The Orthodoxy of Just Not Believing in God

We seem to be witnessing the rapid development of atheist orthodoxy.

I say that as someone who has fallen prey to zingers used about the heretics in the fourth century Empire: According to my disgruntled readers, I am confused, angry, unsettled, provocative, hurtful and creating division, which in Greek is what heresy means.

The word ATHEOs (atheist) in Ephesians, 3rd century Papyrus 46

No one has come right out and said what this might imply:  that the New Atheists having written their four sacred books (a canon?) are not subject to correction.  I haven’t been told that there is nothing further to study, or that the word of revelation came down in 2005 with the publication of The God Delusion. I have been told (several times) that I am mixing humanism and skepticism and doubt into the batch, when the batch, as in Moses’ day,  just calls for batch.  Or no batch. I have been reminded (and reminded) that atheism is nothing more than the simple profession of the belief that there is no God, or any gods. Credo in Nullum Deum. And I have been scolded in response to my challenge for atheists to be better-read and less cute to the effect that “Many of us have read…Hitchens’s excellent The Portable Atheist.  But for Berlinerbrau [sic] that’s not nearly good enough.” An odd rejoinder since it is precisely Berlinerblau’s criticism that Hitchens’ anthology is not very good. And, much as I enjoyed reading its predecessor,  God is Not Great,  it isn’t.

When the first heretics were “proclaimed”  (as opposed to pilloried by various disgruntled individual bishops) in 325–when the Council of Nicaea “defined” God as a trinity–a particular heretic named Arius was in the Church’s crosshairs.  He believed that Jesus was the son of God, in an ordinary sense, if you can imagine it, and not eternal. The growing cadre of right-minded bishops, including his own boss, a man called Athanasius, was committed to the popular intellectual view that everything God was, Jesus was, so Jesus had to be eternal too.

Read our orthodox lips

Was Jesus always a son, Arius asked.  Yes always, they replied.  Was God always a father?  Yes, always, they said: God does not change.  Then what, asked Arius, is the meaning of terms like father and son?You are irredeemable and anathema to us, they replied. Once a group rallies around a position, in other words, it becomes very difficult to ask questions or blow whistles.  Just like academic politics.

To this day, the only bit of the Nicene creed Christians won’t find in their prayer books is the last clause: But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” It would spoil the family atmosphere to end the prayer on a rancorous note.

I have always felt that the more you know about the history of ideas, the less likely you are to be a true believer.  Studying science can have the same effect, but not directly (since science does not deal with religious questions directly) and usually (for obvious reasons) in relation to questions like cosmology rather than questions about historical evolution.

But that “challenge” kept me interested in history and to a lesser degree in philosophy, rather than causing me to throw my hands up and say “What’s the point?”  I did not become an historian in order to vindicate any sort of belief, religious or political.  But by becoming a historian I learned to recognize that all ideas, including God, have histories, and that the ideas of god in their historical context leave almost no room for philosophical discussions, however framed, about his existence.  In fact, even having taught philosophy of religion routinely for two decades, I find the philosophical discussion almost as dull and flat as the scientistic hubris of the new atheists and their disciples.

When I took up a position as a professor of religious studies in Ann Arbor in the 1980’s, students in the large-enrollment lectures immediately spotted me as a skeptic.  When I touched on biblical subjects, bright-eyed students from western Michigan would often bring Bibles and try to trip me up on details.  I would always say the same thing, after a few volleys: “We are not here to test your fidelity to the teaching of your church nor my fidelity to any greater cause. We’re here to study history. God can take it.”  I wish I had a better message after twenty-eight years, but I don’t.

There are two chief problems with orthodoxy–any orthodoxy.  Once it establishes itself, it kills its dissenters–if not physically, then by other means.  It got Arius (not before he’d done commendable damage however); it got Hus, it got Galileo, and it might’ve gotten Descartes if he hadn’t been very clever in the Discourse on Method by creating a hypothetical pope-free universe.

Scientific orthodoxies had fared no better until the modern era, the advantage of modernity being that science learned the humility of error before it began to be right.  It did not promote itself as timeless truth but as correctable knowledge. It would be remarkable if science, in its approach to religion, did not follow the same process, and I’m happy to say that in most cases it does.

For all the confusion about the new atheism attributed to me in the past few days, it seems to me that atheism is not science. It is an opinion (though I’d grant it higher status), grounded in history, to which some of the sciences, along with many other subjects, have something to contribute.

Almost everyone knows not only that the non-existence of God is not a “scientific outcome” but that it is not a philosophical outcome either.  So, if it’s true that at its simplest, atheism is a position about God, and nothing else, then atheism will at least need to say why it is significant to hold such a position.  It can’t be significant just because atheists say so, so it must derive its significance from other ideas that attach to the belief in god, ideas that nonbelievers find objectionable and worth rejecting. (The gods of Lucretius can’t be objectionable because like John Wisdom’s god they are not only invisible but indiscernible). Consequently, atheism can not simply be about the nonexistence of God; it must be about the implications of that belief for believers.

Some of those beliefs matter more than others.  For example, the belief that God created the world.  In terms of the number of people who believe this and the vigor with which they are willing to defend that belief, this has to be the most important idea attached to belief in God.

Atheists who care to argue their case philosophically,  will maintain that evidence of an alternative physical mode of creation defeats demonstrations of the existence of God.  In fact, however, the evidence is a disproof of explanations put forward in a creation myth; and that disproof comes from history long before it comes from philosophy and science. The evidence is nonetheless poignant. But it takes the question of God’s existence into fairly complex argumentation.

Biblical Cosmos

Atheists might also argue that belief in the goodness of God is contradicted by the existence of natural and moral evil (theodicy) or that belief in his benevolence and intelligence (design, teleology) is disproved by the fact that this is not the best of all possible universes. These quibbles are great fun in a classroom because they get people talking,  thinking and arguing.  But as you can see, we have already come a long way from the bare proposition that atheism is just about not believing in God, full stop.

This recognition is unavoidable because you cannot disbelieve in something to which no attributes have been attached–unless like St Anselm you think that existence is a necessary predicate of divine (“necessary”) being.  But that’s another story.  When I use the term EZ atheists, I mean those atheists who short-cut propositions and adopt positions based on a less than careful examination of the positions they hold, or hold them based on authority rather than on strictly rational grounds–an atheist who holds a belief to be irrefragably true only because she or he has faith that it is true.

Most atheists, of course,  do not establish their positions that way, e.g., Williams Hasker’s “The Case of the Intellectually Sophisticated Theist” (1986) and Michael Martin’s “Critique of Religious Experience” (1990) or the famous discussion between Basil Mitchell (a theist) and Antony Flew (an atheist) called “The Falsification Debate” (1955) provide important indicators about how the existence of God can be defeated propositionally.  No atheist who now swims in shallow water should feel overwhelmed by reading these classic pieces.

Recent articles by Jacques Berlinerblau and Michael Ruse have raised the broad concern that the effects of the “New atheism” might actually be harmful. Why? Because it creates a class of followers who (like the early Christians) are less persuaded by argument than by the certainty of their position.  It produces hundreds of disciples who see atheism as a self-authenticating philosophy, circumstantially supported by bits of science, and who, when challenged resort to arguments against their critics rather than arguments in favour of their position.  A common criticism of the new atheists is that their journey to unbelief did not provide them with the tools necessary for such defense, or that they have found polemical tactics against their critics more effective than standard argumentation: thus,  a critic is uninformed or a closet believer. Criticism becomes “rant,” diatribe, hot air; critics are “arrogant” and elitist, or prone to over-intellectualize positions that are really quite simple: Up or down on the God thing? Points of contention become “confusion,” “divisive”; motives are reduced to spite and jealousy rather than an honest concern for fair discussion–epithets that were used freely against people like Arius and Hus, especially in religious disputes but rarely in modern philosophical discussion.  The intensity with which the EZ atheist position is held might be seen as a mark of its fragility, comparable to strategies we see in Christian apologetics.

A year ago,  my position on this issue was less resolute: I would have said then that new atheism is just a shortcut to conclusions that older atheists reached by a variety of means, from having been Jesuits to having been disappointed in their church, or education, to reading too much,  or staying awake during my lectures. (Even I want some small credit for changing minds).

It is a fact that few people become atheists either in foxholes or philosophy class. But having seen the minor outcry against criticism of the New Atheist position by their adherents, I have come to the conclusion that Ruse and Berlinerblau are right: the new atheism is a danger to American intellectual life, to the serious study of important questions, and to the atheist tradition itself.

I have reasons for saying this.  Mostly, they have nothing to do with the canonical status of a few books and speakers who draw, like Jesus, multitudes of hungry listeners.  At this level, emotion comes into play, celebrity and authority come into play. Perhaps even faith comes into play. The bright scarlet A of proud atheism as a symbol of nonbelief and denial becomes an icon in its own right: The not-the-cross and not-the-crescent.  And again, as we reach beyond not believing into symbolism and the authority of speakers who can deliver you from the dark superstitions of religion, without having to die on a cross, we have come a long way from simply not believing.  That is what Professors Ruse and Berlinerblau have been saying.

But the real disaster of the new atheism is one I am experiencing as a college teacher.  Almost three decades back I faced opposition from students who denied that history had anything to teach them about their strong emotional commitment to a belief system or faith. Today I am often confronted with students who feel just the same way–except they are atheists, or rather many of them have adopted the name and the logo.

I say “atheist” with the same flatness that I might say, “evangelical,” but I know what it means pedgaogically when I say it.  It is a diagnosis not of some intellectual malfunction, but a description of an attitude or perspective that might make historical learning more challenging than in needs to be.  It means that the person has brought with her to the classroom a set of beliefs that need Socratic overhaul.


An atheism that has been inhaled at lectures by significant thinkers is heady stuff.  Its closest analogy is “getting saved,” and sometimes disciples of the New Atheists talk a language strangely like that of born agains. I hear the phrase “life changing experience” frequently from people who have been awakened at a Dawkins lecture, or even through watching videos on YouTube.  It would be senseless to deny that the benefit is real.  And it is futile to deny that leaving students in a state of incomplete transformation, without the resources to pursue unbelief–or its implications for a good and virtuous life beyond the purely selfish act of not believing–makes the task of education a bit harder for those of us left behind, in a non-apocalyptic sort of way.

I suspect this is pure fogeyism, but life-changing gurus have minimal responsibility after they have healed the blind.

I could site dozens of examples of the challenges the new atheist position presents.  Two from recent Facebook posts will do.  In response to a Huffington Post blog by a certain Rabbi Adam Jacobs on March 24, one respondent wrote, “Thanks Rabbi. I think I will be good without god and eat a bacon cheeseburger and think of you cowering in fear of the cosmic sky fairy…” and another, “This crazy Rabbi is completely right. Atheism does imply a moral vacuum, whether we like it or not. But that doesn’t mean that we can just accept the manifestly false premises of religion just because it would create a cozy set of moral fictions for us, which is what the author seems to be saying.”

The cosmic sky fairy, a variation presumably on Bobby Henderson’s (pretty amusing) Flying Spaghetti Monster, doesn’t strike me as blasphemy.  Almost nothing does. But it strikes me as trivial.  A student who can dismiss a serious article about the relationship of science, morality and religion, asked, let’s say, to read Aquinas in a first year seminar would be at a serious disadvantage.  A worshiper of Richard Dawkins who can’t deal with Aquinas because he is “religious” is not better than an evangelical Christian who won’t read it because he was “Catholic.”  That is where we are.

The second comment suggests that atheism is “de-moralizing,” in the sense that it eliminates one of the conventional grounds for thinking morality exists. The writer doesn’t find this troubling as an atheist, because he see the post-Kantian discussion of morality as high-sounding but fruitless chatter: “There is no higher justification for any moral imperative beyond ‘because I think/feel it’s better.'” –I actually happen to agree with him.  But I can’t begin a conversation at the conclusion. His honesty about the question is pinned to a view of atheism that, frankly, I cannot understand.

The essence of EZ atheism is this trivialization of questions that it regards as secondary to the entertainment value of being a non-believer, a status that some will defend simply through polemic or ridicule of anything “serious,” anything assumed to be “high culture” or too bookish.

I am not questioning the robustness of the movement, its popularity, or the sincerity of the followers.   I am not trying to make new atheism rocket science or classical philology. I have never suggested it belongs to the academy and not to the village, because I know that nothing renders a worldview ineffective quite so thoroughly as keeping it locked in a university lecture hall.  The idea that there is no God, if it were left to me, would be discussed in public schools and from the pulpit.  But it won’t be.  For all the wrong reasons.  When Harvard four years ago attempted to introduce a course in the critical study of religion into its core curriculum, its most distinguished professor of psychology, who happens also to be an atheist, lobbied (successfully) against it because it was to be taught as a “religion” course.  Almost no one except a few humanists  saw that atheism lost a great battle in that victory.  And it lost it, I hate to say, because the professor responsible sensationalised the issue as “bringing the study of religion into the Yard” rather than keeping it safely sequestered in the Divinity School.

I want to suggest that the trivialization of culture (which includes religion and religious ideas), especially in America where trivial pursuits reign, is not especially helpful.  And as I have said pretty often,  that part of this trivialization is the use of slogans, billboards, out campaigns and fishing expeditions to put market share ahead of figuring things out.  Truth to tell, there is nothing to suggest that these campaigns have resulted in racheting up numbers, increasing public understanding of unbelief, or advancing a coherent political agenda.  They have however potentially harmed atheism with tactics that simplify religious ideas to an alarming level (all the better to splay them) and by confirming in the minds of many “potential Brights” (Dennett) that their suspicions of atheism were well founded.  Adherents of the New Atheists need to make a distinction between success as a corollary of profits to the authors and the benefit to the movement or, to be very old fashioned, the ideals of an atheist worldview.

Julian Huxley

After a long time as a teacher, I am surprised to find myself writing about this.  I have often found myself thinking, “If only half my students were atheists.  Then we could get somewhere.  We could say what we like, just the way we like it.  We could follow the evidence where it takes us–no more sidestepping ‘awkward issues’ so as not to injure religious feelings.”

If only it were that easy:  I may spend the remainder of my time in the academy imploring the sky fairy to smile on my efforts and deliver me from orthodoxy of all kinds.

28 thoughts on “The Orthodoxy of Just Not Believing in God

  1. “When I use the term EZ atheists, I mean those atheists who short-cut propositions and adopt positions based on a less than careful examination of the positions they hold, or hold them based on authority rather than on strictly rational grounds”

    Thanks for explaining what you mean by that.

    I am in the UK, and like the US, some level of theistic belief has been the norm for centuries.
    However, now that I am raising children (and unfortunately the local elementary school is a church school) I am obviously telling them that despite what they may hear at school there is in fact no god and the reason many people believe that there is stems from pre-scientific desires to explain the natural world.

    My children therefore are, and are highly likely to remain, EZ atheists.


  2. I think that this may be making the issue more complex than it needs be. I believe that naturalists are simply saying to the theists, that if they want others to accept their hypothesis, they should simply demonstrate it.

    Plus, the entire discussion evolves around, not intellectualism, but politics. I don’t think many naturalists would care what gods people want to believe in. I think what they are concerned with is that supernaturalism is affecting politics. And when you have a democracy that is affected by supernaturalism, you have democracy not based on reason. And a democracy that is not based on reason is doom.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

    • ” I don’t think many naturalists would care what gods people want to believe in. I think what they are concerned with is that supernaturalism is affecting politics…” Absolutely, well said.

  3. Eloquent and incisive … Augustine of Hippo defined the phenomenon, although without your flourish and wit. And you’re right, it is very hard to tell the difference. As a friend once said, they’re just batting for the other side. It really does seem as if there is a clean transferral of methodless principles from one set of convictions to another. But with the cheering I imagine the clink of glasses. Perhaps someone called for communion wine. We have several choices, The Mission, Divinity Street, Faith Peaks, Church Road, and Sacred Hill. They all make fantastic reds but I’m on the wrong end of the world for any of their bottles, so I’ll have to go French. By the way, fairies don’t exist. Only angels are true.


  4. Well at least now I have a better sense of why you’re so (ahem) perturbed about noo atheism.

    But I still think your perturbation is causing you to overlook some things – like the sheer badness of the Ruse and Berlinerblau posts.

    But I think a larger thing is the torrent of bad posts and articles that have been directed at noo atheists for years now. Their consistent badness and the frequency with which they appear make them seem not like serious, reasoned, genuine criticism of ideas, but angry reflexive hostility; in short, a backlash. Noo atheists tend to suspect the motivations of all these over-general and heated-to-boiling-point articles and posts. We tend to suspect it’s just more of the “how dare you!” that shifts in thinking tend to attract.

    You want a better and more erudite atheism. You want a better and more erudite everything; so do I; but we’re not going to get it, are we. The students sound deeply annoying, but is that really the fault of the noo atheists?

    I don’t know; maybe it is to some extent. You could probably convince many noos of that if you tried, but invoking Ruse and Berlinerblau really isn’t the way to do it. (Honestly – when Ruse himself said right in that post that he likes to create dust ups, I find it bizarre that both you and Berlinerblau solemnly endorse his post as if he hadn’t been coat-trailing.)

    Then again, you do love Fun With Language – and all these posts are of course witty in themselves, though not the cause that wit is in other people. But if that’s what you want, you can’t very well get exasperated when people respond accordingly. Bomb-throwing begets bomb-throwing. Wudja expect? Flowers?

  5. I like the tone of this latest post on the subject. In response to its lament, however, let me note two things: (1) we’ve seen it all before and (2) this too in time shall pass.

    Starting with the freethought movement, look back at the first half of the twentieth century. There was the popular author Henry Louis Mencken, who was at once a scholar of the American language and an acerbic polemicist. Less well known, but popular in their circles, were atheist pamphleteers like Joseph Lewis, E. Haldeman-Julius, Chapman Cohen, and Joseph McCabe. In reading back issues of The Truth Seeker and other atheist periodicals of that era, I know that many of the young acolytes of these men were as orthodox as the students you decry now–an attitude that some maintained into old age, which I discovered when first getting involved in freethought in the late 1960s.

    Consider the feminism of the 1970s. Remember SCUM, the Society for Cutting Up Men, and their brash journal Up from Under? In the Civil Rights movement there was Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers and later the Black Liberation Army. Campus antiwar activists of the time were often uncritical and doctrinaire trend followersthink of how often the police were called “pigs” and the word “capitalist” was thrown as an epithet if the price of a Coke went up. Then remember Act Up in the gay rights movement. I could go on.

    But it probably all had to happen as part of the process of social change. Almost every wing of these movements made a contribution. So I consider it all a fact of life. Leaders have followers and social movements have dogmatists: it just works that way. I think how often, when executive director of the AHA in the 1980s and 90s, I would sigh in frustration, “Whoever said humanists are rational?” But I soldiered on.

    By the very nature of their work, of course, professors have found social activists frustrating to teach. Just having a strong social goal orientation can dull intellectual curiosity and the ability to handle ambiguity. Even John Milton couldn’t write Paradise Lost until his political days were over. But once a cause is won, or lost, the excesses usually pass.

    Your critique, therefore, is warranted. But not any pessimism for the future.

  6. Everybody has to have a little contrarian in them. It’s what makes every position seem unloved the moment you click a post button. It’s why professors and novices alike couldn’t lock a subject tight if they wanted to. And this is good for an academic look around a viewpoint. But it’s really frustrating in the case of math or evolutionary biology. Those are cases with a very right answer and a very large swath of folks who still can’t figure it out. I’m going to guess that humanists, New Atheists, and just about everybody who doesn’t go door to door asking you to join their church has been trying to figure out which kind of thing beliefs are.

    For starters, Oxonian, you clearly move from facet to facet on various subjects that are important to you. The weakness of any one post or it’s appeal is that every comment with a critique would like to push or pull the position a little bit further somehow. You know how to write books and I’m too lazy to read half of them (although I attribute my laziness to other things most of the time) so that puts us in a bit of a standoff. It would soften the point of these posts to simultaneously say “atheists have almost figured it all out” and then critique the EZ positions.

    I’d like to help us size up beliefs faster. And maybe we can even get beliefs bar coded so we can quick scan right answers. Seriously though. Atheism is probably not a belief and it never was but it helps underscore a series of factors that might define what a person’s belief is even if it’s godless.

    Believing in a god is only one factor of a belief. It’s what you have in common with New and old atheists. I’ve known Christians that had more of an absent god than I do but they were Christians for other reasons. Social justice is a separate factor. There are believers and nonbelievers a like that have no interest in moving society forward. And there are us. We might have different subjects but we share an interest in moving things forward. Interest in the history of your faith or faithlessness is certainly a factor and it’s one that puts you at odds with those of us who Tivo your blogs instead of reading your books. Interest in the modern trend of a faith is certainly a separate component because it acts separately on people’s involvement. Potentially last is a factor of righteousness or an evangelism factor. It’s how likely a belief is to be outspoken.

    In a nutshell, you worry about the interest in history which you see is lacking and the factor of righteousness which seems to high. I don’t think you mind the trendiness if EZ atheists displayed enough awareness of their roots because it’s okay to be excited about a position.

    I think that illustrates the basic differences between New Atheists and Humanists anyway. So it makes sense to me.

  7. I’ll start with a negative. I’m not against education and culture. That said, if atheists, agnostics, secular humanisst, brights, etc. are going to affect policy and make a difference in the United States, they must be organized in sufficient numbers that the people with power will be concerned about them. If the numbers are sufficiently larg,e it will be inevitable that the level of atheist education will not be very deep. If a movement can be cobbled together, I will not be much concerned that many of them have confined their reading to Dawkins and Harris.

    In my case I became an agnostic around the age of 14. I think that reading a lot of science fiction was the precipitating cause. In college, I read on my own, Einstein’s popular books and Man and His Gods by Smith. That was about it for atheism for nearly 50 years. I continued to read science fiction up until about ten years ago and continuously read popular science books. I clearly was not the kind of agnostic Joe has in mind. But,I filled the years with participation in the Civil rights movement, married and had two children, helped start two legal services programs and an operating foundation, represented farmworker organizations including the United Farmworkers Union, engaged in a very time consuming appellate practice and in 1972 was one of three founders of Centro Campesino Farmworker Center and have served as President for the last 23 challenging years. Up until about six years ago, I was very much in the closet. Except for very close family, all of whom were believers, no one knew my religious beliefs. I kept them completely separate from my work. The civil rights movement and the farmworker movement were closely connected to religious organizations, very effectively used religion in support of their causes and my uneducated clients would not have understood my beliefs.

    Finally, about ten years ago I received an advertisement from Free Inquiry magazine and bought a subscription. This rekindled my interest in knowing more about religion and non-religion. When I remarried, my new wife and I helped start a CFI community in Miami. She eventually became the coordinator for several years. The distinguishing feature of the people who attended meetings was their relief at having someone to talk with who had similar beliefs.

    The problem with CFI was its verticallity. The professors at the top liked to lecture the peons at the bottom. In my wife’s case she is a PhD sociologist and statistician with three master’s degrees, one of them in theology. She also has extensive organizing experience, is a professional program evaluator and is expert in designing and implementing surveys. Suffice it to say she knows more about a lot of things pertinent to an organization and organizing than did the lecturing philosophers. So do I. But, there was no upward exchange of information. It was discouraging that the staff member in charge of the communities “wasn’t a joiner”. During this period of time we both came out of the closet, but I still carefully separate my beliefs from my work at Centro.

    If atheists, I prefer “secular humanist” because it permits emphasis on ethics and humane matters, are ever to gain traction in this country they will have to enlarge and organize their numbers. The failure of the leaders as I see it is their failure to define a program and to bring in people with the requisite skills to create a mass movement. Simply writing to each other as we are doing here won’t cut it. The underlying problem with the academic opinions that I see here appears to be disdain for the great unwashed and a lack of interest in developing a movement that can meaningfully affect the issues of the day although Joe has called for us to do just that, especially regarding education. To create a broad movement you have to get your hands dirty and you must accept the fact that the average knowledge level will be a good deal less than the academics would like. The service that Dawkins and Harris, et al are rendering is that they are creating a large number of potential recruits. Who will organize them. I fear the answer is noone.

  8. The history of phlogiston is interesting, and worth teaching. But chemists do not have to know this history in order to prove that phlogiston does not exist.
    The history of far too many books attempting theodicy is likewise interesting. But if there was one, just one, such book which actually refuted, or even seriously addressed, the ancient disproof of benevolent deities from the existence of natural evil, we would all know about it. Granted, complete atheism does not follow: there may be any number of cosmic sadists. Is it just your little joke to call this point a ‘quibble’?
    I have been an atheist ever since I was exposed to Mere Christianity in the 1950s. I agree that it is regrettable that some people treat Dawkins and Hitchens as authorities. But I rejoice that in the UK the big religions are now criticised freely, publicly, and cogently, as they long have been in (for example) France. Only history will tell whether the writings of (for example) Greta Christina and PZ Myers help or hinder that outcome in the USA.

    • Joe, I of course know much of this because we have shared some of it before and I agree with it. If I were going to mention the good things about the New Atheism it would include some of what you say here, including the availability. Availability is a good thing. And I have also written that nothing kills a movement faster than locking it up in a university classroom. My point has been and continues to be that the results of the New Atheist movement have not been altogether good, and I have drawn fire for supporting Berlinerblau’s point that with the kind of antics we see in Blasphemy Day (CFI), and with some of the rallies and agendas that border on almost nothing but simple ridicule of religion, we are not moving atheism forward and we may well be frightening the nones and undecideds off. I do not say that the four chief authors intended the outcome, but they are normally the patron saints of the most extreme and have said some pretty ridiculous things themselves. And I have to disagree that atheism is spoiled by the PhDs, since most of the key figures in new atheism from Dawkins to Harris to Coyne to Myers are. Yes, they are willing to get their hands dirty (I know what you mean), but even they seem to display a very narrow range of interests–almost al are scientists, all are militant–and even their critics–many of whom are philosophers or historians–find their approach far fetched and downright clownish. So the question is whether tactics aren’t required or greater atheist awareness isn’t desirable–it is–but whether atheisst are doing themselves any favors by sticking so closely to the plot line put out by what I’m calling EX atheism. (The phrase seems to annoy people; maybe that’s good)

    • @Nicholas: Thanks for a thoughtful response, and see mine to Joe Segor below, which actually embraces several of your points. Theodicy does seem to be self-defeating when people get into the topic, and Lewis’s moral argument is just a literary puzzle. The solution to theodicy is to postulate no God, and the problem disappears: in olden days that might have been a shocking, refusable option, but it isn’t anymore and has been appealing to people for a long time. It has relevance only within theology, not within a scientific view of cosmos and human origins. I’m happy to accept all those points.

  9. One problem with this debate is that we are all working from profound ignorance; not of atheism, religion, philosophy, history or any of the other worthwhile subjects that we might study in school or on our own. We have not defined a realizable goal or goals for atheism (I prefer secular humanism). We have only the crudest information about the population that might be receptive to our message, we don’t know where they are or what their needs, interests, and desires might be.

    I don’t like Blasphemy Day either, but that may just be a matter of taste. We know that a bunch of people have bought the Dawkins-Harris type books, but we know nothing about them except for the small number who have attached themselves to the authors. How typical are they? Is there any data? We pride ourselves on being the defenders of science, but we don’t use the tools of management (strategic planning for one) and social science ( focus groups and well designed surveys) to identify and further our goals. The critics of the new atheists may be right about the harm that they do, but I don’t know that. All I see are opinions. If one person is turned off by the News and five are turned on, we are ahead of the game, assuming we know what the game is.

    Argie (my wife) was critical of CFI because of the absence of social scientists. I was additionally critical because of the absence of business people, especially those expert in planning and marketing. The churches have had millennia to refine their messages and techniques. We don’t have that kind of time, so, to further our cause we need to use modern knowledge and adopt modern techniques. If we do that, we might actually have some knowledge about what is helpful and what is harmful to our yet to be defined cause.

    • @ Joe, I agree with everything here, esp about the goals, and about strategies, and CFI should have tapped more directly into the kind of gifts you and Argie brought to the table–that is for sure. My advice is to get involved with the ISHV and make it happen now!

  10. You want a better and more erudite atheism. You want a better and more erudite everything; so do I; but we’re not going to get it, are we. The students sound deeply annoying, but is that really the fault of the noo atheists?

    I agree. I hate to say it, but atheism has been too academic and stuffy to have any relevance to the common person. The New Atheist have simply dumbed it down so that it can be more easily digested by your Joe the Plumber types. If atheism had remained an “ivory tower” phenomenon, then that’s exactly where it would have stayed.

    If we want atheism to be something discussed in the living room or the local bar — instead of a philosophy journal — then it has to appeal to the type of person that flexes the extent of their intellectual muscle in those venues.

    A double-edged sword, really.

  11. The only thing new about the Gnu-atheists is the Bright meme. Let’s get a real, sophisticated, erudite debate going by ‘coming out’ as Brights. And testing naturalism (perhaps to destruction?) but sitting on the fence is no longer an option when you can be a Bright.

  12. Ruse & Berlinerblau & apperently you, Mr. Hoffman, seem to miss the entire point behind the ‘new atheism’. Would you judge books by Josh McDowell & Lee Strobel by the same criteria as Richard Swinburne & Alvin Plantinga? You all seem to be missing that this ‘movement’ is more about popularizing than presenting a philosophically sophisticated defense of atheism. The new atheist authors are aimed to the popular level crowd, to denegrate them for lack of academic rigor is entirely missing the point.

    For someone that calls himself a philosopher to frame the issue & poison the well with phrases like ‘hyper-emiricism’ also seems dishonest. What exactly is ‘hyper-empiricism’, where in the philosophical literature can I read about it? Since Berlinerblau made absolutely NO argument as to what is wrong with this invented position, can you elaborate the flaws in it? What makes it ‘hyper’ instead of regular old empiricism? What exactly is wrong with just plain old empiricism, do you guys have a bone to pick with Hume? Are you saying that rationalism is better? If so, then, where are the arguments?

    It seems that while Ruse, Berlinerblau & the like want to charge new atheists for not reading enough about atheism, but they appear just as ignorant of advancements in the field. There has been quite a lot of work done recently from the atheist position in philosophy of relgion, things have moved on since the gloomy existentialists of the late 19th/ early 20th century. And even past early to mid 20th century guys like Flew & J.L. Mackie. In the past 20 years or so, there have been powerful atheistic argumentsput forth by guys like Paul Draper, Ted Drange, J.L. Schellenberg, Andrea Weisberger, and Nicholas Trakakis, William Rowe. Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, Nicholas Everitt, Michael Martin, Robin Le Poidevin and Richard Gale have put forth extremely sophisticated works that devastate theistic arguments in their modern & classical forms. Gregroy Dawes’ ‘Theism & Explanation’ gives strong arguments for the impotency of theistic explanations. Erik Wielenberg has done great work on why ethics does not need god, Steven Maitzen has written some great papers on how theism cannot ground morality. Erik Baldwin & Evan Fales have put forth powerful objections to reformed epistemolgy. There have been great defenses of naturalistic ethics, reliabilist epistemology, I could go on & on. The new atheist views are completely in line with comtemporary philosophy, as shown by the recent philpapers survey on what most philosophers believe.

    For you to endorse the straw-man fest by Berlinerlrau is just absurd, if it’s really a more intellectual atheism you want to see, why not try to help out, ya know, embrace the principle of charity? Saying that new atheists ‘mock every thinker & text’ is surely not being charitable. Even in your own comments, I see you advise someone to learn epistemology & ‘start from Descartes & go from there’, is that really how one should approach the issue? Shoudn’t one dive right into Aquinas when enquiring about the issue? Wouldn’t it be better to point people to contemporary introductions to the subject instead of pointing to a bunch of different authors? It seems like you & the others are more interesting in appearing knowledgeable than helping people understand the issues.

    • @Wade Wade, sorry this is a late reply because I was actually going to centerpiece it in a blog–but now have to move on to another topic. I find this extremely eloquent, smart and insightful. You mention a number of philosophers whose works I teach and several whose works, while “learned,” I find deplorable (Plantinga is one, Swinburne, whom I’ve debated, is another). Plantinga in fact is a philosophical charlatan–reading him doesn’t repay the effort. Many, like Draper ( and Michael Martin are my friends. So we couldn’t possibly agree more on this small canon.

      I take it that your real distress is that given my own record of defending the atheist position against the extreme positions of believers I have nonetheless criticized the new atheists. In re-reading my post, it seemed to me that it was too strident, and I was too strident in defending it. I actually think all of the “four horsemen” are very nice guys, certainly much nicer than some of the people who have been most critical of their work from the religious side–and I know you know that new atheism is not afraid to pick fights or inclined to offer demurrers when challenged. That openness is what has brought it out of the corridors into the sunlight. But I also want the sun shining on a movement that all unbelievers can be proud of. The events I have attended, in a couple of cases chaired beginning in 2006 where Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have been present (Hitch on other occasions at CFI) were marked by complete civility and good spirits. So it should be clear, as it wasn’t from the tone of the discussion (with me partly to blame), that I am not opposed to popularizing the message.

      BUT I am opposed to any strategy, any campaign, and any
      movement that becomes programmatically uncharitable or encourages the idea (as the Old Atheism used to do, btw in Madalyn Murray O Hair’s day) that ridiculing religion as a genus of human behavior is progressive and far sighted. It isn’t, and I think Jacques was right to caution the News that leadership and tone will either sink or save the movement. I do not know whether we agree or disagree about that, but the dumbing of atheism, and of humanism in some quarters will simply alienate Nones, Waverers, and others. (I’ve actually been impressed by voices like yours and a number of others on B&W at how well versed you are on God matters–that is a really hopeful sign to me. But I have to confess, not all voices were as impressive. -So what’s new?) I personally wouldn’t use words like “hyper-empiricism” (is that a bad thing?) but I would agree with Berlinerblau’s point about atheism in some of its current iterations needing to become politically savvy enough to do business with the millions of agnostics and softies who won’t be persuaded by ridicule. The major premise cannot be “All religious people are imbeciles…” We know what the hardcore looks like; I myself prefer the softcore–but we’re all in deep when those two gradients can’t react to each other in matters of approach. For the time being let’s see if any of this criticism is of any use, or is addressed by anyone who thinks it matters. Either it will or it won’t. But it strikes me as something that key voices need to address, if for no other reason than that there are thousands who look to them for wisdom. Thanks for writing.

      • “That openness is what has brought it out of the corridors into the sunlight. But I also want the sun shining on a movement that all unbelievers can be proud of. ”

        We do both share this desire, & there certainly is cause for worry brought on by some of the new atheist blog commenters. There is a definite resistance of philosophy by some that borders on anti-intellectualism. I’ve had to have quite a few arguments with my non-believing friends about the value of learning philosophy, too many conflate it with theology & consider it all useless. I find, though, it’s best to show through some clever arguing that whether they know it or not, they are doing philosophy when they argue about issues like the existence of god, the nature of science, morality without god, ect. It’s just a matter of whether you are doing good philosophy or not, & it’s quite hard to do something good when you know absolutely nothing about it.

        Many just don’t seem to realize that when they construct an argument, they are engaging in philosophy, too many think ‘logic’ is synonymous with ‘common sense’, unable to tell the difference between modus ponens & modus tollen. They have no idea that empiricism is a position that must be defended with arguments instead of taken as a given, many think ‘occam’s razor’ is a hard & fast rule of science without even realizing that it was thought up by a theologian. Many seem wholly unaware that ideas like falsification, demarcation, ‘paradigm shifts’ come from philosophers of science.

        And there are some that seem to close off inquiry just because one of the horsemen said it, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain the problems with arguments like the ‘the courtier’s reply’ or ‘who designed the designer’. I am completely in favor of criticism, if one wants to consider themselves ‘rational’, then one should never shield themselves from criticism. It hurts the cause to put forth & stubbornly defend arguments & ideas that a philosophically trained theist can demolish easily, because they can take these few examples to their ‘flock’ & say ‘see, their arguments are bad, don’t buy their books’.

        And I do agree that tone is important, there are too many that jump straight to insults & ridicule without presenting arguments. But I’m also inclined to agree with Thomas Jefferson when he says “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.” Sometimes just the right amount of ridicule can be the only weapon against nonsense. So really, a balancing act is in order.

        However, I also think that it goes both ways, essentially calling gnus ‘big mean dummies’ & telling them to ‘read more this or that’ is never going to provoke a good response, it will only make people shut down. If the goal is to ‘soften’ people approach, it’s not going to work by doing the very thing you are criticizing. There has to be a better way of making atheists see the need for a more intellectual approach than straw-manning their arguments & hurling thinly veilded insults. The point about empiricism is a great example, Berlinerblau’s use of the term implies that there is something wrong with the position, that it is somehow a unfavorable view to hold in philosophy. If say, he had explained the problems of empiricism, say, quoting Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ & elaborated on how gnus seem wholly unaware of the problems, maybe he would have had a good point. Instead he used it as a thinly veiled insult as if it were solipsism. Now that’s a position that you can make fun of someone for holding. JK lol

        And as for political action, I never saw this as being an explicit goal of the new atheists, I don’t remember a call for people to push nonbelievers into politcal office, it seems more to be a social movement to get the masses to even acknowledge our existence. Most people still don’t view atheists favorably, polls show that atheists are the least trusted minority (especially here in the U.S.), to even admit to atheism in some parts of the country is social suicide. Merely by people talking about their atheism is a step in the right direction, no one expects atheism to sweep the nation in less than a decade. This, I think, is the greatest value of the new atheist authors, it got people to come out in the open & discuss the issues more than has been socially allowed for decades, if not centuries.

  13. Pingback: The condoning atheist

    • (Washington Post: T

      The world was reminded of the 30-person Christian congregation at Dove World Outreach Center on Friday, when a mob incited by the burning of the Koran attacked a U.N. compound in Mazar-e Sharif, killing seven U.N. employees. On Saturday, related protests in Kandahar left nine dead and more than 90 injured.

      Jones, 59, had considered the possibility that burning the text might elicit a violent response and that innocent people might be killed. In his characteristic drawl — a slow-motion delivery that seems incongruous with the church’s fiery rhetoric — the pastor said the church also debated whether to shred the book, shoot it or dunk it in water instead of burning it. But in the end, his desire to shed light on what he calls a “dangerous book” won out. The Koran was burned in a spectacle streamed live on the Internet. To reach out to Muslims overseas, Jones included Arabic subtitles….”

      As to the extent of the Jones Awakening:

      “For some of them,” he said, “it could be an awakening.”

  14. Pingback: An Essay on Criticism » R. Joseph Hoffmann

  15. Pingback: An Essay on Criticism « The New Oxonian

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s