A common criticism I’ve heard over the years is that the New Atheists are simply another band of fundamentalists, who are just as bad and irrational as Christian fundamentalists. Something that always puzzled me was the lack of reasons for this accusation. I’ve heard this term bandied about over the years but I’ve never come across any reasons for this accusation. I’ve finally come across someone who has detailed their reasoning. I’m currently reading a book titled Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal and one of the chapters discusses exactly this issue.
Religion and the New Atheism is a very good book and I agree with the vast majority of the authors. Many of the essays are highly interesting, thought provoking, and right on target with their criticisms of and observations about the New Atheists. One essay, however, hit a nerve and I believe it is just as badly reasoned as most of the Christian polemics written about the New Atheists’ arguments. The essay is titled “One-Dimensional Rage: The Social Epistemology of the New Atheism and Fundamentalism,” written by William A. Stahl. I believe the author’s arguments are entirely inaccurate so I felt his article required a thorough debunking.
Note: page numbers will correspond to the PDF version previously linked.
Stahl begins his chapter with the highly inaccurate but highly popular statement that atheists only make up a small number of the population. He writes,
Atheism should not be confused with secularism – it represents the extreme edge of a wide range of secular thinking and the numbers of atheists is not, nor ever has been, very large. (3)
Perhaps the author ought to look at the several studies which show that currently 16% of the population considers itself atheist. That’s a nearly 6% jump since 2002. And the number of non-believers continues to rise.
In a proceeding paragraph Stahl lays out a summary of his case. He says,
I will argue that both the New Atheism and [Christian] fundamentalism are attempts to recreate authority in the face of crisis of meaning in late modernity. My argument will unfold in three steps. First, both the New Atheists and fundamentalists are absorbed in a quest for certainty. The failure of this quest leads, secondly, to a crisis of authority, which in turn, thirdly, involves both a social and political backlash. (4)
When I first read this paragraph I was dumbstruck. “Authority?” “Certainty?” These words do not sound at all like something the New Atheists would agree with. It sounds much more like what the New Atheists are objecting to! Despite my initial skepticism I will withhold further judgment for now and will allow Mr. Stahl make his case.
First, he addresses what he calls the “quest for certainty” by the New Atheists and fundamentalists. He writes,
Both the New Atheists and fundamentalists are obsessed with intellectual certainty. There are a number of dimensions of this, but at root for both is a need for authority. Indeed, as we will see, both the New Atheists and fundamentalists are caught in what Richard Bernstein (1983, 18) called the ‘Cartesian anxiety’: either there is some fixed foundation for our knowledge or we will be engulfed by intellectual and moral chaos. (6)
As an example of the similarities between the New Atheists and religious fundamentalists Stahl cites Richard Dawkins, and compares this statement made to one by Ken Ham. He writes,
Both the New Atheists and fundamentalists follow an epistemology based on what Steve Fuller calls a geometrical model of the relationship between empirical and normative dimensions of inquiry. This is an hierarchical approach in which inferences are deduced from first principles. The first principles give certainty of truth (as in geometry, assuming the proper methods have been followed), and therefore the empirical is seen as already normatively infused. Thus for both New Atheists and fundamentalists, religion is equated with belief and belief means giving intellectual assent to a series of propositions. Dawkins (2006, 50) calls this the God Hypothesis, the idea that “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other” which can be proven (or disproven) with a greater or lesser degree of probability. All three texts make their case by progressively demolishing a series of “arguments for God.” Fundamentalist discourse has a similar structure. For example, Ken Ham contends that:
Creationists and evolutionists, Christians and non-Christians all have the same evidence—the same facts. Think about it: we all have the same earth, the same fossil layers, the same animals and plants, the same stars—the facts are all the same. The difference is in the way we interpret the facts. And why do we interpret facts differently? Because we start from different presuppositions. These are things that are assumed to be true, without being able to prove them. These then become the basis for other conclusions. All reasoning is based on presuppositions (also called axioms).
Jonathan Sarfati adds that: “Logic and reason are far from being incompatible with Biblical Christianity. Rather, they are essential. Without them it is impossible to deduce anything from the true propositions of the 66 books of Scripture, the Christian’s final authority.” Creation scientists usually make their case by progressively demolishing a series of “arguments for evolution.” Thus both groups argue in tautologies, that is, their sets of propositions are true by definition and in which, as Herbert Marcuse said, “the ritualized concept is made immune against contradiction.” (6-7)
This is very confused thinking on the part of the author here. Yes, New Atheists and fundamentalists begin with essential starting points for their beliefs. The difference lies in the fact that one set of principles have been confirmed by way of evidence (or at the very least the evidence is enough that a particular proposition is more likely true than not) (those of the New Atheists) and the other has not (those of the theists). This is the only way in which human beings can create a philosophy that adheres to reality: propositions must conform as closely to the facts as possible. Unfortunately for the fundamentalists, it’s been demonstrated again and again that their beliefs do not mesh well with reality. In addition, Christianity has never been compatible with reason and evidence. Throughout Christianity’s history it has dismissed rational inquiry and evidence.
A few pages later he contends that “[b]oth argue that from belief flows behavior, so that if beliefs are wrong, behavior will be wicked.” Stahl then cites Sam Harris writing in The End of Faith that “beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior.” He contrasts this sentence of Harris’ with Coppedge’s statement that “[i]f our existence came about by chance, then we don’t have to answer to anyone.” (8)
The New Atheists are not arguing, like fundamentalists, that you must adhere to their beliefs, or else moral chaos will rein. They do not argue that you must believe in the ‘correct’ manner or else you will be acting immorally, as fundamentalists do. Stahl has badly taken Harris out of context. Harris rightly argues that certain beliefs often lead to bad actions. One obvious example is that of Dena Schlosser, who believed that god told her to chop off her baby’s arms. In addition, unlike fundamentalists, the New Atheists do not rest their morality upon some ultimate authority that cannot be challenged. They allow reason and facts to guide them (though I believe Sam Harris’ support of racial profiling is an exception to this).
In concluding this section Stahl says,
Thus, for all their outward differences, the New Atheists and fundamentalists mirror each other in their epistemology. Both engaged in a quest for certainty, for an authoritative foundation that can ground a normative order. Both claim to find certainty through their beliefs, understood as intellectual assent to a series of propositions. Although obviously the content of their beliefs are different, there is symmetry to the structure of how they go about believing. And both groups display a “Cartesian anxiety,” in that both see deviation from their fundamental cognitive order as directly threatening to moral order as well. (8-9)
It is difficult for me to see how the author believes that the New Atheists and the fundamentalists whom they oppose both have a similar view about how knowledge is attained (their “epistemology”). In actuality both groups have entirely different views about how knowledge is attained. Christians believe in divine revelation: they believe something is true because they honestly believe their god commanded them to do something, or laid down a particular law, as with the Ten Commandments, in the Bible. The New Atheists believe in fact and data gathering and using the scientific method to confirm or deny certain propositions. Reason is another method by which the New Atheists seek answers. This is in stark contrast to Christian fundamentalists who believe in revelation.
The second category laid out by the author is that of the “crisis of authority.” Stahl writes,
Like all quests for certainty, those of the New Atheists and fundamentalists are doomed to fail, and their failure has consequences. For both groups their own inability to establish certainty creates a crisis of authority, a crisis which mirrors the larger crisis of meaning in late modern society. Both groups respond to this dual crisis through social and political backlash. We will first look at the nature of their crisis of authority, which has several dimensions. First, their structure of meaning is based on questionable assumptions which lead away from empirical reality. Second, in part because of this, they are not able to meet their own epistemic standards. Together, these lead to the third dimension, inherent problems of incommensurability which reveals the nihilism underlying both groups. (9)
Once again, as I read this paragraph I’m stuck tilting my head to the side, scratching my head, and saying, “Huh?” Are we even reading the same books? Let us see how he defends this part of his thesis.
At one point Dawkins sets out a “spectrum of probabilities” of responses to the God Hypothesis, ranging through seven “milestones” from a strong theist—someone with complete certainty that God exists—to a strong atheist, someone equally certain that God does not. (Dawkins puts himself in category 6, just shy of total certainty, surely a bit of false modesty). His exercise illustrates the questionable assumptions he and the other New Atheists harbour, and which they share with fundamentalists.
The first assumption they make is that religion can be abstracted and reduced to cognitive beliefs separated from culture. Sociologically, this is a one-dimensional and impoverished understanding of religion. While doctrines and beliefs may be an important part of many religious groups (particularly in the Abrahamic traditions), they are by no means the only elements of religion in any group. Religion also involves experiences, rituals, traditions, and community, which for many groups are far more important than beliefs. And even cognitive elements may involve myths and stories that cannot be equated with propositional beliefs. Furthermore, to the extent that this assumption describes any group at all, it only applies to the modern world and there mostly to Protestantism. (10)
I don’t believe this is an assumption the New Atheists hold. I’m pretty sure they know that religion is more than a set of beliefs, which is why Richard Dawkins spent the entire fifth chapter on the “roots of religion” describing research into its likely Darwinian, cognitive, and social origins. Simply taking this one aspect of Dawkins’ argument and ignoring everything else I believe is horribly short-sighted and sloppy. Dawkins’ reason for laying out his scale was to illustrate his views about agnosticism and the probabilities of whether or not god exists.
Secondly, Dawkin’s exercise reveals the assumption that his epistemic model applies to all religious groups, and therefore the full range of religious belief can be placed on a single continuum. In other words, there is only one way of being religious because there is only one way to know. As we have seen, both the New Atheists’ and fundamentalists’ epistemology is based upon a geometric model. But many, if not most, religious groups, including many mainstream Christians, use an epistemology grounded in a dialectical model. What “counts” as knowledge for each of these models is quite different. From the standpoint of the geometrical model, the synthetic, compromising, and quite frankly political knowledge that the dialectical model produces could hardly be considered “knowledge” at all. Indeed, the very existence of dialectical forms of knowledge threatens the certainty both these groups cling to. Hence the rage directed at mainstream religion by New Atheist and fundamentalist alike. (10-11)
Once again, the author did not bother to try to understand Dawkins’ point with his scale. Besides, Dawkins was not arguing against all these other forms of religion that Stahl refers to, but specific forms of Christianity and Islam.
The New Atheists all build their case on science and therefore bind themselves to some version of the “scientific method.” Yet, as several commentators have pointed out, their books are shockingly unscientific. Instead of systematically collecting and weighing all relevant evidence to make a judgment based on probabilities, all three of these authors sweep through history and across cultures collecting anecdotes of religious people behaving badly. Any evidence to the contrary is studiously ignored. Major theologians are dismissed in a sentence or, more usually, not mentioned at all. Two examples of this unscientific approach to evidence are particularly egregious. First, anyone who wants to argue for the inherent moral superiority of atheism has to address the rather numerous counter-examples of atheist mass murderers (Robespierre, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc). Yet all three texts simply dismiss these examples out of hand because they claim these were “political religions” and therefore not really atheists at all. Ironically, Dawkins himself is often accused of turning Darwinism into a “theory of everything” and thus into an implicit religion. Second, if your contention is that religion poisons everything, then a case of religious people doing good would, as Karl Popper maintained, falsify your argument. The civil rights movement would seem to provide such a case, but Dawkins and Hitchens try to explain it away by claiming that Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement were not really religious. This is not even cherry-picking data—it is special pleading at best and propaganda at worst. For the New Atheists, epistemic authority rests with science, yet when they build their own arguments they abandon the standards of science. (11-12)
First, I would agree that the New Atheists have made a handful of minor errors in their books but this is hardly a grave offense, worthy of saying that they deny the scientific method. If Stahl wants to talk of misunderstanding someone I think he needs to rethink his own essay because he hasn’t yet to understand a single argument the New Atheists have put forward.
Second, I would also agree that Hitchens’ title was rather inaccurate but I believe he was mostly being purposefully controversial in order to sell more books, but at the same time I do believe he did get a little carried away with his rhetoric.
Finally, regarding his last few complaints:
1. Stalin and Communism: I’ve addressed this issue at length so anyone can read my excellent case against this charge if they’d like. Despite what Stahl writes, none of the New Atheists claim the Communist dictators weren’t atheists.
2. Dawkins’ turning Darwinism into a religion: I really don’t think this is the case. He’s simply trying to apply a scientific principle to different fields, such as psychology, which has shown much validity.
3. The New Atheists and the Civil Rights Movement: First, he again picks on Hitchen’s subtitle, which I think is rather pathetic. Then he argues that the New Atheists try to turn the Civil Rights movement into a non-religious affair. Regarding Hitchens (and Stahl referenced the wrong page numbers. The reference to Dr. King can be found on pages 173-176, not 273-276), he said no such thing. He simply said in his “opinion” King was “[i]n no real as opposed to nominal sense […] a Christian.” This is hardly a “scientific” observation. It’s his opinion and he said as much.
Having said that, I would disagree and say that I do believe King was a Christian, but I think it is doubtful that Christianity was very influential for his views of non-violence, which shaped the entire civil rights movement and changed the course of history. In an autobiography put together by Clayborne Carson of a multitude of Dr. King’s writings the book contains a very interesting passage about King’s intellectual influences. It reads:
When I went to Morehouse as a freshman in 1944, my concern for racial and economic justice was already substantial. During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay ‘On Civil Disobedience’ for the first time. Here, […] I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I read the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting his idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement, indeed, they are more alive than ever before. (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, Grand Central Publishing, 2001; 14)
Here, in King’s own words, is his stating unequivocally that the anarchist Henry David Thoreau was his greatest influence regarding the tactic of non-violence. Not Jesus, not Christianity, but a Deist and an anarchist.
Regarding Dawkins’ statement that the Civil Rights movement wasn’t religious he wrote, “Although Martin Luther King was a Christian, he derived his philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience directly from Gandhi, who was not.” Dawkins is mostly correct, given the quote I previously cited of King’s influence.
For fundamentalists all authority rests on the inerrancy of scripture. This is usually described as Biblical literalism. By this most mean verbal plenary inspiration, “the doctrine that each word of Scripture is inspired by God, and each word equally so.” Every word of scripture is equally authoritative. So if they were consistent, the Sermon on the Mount would have no more (or less) authority than the War of the Benjaminites (Judges 19-21). But when we examine their hermeneutical practices we find that fundamentalists are no more bound by scripture than the New Atheists are bound by science. Fundamentalist hermeneutics are characterized by prooftexting and harmonization. Prooftexting means picking and choosing texts to support preconceived ideas. It is the theological equivalent of cherry-picking data. […] [B]oth the New Atheists and fundamentalists are stymied by the
incommensurability of their discourse. Both argue that propositional truths—their beliefs—lead to certainty, and that this cognitive certainty leads to moral clarity (usually stated in the reverse—that the absence of cognitive certainty leads to moral chaos). Yet both groups see the society around them persisting in beliefs that they know to be deluded and behaviours that they know to be wicked. Thus the rage the New Atheists direct against religion mirrors the rage fundamentalists direct against secular society. (12-13)
Once again, Stahl points to an earlier aspect of his thesis, which I’ve already demonstrated is false. Yes, the New Atheists show moral outrage against certain practices, but it’s not hard to see why. Firstly, what are the New Atheists asking for? They are asking for open and honest discourse about the nature of religion and what its place should be in society. One of the reasons they do this is because they see all of the many horrible consequences of religious thinking: conflict and violence between two competing religious doctrines; genital mutilation; prayer for ill children in place of much needed medical care; a group of individuals attempting to stop certain groups from living their lives the way they want by trying to pass anti-homosexual marriage laws, etc. These injustices are perfectly reasonable to become angry about. I would hope that any decent and moral human being would feel the same anger about these actions as the New Atheists.
However, what exactly are these religious fundamentalists angry about? They falsely believe that their religious beliefs are wrongly being thrown out of schools, even though it goes against the very founding document of the country; they’re angry about public displays of their particular religion being challenged in court, even though this again is a violation of the founding document of the land. The religious want to see “equal time” for their religious beliefs to be taught in a science classroom, which is once again a violation of the founding document of the country, and it’s not science to boot. Finally, many groups of religious people would like to stop a woman from expressing her freedom to make decisions about her own reproductive organs, based on no scientific facts whatsoever.
Take a look at both sets of grievances. Which is grounded in facts and true morality, and which is grounded in untested, unscientific religious doctrine and selfishness?
The final section is titled “Backlash” and tells about how the New Atheists and fundamentalists both believe that the “fate of Western civilization is at stake.” He rightfully condemns the New Atheists for their anti-Islamist approach, viewing the struggle as a “war with Islam,” and their “support for Anglo-American imperialism.” I too do not much like the New Atheists’ vocal condemnation of the Islamic world as a whole. The truth of the matter is that most in the Islamic world want what most of the world wants: a free and democratic life and society (Global Attitudes Project). In addition, the majority of Muslims disapprove of extremism and are genuinely worried about it. I think the call to arms ought to be against that minority, not the whole of the Islamic world.
Despite this very brief period of clarity, Stahl slumps back down into the depths of irrationality when he continues to trot out his wrongheaded thesis based upon his own misunderstandings of the New Atheists, further repeating much of what he’s already said.
In the final paragraph of the book he writes about the oft-misunderstood aspect of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion about what he calls “child abuse.” He writes,
[W]hat begins as an appeal to reason, in the end becomes an appeal to authority. Both Hitchens and Dawkins refer to religion as child abuse, with all that means for intervention by the state. Dawkins favourably quotes psychologist Nicholas Humphrey in saying “children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it.” In saying this they reveal the dark side of their Enlightenment values and beliefs, a willingness, in Rousseau’s chilling words, “to force people to be free.” So in the end, fundamentalism and the New Atheism are mirror images of each other, sharing deep structural and epistemological parallels. (17)
I have written an in-depth blog post about this subject so I will save time and space by linking to it. Needless to say, this is a horrible distortion of Dawkins’ views.
All in all, this essay of William Stahl’s, while it hit a few home runs, mostly struck out, hitting nothing but air. For all of his criticism of the New Atheists and how they fail to grasp the subjects they write about, throughout nearly the entirety of this essay I think he would have been better served if he had followed his own advice. In the end, no, the New Atheists are not fundamentalists. They do not wish to force their views on others through political means or by force; they (mostly) follow the evidence where it leads, using their reason as their guide; they are not steadfast in their convictions like fundamentalists and (in most cases at least) are perfectly willing to change their minds should the evidence warrant it (I’m mostly thinking of Sam Harris’ racial profiling again and his and Hitchens’ support for American imperialism).