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the tedious myth of new atheism

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it's all just atheism

Like many, I get tired of ‘critics’ trying to flog soi-disant new atheists with their supposed shallowness, smugness, paucity of argument etc, without providing particular examples or making any kind of differentiations. So many things to say on this, but firstly it’s screamingly obvious that the new atheist moniker wasn’t self-imposed, it came from outside – whether from theists or social commentators I don’t know, but the point is that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Myers, Cohn, Hitchens, Grayling and the many others who have been writing about religion from a highly critical perspective in recent years have never themselves claimed that they were presenting anything substantially new, so it seems to me highly disingenuous for critics to be whining – still! – about there being nothing new in new atheism. The arguments have all been made before, and they haven’t been refuted. If there is a newness, it’s a renewal of confidence, and a refusal to tolerate the old crap arguments of theists. And much of this confidence does come from the achievements of science. Many of these new voices belong to practising scientists, and it’s my view that Richard Dawkin’s mammoth book The Ancestor’s Tale, which traces human ancestry back along the evolutionary bush to the earliest archaebacteria over 3 billion years ago, is a much more resounding slap in the face to Judeo-Christian mythmaking than The God Delusion. The truths being revealed about how humans came to be, together with those being revealed about how our universe, and all the matter contained within it, came to be, have frankly made mincemeat out of the pious, self-serving hopes and dreams of particular religions, and it seems to me that a person can only remain religious by ignoring or heavily distorting this mounting evidence about our world and ourselves.

So there is a tone of exasperation creeping into much modern atheist discourse. Supernatural ‘explanations’ have gotten us nowhere. There have been thousands of gods, and there’s a virtual infinity of possible gods, or variations on the supernatural. In much the same way, there’s a virtual infinity of theories about how the world actually is when you’re not bound by evidence. But those theories would be no more likely to get us anywhere than the most elaborate astrological charts or the dead gods of Olympus have gotten us anywhere, fascinating though those objects of belief might be for the anthropologist. How much further have we gotten by applying effective rules of evidence, requiring testing, confirmation and the like. How transformative this has been for our health, well-being and technological advancement. We now have a human population of seven billion. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the down-side of this great number, but it’s an extraordinary achievement, given how prodigiously complex each and every one of those beings actually is. As we look to the future of humans and their impact on the biosphere, a focus on this world, a shrinking world in many respects,and its problems, will be of more value than the projection of other-worldly fantasies. Modern atheists, armed with increasing historical and psychological understandings, get understandably jacked off at the unchained speculations of theologians, who have made no discernible headway since the days of Augustine. It all seems such an expense of spirit, such an embarrassment.

Given all this, it’s hard to credit that this kind of rubbish is still being pedalled:

Given that there isn’t much in the way of serious argumentation in the New Atheists’ dialectical arsenal, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Dawkins and Grayling aren’t exactly queuing up to enter a public forum with an intellectually rigorous theist like Craig to have their views dissected and the inadequacy of their arguments exposed.

Yawn, yawn, yes we’re talking about William Lane Craig again. I’ve dealt with him fairly substantively here, and I’ve also dealt, in that same piece, with the limitations of public debate. Who ‘wins’ these debates? If it’s decided by something like a ‘clap-o-meter’, then it will probably depend on where the event was held. If it’s at a secular university, the non-believer will win, if at a bible college or church hall, the believer will win, always providing that the two debaters aren’t too unequally matched in terms of rhetorical skill and confidence. Recently I watched an ABC forum debate with the odd title ‘Is Atheism false?’. Three people spoke on each side, and because each had their prepared spiel, it wasn’t really a debate at all. They didn’t even address each other let alone debate each other. Naturally, I felt that the non-believing side fairly trounced the believing side, and the audience thought so too, giving the non-believers a two-thirds majority. Later, though, I reflected that this was an ABC audience – highly educated and guaranteed to be more secular in outlook than the Australian population in general. The result was really a foregone conclusion. In any case, the idea that a world-renowned , Oxford-trained professional philosopher like Grayling, who has written extensively against religion, most notably in his book Against all gods, would be worried about having his ‘inadequate arguments’ exposed by the likes of Craig seems pretty ludicrous to me. Craig isn’t so much intellectually rigorous as addicted to certainty. There isn’t a sceptical bone in his body, and this air of absolute certitude allows him to get away with the sorts of claims that no self-respecting sceptic could utter without an overwhelming sense of shame.As I wrote in the above-mentioned piece, a good sceptic isn’t likely to make a good debater, being as uncertainty is the sceptic’s default position. Thus sceptics are just as likely to be looking for flaws in their own arguments as in those of their opponents. Craig generally doesn’t have such concerns.

Probably the best demolitions of Craig’s arguments have been in written form rather than in spoken debate. Philosophical argumentation and analysis requires a slightly different skill-set from debating, though there are overlaps of course. The main difference was identified millennia ago by Socrates, in criticising the sophists. One is more concerned at getting to the truth, the other is more concerned with winning over popular opinion. Having said this, debates can be entertaining as well as thought-provoking. Take this one, in which Shelly Kagan, a philosophy professor at Yale University, handles Craig better than most, largely by focusing on his own presentation and its grounding, which is better than Craig’s. I think it would be a massive stretch for anyone to suggest that Craig ‘won’ this particular debate. Having said that, I’m not entirely in agreement with Kagan’s take on morality [the debate being about whether morality requires a god], but that’s another matter.

I also think that Craig’s arguments should be taken seriously. I get a bit tired of the ad hominem attacks in the commentaries. I don’t think the man’s a charlatan, an idiot or a scam artist or anything like that, I think he’s a convinced believer. In any case his character isn’t the thing, it’s his arguments. For example, in the Kagan debate – and I’m sure Craig uses it with others – he harps on about morality being grounded in the essential goodness of his particular god, but that god has a particular history as related in the Old Testament, where he commits a multitude of murders and encourages or commands the commission of a number of heinous crimes. This is a bit of a problem. And there are many other obvious problems with Craig’s arguments. They’ve been addressed effectively by many atheists – old, new or whatever.

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Written by stewart henderson

October 29, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. As far as I’m concerned no Christian can ever win an argument as both the bibles are full of contradictions, by believing one thing you are almost always invalidating something else

    Sarahen

    November 30, 2011 at 8:08 am


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