Critics of the New Atheists

There’s a possibly interesting academic book coming out, I don’t know when, called Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal. Since I’m rather ambivalent about the New Atheists, and have some serious misgivings about Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens especially, I contributed a chapter. It’s called “The Return of Faith”; if you want to read it and give me your comments, I would appreciate it.

I have very little idea who else is going to be in the book. I did, however, stumble upon another chapter put up on an authors’ web site: William A. Stahl’s “One-Dimensional Rage: The Social Epistemology of the New Atheism and Fundamentalism.”

The title says most of it. It has some good parts, but largely it’s the sort of philosophical posturing that has unfortunately become common in some humanities and social science circles. It is little but an attempt to validate stereotypes of atheist rage and the notion that fundamentalists and the new atheists are mirror images of one another. My guess is that Stahl read his theologically-driven expectations into the New Atheist literature, and layered on the philosophical bullshit as a way of avoiding most of the substantive claims that the targets of his criticism make.

We’ll see the rest when the book comes out. I hope I don’t end up wishing I’d never got on board in the first place.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00565212411446092552 smijer

    I enjoyed your chapter very much. I have to say that the kind of careful thinking you presented will do credit to any book that features it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03040819796035416524 notlost

    " Secularism is in crisis in India, "

    Will Mr Edis be kind enough to state the charecteristics of his brand of 'secularism' so that one like me in India could know where we are failing or have failed to give rise to the above notion? Becuse since many brands of secularism are being sold in India and all by reputed men and women it has become a thouroughly confounding business to know and practice the proper one.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Notlost: "many brands of secularism are being sold in India and all by reputed men and women it has become a thouroughly confounding business to know and practice the proper one."

    The Indian version of secularism, as I understand it, has had an emphasis on the state remaining neutral toward different communities of faith. Some Indian writers I have encountered, for example, interpret this as the state making sure that all religious communities enjoy the resources to reproduce themselves.

    Well, today, it seems, we have a situation where advocates of Hindutva can also claim to be "true secularists," trying to overcome what they see as the unfair privileges granted to Muslims in particular. Their views, however, lead to a majoritarian privileging of Hindu religions. I think it's fair to say that since the rise of Hindu nationalism, secularism in India has not just been conceptually muddled, but also in a state of political crisis.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03040819796035416524 notlost

    An impression has been created both in India and abroad that the rise of the Hindu right in India is occasioned by the so called ‘Muslim appeasement ‘practiced by the secular ruling classes. Nothing is farther from the truth. In spite of the terrible partition tragedy, the Hindu Right had always been a marginal force in India where at least eighty percent of the population is said to be Hindus, then and now. If at all there was a more propitious time for the ‘Hindu fundamentalists’ to hold sway it was during those tragic times and not after fifty years after those events, when for the first time it became the party with the largest number of seats in the parliament and came to power..

    The real reason why the Hindu right gained a very considerable popularity among the masses is because they feared that the Congress party headed by Sonia Gandhi, a Catholic woman coming into power will be a threat to their cultural and religious traditions considering the fact that systematic Christian evangelization of the gullible in India is in full swing employing massive man power and money. If that is a sign of threat to secularism, then that is the condition even in U.S and U.K where a Kennedy could become president only after assuring the protestants that he would not take any order from the Pope or a Tony Blaire would have to wait for the end of his term as prime minister before converting to Catholicism, respectively. If such events are not considered to be a treat to secularism in those countries, I see no reason why similar concern in India could be considered a threat to secularism in India.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00763792476799485687 J. J. Ramsey

    I think it would help if you expanded on what Sam Harris gets wrong about Islam. Actually, it might be a good idea to point out places where New Atheists in general get their facts and/or logic wrong.

    It might also be interesting to explore how much of the New Atheists' reputation for treating believers as stupid or crazy is earned. (I'd say a lot of that reputation, but you might beg to differ.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12527831796334892300 Charles

    In regard to Mr. Ramsey's question:
    It would be a very good thing if some who have actually read the main books by Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins that defend atheism would lay out some of their central arguments against theism and their central arguments in support of atheism. A great favor would have been done for those on both sides of the debate.

    It seems to me that much of the disdain for these authors has to do with attitudes that are perceived as brash, disrespectul or mean.

    I have read these books and I will admit that there are some passages in which these attitudes seem to be manifested. But this fact itself calls for the following comment:
    Why *shouldn't* an author ever vent his or her feelings on a subject?

    I am not just defending the principle of free press. I am saying that there may be cases in which it is understandable and even forgiveable for an author to vent such feelings.

    Some things(holocaust denial, climate change denial) are so outrageous that they cry out for righteous anger. These attitudes may be especially appropriate when the author also takes considerable care to spell out arguments for his/her position that make it clear why their feelings are appropriate in these cases. This is far from being like religious fundamentalists.

    I think that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris at least make good attempts to spell out such arguments. If anyone thinks these arguments fail, they should explain exactly why they fail rather than going on and on about their hurt feelings and their intolerable ad hominem remarks.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09272130070351621667 Nihat

    I don't know about Hitchens and Harris, but I read Dawkins, and have to echo Charles's defense of that particular infidel.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Here are my comments on “The Return of Faith”:

    Taner Edis wrote: “But I expected, and got, what happened to all books of this sort: they received a few good reviews and went on to lead a quiet life in the bookstacks of university libraries.

    I think you should feel good about this. After all It’s not difficult to become popular and to build a passionate following: Just declare you have discovered an insidious and terrible threat for the well-being of all virtuous and superior people (who are those who agree with you). It worked for Hitler who demonized the Jews, for Stalin who demonized the property holders (not to mention religious people), for Pol Pot who demonized the intellectuals, for Islamic fundamentalists who demonize the West’s ways, and so on.

    Taner Edis wrote: “In academia or among the technocratic classes of modern societies, secular humanism is not rare.

    That’s certainly an understatement. In Europe at least and among the educated a religious person often stands out like a fly in milk. At dinner at a friend’s house I once happened to mention that I was religious. A long uncomfortable silence followed with everybody kind of starring at me. Then somebody helpfully suggested: “You mean you believe there is some higher power in the universe?” It was quite funny really.

    Taner Edis wrote: “Believers can interpret faith as trust in God, not a leap in the dark but a surrender of self essential to a deepening relationship with a personal deity.

    The word “faith” both in English and in the original Greek of the Gospels is ambiguous, and can mean both “belief” and “trust”. From the context though it is quite clear that in the Gospels the meaning is “trust”. After all there were no disciples who did not already believe in God, so it would be incoherent for Jesus to ask them to have belief in God. And as you say trust is indeed essential to a deepening relationship of love with God, as it is with any person really.

    Taner Edis wrote: “This is not to say that the new atheists present original arguments, or that they fully engage with sophisticated theologies.

    Richard Dawkins tried to present an original argument with his “ultimate Boeing 747 gambit”. But new atheists certainly do not try to engage with sophisticated theology. Dawkins actually explicitly advices against reading serious books on theology. I wonder if he’d approve creationists advising others not to read serious books on Darwinism.

    Taner Edis wrote: “modern science presents us with a universe that shows no evidence of being anything but purely natural

    Sure. The question is whether one can reasonably believe that there is nothing more to reality than the physical universe that science studies.

    Taner Edis wrote: “Philosophers and theologians have heroically but ineffectively sought to reconcile God and evil

    I don’t think that’s precise. After Plantinga’s defense no philosopher (to my knowledge) still claims that there is logical problem of evil for theism. And as far as the evidential or probabilistic problem of evil, even a cursory analysis demonstrates that the atheologian has not established that there can’t be any morally sufficient reason for God to allow evil, or in other words that God’s primary purpose in creation cannot be such that evil is rendered necessary. In this context Ted Drange’s book “Nonbelief and Evil” is a good read. So, even though the argument from evil carries an undeniable emotional force, on closer study it turns out not to be a very good argument. Not to mention that theologians are not only putting up defenses but actually proposing theodicies to explain why a perfectly good and powerful God would create a world just like the one we experience.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis wrote: “If we want to understand minds, we grapple with cognitive neuroscience.

    Given that even on materialism there is really no good reason to believe that our brain produces our consciousness the whole project is probably a shot in the dark. The scientific method is certainly apt for investigating behavior, including intelligent behavior, but this pertains to the so-called easy problem of consciousness. To my knowledge nobody has ever suggested a plausible methodology for scientifically studying consciousness per se. Indeed the fact that consciousness is an unnecessary hypothesis in science (for one needs not hypothesize its existence in order to explain anything that is observable) it’s not clear in what sense the study of consciousness is a scientific project in the first place.

    Taner Edis wrote “Evil is a pressing problem *within* a theistic intellectual tradition, and the kind of atheism that emphasizes the problem of evil shows its roots in dissent internal to such a tradition.

    The argument from evil purports to show an internal incoherence in the theistic worldview. So it’s entirely valid for an atheist to use theistic premises (including the existence of objective moral truths) while building up this argument.

    Taner Edis wrote: “the strongest reasons to reject God must come from modern science, rather than the metaphysical preoccupations of traditional philosophy of religion.

    But there can’t possibly be any reasons whatsoever to reject God which come from modern science, because if God exists then God is certainly capable of producing for us the kind of physical phenomena that science exclusively studies.

    Taner Edis wrote: “Richard Dawkins, for example, is correct to point out the incongruity between Catholic dogma and Darwinian evolution.

    That’s a strange claim considering that the Catholic Church formally accepts Darwinian evolution. In fact Darwinism has removed a problem for naturalism, but has not created a problem for theism – except for those literalists who still believe that in order to create the first human God first built some kind of doll our of clay and then blew air in its nostrils.

    Tamer Edos said: “If an intelligent designer is responsible for complexity, Dawkins argues, this designer must be even more complex.

    Which is a clearly false premise, as an intelligent designer using the Darwinian algorithm can create designs more complex than he or she is, something that Dawkins of all people should have realized.

    Taner Edis wrote: “But [Dawkins’s “ultimate Boeing 747 gambit” argument] cannot bear the weight of showing that “there almost certainly is no God.”

    You are being too kind. Dawkins’s philosophical argument is actually beyond weak. We can be pretty certain that his argument won’t be taught in future courses of philosophy of religion. It’s clear that Dawkins (“believing in God is like believing in fairies”) is under the impression that theism is not only false but also trivially false. So he thinks a scientist can easily come up with an argument to disprove theism, one that academic philosophers have not been smart enough to spot. I am finding out that Victor Stenger thinks the same.

    Taner Edis wrote: “The resounding failure of design ideas is certainly a significant reason to doubt there is a God.

    Why? Unless you can show that God would not want to produce for us an experience of physical phenomena which are amenable to naturalistic modeling, I don’t see why the discovery that physical phenomena are amenable to naturalistic modeling gives one reason to doubt that there is a God.

    Not to mention that it questionable whether there has been such a failure of design ideas in the first place. Arguably the complexity of the cells, the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental constants, and the way that quantum mechanics resists naturalistic modeling – all unknown by science in Darwin’s lifetime – represent bigger design problems for the naturalist than the complexity of the species.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis wrote: “In response, the new atheists have often said that they direct most of their fire toward more traditional and fundamentalist forms of religion, since these are socially most significant.

    But then new atheists should make clear that what concerns them is politics and not really the truth of the matter.

    Taner Edis wrote: “Partly because of this, the philosophy of religion has become a marginal field with little influence on the rest of intellectual life.

    I am not sure about that; philosophy of religion is a quite vibrant field right now. What is clearly the case is that New Atheism’s books are populist and have little if any influence on the intellectual life. Or perhaps you know of any intellectuals taking these books seriously? You at least apparently don’t.

    Taner Edis wrote: “Indeed, there is an academic cottage industry of finding ways to say that science and religion are compatible.

    There are many religious ideas that are disproved by science; on the other hand that science and religion are compatible should be obvious: Even Descartes’s evil demon could have created us living in an environment just like the one we live, and could interfere constantly with our lives both in its qualitative aspects as well as in the countless apparently random experiences of our life.

    Taner Edis: “Consider, for example, the wide variety of efforts to reconcile Darwinian evolution with a creator-God

    I don’t see how you need to expend “effort” for this. After all God might have created the universe in 1808, i.e. one year before Darwin was born, without using any natural evolution at all. If so, would Darwin find anything amiss? Would science?

    More seriously, I suppose the problem is that in “random mutation and natural selection” many people understand “random” in the mathematical sense. But Darwinism does not require random mutations in order to work, and that’s why Darwinism has not falsified determinism. Similarly Darwinism does not prohibit purposeful direction, it just makes it possible that no such purposeful direction was present. Actually this claimed possibility is still only a conjecture, for a still unanswered scientific question is whether in our universe Darwinism would be able to produce organisms of our complexity if mutations were truly random. But it’s a reasonable conjecture as far as I am concerned.

    Taner Edis wrote: “None of this transcendence is good for explaining anything

    Except, say, meta-ethics, freedom of will, the meaning of life, the intelligibility of the physical universe, the reliability of our cognitive faculties, the ontology of mathematics, the ontology of beauty, the existence of consciousness, and so on.

    Taner Edis wrote: “Now, there are certainly serious arguments that religion is more often an obstacle than a help, particularly when humanity is facing a corporate capitalism gone mad, catastrophic environmental degradation, and the threat of nuclear warfare

    Well, given the problems you mention superficial beliefs, the demonization of others, and tribalization are certainly dangerous, and these do characterize some forms of religion. But, it seems to me, these also characterize new atheism.

    Taner Edis wrote: “In The End of Faith, Harris portrays Islam as a particularly nasty form of faith-based madness, contemplates use of nuclear weapons against Muslims, and endorses torture of terror suspects.

    Taner Edis wrote: “Drawing on disciplines such as anthropology, evolutionary biology, and cognitive neuroscience, we can hope for a better understanding of the universal human tendency to believe in supernatural agents.

    Sure. And if God exists one would expect that S/He would create the world in such a way that there is a universal human tendency to understand reality in a spiritual way, and hence to be religious.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis wrote: “In The End of Faith, Harris portrays Islam as a particularly nasty form of faith-based madness, contemplates use of nuclear weapons against Muslims, and endorses torture of terror suspects.

    Well, Harris strikes me as the original thinker (I don’t see the other New Atheism authors doing anything but recycling Harris’s ideas), and even though I don’t agree with his premises, and indeed find his understanding both of religion and of the reality of the Middle East to be woefully inadequate, I do admire his intellectual honesty as far as deriving the consequences of his premises goes. So, for example, if religion does represent the greatest danger for the survival of humankind and of civilization as we know it (as not only Harris but also Dawkins and Hitchens expressly and absurdly insist) then the use of nuclear weapons to protect humankind of that danger may be the by far lesser evil. As for his endorsement of torture I find that his reasoning makes sense: If in order to protect the West against terrorist attacks it is morally justified to invade entire countries knowing fully well that this action will result in the agonizing death of thousands of innocents – then why exactly is it not morally justified to torture a few people when torture may be the only way to avoid a terrorist attack? I also admire his intellectual honesty in expressly stating that the belief that the brain produces our consciousness is a leap of faith. His book may be political literature as you put it, but at least it’s honest literature. He does not shy away from stating what he certainly knows will be unpopular ideas.

    Taner Edis wrote: “The new atheism could further such a conversation.

    And I hope it does. If God exists then anything that helps people learn more about truth is a good thing.

    Taner Edis wrote: “Yes, we want to say, we can achieve moral progress.

    Actually in a naturalistic reality it only makes sense to speak of a changing moral zeitgeist and not of a progressing moral zeitgeist.

    Taner Edis wrote: “[We can achieve moral progress …] by engaging in secular political deliberations about how to live our lives together."

    Sure. Please observe that one can be a religious person and also a secularist. I for example believe that mixing religion with politics is bad for both. And as far as I am concerned Jesus in the Gospels is a clear secularist when He says: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”. Being a theist I believe that theists and atheists alike derive our ethics from the same ground, and care about human happiness for the same reason. So I don’t see why all people of good will (and no matter what their ontological beliefs happen to be) cannot work together for a better future.


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