Not long ago I developed and taught a class on the so-called New Atheists, a group of thinkers who put out books around the same time (2004 – 2007) arguing against Western religion. As a long-time devotee of Nietzsche, I was intrigued by these books and sympathetic towards many of the arguments they contained. I’ll confess that I was a little nervous about teaching such a course, for fear of profoundly upsetting the students by challenging perhaps their most deeply-held beliefs. After all, these writers don’t pull any punches in their condemnation of the trilogy of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
I only taught the class twice, and I’ll explain why in detail. Suffice it to say, two unexpected things happened in the course of my delving deeply into these authors and their arguments and then teaching them to undergrads. First, contrary to my fears, the majority of the students (perhaps the vast majority) bought the arguments, accepted them, and were quite ready to say “to hell with religion!” I shouldn’t have been as surprised by this as I was, given the students I was teaching, and more about that later on. The second unexpected thing that happened—and this was a real surprise, one that had profound reverberations for me—was that I went down a rabbit hole—a deep, dark empiricist rabbit hole in which the world stopped making sense to me.
I came out of that confusion thanks to the writings of the philosopher Thomas Nagel. He helped me make sense of the world again, and in a way that revolutionized the way I think about human beings, our fundamental nature, and our place in the universe.
This is a rather involved story, so I will tell it in multiple posts.
Part I: The New Atheists
The Cast of Characters
I. Dawkins. “I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.” (The God Delusion, p. 36)
Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, and his offering is called The God Delusion. One pertinent question about these authors and these books is: what exactly is it that they’re arguing (or, perhaps more appropriately, arguing against)? Are they arguing positively in favor of atheism, that is, are they arguing that God doesn’t exist; or are they arguing against religion as a practice, claiming that it’s somehow pernicious? There’s some of both going on, but for the most part, the authors are arguing against religion as a practice and a cultural phenomenon. However, Dawkins, for one, does explicitly tackle the question of God’s existence, and he treats it as an empirical question open to scientific study. This is to be expected from a natural scientist. (It was Dawkins, by the way, who coined the term ‘meme’ with which we’re now all too familiar.)
II. Dennett. “The spell that I say must be broken is the taboo against a forthright, scientific, no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many.” (Breaking the Spell, p. 17)
Daniel Dennett is a philosopher, but one from what’s known as the “Analytic Tradition,” which means he believes philosophy should accept the conclusions of the natural sciences and should attempt to be as science-like as possible (and should be a kind of handmaiden to science, in the eyes of many). Indeed, and to introduce some technical terminology, Dennett firmly buys into what’s called “scientism,” which is the belief that there is nothing beyond the natural world; and that the methods of the natural sciences (particularly physics) are sufficient for understanding everything there is to know about the universe. Dennett’s book is entitled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
III. Harris. “Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God.” (The End of Faith, p. 21 – 22)
Sam Harris is also a philosopher, and while he’s sympathetic towards the natural sciences, he doesn’t buy into scientism the way that Dennett does. It’s important to note that all of these books came in the near-aftermath of 9-11. The fear, almost panic, induced by religious extremism is most palpable in Harris’s book, and he goes after Islam the hardest of all four authors (although that religion is not at all spared by the others). His book is The End of Faith, and after hammering Western religious traditions for most of the book, Harris makes what to me was a surprising move: He embraces some form of spirituality.
IV. Hitchens. “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” (God is Not Great, p. 150)
I was first introduced to “The New Atheism” when I read an excerpt from Christopher Hitchens’s book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (and was blown away by it). I was a big fan of Hitchens, who was a journalist, an essayist, seemingly a polymath, and a real and clear voice of social conscience. His writing was always very smart and very witty. Unfortunately, he died of cancer in 2011, and I’ve said before that in our current political mess, his is the voice we most dearly miss.
Dennett writes in a gentle tone, like a kindly uncle trying to convince you of your foolish ways; Dawkins is so contemptuous of religion he is often sarcastic; as I said, Harris is in something of a panic, though his book is quite smart and, as I said, surprising in ways; Hitchens is blunt and forceful, and his razor wit is unsparing.
Harm and absurdity
Two of the most important claims within the four books are that much of traditional Western religion is positively harmful; and that most of the claims made by Western scripture are completely absurd. All four authors hammer both these points over and over, and they all bring out one example after another to thoroughly back their claims. If you look at the Bible and the Koran closely, the authors argue, you can’t miss the hate, the misogyny, the incitement to violence; you can’t miss the fraud perpetrated by ignorant people who want to control others; you can’t miss true insanity of the claims made. [Look for a supplemental post on particular examples of these; it’s quite instructive and sometimes surprising to examine them.]
I can’t help but think it’s a helpful exercise to show believers exactly what’s in their sacred texts, because most Westerners, or at least most Americans, really have no idea. That being said, I doubt very much that many people’s minds have ever been changed by learning about these things. One of the revelations I came to in studying the New Atheists and teaching the class was that when people say they believe in God or claim to believe that Jesus really was resurrected and ascended to heaven, they mean something very different than what one normally means in using the word “belief.” (It’s quite different from what I mean when I say, “I believe I turned off the oven just now,” for example; or when I say, “I believe Donald Trump is a compulsive liar.”) The usual rules of reasoning and evidence don’t apply to most theistic claims for some reason. I can’t say I know exactly what believers mean by their professions of belief, but it seems to me that pointing out the absurdity of the claims they’re making most of the time doesn’t touch or change their conviction.
The existence of God
The second sort of argument presented in these works is an argument against God’s existence, or at least an argument against belief in God. (This, by the way, points to the distinction between atheism and agnosticism: whether you can show, positively, that God doesn’t exist; or merely show that the other guy’s arguments that God does exist are no good.)
Hitchens, for example, has a chapter entitled “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion are False.” However, what he does in that chapter is reject and refute the religious arguments. At most, this should show that you have no justification for believing those claims, not that they’re positively false. But Hitchens is an essayist and not a philosopher writing a philosophical treatise, so we should give him some leeway.
Dennett, on the other hand, in trying to break the spell, pretends like he doesn’t know the answer to all these questions yet—because a proper scientific study of them hasn’t yet been performed. It’s clear that he’s trying to coax along any and every believer he can, saying, “come on, a bit of scientific research won’t kill you! Let’s see where it leads, and if it shows that your beliefs are all a load of bunk, well, then, be prepared to accept that!” But in rejecting anything supernatural, Dennett has already answered all the fundamental questions. He does talk like the kindly old uncle, but you know all along that he thinks you’re a bit dim for believing what you believe.
Dennett’s book does contain a section of a chapter called “Does God Exist?” In it, he covers all the traditional arguments for God’s existence, goes over the usual criticisms of those arguments, and then concludes that they all fail. At that point Dennett implies that the issue has been settled and the question of the title of the section (“Does God Exist?”) answered in the negative. However, he’s fudging a bit, because the chapter in which this discussion takes place concerns belief, not metaphysics. Dennett knows he’s just made a case for agnosticism, not true, positive atheism; but since he’s committed to the latter, I suppose, he allows himself the fudge.
As I said before, Dawkins takes head on, not just the issue of belief in God, but the very existence of God; and his treatment of it is a fascinating mess, in my humble opinion. There’s a deep contradiction in what we mean by God—and what Dawkins accepts as God—and how he proposes to treat the question of God’s existence. In a nutshell, Dawkins accepts the definition of God as a supernatural being but then wants to treat the existence of God as a scientific, empirical question. Since experience and thus scientific study only occurs in (and is only concerned with) the natural world, it’s impossible to understand how these two ideas can fit together.
To go into a bit more detail, Dawkins defines “The God hypothesis” as: “There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” (31) He then claims that the existence of God is one that we can (or should be able to) get an answer to: “God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice.” (50) However, he shortly goes on to seemingly contradict himself when he says: “That you cannot prove God’s non-exisence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything. What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable.” (54)
It’s a basic principle of logic and reasoning that you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist; however, in calling the existence of God a scientific matter that one should be able to answer, Dawkins seems to commit himself to being able to demonstrate one way or the other whether God exists: “The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question.” (58 – 59) Very confusing, indeed.
Dawkins lays out his arguments and his evidence, criticizes the traditional arguments for God’s existence, and then claims that “God almost certainly does not exist.” (158) As the good scientist that he is, Dawkins says that he’s an agnostic about the whole business. That is, claiming a priori that God doesn’t exist would be too strong of a claim for someone who works only with empirical evidence and testable hypotheses. (Conveniently forgetting, of course, that he called himself an atheist back on page 13.)
Now, to me at least, this is all a confusing mess. If God is a supernatural being, as I said, and science only works empirically—that is, deals with data and claims about the natural, perceivable world—then how can the existence of God be a scientific question? There is one way that Dawkins might be able to get around that problem. He claims, and quite rightly, I think, that “A universe with a supernaturally intelligent creator is a very different kind of universe from one without.” (58) If he’s then able to argue and present evidence that the universe we find ourselves in is one that almost certainly wasn’t designed, then he could claim by a neat inference that an intelligent designer God almost certainly doesn’t exist. This does in fact seem to be the argument he’s making, though he’s not very clear about it.
However, and this is still where I get stuck, Dawkins denies that there’s anything supernatural at all. The natural world is all that exists (see his discussion in the section “Deserved Respect,” p. 11 – 19). Consequently, I can’t make any sense out of the claim that there’s still a chance, however slight, that there might exist a supernatural being. Like Dennett, Dawkins might be making a pretense to some sort of evenhandedness here, though I’m not sure why he’d bother, especially when in the rest of the book he’s completely contemptuous of belief in God.
Dawkins is a brilliant evolutionary biologist, without a doubt, but he’s not a philosopher, and so he’s not nearly as careful or analytical in his treatment of these issues as he ought to be. Frankly, one gets the impression from reading his book that he thinks the whole business is so idiotic that he can’t be bothered to waste his time on it.
[There’s a fascinating video of the four of these thinkers sitting down together and discussing these issues and the reception of their books. It’s well-worth watching. Check it out here: The Four Horsemen.]
In the next installment of this story, I’ll discuss the two surprising consequences of my teaching the class on these books: The students’ gleeful acceptance of the New Atheists’s arguments and my own descent down the empiricist rabbit hole.