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The New Atheism

What’s New About The New Atheism?

Victor Stenger answers the question.

The New Atheism is the name that was attached, often pejoratively, to the series of six best-selling books by five authors including myself that appeared in the period 2004-2008. Since then many have joined the movement, with an upsurge in books, freethinker organizations and an exponential expansion on the blogosphere, spreading the word on atheism to thousands. The message of New Atheism is that it is time to take a far less accommodating attitude toward religion, including moderate religion, than has been exhibited in previous years by atheist authors and, in particular, by non-believing scientists.

In the United States science is locked in a battle with conservative Christians over the teaching of evolution and creationism in schools. So far, a series of court decisions going back to the mid-eighties has prevented attempts by some states to insinuate ‘creation science’ and its later version ‘intelligent design’ into the science curriculum of public schools as an alternative theory to Darwinian evolution. These decisions were all based on trial testimony that the proposals for inclusion were motivated by religion and thus in violation of the Establishment Clause of the US constitution, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion. Shaping up as the next stage of the battle is the attempt to permit the teaching of creationism in science classes as a matter of ‘academic freedom’.

While 87% of scientists accept evolution by unguided, purely natural processes, only 32% of the public does. Belief in unguided evolution among mainline Protestants and Catholics is about the same as among the general public, while only 10% of Evangelicals and 19% of fundamentalist Protestants acknowledge it. To maintain as much public support for science as they can, many science advocacy organizations, such as the National Center for Science Education, the National Academy of Sciences, and most professional scientific societies, have maintained a kid-gloves approach in their dealing with religion. Several have issued statements to the effect that no contradictions exist between science and religion and, in particular, that evolution and Christianity are compatible.

A 1998 survey of National Academy members indicated that only 7% believe in a personal God (Edward J. Larson, ‘Leading Scientists Still Reject God’, Nature 294, #6691). Surely such a high level of unbelief is the result of the members being scientists – I doubt you would find such a low proportion of belief in the US among bakers or accountants. Yet the Academy insists that science has nothing to say about God or the supernatural:

“Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.” (National Academy of Sciences, Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science, 1998, p.58)

This disingenuous statement is belied by the evidence. Scientists from top-rated institutions such as Harvard, Duke, and the Mayo Clinic have performed careful experiments on the efficacy of prayer in aiding healing, for example. These experiments certainly have bearing on the existence of God. The results so far have been negative, but they need not have been. Many theologians and churchmen have adopted positions similar to the Academy. Imagine how fast they’d change their tune if the evidence that prayer worked was positive and no natural explanation could be found. They would gleefully fill the airwaves with, “See? We told you so. Science proves God exists!”

In a 1999 book, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, famed paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould made a well-intentioned attempt to eliminate the conflict between science and religion. He proposed that science and religion be considered as two “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). A magisterium is “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” In Gould’s proposal, science would be limited to the empirical realm – including theories developed to describe observations – while religion would deal with questions of ultimate meaning and moral value, and they wouldn’t need to overlap.

From my reading of and contacts with both believing and nonbelieving scientists, I find that the majority are happy with Gould’s scheme. It offers an easy way for believing scientists to leave their science at the church door on Sunday morning and not apply their training to what they hear inside. Then on Monday morning they can return to the lab, where God doesn’t enter their equations. The concept of NOMA is also appealing to these nonbelieving scientists mentioned above who are happy to reach an accommodation with religion if it means that only legitimate science is taught in science classrooms.

The problem is, NOMA does not describe the empirical facts about the intersection of science and religion. That intersection is not a null set. In his 2006 bestseller The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins shows (pp.53-61) that the Abrahamic religions constantly deal in scientific matters. Others have noted that Gould attempted to redefine religion as moral philosophy. Yet not only does religion do more than talk about ultimate meanings and morals, science is not proscribed from doing so. After all, morals involve human behavior, an observable phenomenon, and science is the study of observable phenomena.

Heading Toward Theocracy

If religions restricted their activities to home, church, synagogue or mosque, atheists would have no legitimate complaints. The problem is, religion is everywhere. If any event triggered the New Atheist attitude it was 9/11. Some commentators have tried to explain this tragic event in terms of social causes, such as the perceived American oppression of Muslim nations. However, a reading of the final instructions Mohammed Atta gave to his team leaves little doubt that it was religion which motivated them as they flew those planes into those buildings.

While in recent times Christians have not produced numerically comparable atrocities, individual cases can be found where murders by Christians have been committed ‘under orders’ from God. More common are Christian attempts to force others to behave according to their beliefs; to set public policy based on faith rather reason; and to transform America into a theocracy.

In the decades since the Nixon administration (1969-74), American business and the federal government have been strongly influenced by – and in the George W. Bush administration, eventually dominated by – an unholy alliance of neoconservatives (or neocons) and fundamentalist Christians which the author Damon Linker has dubbed the theoconservatives or theocons. Time and again the Bush administration ignored and even undermined scientific results, and made important decisions based on ideology. For example, in May 2004, the Food and Drug Administration refused to approve over-the-counter sales of the ‘morning after’ pill Plan B, ignoring a 23-4 recommendation from its scientific advisers. The main opposition to Plan B came from W. David Hager, an obstetrician and gynecologist who blends medicine with religion, endorsing the alleged healing power of prayer and prescribing Bible readings for the treatment of PMS. In 2004 the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report, ‘Investigation of the Bush Administration’s Abuse of Science’, charging the Bush administration with “manipulation of the process through which science enters into its decisions.” This report was signed by 12,000 scientists, including Nobel laureates and other eminent scholars, and included detailed documentation of instances of abuse. I will just list the general findings:

• There was a well-established pattern of suppression or distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration appointees across numerous federal agencies. These actions had consequences for human health, public safety, and community wellbeing.

• There’s strong documentation of a wide-ranging effort to manipulate the government’s scientific advisory system to prevent the surfacing of advice that might run counter to the administration’s political agenda.

• There’s evidence that the administration often imposed restrictions on what government scientists could say or write about ‘sensitive’ topics.

Why would a whole government exhibit such hostility to science? Bush packed his administration with people of a single ideology as no president ever did before. Initially home-schooled and then trained in Christian madrasas, most had no exposure to scientific thinking, and so were highly unsympathetic to it.

The Folly of Faith

Faith is belief in the absence of empirical evidence, and often in the face of contrary evidence. The position of the New Atheists is that faith is the force behind both the malevolent deeds of extremist religious groups and the irrational acts of many political leaders. To act on the basis of faith can often be to act in conflict with reason. We New Atheists claim that to do so is immoral, and dangerous to society.

Here the New Atheists find themselves in conflict with many other atheists who prefer to accommodate religion and not challenge beliefs, even when those beliefs conflict with well-established science. However, the New Atheists say we should challenge the irrational thinking behind religious beliefs, including that of moderates, which can only help justify the more extreme activities, as well as motivate less extreme, but still dangerous, behavior. Some of those favoring the accommodation of religion see this as a strategy to maintain support for science and, in particular, for evolution. While New Atheists support these goals, and have no intention of banning religion from the public square, we think that fighting against all forms of unreason is more important in the long run. Public support for science is strong and hardly likely to erode because of a few loud-mouthed atheists.

Attacking Science

Needless to say, the New Atheism has been subject to a storm of criticism, from both believers and nonbelievers. For instance, theologian John Haught attacks the assertion that science and reason should be applied in all human affairs. He refers to the ‘postulate of objectivity’ proposed by the eminent atheist biochemist Jacques Monod in the 1960s: “it is morally wrong to accept any claims that cannot be verified by ‘objective’ scientific knowledge.” Haught counters, “what about the precept itself? Can anyone prove objectively that the postulate of objectivity is true?” (God and the New Atheism, 2008, p.5).

The answer is ‘Yes’. The validity of the postulate of objectivity is not proven by some philosophical, deductive argument: its validity is proved beyond a reasonable doubt by the empirical evidence of its methodological success. However, Haught denigrates the scientific method by arguing that science, like religion, is also based on faith. With one eye on the postulate of objectivity he says: “There is no way, without circular thinking, to set up a scientific experiment to demonstrate that every true proposition must be based on empirical evidence rather than faith… The claim that truth can be attained only by reason and science functioning independently of any faith is itself a faith claim.” (p.11) On the contrary, I say that every successful scientific experiment that results in a practical application further demonstrates the utility of basing our theories on empirical evidence. This is the only truth that matters.

Moreover, Haught makes an unjustified claim about faith: “Theology thinks of faith as a state of self-surrender in which one’s whole being, and not just the intellect, is experienced as being carried away into a dimension of reality that is much deeper and more real than anything that could be grasped by science and reason.” (p.13) How does he know that this is not simply a delusion? Religious ecstacy is an experience easily and more reliably produced by drugs or artificial electrical excitation of parts of the brain. And why can’t a so-called ‘deeper dimension of reality’ be grasped by science and reason?

Haught also objects to the proposal by Richard Dawkins and others to explain religion by Darwinian evolution, saying:

“If Darwinian theory were exclusively explanatory of religious faith, there would be little reason [for New Atheists] to complain about it. Religion in that case would be just one more instance of the clumsy creativity of nature, no more objectionable than vestigial organs. But for Dawkins, religious faith is in every respect an ethically despicable development, so the blame must not fall on blind and morally innocent Darwinian mechanisms. For Dawkins, evolution itself is not immoral, but merely indifferent. The evil in religion must then be extraneous to the life process, and therefore out of the scope of biology to account for it.” (God and the New Atheism, p.59)

But evolution clearly does produce evil, as all the gratuitous suffering in nature shows. So why shouldn’t it be capable of producing an evil religion? (Just because it’s evolved doesn’t mean it’s good, even to Dawkins.)

Haught admits that religions are capable of evil. He calls this ‘idolatry’, and argues that “the antidote to idolatry… is not atheism but faith.” (p.76) But faith is the source of this idolatry.

Attacking the New Atheism

To give a taste of the typical criticism of the New Atheists by professed atheists, let us consider the views of atheist philosopher Ron Aronson from his book Living Without God (2008). Aronson is critical of the New Atheists for not providing secularists with an alternative to God to believe in: they only provide a denial of God, and nothing to compare with what he calls the ‘coherence’ of religious belief:

“Our religious friends affirm their belief in the coherence of the universe and the world, their deep sense of belonging to it and to a human community, their refusal to be stymied by the limits of knowledge, their confidence in dealing with life’s mysteries and uncertainties, their willingness to take complete responsibility for the small things while leaving forces beyond themselves in charge of the large ones, their security in knowing right from wrong, and perhaps above all, their sense of hope about the future… Even if we would reject these beliefs as unfounded and irrational, we have to be struck by their force. And envy their coherence… Besides disbelief, what do we have to offer? What should we tell our children and grandchildren as we see them swept up in a pervasively religious environment?” (p.17)

The New Atheists do indeed reject religious beliefs as irrational – but we’re certainly not going to dream up other irrational beliefs to take their place! And just because a belief is coherent doesn’t mean it’s desirable. Maybe it’s coherent to kill for your religious beliefs – but it’s still murder.

Only religion could suppose an unjustified certainty to be an improvement on ignorance. The existential questions caused by death, loss, suffering and inhumanity are not answered by the great religions – unless you think “It’s a mystery” is an answer. We New Atheists also disagree with Aronson’s implication that holding to a set of irrational beliefs can be healthy. The religious have a double burden of guilt and grief when they lose a loved one, for example. At least an atheist doesn’t wonder why God did this to her, what sin she must have committed to deserve such punishment. Religion offers no comfort if you live in constant fear of God’s disapproval.

However, New Atheism does have plenty to offer besides disbelief. We have freedom of thought – the ability to think and live our lives the way we want without anybody forcing superstitious rules upon us. Moreover, the foundations of science – and free thought in general – are based on self- and mutual criticism, and a humble acceptance of uncertainty in our conclusions. Yet far from epitomizing or promoting humility, religion is on the contrary blatantly arrogant in its unselfcritical commitment to unfounded certainties and dogmas. As for what to tell our children and grandchildren, we certainly don’t tell them what to believe! We teach them to think for themselves, and then trust them to arrive at rational conclusions that suit themselves and serve in their lives, and which then belong to them and not to us.

The message of New Atheism has been terribly misunderstood as being exclusively negative. Yet for every negative we have an even greater positive. Irrational faith is absurd and dangerous, and we look forward to the day, no matter how distant, when the human race finally abandons it. Reason is a noble substitute, proven by its practical and intellectual success. Religion is an intellectual and moral sickness that cannot endure forever if human progress really is possible. Science sees no limit to the human capacity to comprehend the universe and ourselves, and life without God means we’re the governors of our destinies.

The God of the Gaps

Not all of those theists who disagree with the New Atheism have questioned the validity of science or the scientific method. Rather they claim that the scientific evidence supports their beliefs. Virtually all their arguments take the form of ‘God of the gaps’ arguments, as follows: “I cannot see how [this phenomenon] could have happened naturally. Thus it must have happened supernaturally.” For example, in his bestseller The Language of God (2006), geneticist Francis Collins, who was the administrator of the human genome project and who now heads the US National Institutes of Health, says this about the origin of the universe: “I cannot possibly see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.” (p.67)

This is also called the ‘argument from ignorance’. Just because Collins cannot see how nature could have created itself, that doesn’t mean it didn’t. Cosmologists have produced a number of scenarios by which the universe arose spontaneously and naturally. For example, using a model proposed by Stephen Hawking and James Hartle in 1983 which is fully consistent with well-established physics, I have developed a mathematically-detailed scenario in which our universe appeared by quantum tunneling from an earlier universe. (See The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From?, 2006, or ‘A Scenario for a Natural Origin of Our Universe’ in Philo 9, #2.) While this may not be exactly how it happened, the fact that we have at least one plausible scenario for a natural origin of this universe suffices to refute any such God of the gaps argument. Furthermore, if a universe always existed, there’s no need to answer the common theist taunt: ‘How can something come from nothing’? It didn’t. It always was. Why should the universe have come from nothing? Why should nothing be more a natural starting-point than something?

Atheism and Morality

Religious extremists in America have tried to argue that atheism and secularism would destroy the foundations of society. Televangelist Pat Robertson has asserted that when a society is without religion “the result will be tyranny.” In her bestseller Godless (2006), conservative writer Ann Coulter says societies that fail to grasp God’s significance are headed toward slavery, genocide and bestiality. She also asserts that when evolution is widely socially accepted, all morality is abandoned. Influential television commentator Bill O’Reilly has said that a society which fails to live ‘under God’ will be a society of “anarchy and crime” where “lawbreakers are allowed to run wild.” (Culture Warrior, 2006, p.19) British cleric and theologian Keith Ward has argued that societies lacking strong religious beliefs are immoral, unfree and irrational. Philosopher John D. Caputo declared that people who are without religion and who do not love God are nothing more than selfish louts, implying that a society with a preponderance of Godless people would be a loveless, miserable place.

These critics ignore the evidence, making up ideas to suit their prejudices. Any number of societies can be found where the majority has freely abandoned God and religion. Far from being dens of iniquity, these societies are the happiest, safest and most successful in the world. For instance, sociologist Phil Zuckerman spent fourteen months during 2005-2006 in Denmark and Sweden interviewing a wide range of people about their religious beliefs. He presented his results in a 2008 book Society Without God. Most Danes and Swedes do not believe in the notion of ‘sin’, yet their violent crime rates are the lowest in the world. Almost nobody goes to church, or reads the Bible. Are they unhappy? In a survey of happiness in 91 nations, Denmark ranked number one! And by every measure of societal health – life expectancy, literacy, school enrolment, standard of living, infant mortality, child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality, healthcare, lack of corruption, environmental protection, charity to poor nations, crime, suicide, unemployment – Godless Denmark and Sweden rank near the top.

Believers insist that morality is from God, making it absolute and universal. But how does God inform theists of his rules? Most Christians would answer, “Through the Bible.” But the Old Testament part of the Bible contains numerous passages that command us to commit acts even the most devout Christian would consider immoral, such as killing anyone who entices you to worship a different God (Deut 13:5-9) or demanding that a father have a rebellious son stoned to death (Deut 21:18-21). While the New Testament is gentler, it is still not precisely a handbook on moral behavior. It tacitly condones slavery and explicitly condones the subjugation of women – again activities that intelligent Christians and atheists alike consider immoral. The Jesus of the New Testament was no unqualified moral exemplar, either. When his disciples protested that the money spent on the expensive oil a woman was using to anoint his head might be better given to the poor, Jesus responded, “you always have the poor among you… but you will not always have me.” (Mark 14: 3-9)

So where do Christians get their morality? The same way atheists do. They examine their consciences and choose from the alternatives life presents to them. The issue of slavery in the nineteenth century provides a prime example. In the US, while southern preachers and politicians, almost all Christians, used the Bible to justify slavery, northern abolitionists, also mostly Christians, ignored the Bible or found more congenial passages, and decided for themselves that slavery was immoral.

Young people especially are moving away from faith in large numbers. As mentioned, atheist and freethinker groups are growing rapidly in America, especially on college campuses. Almost all the members of these groups lean more toward the activism promoted by the New Atheism than toward the atheists’ passivism of previous years. The New Atheists are convinced that the world will be a better place without religion; and the future for atheism looks bright.

© Prof. Victor J. Stenger 2010

Victor Stenger is adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado and emeritus professor of physics at the University of Hawaii. He is the author of nine books, including the 2007 New York Times bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. This article is based on his 2009 book The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. Much of his other writing can be found at www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/.

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