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The New Atheism
The Not So New Atheists?
Jon Wainwright considers the resonance of a Victorian ‘ethics of belief’ debate.
We know that ‘new’ is a favourite word of politicians and those with a product to sell; but of philosophers too? Philosophers revere the old almost as much as theologians do, and, although many philosophers are atheists, atheism does not have the cachet of, or indeed as many syllables as, for example, existentialism. (In a nonscientific sampling of a couple of dictionaries of philosophy, atheism commanded a fraction of the column inches of existentialism. Even Augustine garnered more attention.) So, what to make of New Atheism?
In his book The New Atheism (2009), physicist Victor Stenger recognizes a growing phenomenon in the United States which “has driven Christian apologists to distraction.” He quotes the Christian writer Becky Garrison, who contrasts the “old-school atheists” arriving at their conclusions after “some angst-ridden anxiety and serious soul-searching” with “this current crop of anti-God guys giggling like schoolgirls” (p.27). The old atheists were too miserable to be much of a nuisance to anyone but their friends (if they had any), and, like the poor, they could be pitied and then forgotten. The smiling confidence – sorry, the ‘arrogance’ – of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Ariane Sherine has been a shock to the theist system in the past decade. “Don’t you realize we used to burn people like you?” the Christian seems to say, looking around for the matches, “Now we let you live, and you dare ask us to justify our beliefs?!”
The New Atheism may be philosophically indistinguishable from the old atheism, but it feels different. For me, it’s the difference between politely closing the door on a proselytizing Christian without disclosing my personal beliefs, and revealing what I really think about their ‘Bad Book’. For communities, the new attitude has opened up a debate on, for example, faith schools in Britain, and on what should be included in the curriculum. For nations, it is slowly raising consciousness of the influence of faith on the political process. Where once there was automatic respect and deference, now to a growing number of people faith is a warning sign, not a sign of warmth. The New Atheism captures this mood swing.
The New Attitude and the Old Attitude
The rush to the new rarely has time for history, however. Stenger describes faith as “belief in the absence of supportive evidence, and even in light of contrary evidence” (p.45: see also his article in this issue). Over a hundred years earlier, an even stronger statement was made by that great champion of free thought W. K. Clifford: “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” – quoted from his essay ‘The Ethics of Belief’ [see also last issue’s book review, Ed]. Clifford’s was not a lone voice. In the same year (1877), Thomas Henry Huxley wrote in his ‘Lectures on Evolution’: “Scientific men get an awkward habit – no, I won’t call it that, for it is a valuable habit – of believing nothing unless there is evidence for it; and they have a way of looking upon belief which is not based upon evidence, not only as illogical, but as immoral.” According to Huxley, “This sudden revelation of the great gulf between the ecclesiastical and the scientific mind is enough to take away the breath of any one unfamiliar with the clerical organon.” (in Huxley’s Agnosticism and Christianity pp.210–11) By contrast, Cardinal John Henry Newman swept aside “infidel authors” who demanded evidence “As if evidence were the test of truth!” Of course, he was quick to demand evidence when it suited his purpose.
Huxley’s belief was that whenever and wherever “minds have been disciplined by science” civilization will advance. Unfashionable or even illusory as the concept of Western progress may be in some ways, I think there is a great deal of truth in this. (And moreover, philosophers ought to reflect upon why it is science and not philosophy in the driving seat.) Both Clifford and Huxley laid great weight on induction (deriving laws or generalizations about the world by observing it) as a means of arriving at secure knowledge, and this rational faith (in the sense of confidence) continues to this day. For example, in his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins promises to “take inference seriously – not mere inference but proper scientific inference.” (p.16) David Hume’s argument that our trust in inductive reasoning relies on the unjustifiable assumption that nature is uniform, and is therefore itself unjustified, is politely acknowledged, and put to one side. We’re all in the same boat. Dan Barker, another New Atheist, gives an example in his book Godless: “When examining artifacts from the past, historians assume that nature worked back then as it does today; otherwise, anything goes.” (p.278) For Barker, the “issue is not so much what we think, but how we think… Scientists and rationalists gain knowledge by applying limits,” he says. “Believers do the opposite, as faith has no borders.” (p.94) Elaborating in the first part of ‘The Ethics of Belief’ on the question of the right or wrong of a particular belief being held by a particular person, Clifford lays great stress on “not what it was, but how he got it.”
How we think ought to be the natural habitat of philosophy, you would think; but do lovers of wisdom ever skimp on the business end of discovery, the getting of that wisdom in the first place? Concentrating on the good life is all very well, if you happen to know what is good; but would Socrates have known a cognitive bias if it had hit him inside his head? At least Socrates wouldn’t have minded a bit of umming and erring in place of unmerited certitude – unlike some theologians of the nineteenth century, who heaped scorn upon anyone who paused for one millisecond before assenting to the orthodox position. The Catholic priest William Barry, for example, found any such suspension of belief most infuriating: “it may well appear that the Gospel of Unbelief, preached among us during the last half-century, has had its four Evangelists – the Quadrilateral, as they have been called… above them floats the agnostic banner” he writes. The learned cleric was referring to Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, John Tyndall and Thomas Huxley – although today he would no doubt have been fulminating against our very own Four Horsemen of Atheism, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens.
However, Spencer, Darwin et al were not only not New Atheists, they were not even atheists. “One constant concern expressed by members of the Metaphysical Society was a fear of atheism… Huxley was eager to avoid making an explicit denial of God’s existence” says Tim Madigan in W.K. Clifford and ‘The Ethics of Belief’, p.23. Madigan also quotes Darwin: “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.” (p.17)
In coining the word ‘agnostic’, Huxley was implicitly criticizing those who “were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis’ [‘knowledge’].” (ibid, p.22) In a podcast interview, A.C. Grayling characterized agnosticism as a “wishy-washy fence-sitting kind of view,” but he would probably hesitate to describe Darwin’s bulldog in those terms. A twenty-first-century agnostic, anxious to ameliorate the debate between science and religion, is a very different creature to Huxley. Huxley’s argument with the Anglican minister Henry Wace, for example, would make any New Atheist proud: “The Cleric asserts that it is morally wrong not to believe certain propositions, whatever the results of a strict scientific investigation of the evidence of these propositions… Now I, and many other Agnostics, believe that faith, in this sense, is an abomination.”
It may constitute progress that there are fewer priests these days who would echo Wace by declaring publicly that it is morally wrong not to believe the propositions of Christianity. However, this backing off may be mirrored by atheists. The modern taste is to appear nonjudgmental at all costs. Of course, we still judge other people’s beliefs, by the simple expedient of describing them as opinions, which implies that they stand no higher or lower than anyone else’s. At the close of a fruitless exchange with a creationist on a south London street, in which I had suggested in broad but no uncertain terms that evolution was true and creationism false, she departed with a “that’s your opinion.” In my view such people are not just intellectually wrong, but morally wrong too. It is not just my opinion that evolution is true, but the result of millions of hours of hard graft to understand a complex world. Someone who is prepared to dismiss all that as merely another opinion is a menace to society.
Those of us who are not theists also have to deal not only with assertions that, for example, a man called Jesus caused some devils to enter a herd of swine with consequences that would today have the RSPCA on his back, but also with appeals to inner experience which are matched in their sincerity only by their implausibility. For Barker, such untestable appeals only worsen the conflict between religions: “Believers in one particular god have no trouble dismissing the ‘personal experiences’ of the believers of other gods, so they must agree with me that the human race possesses an immense propensity to subjectively ‘know’ things that are wrong.” (Godless p.111) Such arguments are regularly ignored by the faithful.
Plus Ça Change
The idea that agnosticism or atheism are creeds or faiths is also not new. Frederic Harrison amazed Huxley by saying that, for “a man to say his religion is Agnosticism is simply the sceptical equivalent of saying that his religion is Protestantism” (quoted in Agnosticism by Andrew Pyle, pp.111–12). The issue was not helped by Samuel Laing, who actually produced a set of ‘Articles of the Agnostic Creed’. There is no doubt over Laing’s position, however. In one passage he writes: “The only remaining controversy in the scientific world is not as to the reality of evolution, but as to the precise laws and methods of the variations which have led to it… But there is no difference of opinion, as far as I am aware, among competent judges, as to evolution being the true law of the universe.” Laing then advises the reader to “go to the British Museum and look at the collection of stone and other human implements, and you will see… why Modern Science and Evolution should be considered as hostile to Genesis and orthodox theology.” In a remarkable interview between Richard Dawkins and the creationist Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America transcribed in The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins makes a similar case for evolution, and suggests that she visit museums like the Smithsonian to see for herself the fossil evidence she and her fellow creationists insist does not exist, or want to reinterpret as Flood relics. The interview is remarkable for the patience with which Dawkins handles what I can only describe as a love of ignorance.
It is sad how some things have not changed in over a hundred years. Some philosophers may not like the aspect of New Atheism maliciously labelled ‘aggressive’, ‘militant’ or ‘fundamentalist’, and yet they must still square their love of wisdom with what to do about those who hate wisdom.
© Jon Wainwright 2010
Jon Wainwright is studying philosophy with the Open University, and between assignments continues to review on Amazon as ‘Sphex’.