To Notice and to Learn

Observations on ideas, human mind, and the world around us

The Rise of the “New Atheists”

I recently discovered a fantastic resource, freely available, Talks at Google (http://www.youtube.com/user/AtGoogleTalks), which are recorded brown bags given at Google offices by famous authors, academics, political figures, etc.–which draws very distinguished presenters (usually on a book tour).  Each talk is nearly an hour in length, and they conveniently summarize he main points of their book in that hour.

It was while browsing these talks (after sorting them by popularity) that I recently came across (the late) Christopher Hitchens, a political commentator and atheist, who I had never heard of before.  I found his talk fascinating, and after many hours of video-watching, I learned about this new movement christened (no irony intended) the “New Atheism”.  There are four prominent thinkers, colorfully dubbed “the Four Horsemen” of New Atheism, each with a book out denouncing religion and religiosity:

  • Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion” (2008) – Dawkins is a an evolutionary biologist at Oxford
  • Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything” (2009) – Hitchens (who passed away in 2011) was a writer and political commentator
  • Sam Harris, “The End of Faith:  Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” (2005) – Harris is a neuroscientist
  • Daniel Dennett, “Breaking the Spell:  Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” (2007) – Dennet is a distinguished philosopher specializing in mind and consciousness

Videos of the first three debating Theists have been widely viewed on YouTube.  Here is a link to Christopher Hitchen’s 2007 talk at Google, which has over a million views:

After many hours of watching debates, though without reading the books listed above, I want to share what I found were some of the most compelling points made by each side in these debates, and some things that I think each side doesn’t fully grasp in the other point of view.  First, the compelling points:

New Atheists Side’s Compelling Points:

  1. Science has been continuously pushing religion out of the explanation business.  For early humans, everything was a mystery: lightning, earthquakes, eclipses, disease, etc.  Now that we know about electromagnetism, plate tectonics, astronomy, micro-organisms, etc., super-natural causes are no longer pointed to.  Now that evolution by natural selection has become so well supported that it is firmly established, there is less and less to explain–we are also learning more about how consciousness relates to our brain activity and the initial conditions of the Big Bang at the start of the universe.
  2. Many religious teachings include elements that violate our commonsense view of ethics.    People can point to the three great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and find specific injunctions attributed to God of commanding the killing of other peoples, sacrifices, and the like that do not fit with our modern view of ethics.  It does appear on the surface that these types of teachings strongly reflect the cultures in which the religions were developed, and raises the question of how much culture influenced these religions, and whether they might be man-made, rather than of divine origin.
  3. Religions often create divisions that separate people from each other and overshadow our common humanity.  One large motivating force behind the new atheism is to call out, in the wake of 9/11, the dangers of fundamentalist Islam, and also more generally, how supernatural beliefs of all sorts lead people to do things that violate our common sense morality.  It is also pointed out that it is cruel and unhealthy to indoctrinate children from a young age that they are inherently sinful, that their non-believing friends are going to hell, etc.

Theists’ Compelling Points:

  1. Despite our increasing understanding of life and the universe, there can still be the case made that God started the universe.  Atheists do acknowledge that they cannot definitely prove that God doesn’t exist, and there are many unexplained mysteries such as: what is consciousness, what is the source of free will, how did life first originate on the planet, and what caused the Big Bang?  Of course, the weakness here is that if mysteries are the basis for believing in God, if these mysteries shrink or become elucidated, there will be less and less reason for us to posit God to explain them.
  2. Only revealed religion provides an objective basis for morality that stands outside human conventions. Without an outside moral authority as a standard, any human moral code is subject to critique and challenge, without much moral basis for justification.  This is not to conjure up a picture of widespread moral anarchy, but to point out that the edifice of morality would not have a firm foundation, and the moral code would be subject to convention, political force, and individual adoption.
  3. The 20th Century saw societies which rejected religion that led to the terrors of totalitarianism.  The examples of the societies of Fascist Germany and Communist Russia, while not totally without supernatural beliefs, did have minimal overt religiousity and yet led to the worshiping of humans and regimes.  Though this is not an argument that atheistic societies will necessarily turn out this way, and it is certainly not to deny that religious societies haven’t committed their share of heinous injustices, but it does cast some doubt on the simplistic utopian dream of some atheists that, freed of the supernatural, people will use science and reason to be fair and just to each other and live in a peaceful society.

And now for a few thoughts on what I think each side doesn’t fully comprehend about the other side…

What the Theists Don’t Grasp about the Atheistic argument:

  • Theism and Atheism are not parallel claims that require the same level of supporting evidence.  Since most theists have grown up in a world where most people believe in God, the assertion that God does not exist seems like a bold claim that should require compelling evidence.  However, saying that God exists and that God does not exist are not parallel claims in this regard.  There are a limited number of things that exist and an unlimited number of things that don’t exist (a duo of unicorns, a trio of unicorns, etc.).  Thus, the burden of proof is on the side of those that say something exists.  A well-cited example of Bertrand Russell’s is that if he made the claim that there was a small teapot orbiting the planet Jupiter, we could not (with present capabilities, either in his day, or ours) definitely prove this to be false.  But this does not mean that it is unreasonable to believe it to be false.  As Christopher Hitchens put it, he was ‘unconvinced’ of the arguments for Theism, and thus as a result, an Atheist.  Theists may counter that Atheism is too strong of a position, and that Agnosticism would be more appropriate, leaving open the possibility of being wrong.  However, it seems reasonable that if one finds oneself only slightly convinced, Agnosticism might be the appropriate, but if one finds oneself not convinced at all, then Atheism seems appropriate.  This assumes that being an Atheist doesn’t necessarily mean that they are dogmatically committed to ignoring any future evidence that they may encounter in the future.
  • Many of the reasons people have historically believed in God was based on the unexplainability of the physical world.  It may be possible that some things are ultimately due to supernatural rather than natural causes–but the record of human history suggests it is a better bet to assume a natural cause and to try to look for it.  We can explain so much now that our ancestors could not explain: lightning, thunder, earthquakes, eclipses, droughts, diseases, genetic defects, etc. that was attributed to the supernatural in the past.  Evolution by natural selection has shown how incredible natural phenomena could develop from a non-thinking process.  Richard Dawkins refers to the Theist’s arguments from the design of the world and universe as a “God of the Gaps” explanation—as science solves more mysteries, Theists reallocate evidence of God to the remaining mysteries.  There are still some big mysteries left:  what is consciousness, how did life initially originate, how did the cosmological constants get set to just the right parameters, what ’caused’ the Big Bang in the first place?  And yes, we could invoke God as the cause behind these.  But, given it’s track record, it would seem prudent to withhold final judgment and continue to let science take a crack on these questions–and indeed there have been some (small) advances in our understanding of these areas and some theories advanced.  If we do eventually develop compelling theories and elucidate these mysteries, what happens to the ‘Argument from Design’?  It may be that this well-worn road to a belief in a supernatural God end up being a cul-de-sac.
  • People and societies can still espouse objective ethical standards.  Most debates on Atheism eventually turn to a discussion of the objective basis for morals and ethics.  There are two strands of the discussion here, one is that a belief in moral objectivity is a subjective argument for the existence of God, and the second is that a consequence of widespread adoption of Atheism is to lose objectivity in morals (and a corresponding picture of anarchy with everyone following their own whims).  The first is aptly described by Immanuel Kant (who, incidentally, rejected the other traditional arguments for God’s existence) who said that two things filled him with awe, “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me”.  Thus, the argument is that we feel a moral sense so strongly that it must be rooted outside of our experience, and thus, outside of ourselves.  The New Atheists would argue that most people do feel this strong moral sense, and that it evolved over time as we lived together in families and societies where we depended on each other.  (In fact, many Theists acknowledge a God-given ‘conscience’ that leads non-believers to recognize the ‘good’—but if this is true, this conscience itself could form the basis for a common moral code).  There have been attempts to develop ethical first principles without recourse to God, such as utilitarianism, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Rawlsian justice, among others.  Now all of these are ‘objective’ in the sense that given specific situations there are correct and incorrect courses of action—they don’t depend on the subjective viewpoints of individuals.  However, how do we know which conception or principles of justice are the “right” ones?  This is a question beyond whether ethical standards are objective, but whether we can be absolutely sure that we are following the correct ethical code, and I think the Theist has an answer for this but the Atheist doesn’t (and would likely say this is unanswerable).  Though this seems to score a major point for the Theist’s side, I do not think it is an overwhelming one, because among well-developed non-Theistic ethical frameworks, the vast majority of the prescribed actions would be the same (e.g. helping a needy person at some small inconvenience to oneself, etc.) and are mostly consistent with “common sense” morality.  Also, there is one advantage to the human society-centered basis of ethics:  ethical standards can change over time (likely very slowly) as societies evolve.  I think most people would agree that there has been a positive evolution in moral values within human civilization:  the phasing out of slavery, limits on the legal use of physical force, the elevation of women, toleration of poverty, views on child-rearing, etc.  We are also starting to see new trends at the forefront of what may change in the future in ethics regarding sexual orientation, environmental impact, animal husbandry, etc.  Far from being radical, capricious untied to a theistic mooring, these changes seem to be gradual and share the property that after the change they seem obvious and seemingly an inherent part of a commonsense ethical code.

What the New Atheists Don’t Grasp about the Theistic argument: 

  • A history of diverse man-made religions and common myths can be consistent within the framework of a revealed religion.  Many Atheists point to the large number of culturally-conditioned religious impulses throughout history and often rhetorically ask (mockingly) which god they should believe in: Zeus, Odin, Mithras, etc.  They also point out that many religious myths have common themes, even within the monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) such as propitiatory sacrifice, catastrophic flood, virgin birth, crucifixion, resurrection, angels, etc.  As a result, there appears to be compelling circumstantial evidence that these themes are borrowed from other times and cultures rather than uniquely revealed from Above.  There is an alternative explanation that could fit the facts, however.  If one posits a God active in human affairs in some way throughout history, this could explain some of the commonalities of how humans have conceived of the divine, and the resulting common themes; then they are not improbably coincidences, but rather the prefiguring and echoing instincts of peoples who saw dimly only what was later more clearly revealed.  It must be said that either explanation, the Theist or Atheist, is circumstantial in this case.  However, it seems to me that this is the clinching argument for many Atheists—when they hear about the commonality among the myths and religious doctrines, they conclude that everything is man-made.  This feeling might be similar to the way a table of poker players might view a player at their table who has won several big pots, when an Ace falls out of his sleeve, and they quickly attribute all of his wins to cheating–well, at some point he could have had a real hand too! 
  • If you are critiquing a religion’s scriptural texts, it should incorporate some nuances of the interpretive history that the religious community has regarding the text.  There are many “common sense” critiques of religions, especially in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, based on a straightforward reading of isolated parts of scripture, often to show that the God of those scriptures exhibits overly human petty qualities that belie the superlative qualities we attribute to God and our common sense standards of morality.  These are then strung together to show that the religion does not promote as high a standard of ethics as is commonly assumed, and also that the scriptures were a product of their culture.  This is a simple view, which might be the first response from those looking at the religion from the outside—and in fact, these are stumbling blocks for many converts to these religions.  Throughout their history, some religious have struggled with these texts, and each religion has a long history of interpretation from a scholarly and theological perspective.  And thus, it should not be surprising that in a discussion or debate, religious believers often have explanations or rejoinders against these criticisms, though not always satisfying or fully convincing.  Thus, serious critiques of a religion based on religious texts should at least attempt to understand and incorporate some of the major threads of the interpretive tradition of that religion.  We should not take this too far, however, to restrict those who can criticize a religion to scholars or those who devote themselves to deep study—there should be a middle ground where we can still make appeals from common sense that are well informed through appropriate high-level yet diligent review of the issues.
  • When New Atheists appeal to ‘commonsense’ ethics on which to base moral standards, they should keep in mind that these were often shaped by religious influences.  There is an aspect of the New Atheism that is somewhat utopian:  if we can only remove ourselves from the shackles of irrational superstition, we would rid the world of the evils motivated by religion and treat each other more humanely, as dictated by common moral decency.  There is great appeal in this idea, as humans have been living in communities for a long time and there are many broadly shared values regarding fairness that seem to be a possible basis on which to build an ethical system and motivate the laws of a just society.  Atheists should keep in mind, however, that these ‘obvious’ moral standards of fairness have been developed in the context of religiously-motivated societies and peoples, which has been the scaffolding upon which our current sense of right and wrong have been established.  It is not clear how much of our commonsense ethics is truly independent of religion vs. shaped by it.  How does this matter now?  Well, if large numbers of people jettison religion now will these ethical standards remain the same?  Perhaps so, but how certain are we of this?  Theists may point to the 20th Century regimes of Fascism and Communism, which supposedly banished religion, and point to the evils that these produced.  However, this too is a mixing of the causes, both anti-religious and totalitarian.  Given our long history with religion, it would seem prudent to approach this hypothesis cautiously.  On a separate note, this aspect of morality in religious discussions is concerned more with the consequences of belief, which is of great interest in of course, but does not strictly bear on the logic of whether God exists.  If there is no God and ethics are in some sense socially constructed, then that is the human condition we will need to deal with, rather than wishing for an outside standard that doesn’t exist.  If there is a God, then we still face the challenge of discerning the correct ethical standards, figuring out how they apply to societies today, and the overall role of religion in the civic sphere. 

These are some of my thoughts, based on watching these videos, but also thinking about some of these issues for many years.  It’s not my intent to put my own personal views on where I come down on the question in this blog (and I can’t say I’m unswayed by many of the strong arguments presented), I did want to share what I think is a fascinating and healthy new trend in our public conversation about religion.

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Categories: Society and Culture

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1 reply

  1. From a morality perspective, is it better to be religious person with a situational ethics combined with textual interpretation of theology vs. atheist who follows the societal laws.

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