You are hereThere is Nothing New About the New Atheism

There is Nothing New About the New Atheism

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By Virgil - Posted on 04 May 2009

When you proclaim something holy (or accuse it of the opposite) some mental heavy lifting is often required—an endeavor that almost always involves the private act of reading. For skeptics and atheists, mainstream publishers have obliged with the over-hyped surge of books intended to nourish the concept of “no God” or, slightly less loudly, “no religion.”While the authors of these books are not celebrities per se, and may view themselves as off-road progressives or even mavericks, they are actually fully in line with the cultural orthodoxy of their times. They each continue to borrow heavily from their day jobs to gain presumptive gravitas as they delve into something as foreign as the supernal. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and a handful more have contributed to what is becoming the modern atheist’s scriptural canon.

Conservatives, religion scholars, and writers have been eager to respond. A few have tendered their certitude that the uprising of atheism can be chalked up to blowback from the violence connected with Muslims—which we’re asked to believe has opened the way for no-God arguments to enter the mainstream discourse with unprecedented ease. These first-responders, though, are strangely silent about the American evangelical political influence in the past decade and its doctrinal advocacy of Armageddon-shaped policies.

For the most part, however, you’ll find balanced and sober reviews of these books in a variety of print and online sources. (Good examples are Marilynne Robinson’s review of The God Delusion in Harper’s, William C. Placher’s Christian Century review of Hitchens’ contribution. Stanley Fish’s blogs in the New York Times on atheism are interesting.)

Today’s Atheists: Yesterday’s Angst

Among the many things associated with the progress of public atheism, “newness” still stands out: new books, new marketing imagination (paid banners on London buses, “There’s probably no God”), new recognition in inaugural addresses, and a hint of new intellectual fashion. But if we step out from the green zone for a moment, we may think to ask a question more critically: Is this all really new? Eric Reitan, professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University, doesn’t think so. Reitan makes an organized response to the vendors of atheism in his book Is God a Delusion?—an unemotional reply to these “cultured despisers” of religion (a phrase Reitan attributes to Friedrich Schleiermacher, a nineteenth-century theologian who took on the atheists of his day).

Reitan’s resurrection of the phrase “cultured despisers” underscores one of the most compelling purposes of his book, namely, to show that the arguments of today’s articulate atheists are rehash of yesteryear’s angst.

Reitan underscores and supports the fact that the atheistic arguments, whether drenched in vitriol or sanctimony, or told with a semblance of rigor, are essentially unoriginal. Reitan, for example, recalls Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” as a progenitor to many of Richard Dawkins’ gripes with God. I don’t know how heavily Dawkins leaned on Russell, but I’m sure that it doesn’t really matter. What a reader should retain is that Dawkins depends on the reputation and aura of science to remake old arguments that are essentially unassociated with his profession and experience, and unrelated to the advancements of science itself. I’ve read Dawkins since my senior year as a zoology student more than 25 years ago, when I studied his The Selfish Gene for a senior seminar required to get my undergraduate degree. I’ve read Dawkins along the way, including his no-God arguments in The Blind Watchmaker and their dependence on a hopelessly narrow epistemology. Really, not much as changed since then.

Reitan makes another interesting observation about anti-theistic arguments. He begins his fifth chapter with a short bit about how his book got its start. He explains that one of his colleagues photocopied a page from a book without identifying the author. The page contained summaries of some of Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God. When Reitan read the photocopy, he was immediately struck by the fact that the “writer of the passage got the arguments wrong.”

The writer then proceeded to make no-God arguments that hinge on these errors. The author of that photocopied page was Richard Dawkins. In a well-received essay, Peter Harrison, Oxford professor of religion and science, has something similar to say:

Unfortunately, Dawkins has blundered into a field he knows very little about. He misunderstands the logic of the arguments and how they function in a religious context. His own naïve and plodding counter-arguments would make a philosophy undergraduate cringe.

Reitan’s point is that Dawkins constructs arguments that seem reasonable only with a shoddy recasting of subtle points of discursive theology. (Other ecclesiasts of atheism rely on entertainment, farcical stereotypes, and psychobabble about religious experiential phenomena.)

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HiPo's picture

Even if the "New Atheism" arguments are actually old, it is still worth noting that Christian arguments are also old.

Your faithful brother in Christ,

Ed's picture

Scripture tells us that the "fool has said in his heart, 'there is no god.'" It also tells us not to answer a fool according to his folly. IOW, it is folly to debate an atheist.

However, scripture tells us also that we ARE supposed to answer a fool according to his folly - IOW, treat him like a fool.

Bottom line - consider the source, and don't get in a debate with an atheist. As my wife often quotes, "a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." IOW, don't debate an atheist.

ed

Papa is especially fond of us

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