“CADRE Comments: The New Atheists – Based on Antipathy to Those Different?”

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Could it be that the New Atheism is a new manifestation of old-fashioned intolerance toward those who are different?

BK at Cadre Comments has quoted at length from a provocative column in First Post by Andrew Brown, titled “The Horror of a New Atheist World.” Brown noted that the New Atheists’ contentions are often quite unbelievable, even ridiculous, such as that Hitler was a believer in the Roman Catholic* religion and that Martin Luther King Jr. was not a Christian. Brown could have listed other outlandish examples, like Dawkins’s belief that raising children to believe in Christ is child abuse.

What is going on in these books? Brown has an intriguing suggestion:

But the New Atheist books which really sell are those which mirror the abusive certainty they ascribe to all their enemies.

And what could be behind that?

Why is this view suddenly so popular? Many Americans clearly feel oppressed by Christian pieties, and practically everyone in Europe is afraid of being oppressed by Islamic piety. The belief in human progress with which we all grew up looks less and less like fact and more like yet another fallible ‘faith’.

In this climate of uncertainty, the New Atheism spreads exactly like any other sort of fundamentalism. It offers a clear, compelling certainty at a time of economic and social confusion. It offers enemies (the religious) and wise, benevolent leaders (Dawkins, for example, whose name today appears on the front page of his website a mere 35 times).

14 Responses

  1. Tom Gilson says:

    By the way, it must have been a slow day at RichardDawkins.net when Brown wrote that. This morning his name is there in at least 108 places. Does anybody know of anything else on the web to compare with that? For perspective, John McCain and Barack Obama’s home pages today display their candidates’ names a combined total of 24 times.

  2. What Dawkins et al will not admit is that their atheism is another metaphysical view that inherits the uncertainty of all such views. They seem to wish to say that it’s a simple and obvious outcome of scientific rationality. It is not.

    You get only as much metaphysics out of science as you put in to begin, and their atheism is at the front-end of their science, not at the end.

  3. Charlie says:

    Hi Franklin,

    their atheism is at the front-end of their science, not at the end.

    Very well written.

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    Interesting that you would put it that way, Franklin. I keep hearing strong assurances that atheism is not a belief. I’m sure Jared, for example (see also the comments on that post) would deny that atheism is a metaphysical view.

    This is disingenuous at best—and I’m trying to be charitable. I haven’t had time to write on it yet, though, as I told him I would do. Maybe one of you would like to comment on that topic.

  5. Timothy says:

    I find it appalling that the New Atheists go to such lengths to pin moral atrocities on the religious while discounting the idea that any good can come out of religion. Arguing that MLK wasn’t a Christian is just plain absurd, as is Hitchens’s attacks on Mother Teresa.

    Why can’t atheists accept some of the blame? Christians do. Whenever we bring up an example of a bad atheist, they always try to pin it on something else. Dan Dennett went as far to claim that Stalin was his own god.

  6. Charlie says:

    Lawsuit in Italy to ban baptism of children withdrawn
    http://www.alliancealert.org/?p=6706&akst_action=share-this

  7. Marco says:

    @Tom: Atheism is a belief just as much as not playing basketball is a sport….

    @Charlie: the article you link is just plain wrong. There is no lawsuit against baptism of children in Italy. The Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR) is just promoting a campaign to give atheists the possibility to “cancel” the baptism that was imposed to them when they were children (the so called “debaptism”), a possibility that has been granted by Italian Courts. Word of an anti-baptism bid being dropped in Italy has been spread by mr. Gianfranco Amato, who’s probably just searching for fame, and has been happily reported by many internet sources, none of which unfortunately bothered to get in touch with UAAR for a confirmation.

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    Marco,

    Atheism is a belief just as much as not playing basketball is a sport….

    Like I said, I keep hearing this. This one is really quite far off base, and I’m tempted to just quote it back here, and say that if this is the best rejoinder atheists can provide, then my point is demonstrated. You can avoid sport while avoiding basketball; you cannot avoid belief while believing there is no God.

    I’m not going to leave it at that, however. Let’s explore just a bit further.

    Are you using the term “belief” in some technical sense? It seems to me a “belief” is that which a person believes, and that atheists believe there is no God. If you believe that there is no God, you have a belief, and that belief (it seems to me) can properly be labeled an atheistic belief.

    Maybe by “belief” you mean something like “an organized set of agreed positions regarding what is true.” That would be parallel to the idea of “the Christian belief” or the “Muslim belief.” I’ll grant that the organized set of agreed positions involved in atheism may be smaller, less well developed, than that of many religions, but there are nevertheless a broad set of ideas that are entailed in atheism. These include a naturalist view of the origins and operations of nature and the cosmos; the necessity for humans to find or create some non-transcendent understanding of ethics, meaning, and purpose; belief that humans are just physical and have no spiritual soul or immaterial mind; confidence that one’s actions have no enduring effect on that person after death, because death is the annihilation of the person; conviction that one’s responsibility is only to oneself and to those whom one chooses (or is culturally conditioned) to assign responsibility; rejection of any transcendent spiritual reality, its claims to truth, and its putative claims to authority over the person. More could be added.

    These are all entailed by atheism. There is also a larger body of beliefs that are common among atheists. Though they may not be entailed by atheism and are not universal among atheists, they seem to be part of atheism just as Sunday morning worship services are a part of being a Baptist. These include the view that science is the only reliable method for gaining knowledge about the world; acceptance of extramarital sex and homosexual relationships as normative; an ethic that places “tolerance” at the apex of virtue. More could be added to this list too.

    So atheism is a belief in the sense that it is a statement of what one believes. It is also a belief in a broader sense, in that it is a system of interrelated beliefs about what really matters in the universe, how one acts, and so on. Even if these interrelated beliefs are not exactly the same in their expression, they build on the same foundation. Christianity likewise has a common foundation of beliefs that are expressed differently by different people.

    When I say atheism is a belief, I do not mean that it is a monolithic unity in which everyone agrees about everything. Christianity is also not a monolithic unity in which everyone agrees about everything. Atheism is nevertheless a belief in that it involves a core set of associated beliefs about reality, some of which are strongly entailed and some of which are not entailed but are nevertheless strongly associated with atheism.

  9. Tony Hoffman says:

    Tom,

    Marco’s simile reads to me to be correct (and funny – always a positive for tipping the scales, in my opinion).

    Under what system can you fairly characterize the absence of belief on a defined topic as requiring belief on that topic? Here’s an example: Say that three men are each given a different pair of glasses. One is given real x-ray glasses, another is given glasses of deception, and another is given glasses that are transparent. They are not told which glasses they are given and cannot exchange their glasses. The three men are told to look through a brick wall, on the other side of which stands either a pot of gold or nothing. (There is a pot of gold there, in reality.) The person with x-ray glasses is certain that he sees a pot of gold. The person with the deception glasses is certain that he sees an empty room. The person with the transparent glasses is certain he sees a brick wall.

    Under your definition of beliefs the person with the transparent glasses cannot have an “I don’t know position” about what he believes is on the other side of the brick wall. He must have a belief about the existence or non-existence of the pot of gold. In fact, he believes (correctly) that he is the only one who is certain about his predicament; he is certain that he does not know. All three men are in different situations of belief, but the man with the transparent glasses is the only who is correct in knowing that he believes what is true for his senses.

    In other words, I don’t understand why you and other theists will not tolerate a belief position that is consistent with the man in the transparent glasses.

  10. Marco says:

    Tom, I totally disagree with your point of view.
    According to what you say, any form of knowledge should in fact be defined a “belief”.
    This is a very complex topic to discuss in a few words, but I think I’ll go with an example, as Tony did. Let’s say that you’re walking on a mountain path with a friend of yours, and he suddenly tells you: “hey, know what? I’m going to jump into that valley right now. I have the strong belief that I’ll fluctuate and remain suspended in midair”. You would probably answer: “you fool! You will fall and crash your bones before you even realize what is happening!”. He would then tell you: “well, mine is a belief, yours is an answer to my belief, so it’s a belief as well… there’s no reason why you should be more right then me, come on, let’s jump together!”. Boom.

    Now, what can we say? Your friend’s opinion would be indeed a belief, an undemonstrable and undiscussable assumption. Indeed, yours would be neither a belief nor an assumption, but a fact, an idea based on experience, on scientific observation and empirical knowledge of the law of gravity. Rationalism, scientific evidence is the difference between a belief and a knowledge and, incidentally, there is no scientific evidence of the existance of God.

    One more thing: oddly, while I consider myself an atheist, I don’t share many of the points of view that you consider common for the atheists. Actually, I do think you have a very misleading idea about atheists, and that is particularly true when you say: “conviction that one’s responsibility is only to oneself and to those whom one chooses (or is culturally conditioned) to assign responsibility”, which is a very sad commonplace.

  11. Tom Gilson says:

    Tony,

    Under what system can you fairly characterize the absence of belief on a defined topic as requiring belief on that topic?

    Under the circumstances I defined in my last comment. Atheism is not a mere absence of belief. Absence of belief might exist in a case like, “How many impact craters are there on Pluto?” I don’t have any belief about that, although I would guess the answer is greater than 10 or 20. The atheist believes there is no God. That is belief.

    Under your definition of beliefs the person with the transparent glasses cannot have an “I don’t know position” about what he believes is on the other side of the brick wall.

    You’re describing an agnostic. We’re talking about atheism, not agnosticism. You could make a case that agnosticism is not a belief, but you cannot persuade me that atheism is not a belief.

  12. Tom Gilson says:

    Marco,

    According to what you say, any form of knowledge should in fact be defined a “belief”.

    But of course! See here for the definition of knowledge, as it has been understood by philosophers for centuries. (It’s the Wikipedia version but it’s reliable in this case.) Knowledge has long been defined as “justified true belief.” This definition has come under pressure through the Gettier problem, but belief as part of the definition of knowledge has not come in question at all. In short you cannot know X to be true without believing X to be true.

    I think the source of our difficulty here, in the way you seem to define “belief:”

    Your friend’s opinion would be indeed a belief, an undemonstrable and undiscussable assumption.

    This is an idiosyncratic definition; it sounds like you’re equating “belief” with “religious belief,” where “religious belief” means “believing what cannot be discussed or demonstrated about reality.” In fact, “belief” means “belief” whether the subject is religion or physics. I believe electricity is the energy associated with moving electrons, and I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In both cases “believe” means “consider or hold to be true.” There is a difference in how I came to accept those beliefs, but the difference is not in the definition of “believe.”

    So what you’ve hinted at here as your understanding of belief is just not accurate. To believe X is just to hold X to be true. It is not to hold something “undemonstrable and undiscussable” to be true. Atheism is the belief that there is no God; it is a belief in that sense, and it carries with it a set of further entailed beliefs.

    You said,

    Actually, I do think you have a very misleading idea about atheists, and that is particularly true when you say: “conviction that one’s responsibility is only to oneself and to those whom one chooses (or is culturally conditioned) to assign responsibility”, which is a very sad commonplace.

    I would be very interested to know what or whom you consider your self responsible to; and how (other than your own choice or cultural conditioning) you came to be responsible to that person or thing.

  13. Tony Hoffman says:

    Tom,

    I think that you are failing to distinguish adequately between the logical differences between the atheistic and theistic positions. Yes, it can be said that some atheists believe there is no God. But there are also many atheists, including Dawkins, whose position is much more one of suspension of belief based on agnostic principles. It can fairly be said that the logical position of theism is unwaverable, while the position of atheism remains forever contingent. The two positions are not on equal footing, and your declaration that the two equally constitute belief hides this fact.

    The onus of belief does not reside equally on both sides of the issue. And that’s because the theist position can never be disproven; it is logically possible to remain a theist despite any and all evidence to the contrary. That is not true of the atheist position. And because it is reasonable and fair for an atheist (or an agnostic) to hold a position that a) there is not now sufficient evidence indicating the existence of God, and b) should such evidence be provided I must believe in said God, it seems petty to demand equation of the two positions. (I agree that there are de facto atheists whose belief that God does not exist would remain intact despite virtually any evidence, but I think they are not philosophical atheists but idealogically committed non-theists. I don’t think there are as many of them as you probably do.)

    I have to point out as well that it seems contrary to discussion to make declarations like “…you cannot persuade me that atheism is not a belief.” Statements like that, I would think on reflection, are not consistent with the kind of website you have set out to run.