Faith & Science
New Atheism: A Shipwreck of Fools
New Atheism is dead. It was conceptually dead from birth, but now it’s stopped twitching. Ben Sixsmith at Arc Digital has a good article with a lot of insight into its demise. From “New Atheism: An Autopsy”:
To be sure, New Atheists could be very, very bad at arguing that God does not exist. There was, for example, Lawrence Krauss writing a book about how something can come from nothing while attributing material qualities to the latter. There was Richard Dawkins trying to refute the famous “Five Ways” of Aquinas without even attempting to understand their terms. (“Whereof one cannot speak,” groaned Wittgenstein, “Thereof one must remain silent.”) There was Christopher Hitchens striding into philosophy like an elephant onto an ice skating rink and saying:
“…the postulate of a designer or creator only raises the unanswerable question of who designed the designer or created the creator.”
Why is it unanswerable? People have certainly tried to answer it. Answers readily came centuries prior to Hitchens himself, actually. Hitchens is free to take issue with Aquinas’ distinction between contingent and necessary existence if he wants, but he’s not free to suggest no answers have been offered. How does the concept of the “necessary being,” for example, fail? Hitchens offers no sign of knowing what it is, because that “unanswerable” is not a logical conclusion but a rhetorical sledgehammer swung at the reader’s skull.
I know atheists can make better arguments. But the New Atheists never felt obliged to, because they were so confident in their own rationality that they never learned about the ideas they were mocking. If challenged on their philosophical ignorance — as the philosopher Alvin Plantinga brilliantly skewered Dawkins here on this very point — they were liable to observe that the average Christian does not have the theological sophistication of an Edward Feser or a John Haldane. True enough. But if I’m on the street and ask the average believer in evolution by natural selection to explain it and declare Darwin refuted because monkeys did not turn into men, am I being scientifically honest? No, not really.
The primary autopsy finding here is that New Atheism was born dead. It was an intellectually vacuous vanity project from the start. Its vanguard was a coterie of dullards and narcissists who glanced away from their own mirrors only long enough to beg book deals. The arguments they made in their books were the stuff of comedy acts — “everything came from nothing for no reason,” “the universe came from quantum mechanics, which is nothing,” “acknowledging an intelligent Creator is an impediment to science, but asserting meaningless existence is a boon to science,” “we are meat machines, and you should pay attention to what we say,” “there is no good or evil, and if you think there is, you’re evil,” “there is no free will and you should change your mind and agree with me,” “there is no guilt because there is no free will, therefore livestock management, rather than justice, is best for mankind,” “things change and survivors survive is a scientific theory,” “survival of the fittest explains why I’m sad your kid has cancer,” “without evolutionary theory, we wouldn’t understand that bacteria aren’t killed by an antibiotic that doesn’t kill them,” “gene duplication adds new genetic information, and plagiarism is not permitted in my class,” “kin selection explains altruism, except that bacteria in a clonal colony, which are identical twins, aren’t altruistic,” “evolutionary biology is indispensable to medicine, so we should start teaching it in medical schools,” “evolution is the cornerstone of physiology and medicine, and maybe someday an evolutionary biologist will win a Nobel Prize,” “information is not detectible in nature, except in my book about it,” “the selective breeding experiments I designed in my lab are excellent examples of mindless evolution,” “the First Amendment prohibits questioning a scientific theory in schools,” “let me show you how undirected natural selection works in a simulation on the computer program I wrote,” “intelligent design isn’t science, and it’s scientifically wrong” (my favorite — these two assertions are commonly made in the same sentence), “the mind is what the brain does, but I’m not a dualist,” “my assertion that your mind can have no contact with truth is true.” The list is bottomless.
A Perennial Achilles’ Heal
New Atheism never had a chance. It was intellectual vapor, and its practitioners were repellent fools. They were defeated by atheism’s perennial Achilles’ heal: they were forced to explain themselves. Atheism never reigns openly and explicitly for long; it cannot withstand even cursory scrutiny. Heck, it can’t withstand the scrutiny of schoolchildren — witness the panicked litigation to prevent schoolchildren from asking questions about its creation myth.
But rational moral theism will not easily emerge victorious from this little fight. Paganism, not atheism, is the natural religion of unreflective men. We worship, and creation is full of beauty and mystery and ravishing idols. Pride and lust of eyes and flesh reigns in our culture, and Asherah poles are popping up everywhere. The Valley of Hinnom is our altar of child sacrifice, and we tithe in penance for our sins against Gaia.
As New Atheism stops twitching, another beast — a rougher beast — is rolling the stone from its perennial crypt.
Photo credit: Josh Adams-Ford via Unsplash.