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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What do the New Atheists really say?

While we're talking about the New Atheists, what do they really say? You'd think, from the various denunciations, etc., that they just come out with long, unstructured, uncivil rants against religion. Who would think that the core New Atheist books contain detailed, thoughtful arguments and that they actually make out cases for certain ideas? You may disagree with those ideas, but surely they are worth rational discussion.

At the risk of being reductive, I think the following is a reasonable starting point to identify what they are really on about.

Sam Harris, The End of Faith. What people believe will actually motivate their actions. Therefore, we cannot simply be tolerant of all beliefs. At least some level of pushback against extreme religious beliefs is justified, and moderate religious people are not assisting with this.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Orthodox or popular theism can be seen as a persistent false belief, one that survives in the absence of evidence and even against our best evidence of how the universe works. Furthermore, it causes actual, identifiable harms.

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell. We ought to devote a lot more time and energy to the study of religion as a natural phenomenon. This will be more useful than the current deference to religion and assumption that it is at least socially valuable (if not actually true).

Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great. The big problem with religion, especially with Christianity, is not so much that it's false as that it comprehensively denigrates human nature and valuable human experience. In that sense, it "poisons everything".

Doubtless all four (well all three, plus Hitchens before his untimely death) would tend to support the main ideas of the others. But they have different specific concerns and different emphases, and they do put actual arguments for their positions. Importantly, while they don't mince words they do remain within broadly accepted standards for civility.

They deserve to be engaged in detail, with appropriate arguments, qualified agreement where that is appropriate, and so on. Instead, the response is often merely an attempt to demonise them and thus try to neutralise them as contributors to debate in the public sphere. That's not good enough.

4 comments:

Ardent Skeptic said...

This is excellent, Russell! Clear and concise statements which, I think, capture the essence of these gentlemen's books and their general perspectives about religion. Sometimes what seems like an over-simplification can actually give us a better understanding at a deeper level. I think you have accomplished that with this post.

Morrison said...

They have all been seriously challenged, by men like Alistair McGrath, John Lennox, John Polkingshorne, Francis Collins, John Haught, and many others.

But what I see is a refusal to seriously engage those challenges, and a tendency on the part of the fans of the New Athesits to rely on ridicule and insult when so challenged.

Morrison said...

Oh, as to them remaining within the "standards of civility" I assume you have no problem with Dawkins talking about the "Notorious Jewish Lobby", several times, is the GD or with Sam Harris making excuses for pre-emptive nuclear war, torture, and blaming the Jews "for their own victimhood".

Or with the late Hitchens lamenting that the Jews weren't wiped out at the battle commerorated by Hannukkah, since then we "could have been spared the whole thing".

As for Harris and Hitchens, their support for the Bush Wars was well known. Heck, you couldn't wipe out Muslims fast enough to satisfy them. Take a look at Sam Harris talking about "the Mecca Option".

Of course Harris now says we don't have free will anyway, so why go on? LOL!

Anonymous said...

How much more seriously do the New Atheists have to take the people you mentioned? They met with them, debated them, interviewed them for documentaries, helped them sell books, etc.
They have never shied away from argument.