists (with some notable exceptions) in their books or in their comments on threads online come across as world class jerks—smug, contemptuous of views they disagree with and those who hold such views, making points tangential to the discussion and the like. They give every impression of preaching to the choir—of writing and speaking primarily to win the approval of fellow New Atheists. All of that behaviour may be justified. Those of us who have religious faith might indeed all be so stupid and ignorant that contempt is the only valid response. New Atheists might well be so staggeringly smart that a degree of self-consciousness about their cleverness is warranted. Nonetheless, it’s not really attractive to anyone other than another New Atheist ‘true believer’. People don’t like jerks and don’t particularly want to become one. Even jerks don’t like other jerks, by and large. While there are exceptions, most movements will fail to win mainstream support if they can’t pony up and offer the public some attractive, winsome characters—people who model some kind of way of living and treating others that might lead someone to think “I wouldn’t mind being a bit more like that guy in years to come”. And, except for scientific prowess, New Atheism struggles to offer much among its celebrity leaders, or among its rank and file foot soldiers on the web, that fill the bill of exemplifying good character and personal qualities—of being the kind of people other people would aspire to be. That doesn’t prove New Atheism wrong. It does make it unlikely that it will ever really take off as the world view of choice for most people. In today’s age, people rarely accept messages from messengers who are unattractive in their relational qualities.

The thing to realize about New Atheism is that its atheism is not its important feature—there are other forms of atheism out there. Its radical commitment to the idea that only the natural sciences ask real questions is its important feature. People with a knowledge of the last two hundred years (i.e. not most New Atheists) will know that this idea gets pushed from time to time in western societies as we come to grips with what a powerful tool science is. The idea makes a buzz for a while, and then fades away again. It is too inhuman to have staying power. For that reason, New Atheism will have its five minutes of fame, but it will be yesterday’s news fairly quickly.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t something to be aware of, and so in the next couple of posts I will canvass the things I think New Atheism can do, and the groups of people that it can affect and the ways it tends to do that.

It also doesn’t mean that atheism (something bigger than New Atheism) is not some kind of threat in the long term. And so in the final post I want to flag the kind of ‘neo-New Atheism’ that might go mainstream in a big way once New Atheism has burned out, and that could be a much bigger threat to the proclamation of the gospel over the long haul.

[This article is part of an 8-part series: read parts 123456, 7, and 8.]

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