Re-Made in America: Remembering the New Atheism (2006-2011)

by admin Posted on January 1, 2012

UPDATE: Apologies are due to Greta Christina who was in fact ranked by an atheist website as one of the top ten popular atheist bloggers. rjh

 

Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

The Missouri boy in Connecticut

 

HO remembers their Huckleberry Finn? In chapter 19, Huck, Tom and Jim, afloat on the Mississippi River, meet up with two grifters, the Duke and the Dauphin, who claim to be exiled European royalty.

Their scam is going from town to town performing makeshift “scenes” from Shakespeare’s plays, then escaping with their lives when the rube public hear declamations like this:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.

After spending a few hours with the scoundrels, Huck reflects,

It didn’t take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn’t no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it’s the best way; then you don’t have no quarrels, and don’t get into no trouble.

But (in one of the great mysteries of the book) Huck continues to aid and abet, pastes their playbills on buildings in towns along the river, enjoys swapping tales with them on the raft, and even saves their skin when they have a close shave.

The Duke and the Dauphin are Mark Twain’s contribution to a a literary stereotype that goes back to plays like Our American Cousin (an English drama of 1858) that pit a pampered and brainless British aristocracy against the dull, stammering but basically honest Yankee (Lord Dundreary and Asa Trenchard, respectively, in the play): Americans are naive, optimistic, uncultured, energetic and gullible; the British are cunning, cynical, indolent and intellectually dissipated. America is a good place to make a buck by selling wares that His Majesty’s subjects either can’t afford or simply don’t have much use for.

Edward Sothern as Lord Dundreary

Things like atheism. I recently cited the statistics for religion in Britain. If you are the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is not an encouraging thing to note that only about 36% of Britons claim to be religious and a higher number claim not to believe in God.

Compare these to statistics for atheism in America. The most recent ARIS report, released March 9, 2009, found that 34.2 million Americans (15.0%) claim no religion (“nones”), of which only 1.6% explicitly describes itself as atheist (0.7%) or agnostic (0.9%). If you are an atheist-front organization, also not an encouraging picture, no matter how you fiddle the stats to make “No religious preference” or “Sorry, really in a hurry” survey-takers into atheists. Nones further have to be adjusted for mothers whose safety clasp just failed on their child-seat doing a drive-by after school pickup, and shoppers standing in line at the exchange counter on December 26th.

If I were an atheist strategy specialist there is at least one biblical story I would need to believe was literally true: the saga of David and Goliath. I’d want to know how a very little movement can bring down a cultural behemoth like American religion by throwing a few stones.

The part nobody remembers

This led me to reflect on how the new atheism arrived in America and who is in charge of pasting the playbills on the storefronts.

OT to deny the contribution of several authors to the “movement”–Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens–I think it’s safe to say that the style of the new atheism extrudes from the work of Richard Dawkins. The paradigmatic shift from detente to full scale assault against religion as an undifferentiated mass of human error and superstitious thinking belongs to him: Why should we live with ideas that we find absurd and repugnant, or indulge people who fantasize the truth of their beliefs into norms that other people ought to follow? Gloves off, me hearties: Error should be resisted, countered, argued against, corrected, defeated–not coddled.

And what is the truth? Science is the truth.

The God Delusion (2006) and the wave of comment it created is now yesterday’s news. To remind myself of how I felt in 2006 while reading it, I talked myself (under the influence of several spirituous incentives) into re-reading it, and, much to my surprise, I liked it better the second time around–as a book rather than a best selling icon. It was a better book than Daniel Dennett’s really very sloppy Breaking the Spell, which I reviewed soon after it appeared in 2007. But then I forced myself to re-read a few of the reviews I had archived over the past several years, and this one by Murrough O’Brien from The Independent flagged itself. Just after pointing out Dawkins’s abuse of Bertrand Russell’s famous “Teapot Argument,” O’Brien notes.

Some of [Dawkins's] arguments are old atheistic chestnuts, and how merrily they crack in the roasting pan. The palm for outrageous question-begging goes to the Who Made God “argument”. Dawkins squirts this sachet of puerile pap (most of us had outgrown it before hitting double figures) over the whole book, to inadvertently comic effect. He writes: “The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.” The short response to that is a simple “Why?” The long one goes something like this: the question “Who made God?”only makes sense if one assumes that the Divine nature is subject to a kind of inverted evolutionary process by which the complex is preceded by the still more complex, but why on earth should we assume this? Why should God be subject to any version of a biological theorem? Why not the laws of physics, or of chemistry?

But then the real punch, trilitorally speaking, of The God Delusion was panache. Dawkins was an extrovert and spellbinder compared to Dennett, with his Darwinesque looks, and the singularly incoherent Harris, whose work Scott Atran, a serious researcher and cognitivist, called playacting at science and politically pernicious while also getting basic anthropological theories backwards, like his famous wowser concerning the work of Franz Boas.

Dennett

The real success story of the new atheism is that it was bought and sold after being intellectually panned by almost all the cognoscenti who weren’t atheist activists. In fact, as the circle closed around a tightly knit cadre of God-opposers, opposing God became virtually the sole criterion for what, in their parochial view, counted for anthropology, archaeology, sociology and the study of religion–about which all of the four (check the footnotes) were blissfully ignorant.

And I mean that in the most damning sense. Virtually all of the credible reviews alleged it of Dawkins, and the others didn’t fare much better outside the atheist camp. The reflexive answer was to accuse anyone who opposed the unscientific, malformed, and totally ignorant premises of these books of being “faitheists” and to say that dispute would be treated as treason against the higher purposes for which the books had been written.

If that didn’t stick, sane voices were denounced as jealous voices, as though reputable scholars wished they had written historical and philosophical travesty under their own names.

The repetitive accusation against Dawkins–that he was attacking a straw man, a sort of tertia res religiosa that did not exist–became the new framing device for every critique of new atheist tactics: its critics (despite manifold evidence to the contrary) were attacking a form of atheism that did not exist. Sensible, if complex views like those of John Gray on the origin of humanitarian impulses, were conveniently set aside in favour of a new recipe for a scientific-evolutionary morality that floats above historical causality: Wrote Atran,

There is an irony of history that completely escapes Harris and other new atheists in their evangelical quest for a global morality rooted in scientific truth. As philosopher John Gray of the London School of Economics convincingly argues, it is universal forms of monotheism, such as Christianity and Islam, that merged Hebrew tribal belief in one God with Greek faith in universal laws applicable to the whole of creation that originated the inclusive concept of Humanity in the first place….Harris’s own messianic moral absolutism, based on devotion to “truth,” leads to some rather nutty proposals that defy common sense and are justified by made-up history that is patently untrue.

So much for Harris’s pop-psychology, or rather MRI-enhanced pop-psychology. Dawkins and Dennett were serious academics working out-of-field but who seem honestly to have believed that the methodologies developed in other disciplines were easily mastered and just as easily dismissed–a cavalier attitude toward critique that bordered on Dominican hubris at best and anti-intellectualism at the deep end.

Hitch

Always guided by the nature of the game, Hitchens, the only true intellectual and by far the best-read of the group, was in it for the ride. All four looked as though they had powered their way through their task by reading the Cliff’s Notes to Thomas Aquinas and David Hume, and in some cases not even those carefully enough.

From any objective reading of the serious reviews, their mission to God’s kingdom was an epic fail in terms of what they brought home from the journey. It was all finished, critically speaking, in 2006 when Terry Eagleton said,

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace, or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?

Dawkins’s precedence in ignoring the opposition by denying they constituted serious opposition became a trademark of the movement he put into place. But despite the discounted value of the books as credible intellectual proposals, there were plenty of people prepared to spread the mission stateside, where Dawkins’s accent, his unabashed science-thumping and his wares were more valuable than in Blighty, where people had been giving up on God (in droves) for decades without his help.

What hath anti-God wrought: The new atheism, which was really an American phenomenon, like Spam.

 

One can’t simply blame Richard Dawkins for creating the kind of poster-pasters his leadership had produced in Gotchaland. He didn’t ordain them, exactly. That would be like blaming Jesus for founding the church. Is a rock star guilty of the excesses of his fans? Of course not.

But it is undeniable that new atheism would never have congealed, to the extent it ever congealed, if American neo-Darwinist soldiers and a few strays hadn’t taken on the fight. Dawkins, as Garry Wolff commented in 2006, was very old news in England when he decided to try plowing the fundamentalist pastures of America. And soldiers there were, just waiting for the right fight and marching orders. And a good thing too: Dawkins himself came off relatively unsullied by these battles, while his American promoters didn’t mind a little mud.

Headlights:

Coyne

Jerry Coyne. Coyne is a biology professor at Chicago. His only book, Why Evolution is True (2009), is his contribution to the anti-intelligent design debate and carries endorsements from Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stephen Pinker and others in the atheist-neo-Darwinist klatch. Dawkins reviewed the book for Atheist News in 2009. Hardly anyone would fault Coyne for his attempts to combat the anti-evolution fever that grips the establishment that is failed American science education. I for one think Jerry Coyne has struck a blow for rationality and common sense by writing this lucid book. It’s a shame therefore that Coyne buys into the Dawkins incompatibility model that makes religion the sworn enemy of science and science the salvation of the race. It is frankly embarassing, after two hundred years of the scientific study of religion, to hear a scientist saying things like this:

In the end, science is no more compatible with religion than with other superstitions, such as leprechauns. Yet we don’t talk about reconciling science with leprechauns. We worry about religion simply because it’s the most venerable superstition — and the most politically and financially powerful.

Just a flash: While leprauchauns didn’t copy the books that were turned into the books that led to the science Dr Coyne eventually studied, monks and rabbis did. Why does the perfectly reasonable opposition to religious craziness have to descend to this caricaturing of the history of religion? And some information: the University of Chicago Divinity School, one of the most venerable in the nation–after which the Chicago School of Religionswissenschaft got its name (and turned Europeans green with envy at its methods)–one notably lacking in Irish elves–is located at 1025 E. 58th Street. Any number of evolution-accepting scholars–including Martin Riesebrodt would be happy to have a chat and set you straight. Of course, if you really believe that a degree in biology trumps every other discipline, then why bother?

P Z Myers. Winner of the 2009 “Humanist of the Year Award,” a lapse of judgement for which the American Humanist Association will burn like cotton floss in a non-existent hell for their abuse of the word humanist,

Myers

P Z Myers is cut from the same neo-Darwinist fabric as Dr Coyne, but without the credentials. That means he is anti-intelligent design, pro-evolution, and happy to be known as the Don Rickles of the Dawkins theatre troupe. He’s the purveyor of the award-winning science blog Pharyngula where he specializes in calling people who don’t agree with him stupid and moronic.

To his credit, Myers has published no book of popular or scientific merit though if his rep holds up as the sun goes down on new atheism he does have a collection of his favourite anecdotes and outrages coming out in 2012. But this does not stop him from being the voice to which most of the young neo-atheists pay heed. I was reminded last year, after being told by P Z that I needed to be more respectful to the cause, that he deserves to be called Dr Myers. I had asked why someone who teaches in a university could not distinguish between free speech and inciteful behaviour–like that associated with Koran-burning Florida yahoo Terry Jones.

Myers, who describes himself as a moral nihilist, writes like this:

There are days when it is agony to read the news, because people are so goddamned stupid. Petty and stupid. Hateful and stupid. Just plain stupid. And nothing makes them stupider than religion. Webster Cook smuggled a Eucharist, a small bread wafer that to Catholics symbolic of the Body of Christ after a priest blesses it, out of mass, didn’t eat it as he was supposed to do, but instead walked with it. This isn’t the stupid part yet. He walked off with a cracker that was put in his mouth, and people in the church fought with him to get it back. …. It is just a cracker! So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls.

So, God love him, P Z Myers got the chance to kick the pope in the balls by spearing a consecrated host (eucharist is the name of the sacrament you fucking ex-Lutheran moron–whoops, just resorting to idiom) and a few other factotums. For this he is famous. And humanist of the year.

But let me just say this about the evolutionary, neo-Darwinist, religion sucks, anti-intelligent design phalanx of new atheism: If ever atheism got dumber and less impressive, it is in the work of this dissolute insult- monger. If there were ever an occasion for a serious scholar like Dawkins to say, this is over the top, P Z Myers is that opportunity. So far–nothing. The clowns are now the whole circus.

Greta Christina

Greta Christina. I’m not sure whether Greta is a headlight, because there can only be two and she will see any reference to three as some sort of weird sexual joke. That’s the problem. She sees everything as a weird sexual joke. Ranked as one of the Top Ten most popular atheist bloggers, Christina exemplifies in her work the increasing influence of LGBTQ trend toward identifying atheism and humanism with victimization and social marginalization. She can be amusing, but needs to take on some serious issues, such as why radical feminism and lesbianism are often perceived to be anti science when new atheism is purely devoted to an evolutionary model that, frankly, is not friendly to special pleading for biological exceptionalism based on sex. Didn’t understand that sentence? You need to.

Sidelights.

Mark Twain just needed Huck and Tom to paste the handbills to the walls. Dawkins has a small retinue of Americans who will do him favours and not ask for money.

Ophelia Benson, host of Butterflies and Wheels, has turned her once-interesting website (I used to contribute regularly) into a chat room for neo-atheist spleen. I still regard her as a fair-broker who needs to rise above the temptation to turn the whole kit and kaboodle over to the grousers who loiter around her kitchen table. I mean campfire.

The ex-Revd Eric MacDonald touts his website as being devoted to death with dignity. I’m for it; a close colleague and collaborator of mine, Gerald Larue, was one of the founders of the Hemlock Society. Unfortunately MacDonald has become just another horn in the bagpipe blown by Coyne and Myers. His constant theme is that theology is not worth the trouble. That’s an odd enough thesis for an atheist. More troubling is the fact that MacDonald doesn’t seem to know bloody anything about the academic study of religion and pretends that there is no difference between what he read as a young priest (mainly liberal post-Tillichian pap) and what’s being taught to PhD candidates in Religion at Harvard. It’s all ignorant bravado, but unfortunately some people read him, people like…

Jason Rosenhouse, a mathematician qua neo-Darwinian atheist who teaches at James Madison University in Virginia. Rosenhouse [sic] essentially does book reviews of things that cross his path and passes judgment on what he doesn’t like, usually anything that rises an inch beyond cultural Judaism. Of Rabbi Alan Lurie’s recent HuffPo piece on religion, Rosenhouse opined,

We’re really not on the same page here. I agree with him about the art, and I’m not sure what he means by ‘the histories,’ but I find nothing to admire in the remaining items on his list. I am not only unimpressed by the world’s various alleged holy texts, but I frankly dislike the whole idea of a holy text. Most religious rituals and practices leave me beyond cold, I think the world’s ‘mystical teachings’ should be discarded in toto, and I think better uses could be found for sacred spaces.

To which I say…Go on. Suggest already. KFCs, meth clinics, museums, failing public libraries, Starbuck’s. You choose. America, as we know, is awash in sacred spaces so the fewer of these antiquities the better. Let’s use the real estate for what we really hold sacred. I sometimes wonder why people whose only contribution to blogdom consists of sentences like “Most religious rituals leave me beyond cold,” find themselves titillating? Can’t he do this on Facebook and get a thousand likes to boot?

S0 many other poster-pasters, but time is up and I hope my case is made.

The new atheism was as American as apple pie, which was invented in fourteenth century England. Just try finding apple pie in twenty-first century England.

HERE is a final question. Why does this matter? Why, more specifically, does it matter to me–why does someone who considers himself an unbeliever care about this subject at all? –So what if the ranters are ranters, that they pay no attention to serious religious studies scholarship, ignore the realities of two hundred years of academic inquiry into the foundations of religious thought and dismiss tons of modern scientific investigation into the nature of religious belief as worthless?

Jason Rosenhouse says, presumably with a straight face and clear conscience, he doesn’t know what “scientism” is. Naturally his question, in the ringaround-the-rosey style of this support group, is enthusiastically echoed by Coyne.

Let me offer my assistance. Scientism is a form of nominalism (q.v.) that collapses important methodological differences and qualities into a single term (“science”) as though the term had an existence apart from the methods that comprise it. Scientism is the belief that “science” is a supervening mode of knowing that can be imposed willy nilly on other disciplines whose methods have had a different organic evolution, yet methods normally just as true to their subject matter as biology or physics, for example, have been to their own. Most of the concrete results in historical studies biblical studies, the history of religion, textual studies (paleography), linguistics and assorted disciplines have been based on methods specific to their objects.

To deny the authority and validity of specific methods without knowing them is just as heinous an offense against reason as a fundamentalist’s rejection of a theory–like evolution–that he doesn’t fully understand. That is what scientism is and what it means and why it must be rejected. As Wittgenstein was finally forced to conclude, the belief that science is the final arbiter of what constitutes truth (or true propositions) is as “glaringly metaphysical” as the premises of traditional philosophy.

Richard Dawkins

The willful ignorance of the new atheists matters because it makes almost impossible the work of serious religion scholars who have no commitment to belief, but who happen to feel that the study of religion belongs to and is inestimably important to the study of history and culture.

In the long run, real science acknowledges failed experiments and the humbling contribution of being wrong as a way of moving toward the right answers. It can’t rest like a medieval pope on its teaching authority. The “scientism” of the new atheists consists in a failed experiment in the misapplication of method. Richard Dawkins has been fond of saying that religion is the trivialization of complexities, a default position favoured by “dims” who just don’t get science. The scientistic worldview favoured by his promoters has relied heavily on the trivialization of appropriate methods for understanding religion. Given the starting point of his argument, there can be no other outcome.

The way forward in any useful critique of religion does not depend on activism disguised as judgement, opinion hiding behind tangential scholarly pursuits, or defenses of science and reason that are inherently unreasonable in themselves.

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48 thoughts on “Re-Made in America: Remembering the New Atheism (2006-2011)

  1. I want to get my comment in before Steph can say (ad nauseam) how wonderful this post is. I want to be the first to not like this post.

    You say, “Dawkins has a small retinue of Americans who will do him favours and not ask for money.”

    Eric is a Canadian and spells favour the same way you do.

    You say “Ophelia Benson . . . has turned her once-interesting website (I used to contribute regularly) into a chat room for neo-atheist spleen.”

    I know you used to contribute regularly; I read some of the posts you wrote when you were not angry and cynical.

    Thank you, you have provided your readers with links to the best atheist websites available.

    • That Eric MacDonald is a Canadian doesn’t seem worth the bother of changing the sentence to North American. Will “former colonials” do?

    • You’re so funny Veronica. Yay, congratulations you beat me! Isn’t it ‘wonderful’… I know how that makes you screech and run and tell every other ant all about it. “Everybody knows”: it’s a song. Do you know it?

      Mr MacDonald grants Dawkins favours freely too? More fool old Mack, eh?

      I wonder what your definition of angry is. This post is witty, yes, and incisive. Accurate as always. The style is no different from previous essays on other websites. Erudite and eternally critical, which is the nature of good academic scholarship. He’s always consistently interesting don’t you think? No? It’s fascinating that when the subjects of a critique are atheists, the subjects angrily growl that it’s ‘angry’ critique. Generally critiques of atheism are described by atheists as either ‘angry’, written by a ‘faitheist’ or even as ‘passively aggressive’ or ‘accommodationist’. How can anyone be ‘angry’ with something that’s destroying itself Veronica? How can anyone be angry with something so small? It’s blindingly obvious the ‘atheism’ in this essay is on the road to oblivion and I can’t imagine how your imagination stretches to Joe being angry unless it’s evidence of your own psychological projection. If only David and Goliath were true … but atheists just ain’t go the right pebbles.

      Cynical? Veronica, who is never cynical! What is there not to be cynical about? You say, ‘Thank you, you have provided your readers with links to the best atheist websites available’. Indeed. Isn’t it ironic? The proof is in the pudding as they say. That’s the old cliche.

      Fantastic review by Murrough O’Brien. Perfectly visualised and nothing could be more fitting than an old chestnut – and the trusty old teapot…

  2. I wonder if it is even worth it anymore to criticize “new” atheism; the movement only exists for the unsociable to vent their grievances about religion. As far as I am concerned, they can complain as much as they want as long as they do it at their computers.

  3. As well as all of the other things you got wrong – there is no shortage of apple pie here in England.

    Peace and love,

    Peter

    • Seems like it’s only apple pies you could pick on though. I’ve been in the UK for several years, but all I see on the menus are pork or steak and kidney. And I’m a fruiterian. Apple pies? Perhaps the English need all their apples to sauce for the pork. I’m sure you know your way around better than me – but they’re not visible here to a foreigner, like they are in America. Everywhere I go there, they’re glaring through cake shop windows, littering the supermarket shelves and billboards paid for by MacDonalds. I’ve even seen someone stuffing one down his throat as he walked alongside me in New Orleans. It was apple – I saw the apple when he opened his mouth to talk… But I don’t like pastry anyway. I have a feeling that they’re out of favour and fashion in the UK as far as pie flavour goes. I did inherit Kate Greenaway’s original “A is for Apple Pie” though. Published in 1900, it fell to bits, was restored by a bookbinder, and later meticulously copied by an artistic aunt. I have the original, as well as the copy which would be difficult to distinguish from the original if it wasn’t for the condition.

      And just for fun:
      A was an Apple pie;
      B bit it;
      C cut it;
      D dealt it;
      E eat it;
      F fought for it;
      G got it;
      H had it;
      J joined it;
      K kept it;
      L longed for it;
      M mourned for it;
      N nodded at it;
      O opened it;
      P peeped in it;
      Q quartered it;
      R ran for it;
      S stole it;
      T took it;
      V viewed it;
      W wanted it;
      X, Y, Z, and all wish’d for a piece in hand.

      Famous old rhyme from the nursery. Peace and love and goodwill.

  4. I imagine we will always have these issues. C.P. Snow was pontificating on the subject decades ago in his highly influential 1959 Rede lecture “The Two Cultures” which was later published in book form. Snow was bemoaning the rift between the scientific world view and that of the humanities, which is simply an earlier and broader variation of the present day Science/Religion animosity.
    How many of the interests and pursuits which enrich our lives but cannot be quantified are supposed to be whittled away because they contribute nothing towards the advancement of science? The arts? Opera? Dance? Degas? Should one stop reading Cervantes because he’s a distraction from Darwin? No weapon in the new atheist’s arsenal will ever convince me of that.

    • Thankfully, there seem to be approximately zero new atheists who would claim that occupations other than science should be “whittled away”. Religion is not like opera: it actually makes claims about facts and morality which it cannot back up. Opera is ever aware of its status as entertainment (though lovely, sophisticated, etc.).

      • I’ve conversed with these people and they invariably belittle most interests that fall outside the scope of science, unless it happens to be, curiously enough, science fiction.

    • Another quote attributed to Twain seem apropos here:
      “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”

      Or perhaps we should consider
      “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

      and just leave it at that.

      • You seem to think I don’t appreciate Mark Twain’s skepticism. I do. I still laugh every time I read ‘The Damned Human Race,” the “War Prayer” and especially “The Mysterious Stranger,” which is one of the most scathing indictments of religious morality ever penned. When I teach freshmen seminars occasionally, Mysterious Stranger is always on the reading list. I don’t have the massive 2010 biography in front of me, but in it he expresses the view that Christianity is a religion of blood and gore and that neither Jesus nor his father would approve of it. But his views on religion were complex, not settled. Do you know his book on St Joan of Arc? And many of his thoughts can only be understood as theological dilemmas of a theodical kind. Let’s be careful of using critical views as broadly atheistic ones, because his weren’t, and he might have been the first to call a PZ Myers a self-promoting huckster.

  5. As Mark Twain said “No God and no religion can survive ridicule. No political church, no nobility, no royalty or other fraud, can face ridicule in a fair field, and live.”

    Your jokes are just aren’t as funny as theirs, keep trying.

    • That’s a bit lame. I never liked Mark Twain much anyway. I liked that era of literature generally, but Huckleberry Finn didn’t appeal, and Twain’s ‘jokes’ are all too deliberate and corny. No subtlety. Real wit is a rare but natural quality and appears effortless. The author isn’t ‘trying’ to be funny. He is just dealing with a subject in his naturally articulate and original way. Not to your taste? Maybe you’re being a little ‘trying’ perhaps? Try apple pie.

      • Hoffman has rung the death knell of the New Atheism far too early. How easy it is to simply declare victory and walk away from the battlefield, and how foolish. Will he write this piece again next year when the players have so rudely refused to quit the stage?

        Coyne is right to pan the idea of “scientism.” Science is the process of rigorously evaluating evidence to arrive at natural truths: that the Earth revolves around the Sun, or that populations evolve over time so that one organism can be clearly seen to have been derived from a previous, similar organism. There’s no claim to a higher “truth” such as we see in esoteric ramblings about angels dancing on pins. Nor are there Faustian bargains or Pascalian wagers that sacrifice validity in the service of higher “truths”. There is only relentless examination of evidence and the pursuits thereof, regardless of personal feelings of where that evidence may lead.

        For all the tortured and convoluted subtleties of Hume’s and Aquinas’ vaunted theologies, they have failed to justify the basic premise: is it true? The New Atheists (An unfortunate term, as it is not all that new.) apply the scientific method to such claims, and in every case, find them wanting. Before one can pontificate on the nature of angels, one must first establish that angels (or gods) in fact exist. None have been able to do this conclusively and definitively, and it is this point the New Atheists emphasize.

  6. Many came out of the atheism closet precisely thanks to the New Atheists.
    We need more voices, more variety, not less.
    Why should we be afraid of calling something or someone stupid, when it is ?
    We are not dealing with 6-years old calling each other names, but grown-up trying to govern the world their way, whatever the means, because their imaginary friend said so.

    Thanks to Prof. Dawkins or Dr PZ Myers for using words that everybody can understand.
    With Hitchens, Harris, Onfray (french) and all the other “New Atheists”, they have created the next generation of atheists.

  7. “What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace, or Moltmann on hope?”

    It’s not necessary to be a bullshit expert to be able to identify bullshit.

    “Why does this matter? Why does someone who considers himself an unbeliever care about this subject at all?”

    Many reasons. Here’s three:

    ONE: 9/11/2001

    Three thousand people had a choice that day. Be burned alive or explode into a red mist when crashing into the pavement below. For what? For the childish cowardly heaven fantasy virtually all theists believe in.

    TWO: The never ending Christian war against science education.

    Not all Christians are evolution deniers but they all have anti-science fantasies, including the disgusting resurrection of the dead Jeebus, and the magic god fairy every superstitious theist believes in. Even the most moderate Christian belongs to an organization that has a long history of getting in the way of scientific progress. A normal person wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it.

    THREE: Religious indoctrination. It’s child abuse and there’s no excuse for it. The child abuse is legal but the brainwashers are no better than terrorists. The only difference is instead of destroying buildings with their flying skills, they destroy the minds of innocent children, making them as permanently stupid as their parents.

    By the way, has any theist ever provided evidence for their magical master of the universe? How about evidence for its magic wand? Where has this fairy been hiding the past 14 billion years?

    There will never be any evidence for a magical god, an idea no less childish and idiotic than the Easter Bunny fantasy,.

    Also, why are theists so terrified of reality? Why don’t they grow up and join the 21st century instead of hiding in the Dark Ages?

  8. “…Myers has published no book of popular or scientific merit….”

    Dr. Myers is a scientist who focuses on writing primary rather than secondary literature. He has numerous publications in peer-reviewed journals, the kind that publish empirical studies rather than reformulated supernatural speculations. You probably know little about what this is like as your field of study only involves thinking about something for which there is not a shred of empirical evidence and never bothering to test its speculations (I won’t even call them hypotheses). Empirical research has an elevated status in scientific literature over books and reviews. In fact, scientists measure their stature in the field largely by the number and influence of their journal publications. How many empirical papers do you have, sir? Myers’ contributions to human knowledge far exceed yours.

    By the way, what is up with calling him a “fucking ex-Lutheran?” You had just criticized him for name-calling, and in classic Christian charity turn around and commit the very thing you were criticizing in him.

    I used to be a Christian before I realized that Christianity makes empirical predictions about the world (e.g., intercessory prayer works), and that numerous scientific studies show these predictions to be untrue. Other predictions necessary for the classical Christian model include the existence of an immaterial soul, the existence of other disembodied non-material personalities (angels, demons, god), the existence of domains outside the physical universe in which these beings dwell and where the souls of the deceased go, that there is an essential difference between the redeemed and unbelievers, and many other claims for which there is either no evidence or evidence which contradicts these claims. This is a simple issue, and the data clearly exclude the possibility that most of the core Christian claims are true. But theologians and apologists muddy the waters and move the goalposts. They retreat into ever-diversifying revisions of the model until each claim is so detailed that one can get lost and not know which way is up or down. Show me data that the claims I listed above are true and not better explained by a more parsimonious naturalistic hypothesis.

    You are wrong to suggest that the New-Atheism is over. A quick look at iTunes will show you that there are more skeptical and atheist podcasts with larger audiences than there are religious podcasts. Christianity is retreating on multiple fronts losing the argument on cultural norms, public policy, and education. Christianity has been forced to evolve in order to adapt to a rapidly changing environment in which its relevance shrinks and its claims sound increasingly ridiculous. In chess, the loser is usually the one who is forced to move in response to their opponent; science and reason have been chasing Christianity all over the board for decades forcing it to change in order to avoid a final check-mate. Let’s talk in 10 or 20 years; my prediction is that atheism will be much more common in America and that traditional forms of Christianity will be less common. We live in a time where people have unprecedented access to data online. The days of the mysterious priesthood with all of the answers is over. Science leads to answers. Christianity leads to pseudo-philosophical musings attempting to resolve conflicts between ancient mythology and the real world. The tyranny of the relgious “academy” is over.

  9. I do not understand this vein of criticism that calls the “new atheism” ignorant. It is ignorant. I agree. I consider myself something of a scholar of religion and I do recognize the low-brow nature of the Dawkins-type arguments for atheism.

    Yet, these accusations of ignorance coming from supposed serious scholars of religion seem to be ignorant themselves of the general profile of the religious population.

    Would Dawkins’ arguments faze a serious theologian or biblical scholar? Hardly. But the average believer is also no serious theologian or biblical scholar. This is factual. Lodes of empirical data testify to this. Jason Slone’s work shows this is true even on a conceptual level.

    The “new atheism” is a political movement and as such tries to address the largest section of people. Complaining about their ignorance is like complaining about the ignorance of politicians. It is valid yet futile and ultimately misunderstands the nature of the beast.

    I don’t particularly like the “new atheists” either. I personally, as someone learned in religious psychology, find their ignorance sometimes stunning. I’m more in line with Atran’s views.

    But it bugs me to no end when I hear your argument advanced without the distinction I outlined here. The new atheists are simply correctly addressing their target audience. Perhaps they can be unsophisticated but so is their intended listener.

  10. I found this to be a very accurate description of the New Atheists. Very well done. What’s interesting is that none of them seem to have a real passion for science.

    • Thank you Sam: for a long time we argue that Dawkins, Harris, Dennett are (were) not scientists sensu stricto (actually not even sesu lato). Dennett claims he is the first experimental philosopher. Dawkins trained in ethology(?) and published really boring original work, Harris has published in the neuroimaging of belief, unbelief and uncertainty. Coyne was well known for releasing large large numbers of fruit flies in point A to fetch them in points B, C, thereof. Of Myers I know he is fond of cephalopods and works with zebra fish: they all share the passion that science will ultimately reveal our true nature (it seems we have none; we are a predetermined collection of molecules devoid of meaning: so, whats the point?)

    • This comment is parody, yes?
      (Oh golly I hope so)
      Otherwise it reads like someone who hasn’t listened to a single word written by Harris, Dennett or Dawkins.

      • That’s a very bold and unqualified assumption Jeff R. But you’re kidding, “yes?”. You must be. Harrisy, Dawkins and Dennett, hahaha.

      • Parody not in your sense. I could have not listened to their written words, I read them: nothing that has not been said one way or the other long time ago.

      • They’ve done a nice job of figuring out how to make money by referring to science in their writings. That’s not a passion for science. People with a passion for science are either in the lab or the field.

      • “What’s interesting is that none of them seem to have a real passion for science.”

        I’m not sure what you base this observation on, but it doesn’t agree with my experience. Most passionate scientists are atheists, by the way. There’s no room left for wishful thinking and superstition once you understand that the Universe is governed by consistent natural laws.

        “People with a passion for science are either in the lab or the field.”

        People with a passion for religion are either at the pulpit, in a monastery, doing missionary work, or hanging on a cross. So that leaves well over a billion of them that don’t seem to have a real passion for religion.

  11. If you can’t come up with new ideas, come up with new words. Like Darwinism, scientism is a small-minded attempt to put an “ism” on science.
    Sorry, you can create words, but they don’t have to mean anything.

    All humanities (humanisms?) do not have a way of knowing beyond the terms and principles agreed to by people who have read a lot of what others have said. Science is distinguished from the humanities way of knowing by having an arbiter of truth-empicial testing and observation. That science is a different and superior way of knowing is seen in the fact that it “works”–humans gain predictive ability and control through it. Philosophy, the basis of most humanities thought, never really produces any useful information. It is sort of a verbal game–a way of talking.

    Religion “studies” attempt to mimic philosophy. And, likewise their “way of knowing” is what others have thought long and hard about an concluded without any sort of empirical evidence. Once, however, their ideas enter canon, the ideas assume a mantle of truth that every one else can refer to (as the blog author does in recommending Aquinas, etc.).

  12. Well done for debunking that “Who made God?” argument. Oh – no you didn’t, did you? You, like all the “sophisticated” reviewers I have read just say you “outgrew it” or dismissed it as childish. Postulating an all-powerful, intelligent, creator God that needs no explanation to explain something for which we have no explanation is so bogus it is laughable. It is the joke upon which the entire religious house of cards is built and pointing this out is the strongest argument against that world-view. If you have an answer to why it is not, other than vague platitudes, please enlighten us.

    Apple pie is very much alive in England – it is definitely my favourite fruit pie!

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  14. I’m going to jump in here as a complete non-academic. I have no fine degrees in philosophy or theology, not even biology; just an AA in management from over 30 years ago. Just a worker bee programmer. I have to say that Mr. Hoffmann’s treatise is a bit muddled. I’m having a hard time understanding what he is trying to say outside of some intellectual snobbery and a whole raft of ad hominems.
    I have read a lot of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne and Eric McDonald. I find them to be very clear in calling religion what it is, belief(s) in imaginary, unsupported entities which makes a great many truth claims. Truth claims which are universally shown to be unfounded. So, yes, religion and science are not especially compatible, and just because some monks transcribed the works of pre-Christian thinkers doesn’t make religion responsible for it’s content any more than a Xerox is responsible for the Shakespeare someone may copy on it.
    We Gnu Atheists are accused by our more, apparently, more sophisticated betters because we haven’t read every philosophical argument and digested each and every apologia ever made. I happen to think that PZ’s The Courtier’s Reply, http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/12/the_courtiers_reply.php, is a wonderful exposé of this intellectual snobbishness. As to Leprechauns, there is just as much evidence for them as for anyone’s god.

    • On the contrary. The Courtier’s Reply is a perfect example of intellectual snobbishness. Basically, it’s an appeal to specialization, which is perfectly understandable as the notion is the product of a thinker steeped and defined by specialization. As I stated earlier, how much of our life enriching experiences should be rejected as irrelevant to the advance of science?

  15. Let me respond briefly to some of what is going on in various strings. It isn’t worth a blog, so find it here and tell ‘em Groucho sent ya..

    1. Why is my blog called New Oxonian? Incisive. I was going to call it the New Arkansan but have never set foot in Arkansas. The definition of Oxonian is a graduate of Oxford. Last time I checked I qualified–my doctorate has not been revoked–as do Professors Dawkins, Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, so your quibble is obviously with the word “new.” More important, how does this have anything material to do with the blog? And why isn’t a quick click on the vita brevis tab on the blog enough to give you the basics? Or is this just more ad personam horse doodie?

    2. The new atheists don’t oppose the study of religion. Not true: in fact the famous “Pinker Intervention” at Harvard in 2006 prevented religion from becoming a part of Harvard’s core curriculum, on the premise there was no difference between theology and religion-studies, though Harvard was the first university in America to introduce such study in the 1930’s, apart from its Divinity School. Read all about it here: http://www.somareview.com/godandmanatharvard.cfm Stephen Pinker (who is far more considerate of religion in general) is not the issue here, btw; a number of the newbies have gone on record as saying that the study of theology does not belong in a university, though in some places like Harvard, Yale, and Chicago, this would mean closing down their divinity schools where the study of religion is alive and well. That’s half the problem: the other half is that rank amateurs like the newbies have already pronounced their verdict on such study by mixing up the objectives. Frankly if this confusion is any indication of the state of their information, they’d better hold off on the God thing for a few years. If you want to see the nadir of this imbecilic conversation, here you go: http://www.newstatesman.com/2011/06/dawkins-myers-religion-faith

    3. Style. I’ll work harder to use shorter sentences and not include so many ideas in a paragraph. I know it is difficult for some readers. In the future I’ll skip the finery and get straight to the insults. If PZ feels he knows me well enough to call me R, I can return the favour my calling him P. Badda Bing.

    4. All further questions. Check out the

    Atheist Sure Fire Rapid Rapid response Manual for up to the minute information in making a straw man, trolling, the strategic uses of the courtier’s reply, and PAP (the Pomposity Argument Parsed). http://www.rjosephhoffmann.com/2011/12/01/the-sure-fire-atheist-rapid-response-manual/ It will save you loads of time and save me the trouble of replying to you.

  16. Without getting into the “Gnu” issue first, I’d have to disagree that Hitch is the only true intellectual of the Gnus. I find him a “poseur,” much like the Oscar Wilde he so likes, who has fallen far from his literary height of a century ago and, overall, rightfully so.

    If there is an intellectual among the Gnus, even though he recycles himself as he gets older, it’s Dennett if anybody.

    That said, on the “science” issue, Harris, above all the others, is guilty of “scientism.” I said so in reviewing his latest book. He’s also guilty of religious hypocrisy himself, when he claimed in “The End of Faith” that Buddhism is “just a psychology.” I’ve wondered ever since then if Harris isn’t a closet Buddhist, to have said such a whopper. (And, if he ever talked to Hitch about Eastern religions.)

    At the same time, I think that Mr. Hoffmann sometimes longs for an Enlightenment humanism of 200-plus years ago, and in throwing out the bathwater of “scientism,” he, in things such as cognitive science, etc., throws out too much of the baby of “science.”

    MRIs of today may be relatively crude, Mr. Hoffmann, but they’re getting better. The brain as the origin of the mind will be scientifically studied in more detail and accuracy as the years advance.

  17. I’m surprised the pie loving Poms are misunderstanding the point here. The author never suggested an apple pie couldn’t be found. The English pie eaters are not reading. The author didn’t claim atheism couldn’t be found up in England either. The point is the re-making of each in America. The American apple pie is distinctively American as is the new atheism. It’s an analogy, useful and amusing, one of the literary tools used to illustrate a point. There’s an international joke about the apple pie and who ‘invented’ it. But the evidence is in history and literature. The English put the apples in pastry before the American colonies planted the seeds.

    I’m destined to drive Ophelia and Veronica (and Eric) completely mad, who in their attempts to humiliate and separate are beginning to look like jilted lovers. Never mind. Isn’t it “wonderful”.

    Echo…

  18. I think we should stop using the description “new atheists” and instead call them “honest atheists”. I am a fan of all those you call “new atheists” and am grateful that someone(s) has the balls to point out the obvious, not only is the king not wearing any clothes, he’s a bit hideous to behold in the nude.

    And no matter how much perfume you sprinkle on a dog turd (“sophisticated theology”) it’s still a piece of dog shit when you bite into it (religion).

    Just sayin’ :-)

    • There are honest atheists, dishonest atheists, honest Christians and dishonest ones and on and on it goes. Some “news” chose to call themselves “gnus” and I reckon they’d all claim to be honest. Some aren’t – I know that for a fact. A gnu has claimed to know things “for a fact” about somebody and I actually know these things aren’t true. So she’s dishonest. So what’s your point? Why do you need an epithet? Are you implying religious believers are dishonest? Perhaps instead of liberal Christians we should call them honest Christians. No matter how many silly caricatures and vulgar metaphors you strain yourself to defecate, the fact is some humans are honest and some are not. Religion and atheism are not the distinguishing markers but personal agendas or motives often are. New atheism, despite shrinking theological questions of meaning and reality down to simplistic caricatures and vulgar metaphors will never demolish religious ideas which remain open to people without convictions of any sort, for critical and constructive thought. New atheists will never contribute to this creative thinking process because they lack sophistication and think sophistication is a slur. Some, with an avalanche of expletives, will even dismiss theology as irrelevant. This is ironic as new atheism is fast becoming irrelevant in the global community. With a little more education it will be sufficiently diluted with some aspects comfortably dissolved. Like a soggy firecracker it will fizzle. I shouldn’t imagine you look pretty without clothes on. Just sayin’.

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  20. The New Atheists do represent an important moment in human intellectual history, but that moment has nothing to do with the existence of Gods. It has to do with the limits of Empiricism. What we have is the point at which empiricism – the entire use of scientific evidence as validation – fails.

    Empiricism only works when the subject of the experiment is of a lower order, technologically, than the experimenter.

    Once the subject of the experiment is of a higher order than the experimenter, the relevant question is no longer whether there is evidence of the subject’s existence. The relevant question is whether the subject wishes to be detected through empirical means.

    That is a 50%/50% proposition. A coin flip. Where empiricism can yeild no better result than a coin flip, empiricism has failed. The lack of evidence for God can NEVER be taken as evidence of God’s nonexistence. Avanced space aliens are certainly not God. But we haven’t found space aliens through empirical means for the same reason we haven’t found God.

    If any significantly advanced “subject” were to decide, “I don’t want the humans to perceive my existence,” we won’t, whether through control of the evidence itself, or control of our minds.

    Whenever I give this argument, the atheist always resonds by saying I’m trying to conclude the lack of evidence is itself positive evidence. I’m not. I’m saying that science is categorically mute on the existence of any God. It is even impermissible to say, with Dawkins, that the existence of God is “extrememly unlikely” and base that on science.

    Atheists who rebut this always succeed in revealing how epistemologically trapped they are within an empiricist framework.

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  22. I am somewhat critical of some elements of the “New” Atheism- especially its apparent cult of celebrity and reveling in ridicule, and selective study of the most toxic forms of religion.

    However, it seems premature to pronounce it dead just yet, nor do I think Hitchens was necessarily the intellectual powerhouse of the movement.

    This article totally failed to mention how extremely civil Daniel Dennett is towards religion in comparison to PZ Myers (though Dennett is uncompromising in his atheism), which ought to have gotten a mention if we’re talking about civility as an issue.

  23. I must agree with you that Sam Harris is ” singularly incoherent.” and it irks me quite a bit that so many people consider him to be a genius. I think he’s an enormous impediment to learning, posing as its champion. I feel a bit like Schopenhauer glowering at Hegel.

    I like some of the other “New Atheists” much more than you seem to. I regard them as less of a unified group as it seems you might. How many of them actually refer to themselves as New Atheists, I wonder? The term is sometimes applied to me. I leave out the “New” and don’t capitalize “atheist.”

    “Just a flash: While leprauchauns didn’t copy the books that were turned into the books that led to the science Dr Coyne eventually studied, monks and rabbis did.”

    Yes. We should not forget for an instant that almost the entire corpus of at least the Latin portion of the Classical literature which we now possess, is made from copies made from Catholic monks. Not to mention very valuable original writing in Latin done in the Middle Ages, much maligned for centuries by people who’ve never read any of it, which some — not all! — atheists unfortunately ignore because of the obligatory pious preamble and ending to almost every text. (And sometimes merely because it’s in Latin and some of the atheists are angry ex-Catholics with issues, or anti-Catholic bigots, and to them Latin = Catholic.) (Not to mention extremely-influential and thoroughly stupid atheists such as Tom Paine, the Sam Harris of his day, who declared that all the valuable ancient texts had already been translated — think of all the ancient texts discovered since Paine died! — and that therefore education in the ancient languages should cease. What an idiot!) I know much less about what the Orthodox and other eastern Christians and the rabbis were up to in the Middle Ages, but if you say the rabbis performed services of preservation comparable to those of the monks, I see no reason to doubt you. And of course the so-called Western “Renaissance” was mostly a matter of Westerners learning Greek from Greeks and Arabs, and then exclaiming, “Look at what WE brought back to LIFE!” As if the ancient Greek culture had been dead just because the West was ignorant of it.

    So, yes, without a doubt, we owe a great debt of gratitude to those individuals who preserved ancient texts, and during the long, long Middle Ages almost all of them were clergypeople. However, we must also consider what it meant to belong to the clergy in a time when religion held an almost-complete monopoly on the institutions of learning, as it did in the Catholic Middle Ages. If a medieval monk became prominent for his learning, did that mean that he worked hard and obediently for the greater glory of the Lord, or merely that he liked books? If the former was not true he was still required to behave as if it were. In an age when religious dissent was punished so harshly, it is impossible to know just exactly what most people’s real attitudes about religion were. You may point to the licentious troubadours, who came into their own when so many pious knights were off warring in the East — pious and/or power-hungry, impossible to know the exact proportions of their motivations — as refuting what I just said, but even the troubadours were required to say that they were going to Hell for enjoying themselves so, when they may really have believed that Heaven and Hell were purely imaginary.

    Many of the monks may have believed the same thing, and put up with the sermons and rituals and inserted the required pious preambles and endings to all of their correspondence for the sake of their access to the manuscripts of the pre-Christian ancients. Must we assume that all medieval monks were Christian in more than name? And must we be grateful to Christianity because it only partly obliterated Classical antiquity, not completely?

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