The delusions of New Atheism

Isaac Lamb 4 June 2021
Image credit: Creative Commons

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris: about ten years ago, the work of these three intellectuals was peaking in popularity and influence. They had all appeared on televised news, they had all taken part in high profile public debates, and each had a book (or many) selling very well. Dawkins had even managed to land a gig debating the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, a mismatch which resembled a toddler getting into the ring with a prime Mike Tyson. But the New Atheists have fallen from glory; today, Dawkins is attracting publicity for tweeting questionable opinions about transgender people, and making the bizarre claim that some rapes are better than others. Sam Harris has tried to dabble in philosophy, though needless to say, his work hasn’t been critically acclaimed. Christopher Hitchens has fared a bit better, though this is less to do with his career and more to do with the fact he’s dead.

Dawkins’ recent tweets are not all that surprising for someone who is familiar with his work. His insistence on tweeting these bizarre opinions doubtless stems from the same flaw which plagued his work on religion, which is a tendency to massively overestimate the proper role of reason in everyday life. Time and time again, the charge of ‘irrationality’ animated Dawkins’ work, but also that of Harris and Hitchens. In The God Delusion, Dawkins scorns ‘the weakness of the religious mind’, and if you really anger him, he might even call you a ‘faith-head’, which means you are ‘immune to argument’. I can wholeheartedly agree that being open-minded and rational is a good thing, even an important thing, but what strikes me as bizarre is the insistence that these are the only values at play when one is debating the merits of religious belief. Here is an illustrative quote from Dawkins:

When I pressed him, he said he found that Judaism provided a good discipline to help him structure his life and lead a good one. Perhaps it does; but that, of course, has not the smallest bearing on the truth value of any of its supernatural claims.

The Jewish chap who said this was gently suggesting that not every decision we make in life is based on rationality. Perhaps he sees his decision to believe in God as akin to the decision to get married or his choice of career; the kind of decision in which what is rational really isn’t very important. And it’s hard to see what’s actually wrong with this.

This inflated valuation of reason is intimately linked with another flaw in these thinkers’ work: they never studied philosophy, despite seeking to authoritatively address philosophical questions. If they had, they would have recognised that rationality alone doesn’t really get you very far. It is very difficult to prove, rationally, the existence of the external world at all, let alone the existence of a moral order or aesthetic values like beauty in it. Philosophy tends to give people a healthy appreciation of how irrational lots of good things are.

At the same time, the absence of any training in philosophy led the New Atheists to some brilliant gaffes. After ‘proving’ that free will is an illusion in his book Free Will (he does not prove this) Harris goes on to speculate about the consequences of his discovery. He settles on being nicer to his wife when she’s in a bad mood, because he can longer bring himself to blame her for what her neurons are doing. How is one supposed to respond? I’m very pleased for her?

Dawkins, again in the God Delusion, confidently states that he has proven God is almost impossible. His argument centres around the claim that a creator-God must be more complex than the world he has created, and therefore, God is very very unlikely to exist. But Dawkins failed to distinguish between a thing’s function, and a thing’s nature, and therefore ignored the possibility that a creator-God might have a highly complex function (creating the world) but nonetheless an entirely simple nature. When this was pointed out to him by Philosopher Anthony Kenny, Dawkins simply admitted that he did not know what this distinction meant.

All this provokes the question: what made these three so popular? Here is a guess: they peddled a victim mentality to white, middle-class teenage boys. The New Atheists’ radical message was always most popular amongst wealthy, white, male teens, which makes it somewhat chilling when Dawkins describes ‘coming out’ as an atheist – an experience which is, in his own words, ‘exactly as in the case of the gay movement’. Dawkins has repeatedly said that teaching a child about hell is worse than sexually assaulting them, and has campaigned against faith-schools in the UK to protect children from the abuse of a religious upbringing.

Christopher Hitchens, for his part, once said that ‘it is hard to imagine anything more grotesque’ than the practice of male circumcision. Hitchens was hardly unaware of the myriad ways in which millions of people today are genuinely, hideously oppressed, so perhaps he was exaggerating. But denying the reality of oppression is precisely the point, isn’t it? These statements are not really about the interests of children, they are about creating an identity in which the privileged can claim victimhood. The point is that if you were lucky enough to get a coveted spot at a church school, you can spin this into a dramatic story of your own oppression.

If God is out there, his treatment of the New Atheists suggests he has a sense of humour. Today’s angsty teenage boys have a new intellectual hero, and he is a self-styled cultural Christian: Jordan Peterson. The teenage boys once taught to despise the irrational are now being taught about the psychological insights in mythology, indeed, in Biblical stories. The notion that Christianity is harmful has been reversed: it is the regrettable decline of Christian values in the West that young men should be angry about, according to Peterson.

This U-turn in the zeitgeist may well be ironic, but it’s also an unsurprising consequence of the failings of the New Atheists’ work. The New Atheists were both too rational, in that they failed to recognise any other standard by which belief might be evaluated, and not rational enough, in that their ignorance of philosophy tripped them up time and time again. The result? The hyper-rational atom-bombs they supposedly dropped on religion were more like water balloons, which nourished the growth of the plants they landed on.