The City Winter 2015

What Is Wrong with the New Atheism?

By Robert B. Stewart

The “New Atheists” are the rock stars of the unbelieving world. Their books are New York Times bestsellers. The y are the speakers that secular masses pine over. So what is the New Atheism? “ The New Atheism” is a term coined by Gar y Wolf in his red  magazine article,  “ The  Church  of  the  Non-Believers,”  to  describe a  new sort of atheism, led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The New Atheism is as fundamentalistic and evangelistic as any evangelical church. Of course, these four are merely the brightest lights of a much larger group. The rise of think tanks or “centers” like the Center for Inquiry or the Center  for Naturalism shows just how persuasive the y have been. Wolf maintains that New Atheists are issuing a call to action “to help exorcise this debilitating  curse : the curse of faith.”1   The consistent message of the New Atheists is that : (1) belief in God is irrational in an age of science because science has replaced religion and/or philosophy as the primary way to find truth and meaning in life ; (2) “faith” is belief in spite of and sometimes even because of a lack of evidence ; and (3) religion is dangerous.

I cannot in this brief article fully analyze or critique the claims of the New Atheists. Therefore my intention is to point out a few problems with  their  position. I will  focus my criticism on issues arising from their view of science.

PROBLEM #1: FREE WILL

The New Atheists are up front about our lack of free will. Sam Harris  states it  explicitly :  “Free will  is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making . Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.”2 (Ironically, the publisher of Harris’s book is Free Press.) Or consider this example from the website of the Center for Naturalism.

From a naturalistic perspective . . . [ h]uman being s act the way the y  do because of the  various influences that  shape them,  whether  these  be  biological  or  social,  genetic  or environmental. We do not have the capacity to act outside the causal connections that link us in every respect to the rest of the world. This means we do not have what many people think of as free will, being able to cause our behavior without our being fully caused in turn.3

Not being free has devastating implications for other important areas of life. It impacts thing s as important as ethics. Consider the following , again from the Center for Naturalism.

From a naturalistic  perspective, behavior arises out of the interaction bet ween individuals and their environment, not from a freely willing  self. . . . Therefore individuals don’t bear ultimate originative responsibility for their actions, in the sense of being their first cause. Given the circumstances both inside and outside the body, the y couldn’t have done other than what the y did. Nevertheless, we must still hold individuals responsible, in the sense of applying rewards and sanctions, so that  their  behavior stays more or less within the rang e of what we deem acceptable. This is, partially, how people learn to act ethically.4

The question is this : how can we hold anyone responsible if the y are not responsible for their actions and “couldn’t have done other than what they did”? This seems hopelessly confused. Furthermore, if it is true that “the y couldn’t have done other than what the y did,” then why do we call Francis of Assisi a saint and Jeffrey Dahmer a monster? Why do we praise the sacrifice of one and lock up the other? In fact, if we cannot do other than what we do, then theists and atheists seem to be in the same intellectual boat—we are all just determined to believe what we believe ; we cannot do other wise. So why write books intended to change another ’s worldview, books like The God Delusion? New Atheist doctrine seems then to imply that there can be no such thing as persuasion. In this way their position undermines rationality.

Please note that the New Atheists cannot reply to this point by saying that I am just denying their position because my desire for Christianity to be true causes me to stubbornly refuse to accept it. If the y are rig ht about our lacking free will, then there is no such thing as being stubborn ; I am just doing what the circumstances inside and outside my body dictate that I will. On the other hand, the Christian worldview teaches that we are morally responsible because we are free and capable of choosing whether to belie ve or not. Those who would deny that we are free and at the same time attempt to persuade others to choose to join them are presuming something to which they are not entitled. This seems disingenuous.

Lacking freedom also has huge implications for our human relationships. Just how do we make sense of this thing we call love? If our actions are the result of “the various influences that shape us, whether these be biological or social, genetic or environmental,” then why does your husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, love you? Why do you love your significant other? Does he or she do so freely ? Do you? It is hard to see how in a naturalist world. How can you be confident that your significant other will love you tomorrow, or that you will love them? It seems then that love is simply a byproduct of our biology and upbringing. In a very real sense, then, in a naturalist world we can say that love is the fruit of our genes and our experiences. But so is mental illness. How then are we to distinguish between love and psychosis?

My point is that these claims are counterintuitive ; the y run counter to several of our strong est perceptions. This does not prove that the y are wrong . Intuition is not a perfect guide ; we know that some of our intuitions are mistaken. But it is generally a very foolish thing to ignore your intuitions without very good evidence to the contrary.

PROBLEM #2: CONSCIOUSNESS

Thomas Nagel is one of the world’s most respected philosophers ; he is also an atheist. Yet he sees clearly that this new breed of atheist materialism  has  serious deficiencies. Human  consciousness, that sense of being your own unique self, experiencing your own feeling s and thoughts, feeling s and thoughts that you and you alone have access to, poses a serious problem for the New Atheists. Nagel is refreshingly forthright.

Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science. The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth, and that the natural order is far less austere than it would be if physics and chemistry accounted for everything.5

In a dialogue with Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins had this to say about consciousness.

Neither  Steve Pinker  nor  I  can explain human  subjective consciousness—what philosophers call qualia . In How the Mind Works Steve elegantly sets out the problem of subjective consciousness, and asks where it comes from and what’s the explanation? Then he’s honest enough to say, “Beats the heck out of me.” That is an honest thing to say, and I echo it. We don’t know. We don’t understand it.6

Consider what naturalist Ned Block has to say concerning consciousness :

We have no conception of our physical or functional nature that allows us to understand how it could explain our subjective experience. . . . But in the case of consciousness we have nothing —zilch—worthy of being called a research programme, nor are there any substantive proposals about how to go about starting one. . . Researchers are stumped.7

Nagel says this :

The  existence  of consciousness is  both  one of the  most familiar and one of the most astounding thing s ab out the world. No conception of the natural order that  does not reveal it a s something to be expected can a spire even to the outline of completeness . And if physical science, whatever it may have to say ab out the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the  b a sic  form of intelligibility for this  world . There must be a very different way in which thing s as they are make sense, and that includes the way the physical world is, since the problem cannot be quarantine d in the mind. 8

There must be a very different way in which thing s as they are make sense, indeed .

One very different way to get around the problem of consciousness is to deny that there is any such thing as a mental state. This approach, known as eliminative  materialism,  does not  simply  say that  the brain produces conscious mental states ; that would hardly be new. Eliminative materialism insists that there are no mental states. Simply put, there are no thoughts, feeling s, or desires ; there are only the data with which neuroscientists work . Paul and Patricia Churchland are husband and wife philosophers who affirm this view. In a New Yorker magazine article on their work, they write this :

One afternoon recently,  Paul  says, he  was home making dinner when Patburst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting . “She said , ‘Paul , don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is a washing lucocorticoids, my blood  vessels are full  of adrenaline,  and if it weren’t  for my  endogenous opiates I ’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels nee d lifting . Pour me a Chardonnay, and I ’ll be down in a minute.’”9

Though I take  this to be tongue  in cheek  humor,  eliminative materialists would see this as progress. I see it as dehumanizing.

PROBLEM #3: ADHOC SOLUTIONS

Adhoc solutions are not  truly  solutions to any thing , the y are pseudo -solutions, desperate attempts to prop up an obvious hole in a theory; they exist to compensate for anomalies not anticipated by the theory in its unmodified form. Philosophers and scientists are rightfully skeptical of theories that rely on unsupported adjustments to sustain them. Generally adhoc solutions involve the addition of an extraneous hypothesis to save a theory from being falsified. This leads us to the idea of memes.

Perhaps the most controversial feature of contemporary atheism is the concept of a meme. Richard Dawkins first introduced the concept in his book The Selfish Gene. Simply put a meme is a cultural replicator.  Suggested examples of  memes include such disparate thing s as thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, song s, dances, and languages. Accordingly memes propagate themselves and can move through a culture in a manner similar to the behavior of a virus. In coining the term Dawkins wrote:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. “Mimeme” comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like “gene”. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to “memory ”, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with “cream”.10

Several challenges arise in connection to memetic theory. One is to show how memetics is truly an empirical discipline. Simon Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary palaeobiology at Cambridge, holds that memes seem to have no place in serious scientific reflection.

[M]emes are trivial, to be banished by simple mental exercises. In any wider context the y are hopelessly, if not hilariously, simplistic. To conjure up memes not only reveals a strange imprecision of thought, but, as Anthony O’Hear has remarked, if memes really existed they would ultimately deny the reality of reflective thought.11

It is my contention that memes are what the y appear to be : an adhoc solution. When asked to give evidence for memes at the 2007 Greer-Heard  Point- Counterpoint  Forum  in  Faith  and  Culture, Dennett responded that it was an accepted scientific belief and offered his article in The  Encyclopedia  of Evolution as one line of evidence supporting his position ( it was not his sole point on the matter). But what kind of evidence is this? If this is a legitimate response, I see no reason why I should not be allowed to hold that there is good evidence for the resurrection of Jesus because I wrote the article on the resurrection of Jesus in the Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity.12 If an article with the imprint of a prestigious British university press is all that is required to prove a hypothesis, then the matter seems settled. Frankly, I am advocating no such thing ; it seems to be a category mistake. Simply put, literary evidence is not sufficient evidence to confirm a scientific theory—and with good reason.

One must remember that the concept of memes is based on an analog y bet ween genes (or viruses) and ideas. An analogy is a type of supposal, a way of likening one thing to another. Analogies are not evidence that something is so, but rather illustrations of how something could  be so. Analogies are tremendously useful things in philosophy, science, and history ; positing them often allows us to make progress. Unfortunately  analogies can also distort our view of reality and lead us down many dead-end paths. Remember that scientists in the late 19th century routinely posited the luminiferous ether—the hypothetical substance that was rig id in relationship to electromagnetic waves but completely permeable to matter—based upon the supposed analog y bet ween light and sound. The idea was analogically plausible but mistaken. Worse, the idea of ether actually held back scientific progress. Fortunately Einstein built upon the work of Michelson and Morley and disproved it in his special theory of relativity.


Those who appeal to memes to dismiss belief in God depend upon a hypothetical, unobserved entity, which can be dispensed with in order to make sense of what we observe. But is not that actually a basic atheist critique of belief in God—an unobserved hypothesis which can easily be dismissed?

Alister McGrath holds three doctorates from Oxford University, the first in Molecular Biophysics, the second in Theology, and the third in Intellectual History. He asks the following question of those who offer memes as a scientific solution:

[H]as  anyone actually  seen these thing s, whether  leaping from brain to brain, or just hanging out? The issue, it must be noted, has nothing to do with religion. It is whether the meme can be considered to be a viable scientific hypothesis, when there is no clear operational definition of a meme, no testable model for how memes influence culture and why standard selection models are not  adequate, a  general tendency  to ignore the sophisticated social science models of information transfer already in place, and a high degree of circularity in the explanation of the power of memes.13

Memes fail with regard to several key criteria by which scientific theories  are  judged,  a few of  which are clarity,  simplicity,  and testability. In my opinion, the evidence for belief in God is far better than the evidence for belief in memes.

CONCLUSION

There is much more that I could say. I could show how Dawkins and others among the New Atheists make statements about science that  have not  come close to  being confirmed. Their  position is not so much science as it is scientism. I could point out that when the y lapse into scientism, they sound very much like the religious fundamentalists the y lampoon for having faith, which in their view is essentially a lack of evidence. I could point out that the y regularly focus on the evils of religion while ignoring the massive amount of good that  has been done by religious people, and saying little  or nothing about the evil that has been done in the name of secular progress. I could go on.

I recognize that I have not made a positive case for Christianity, or even for theism. That  was not  my intention.  One cannot do every thing in a brief article such as this. I do hope, however, that having read my criticisms readers will think long and hard before buying what the New Atheists are pushing.

1 Gar y Wolf, “ The Church of the Non-Belie vers,” http ://www.wired.com/2006/11/atheism/ accessed November 4, 2015.

2 Sam Harris, Free Will (New York : Free Press, 2012), 5.
3  http ://www.naturalism.org/worldview-naturalism/tenets-of-naturalism accessed November 9, 2015.

4  Ibid.

5 Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos : Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2012), 35.

6 Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, “Is Science Killing The Soul?” http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/dawkins_pinker/debate_p4.html.  Accessed 5 March 2008.

7 Ned Block, “Consciousness,” in A Companion  to Philosophy of Mind, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, ed. Samuel Guttenplan (Oxford and Malden : Blackwell, 1998), 211.

8 Nag el, Mind and Cosmos, 53.

9 Quoted from Larissa MacFarquhar, “ Two Heads : A Marriage De voted to the Mind-BodyProblem,” in The New Yorker (February 12, 2007), 69.

10Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York : Oxford University Press, 1976), 11.
11 Simon Conway Morris, Lifes Solution : Inevitable  Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2003), 324.

12 Robert B. Stewart, “Resurrection (the) of Jesus,” in Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity (New York : Cambridge University Press, 2010).

13 Alister McGrath, “Opening Remarks,” in The Future of Atheism : Alister  McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis : Fortress, 2008), 31.

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