By James Bishop|
This movement, while attractive to the layman skeptic, is a weak attempt of scholarship in the eyes of professionals in relevant fields. This is because these atheists are laymen themselves in the disciplines of philosophy and theology, and when they attempt to step outside of their relative area of expertise and write on topics involving the arguments for God’s existence, it results in publications that are called “embarrassing” by those who make a living thinking and writing about these questions.
For example, philosopher and Theologian Dr. William Lane Craig has accused Richard Dawkins’ “central argument” in The God Delusion as being the worst argument in the history of Western thought and calls his argument “embarrassingly weak”.
And this is coming from a research professor at Talbot school of Theology with a PhD in both philosophy and theology and over 30 books written or edited by him on topics pertaining to God, Christianity, and philosophy. One needn’t have to agree with Craig but one surely can’t say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He goes on to say, in a review of his argument:
“The only delusion demonstrated here is Dawkins’ conviction that this is “a very serious argument against God’s existence.”‘
Journalists and scientists may come up with clever one-liners and witty talking points, but their arguments are so weak as to become an object of ridicule among professional Christian, agnostic, and atheist philosophers.
Philosophers comment on New Atheism
Noam Chomsky, while not a professional philosopher, has said “As an atheist myself, I’ve found these “new atheist” writers to be an embarrassment. First, none of the prominent ones are genuine religious scholars, historians of religion, or cultural anthropologists who can, for instance, examine the cultural, historical, literary, or linguistic contexts in which the varying parts of the Bible were written to provide an explanation of why fundamentalist biblical literalists are, well, mistaken and ignorant.”
“I think first that these people do a disservice to scholarship. Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course.”
He goes on to say the following statements: “Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.”
“I have written elsewhere that The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an atheist. Let me say that again. Let me say also that I am proud to be the focus of the invective of the new atheists. They are a bloody disaster and I want to be on the front line of those who say so.”
According to philosopher Peter Williams, “I have reviewed contemporary popular atheology, paying particular attention to so-called ‘New Atheists’. I am seriously unimpressed” (1). However, it is not only Williams that seems to be unimpressed by the New Atheism. Philosopher Paul Copan likewise claims that “the new atheists are remarkably out of touch with [contemporary] sophisticated theistic arguments for God’s existence.
Their arguments against God tend to be very superficial (bordering on village atheist argumentation that is often ad hominem or hasty generalization) and often naively tout science as the arbiter of truth, following in the barren footsteps of their positivistic forebears” (2).
“Positivism” is the philosophical position of believing a statement is only meaningful if it can be accessed using the scientific method, an idea which has been dead for at least 50 years because it is too narrow and self-contradicting. This is a position often held by these popular New Atheists who seem to be decades behind on the latest scholarship in natural theology and philosophy.
Later Copan would reaffirm this view; he writes:
“the Neo-atheists’ arguments against God’s existence are surprisingly flimsy, often resembling the simplistic village atheist far more than the credentialed academician. The Neo-atheists are often profoundly ignorant of what they criticize, and they typically receive the greatest laughs and cheers from the philosophically and theologically challenged. True, they effectively utilize a combination of emotion and verbal rhetoric, but they aren’t known for logically carrying thoughts through from beginning to end” (3).
Becky Garrison, a religious satirist (4) and award winner for her reporting on matters of religion (5), claims that, on an intellectual level, the New Atheists aren’t very effective; she writes that “when it comes to the actual weapons that the New Atheists lob against their opponents, they seem to be shooting blanks” (6). Philsopher of science John Lennox would agree that:
“What is more, at the intellectual level, their arguments were never really unique” (23).
The atheist philosopher Richard Norman believes that New Atheism relies on old tactics although the movement has stepped up its game on rhetoric: “the ‘New Atheism’ is not really new. Its distinctive themes – religion as the enemy of science, of progress and of an enlightened morality – are in a direct line of descent from the 18th-century enlightenment and 19th-century rationalism. The ‘new’ movement is better seen as a revival, a reassertion of the values of rational thought and vigorous argument” (7).
Here I take “vigorous” to mean rhetorically effective and if that’s what Norman means then I’d agree with him. As Copan rightly explains that they do “effectively utilize a combination of emotion and verbal rhetoric.” However, rhetoric is unable alone to sail the boat across the lake, especially since “The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be” (8).
Philosopher Williams continues, “as a revival of the value of rational thought (something I’m all for) the New Atheism is sadly lacking. This is partly because its narrow, self-defeating misunderstanding of rationality is mired in an eighteenth-/nineteenth-century epistemological foundationalism; and partly because the movement’s boosters frequently allow their ‘vigour’ to bypass their critical faculties” (9).
Williams also appears to not feel very threatened by the New Atheists, at least on an intellectual level: “The New Atheists confidently proclaim intellectual, ethical and even (eventual) political victory; but from my perspective they look about as dangerous as the Black Knight in the Monty Python film Monty Pythan and the Holy Grail” (10).
Logical Fallacies in New Atheism
Further criticism is the New Atheists repeated dismantling of strawmen caricatures of religious beliefs. Couple with this poor approach a good dose of ad hominems, shoddy research, and data picking. Christian writer and apologist Nick Peters explains that:
“This must be learned about fundamentalist atheists. They are great people of faith. They will believe anything they read that is negative about the Bible without doing any of the necessary research or if they do read something, it is only what already agrees with them” (11).
Philosopher Kevin Stern agrees; he writes that:
“Atheism becomes bigotry when it makes prejudicial statements about religious people. Prejudice is prejudice and intolerance is intolerance, and both are irrational regardless of who commits it. Despite its scientific pretensions and its pronouncements of love for reason, many atheists offer arguments laden with logical fallacies, hasty generalization, strawman arguments, and most of all ad hominem attacks” (24).
Yet, according to Williams they seem to “have difficulty in recognizing validity both when it is present in the arguments of their opponents, and (as is more often the case than not) when it is absent from their own” (12). Distinguished Research Professor John Haught agrees, “I do not expect that philosophers will recommend these writings to their own students . . . although the books might usefully serve as case studies for classes in critical thinking” (13).
Philosopher Williams goes as far as to say that the:
“New Atheist writings offer up such a rich vein of logically fallacious arguments that I have used them as precisely such case studies” (14).
Even though so New Atheists proponents, such as Dawkins, define theism as a delusion, they fail to substantiate the claim that an overwhelming evidential case against theism exists. Colin Tudge, a widely read science writer, pens that:
“on matters of theology their arguments are a disgrace: assertive without substance; demanding evidence while offering none; staggeringly unscholarly” (15).
According to Williams the New Atheists treatment of natural theology is equally absurd; he finds a common paradigm in their method. The New Atheists have a “consistent preference for attacking a) straw man versions of b) medieval rather than contemporary defenses of c) a very narrow range of theistic arguments.
For example, when attempting to rebut the cosmological argument, does Dawkins research representative formulations of each sub-species of the argument (e.g. Kalam, Leibnizian sufficient reason and Thomistic contingency variants) by respected contemporary philosophers such as Robert C. Koons, Stephen T. Davis or William Lane Craig? No.
Instead, he manfully grapples with his own quotation-free misunderstanding of one of Aquinas’ medieval summaries of the argument. The resulting spectacle would have all the drama of watching Tarzan wrestling a rubber crocodile, if it weren’t for the fact that on this occasion the crocodile proves to be more resilient than Tarzan’s rubber dagger” (16).
The Dawkins Delusion
Surprisingly enough, at least in the context of the New Atheists, it is Richard Dawkins who pays most attention to the philosophical debate concerning God’s existence. However, Dawkins has received much criticism from all sides.
For example, leading philosopher professor at Notre Dame University Alvin Plantinga doesn’t hold a very high view of Dawkins’ efforts:
“You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is… many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class” (17).
Likewise atheist philosopher Michael Ruse, in his review of The God Delusion, writes:
“It is not that the atheists are having a field day because of the brilliance and novelty of their thinking. Frankly – and I speak here as a non-believer myself, pretty atheistic about Christianity and skeptical about all theological claims – the material being churned out is second rate. And that is a euphemism for ‘downright awful’… Dawkins is brazen in his ignorance of philosophy and theology (not to mention the history of science)…Dawkins is a man truly out of his depth” (18).
In fact, Ruse would go on to write that:
“The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an atheist.” (19)
It is also unfortunate that it proves so difficult to engage with the likes of Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins who all think that religion is such nonsense that they do not have much disposition for dialogue; something Williams take issue with:
“Surely, one of the noblest works of reason is to enter into respectful argument with others, whose vision of reality is dramatically different from one’s own, in order that both parties may learn from this exchange, and come to a deeper mutual respect. Our authors engage in dialectic, not science, but they can scarcely be said to do so with respect for those they address.” (20)
One writer in an article in The Spectator seems to rightly sum up Dawkins’ temperament saying,
“Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies.”
When it comes to world violence, and especially religious violence, the agnostic John Humphry’s challenges the New Atheists to do two things, “They must prove, rather than merely assert, that mainstream religion is a malign force in the world [but how can they do this whilst denying any objective reality to moral malignancy?]. They cannot rely on a small minority of religious extremists to do that for them or hark back to the brutality of earlier centuries. And they must offer an alternative to the millions who rely on their beliefs to make sense of their lives [but how can they do this whilst denying any objective reality to our intellectual obligations?]. Unlike the militant atheists, I do not think people are stupid if they believe in God.” (21)
To which we may let philosopher Michael Novak conclude for us. Novak notes the desperation in the New Atheist movement; he writes that there’s
“an odd defensiveness about all these books – as though they were a sign not of victory but of desperation.” (22)
So while people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins may receive a lot of media attention and sell a lot of books, they are simply unequipped to address religious, philosophical, and theological issues. For this reason, they are not seen as a threat to Theism in the eyes of academics. If anything, they are seen as a thorn in the side of the honest pursuit of truth.