The new atheists have left much to desire for those looking for a robust intellectual engagement with some of life’s most pressing questions. But who are the new atheists? Generally, when one speaks of the new atheists it is a reference to the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens, as well as several other public atheist intellectuals, many of whom have sold pop-atheism books which ridicule and criticize religions and religious beliefs. Why are they called new? Most would say that the new atheists present little new, and in many ways actually show a regression from the atheists of old (as the voices included here shall attest to). What’s most new about them is their anger at religion which tends to cascade into their dialogue and written works. It is an anger seldom witnessed in the atheists of the last century, perhaps such as Bertrand Russell and others. So what is with this intellectual poverty of which the title to this article bears name?
Philosopher Peter Williams says that he has “reviewed contemporary popular atheology, paying particular attention to so-called ‘New Atheists’,” but concludes saying that he is left “seriously unimpressed” (1). It is not only Williams who seems to be unimpressed by the new atheism and its proponents. Philosopher Paul Copan too claims that,
“the new atheists are remarkably out of touch with [contemporary] sophisticated theistic arguments for God’s existence. Their arguments against God tend to be very superficial (bordering on village atheist argumentation that is often ad hominem or hasty generalization) and often naively tout science as the arbiter of truth, following in the barren footsteps of their positivistic forebears” (2).
“the Neo-atheists’ arguments against God’s existence are surprisingly flimsy, often resembling the simplistic village atheist far more than the credentialed academician. The Neo-atheists are often profoundly ignorant of what they criticize, and they typically receive the greatest laughs and cheers from the philosophically and theologically challenged. True, they effectively utilize a combination of emotion and verbal rhetoric, but they aren’t known for logically carrying thoughts through from beginning to end” (3).
Becky Garrison, a religious satirist (4) and award winner for her reporting on matters of religion (5), claims that, on an intellectual level, the New Atheists aren’t very effective in their approach. She says that “when it comes to the actual weapons that the New Atheists lob against their opponents, they seem to be shooting blanks” (6).
But are the new atheists, new atheists? Not really upon closer inspection. Philosopher of science John Lennox not only agrees that they shoot more “blanks” than bullets but that also “at the intellectual level, their arguments were never really unique” (23). Atheist philosopher Richard Norman would agree saying that new atheism mostly relies on old tactics although the movement has stepped up its game on rhetoric,
“the ‘New Atheism’ is not really new. Its distinctive themes – religion as the enemy of science, of progress and of an enlightened morality – are in a direct line of descent from the 18th-century enlightenment and 19th-century rationalism. The ‘new’ movement is better seen as a revival, a reassertion of the values of rational thought and vigorous argument” (7).
“Vigorous” probably means to note the new atheism’s rhetorical effectiveness. Few would deny that they aren’t effective in this way, which Copan suggests they “effectively utilize a combination of emotion and verbal rhetoric.” However, rhetoric alone can only take one so far, and it can be hazardous to the pursuit of inquiry for “The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be” (8). Williams continues,
“as a revival of the value of rational thought (something I’m all for) the New Atheism is sadly lacking. This is partly because its narrow, self-defeating misunderstanding of rationality is mired in an eighteenth-/nineteenth-century epistemological foundationalism; and partly because the movement’s boosters frequently allow their ‘vigour’ to bypass their critical faculties” (9).
Williams also says that there isn’t much need to feel threatened by the new atheists, at least on an intellectual level,
“The New Atheists confidently proclaim intellectual, ethical and even (eventual) political victory; but from my perspective they look about as dangerous as the Black Knight in the Monty Python film Monty Pythan and the Holy Grail” (10).
Much criticism concerns how the new atheists repeatedly dismantle strawmen caricatures of religious beliefs, as opposed to the actual religious beliefs themselves. Also within the arsenal is ad hominem which seems of frequent use and of much abundance. Unfortunately, this taints the atheist-religion debate and often more harms the reputation of atheism than makes it attractive. Philosopher Kevin Stern notes that,
“Atheism becomes bigotry when it makes prejudicial statements about religious people. Prejudice is prejudice and intolerance is intolerance, and both are irrational regardless of who commits it. Despite its scientific pretensions and its pronouncements of love for reason, many atheists offer arguments laden with logical fallacies, hasty generalization, strawman arguments, and most of all ad hominem attacks” (24).
Yet according to Williams they seem to “have difficulty in recognizing validity both when it is present in the arguments of their opponents, and (as is more often the case than not) when it is absent from their own” (12). Professor John Haught agrees saying that he does “not expect that philosophers will recommend these writings to their own students… although the books might usefully serve as case studies for classes in critical thinking” (13). Williams goes as far as to say that the “New Atheist writings offer up such a rich vein of logically fallacious arguments that I have used them as precisely such case studies” (14).
Even though new atheists proponents, such as Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, define theism (or any belief in God or the supernatural) as delusional they appear to fail to substantiate the claim that an overwhelming evidential case against theism exists. Colin Tudge, a widely read science writer, pens that “on matters of theology their arguments are a disgrace: assertive without substance; demanding evidence while offering none; staggeringly unscholarly” (15).
According to Williams the new atheists treatment of natural theology is equally absurd which has led him to discern a common problematic methodology in their employment. They have a,
“consistent preference for attacking a) straw man versions of b) medieval rather than contemporary defences of c) a very narrow range of theistic arguments. For example, when attempting to rebut the cosmological argument, does Dawkins research representative formulations of each sub-species of the argument (e.g. Kalam, Leibnizian sufficient reason and Thomistic contingency variants) by respected contemporary philosophers such as Robert C. Koons, Stephen T. Davis or William Lane Craig? No. Instead, he manfully grapples with his own quotation-free misunderstanding of one of Aquinas’ medieval summaries of the argument. The resulting spectacle would have all the drama of watching Tarzan wrestling a rubber crocodile, if it weren’t for the fact that on this occasion the crocodile proves to be more resilient than Tarzan’s rubber dagger” (16).
What might come to many as a surprise, it is actually Dawkins who pays the most attention to the philosophical debate and dialogues concerning God’s existence. But despite this it hardly proves to be a positive standard to follow, leading Dawkins to reap criticism from all sides. Notable philosopher Alvin Plantinga holds a low view of Dawkins’ foray into philosophy,
“You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is… many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class” (17).
Atheist philosopher Michael Ruse, in a review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion, agrees,
“It is not that the atheists are having a field day because of the brilliance and novelty of their thinking. Frankly – and I speak here as a non-believer myself, pretty atheistic about Christianity and skeptical about all theological claims – the material being churned out is second rate. And that is a euphemism for ‘downright awful’… Dawkins is brazen in his ignorance of philosophy and theology (not to mention the history of science) . . . Dawkins is a man truly out of his depth” (18).
In fact, Ruse would go on to write that “The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an atheist” (19).
What others have noted to be unfortunate is that this closed-mindedness of the new atheists has made it difficult to engage them in any productive and meaningful way. After all, how is possible to engage someone who immediately dismisses one’s own views as a delusion and not worthy of dialogue? This is something Williams take issue with,
“Surely, one of the noblest works of reason is to enter into respectful argument with others, whose vision of reality is dramatically different from one’s own, in order that both parties may learn from this exchange, and come to a deeper mutual respect. Our authors engage in dialectic, not science, but they can scarcely be said to do so with respect for those they address” (20).
The agnostic writer John Humphry’s is himself annoyed by the new atheism’s ideological methodology and approach,
“The atheists must do two things. They must prove, rather than merely assert, that mainstream religion is a malign force in the world [but how can they do this whilst denying any objective reality to moral malignancy?]. They cannot rely on a small minority of religious extremists to do that for them or hark back to the brutality of earlier centuries. And they must offer an alternative to the millions who rely on their beliefs to make sense of their lives [but how can they do this whilst denying any objective reality to our intellectual obligations?]. Unlike the militant atheists I do not think people are stupid if they believe in God. For vast numbers of ordinary, thoughtful people it is impossible not to. Of course, this may be the result of indoctrination at a very early age – but it may also be a considered reluctance to accept that the material world is all there is” (21).
1. Williams, P. 2009. A Sceptics Guide. p. 305 (Scribd ebook format).
2. EPS Blog. 2008. Interview with Paul Copan: Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? Available.
3. Copan, P. 2011. Is God a Moral Monster? p. 16 (Scribd ebook format)
4. Leger Enquirer. 2006. Satirist Pulls No Punches, Writer Takes Church, Politicians To Task. Available.
5. News Wise. 2012. USC Annenberg Announces Recipients of Knight Grants for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life. Available.
6. Garrison, B. 2007. The New Atheist Crusaders And Their Unholy Grail. p. 26.
7. Norman, R. 2007. ‘Holy Communion’ in the New Humanist. p. 16–17.
8. Terry Eagleton (Professor of cultural theory) as quoted in The Dawkins Delusion.
9. Williams, P. Ibid. p. 306.
10. Williams, P. Ibid. p. 306.
11. Peters, N. 2015. Book Plunge: Disproving Christianity. Available.
12. Williams, P. Ibid. p. 307.
13. Haught, J. 2008. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. p. 25.
14. Williams, P. Ibid. p. 307.
15. Tudge, C. 2007. Review: God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? Available.
16. Williams, P. Ibid. p. 309.
17. Plantinga, A. 2007. The Dawkins Confusion. Available.
18. Reformed Seth. 2011. The courage of Nietzsche. Available.
19. Ruse, M. Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster. Available.
20. Williams, P. Ibid. p. 312.
21. Humphrys, J. 2007. In God We Doubt. p. 16–17.
22. Novak, M. 2008. No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.
23. Lennox, J. 2011. Gunning for God. p. 16.