The new new atheists

The old atheists deny that God exists.  The new atheists deny that God is good and that therefore he does not exist.  Now we have what Christopher R. Beha describes as “new new atheists,” atheists who believe God does not exist and are trying to figure out how to live without Him.

In the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, I write about three books by writers I call the “New New Atheists.” The New Atheists—among them Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens—wrote bestselling books in the past decade that fiercely attacked belief in God. The fundamental difference between these polemicists and the next wave of atheist writers is evident in the titles of their books. In place of Dawkins’s The God Delusion, we have Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. In place of Harris’s The End of Faith, we have his follow-up, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. And in place of Hitchens’s god is not Great, we have Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

The New New Atheists tend not to take up the question of God’s existence, which they take for granted as settled in the negative. Instead, they seek to salvage what is lost when belief erodes, concerning themselves with what atheists ought to believe and do in religion’s stead. Botton, for instance, asks how the benefits of faith—a sense of community, a sense of wonder—might be found in the secular, while Harris addresses what might be the most vexing problem facing atheists: how morality is possible without God. Only Rosenberg—a philosopher at Duke with a predictable commitment to rigor—insists that doing away with religion means doing away with most of what comes with it: a sense of order in the universe, the hope that life has some inherent meaning, even the belief in free will.

via The Literary Response to Radical Atheism—By Christopher R. Beha (Harper’s Magazine).

HT:  Matthew Cantirino

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    “Now we have what Christopher R. Beha describes as “new new atheists,” atheists who believe God does not exist and are trying to figure out how to live without Him.”

    I’m thinking that trying to figure out how to live without God (and His morality) combined with the innate sinfulness of mankind is a recipe for trouble. Think “Lord of the Flies”.

  • Pete

    “Now we have what Christopher R. Beha describes as “new new atheists,” atheists who believe God does not exist and are trying to figure out how to live without Him.”

    I’m thinking that trying to figure out how to live without God (and His morality) combined with the innate sinfulness of mankind is a recipe for trouble. Think “Lord of the Flies”.

  • SKPeterson

    I would think that they somehow have to go back to some sort of “natural ordering” of the universe, which imparts some basis for moral truth or virtue; rational self-interest only goes so far. However, this natural ordering would in itself then be a process derived from chaos under conditions that might change, or not – it may be untenable, or only partially tenable (who knows?) and any ethics equally untenable or entirely contingent on varying conditions.

    We often argue on here how atheists can live virtuous lives. Many argue that they can. I agree; they can. But, often those virtues are grounded in a ethical and moral system that relies upon some ultimate cause or consistent universal moral ordering, which generally devolves into either a Platonic or Aristotelian virtue ethics. Fine, in and of itself, and though it might be Western-centric, such ethical systems have widespread influence even in the inscrutable Orient. Further, just because atheists deny such an ethical or moral base, or even the need for one, does not mean it doesn’t exist. Perhaps this is the quandary the “new new” atheists are trying to solve.

    I’ve always been bemused by the “new” atheists use of moral concepts of good and evil based upon a Judeo-Christian virtue ethic to judge the wickedness of adherents of Judeo-Christian belief systems and the God who established such good v. evil concepts in the first place. At least the “new new” atheists are trying to get beyond this, but I’m not sure they are going to find an inherent, universal or binding notion of the truth of what is good and what is evil. They are more likely to simply find a (post?)modern way to ask Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”

  • SKPeterson

    I would think that they somehow have to go back to some sort of “natural ordering” of the universe, which imparts some basis for moral truth or virtue; rational self-interest only goes so far. However, this natural ordering would in itself then be a process derived from chaos under conditions that might change, or not – it may be untenable, or only partially tenable (who knows?) and any ethics equally untenable or entirely contingent on varying conditions.

    We often argue on here how atheists can live virtuous lives. Many argue that they can. I agree; they can. But, often those virtues are grounded in a ethical and moral system that relies upon some ultimate cause or consistent universal moral ordering, which generally devolves into either a Platonic or Aristotelian virtue ethics. Fine, in and of itself, and though it might be Western-centric, such ethical systems have widespread influence even in the inscrutable Orient. Further, just because atheists deny such an ethical or moral base, or even the need for one, does not mean it doesn’t exist. Perhaps this is the quandary the “new new” atheists are trying to solve.

    I’ve always been bemused by the “new” atheists use of moral concepts of good and evil based upon a Judeo-Christian virtue ethic to judge the wickedness of adherents of Judeo-Christian belief systems and the God who established such good v. evil concepts in the first place. At least the “new new” atheists are trying to get beyond this, but I’m not sure they are going to find an inherent, universal or binding notion of the truth of what is good and what is evil. They are more likely to simply find a (post?)modern way to ask Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    KAI nielsen already dealt with this question over 20 years ago in “Ethics without God” which i found to be an interesting and enlightenint book. There are all sorts of reasons aside from God that one will conform to some sort of ethical behavior. Sadly Christians adopt most of these reasons themselves. And these systems and reasons tend to fail in the long run. Neither do they provide life with meaning purpose and joy. But the idea that the guy i ‘m talking to is one for whom Christ died is incredibly powerful. It brings ethics out of the realm of “bpursuing happiness for the most amount of people” or other such nonsense. Of course where universal justufication is denied by say limited atonement this idea also fails considerably.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    KAI nielsen already dealt with this question over 20 years ago in “Ethics without God” which i found to be an interesting and enlightenint book. There are all sorts of reasons aside from God that one will conform to some sort of ethical behavior. Sadly Christians adopt most of these reasons themselves. And these systems and reasons tend to fail in the long run. Neither do they provide life with meaning purpose and joy. But the idea that the guy i ‘m talking to is one for whom Christ died is incredibly powerful. It brings ethics out of the realm of “bpursuing happiness for the most amount of people” or other such nonsense. Of course where universal justufication is denied by say limited atonement this idea also fails considerably.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    Most of the time when I lurk in online discussions between atheists concerning ethics and morality it usually degenerates into a post-modern free for all with a minimal consensus of if you aren’t hurting anybody else. But then they argue who do you determine harm to others.

    Personally, I think their attempts are stupid. The apriori assumption there is no god is the height of foolishness and dooms all such attempts to figure out morality to failure.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    Most of the time when I lurk in online discussions between atheists concerning ethics and morality it usually degenerates into a post-modern free for all with a minimal consensus of if you aren’t hurting anybody else. But then they argue who do you determine harm to others.

    Personally, I think their attempts are stupid. The apriori assumption there is no god is the height of foolishness and dooms all such attempts to figure out morality to failure.

  • Stone the Crows

    I agree that the new and more agressive approach that athiests are taking is to accuse the God that they do not believe in of evil. I have not heard any athiest say God does not exist because he is not good which is a falacious argument on the face of it. What I have heard is such things as the conquest of Canaan called genocide and a good reason why no one should be a Christian.

  • Stone the Crows

    I agree that the new and more agressive approach that athiests are taking is to accuse the God that they do not believe in of evil. I have not heard any athiest say God does not exist because he is not good which is a falacious argument on the face of it. What I have heard is such things as the conquest of Canaan called genocide and a good reason why no one should be a Christian.

  • TE Schroeder

    Christopher Hitchens is included among the “new athiests.” Since he has died, it is a safe bet that Mr. Hitchens is not an atheist anymore.

  • TE Schroeder

    Christopher Hitchens is included among the “new athiests.” Since he has died, it is a safe bet that Mr. Hitchens is not an atheist anymore.

  • John C

    No doubt Hitchens is sharing a scotch with Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes.

  • John C

    No doubt Hitchens is sharing a scotch with Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes.

  • Grace

    Whenever one comes to the conclusion that God doesn’t really exist, HE cannot save them, that HE did not send HIS Son to die for their sins, believes not Christ’s forgivness, they have walked straight into the “atheists” tent, waiting to see the reality of hell.

    There are no new atheists, just a new story line to engage anyone who will listen. Those who have died recently, expounded atheist beliefs, will never recover from their decisions against the LORD God Almighty.

    The Bible clearly states that “every knee will bow” and that they will, when the day comes.

  • Grace

    Whenever one comes to the conclusion that God doesn’t really exist, HE cannot save them, that HE did not send HIS Son to die for their sins, believes not Christ’s forgivness, they have walked straight into the “atheists” tent, waiting to see the reality of hell.

    There are no new atheists, just a new story line to engage anyone who will listen. Those who have died recently, expounded atheist beliefs, will never recover from their decisions against the LORD God Almighty.

    The Bible clearly states that “every knee will bow” and that they will, when the day comes.

  • http://steadfastlutherans.org/ SAL

    Post-Modern Atheism is typically a form of:
    “God doesn’t exist and I hate him”

    It’s not based on reality but on deconstructionism and subjective feelings.

    Modern Atheism is typically a form of:
    “The Universe is a deterministic reality that is entirely natural”

    That’s more difficult to maintain because we live in a fundamentally cloaked Universe with most of the action behind the veil of our perception (the Plank Scale, Heisenberg Uncertainty, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, ‘Dark Matter’ and ‘Dark Energy’) . What we can observe is a trivial portion of what constitutes our reality. So much for crowding out God with scientific knowledge. Science is an island of knowledge in an ocean of ignorance.

    What’s left is Agnosticism and Indifference. That’s the majority viewpoint of our age and the most compelling given the moral uncertainty our cultures promote.

  • http://steadfastlutherans.org/ SAL

    Post-Modern Atheism is typically a form of:
    “God doesn’t exist and I hate him”

    It’s not based on reality but on deconstructionism and subjective feelings.

    Modern Atheism is typically a form of:
    “The Universe is a deterministic reality that is entirely natural”

    That’s more difficult to maintain because we live in a fundamentally cloaked Universe with most of the action behind the veil of our perception (the Plank Scale, Heisenberg Uncertainty, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, ‘Dark Matter’ and ‘Dark Energy’) . What we can observe is a trivial portion of what constitutes our reality. So much for crowding out God with scientific knowledge. Science is an island of knowledge in an ocean of ignorance.

    What’s left is Agnosticism and Indifference. That’s the majority viewpoint of our age and the most compelling given the moral uncertainty our cultures promote.

  • Grace

    Sal @ 9

    “What’s left is Agnosticism and Indifference. That’s the majority viewpoint of our age and the most compelling given the moral uncertainty our cultures promote.”

    No, what is left is nothing but everlasting darkness, for not Believing on the true LORD and Savior of this world, Jesus Christ.

    You can turn the definition of “atheists” in side out. You can call it what you will, it’s all disbelief in Christ as Savior, and Believing on HIM!

  • Grace

    Sal @ 9

    “What’s left is Agnosticism and Indifference. That’s the majority viewpoint of our age and the most compelling given the moral uncertainty our cultures promote.”

    No, what is left is nothing but everlasting darkness, for not Believing on the true LORD and Savior of this world, Jesus Christ.

    You can turn the definition of “atheists” in side out. You can call it what you will, it’s all disbelief in Christ as Savior, and Believing on HIM!