The timidity of New Atheists

I’m disappointed by New Atheist writers.

Not specifically with their conclusions, although I think their investigative methods to reach said conclusions are remarkable sloppy. No, I’m more disappointed with their timidity. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris et al. are very happy to make grand and sweeping claims, but they seem to lack the intellectual courage to follow their arguments through. In the midst of their tireless self-promotion as evangelists of the bright atheist future, there is a marked unwillingess to be honest about the details of where exactly their ideals would lead humanity.

Morality is an interesting case in point here. Dawkins is happy to propose secular humanism as an alternative moral compass, despite its unfortunate tendency to promote eugenics and infanticide. This philosophy maintains that ethics and morality can be derived from human rationality (“ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation”, as the humanist articles of faith put it), despite the dearth of evidence for such rationality in human affairs.

The biggest problem with the humanist approach is that it requires staunch adherence to beliefs which are insupportable in the absence of God. “All people are created equal” is a wonderful basis for a just society, but without the Creator it makes no sense. People are not equal. They have unequal distribution of intellect, of athletic ability, of attractiveness. Unless there is independent justification for such a concept, an intellectually honest atheist should scrap it.

So let’s see where this level of honesty might lead. Friedrich Nietzsche – perhaps best known for his statement “God is dead” – believed that human behaviour was ultimately based on individual people’s “will to power”. Nietzsche claimed that the “death of God” would eventually lead to the loss of any universal perspective and any coherent sense of objective truth. Power is the whole of the law. His philosophy is startlingly echoed in Mao Tse-Tung’s description of his own ethics:

“I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s actions has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others. . . . [People like me want to] satisfy our hearts to the full and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me. . . . I have my desire and act on it. I am responsible to no one.”

Writing in The Irrational Atheist, Vox Day comments on this worldview:

“This philosophy is rational, but it is literally psychopathic in the sense described by Dr. Robert Hare, developer of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, a clinical scale used to diagnose psychopathy. He describes psychopaths as predators who use intimidation and violence to satisfy their own selfish needs. ‘Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.’

“While it is not possible to diagnose the mental health of a dead man, the tens of millions of Chinese murdered by the Mao regime tend to indicate that the close correspondence between the words of the twenty-four-year-old philosophy student and Dr. Hare’s description of psychopathy is not entirely coincidental.”

I don’t for a minute claim that this worldview is shared by all atheists, but I question what basis there is for an atheist to hold any different view. Why should the happiness of others be any kind of moral imperative?

Dawkins seems particularly content to close his eyes and ignore implications of his own arguments. Hence we see such foolishness as this:

“I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca – or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame, the Shwe Dagon, the temples of Kyoto or, of course, the Buddhas of Bamiyan.” (The God Delusion)

The well-documented destruction of 41 000 of Russia’s 48 000 churches by Soviet atheists between 1917 and 1969 would seem to be a glaring rebuttal to this belief. And we needn’t limit ourselves to a single example – the atheist regime in North Korea has destroyed 440 of country’s 500 Buddhist temples, and atheists in China have destroyed some 7000 temples and monasteries in Tibet.

The question, though, is why Dawkins would object to such destruction. If religion is abusive and freeing the religious masses from their delusions is his avowed aim, why not bulldoze all the places of worship? Unweave that rainbow, burn those books and start fresh! Show some guts and take your beliefs all the way!

Sam Harris, despite his overwhelming tendency towards illogical idiocy, comes closer to displaying the courage of his convictions. In The End of Faith he states that:

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

He seems to be willing to accept that his vision of a global atheist utopia will require a lot of genocide to attain – although he’s not quite honest enough to phrase it that baldly. In his Afterword, he attempts to dispute the connection between atheism and the widespread atrocities which seem to be so characteristic of atheist governments:

“This is one of the most common criticisms I encounter… While some of the most despicable political movements in human history have been explicitly irreligious, they were not especially rational.”

Again – why should it matter? I’d love to hear Harris (or any other public advocate of atheism) say, “The tendency of atheist regimes to slaughter their own citizens is irrelevant – the truth is more important than the lives of other people.”

Because if you don’t believe that, why do you keep trying to bring about the New Enlightenment?

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Related posts:

Secular (in)Humanism

Living a good and/or Christian life

Lumpy atheism

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32 thoughts on “The timidity of New Atheists

  1. Ouch, “The tendency of atheist regimes to slaughter their own citizens is irrelevant – the truth is more important than the lives of other people.”

    One underlying tenet, romantically portrayed in a number of movies and novels, is our underlying cultural belief in the battle between, and balance of, good and evil… where good eventually triumphs. People inherently believe they’re good and that they’ll use their power for good intent. With religion cast as the evil, a purge ‘makes sense.’

    As a Christian I’d settle for burning TBN 😉

    • Of course, if you ask people about driving habits you get similarly weighted results: the overwhelming majority of people will agree that “most drivers are bad”, but also that “I’m a good driver – it’s those other idiots who make the roads so dangerous”…

      Also, TBN?

  2. (I’m pasting some comments I made to JW Wartick’s blog recently. They fit here just as well.)

    You’re onto something here. A-theism isn’t a position. It is simply the condition of being unpersuaded that any of the theisms are true. It is the same position Christians take toward the other theisms, wholly or partly.

    But it doesn’t follow that an a-theist can have no basis for morality. You may be correct that a-theism itself is not that basis, but a person who happens to be an a-theist can have a humanist, or other, basis for morality. It’s also not surprising that atheism isn’t a basis for morality. It’s like being a non-astrologer. Non-astrology, or non-anything, isn’t going to be a basis for anything. They are non-positions.

    It also is not at all clear that there is a Christian morality, or that it is moral by human standards. Yes, I judge God by my own, human standards. I resist letting kids suffer. Any god who violates that is not worthy of our devotion.

    I appreciate reaching your readers and sharpening my thinking against your ideas, but I don’t much enjoy it. Apologist thinking violates one of my core principles: don’t choose your conclusion before you begin. In order to get to know nature, we have to accept whatever it tells us. You have a different agenda: to show why it is reasonable to believe Christianity is true. To me, this is a form of intellectual dishonesty. Interacting with you has made me trust science even less than I had before; but I still trust it more than anything else I have found. Where it fails, I have trained myself to be satisfied with continued curiosity.

    Some people can tolerate this kind of suspense. Others need the feeling that they have found their answers. My concern about this desire is that it can make us stop our search too early, or spend our time confirming what we already believe. For me, it would be unworthy to settle for certainty prematurely.

    • Don Severs :

      Apologist thinking violates one of my core principles: don’t choose your conclusion before you begin. In order to get to know nature, we have to accept whatever it tells us. You have a different agenda: to show why it is reasonable to believe Christianity is true. To me, this is a form of intellectual dishonesty.

      For me, it would be unworthy to settle for certainty prematurely.

      I understand what you’re getting at, but certainty is a tricky beast. I don’t think that I have certainty, and I doubt that in this lifetime I will. My aim with apologetics is not to pre-determine my conclusions, it is simply to share what I feel is true about life, the universe, and the human condition. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do believe that I have assembled a convincing body of evidence for something that I believe is of primary importance to the life of every individual. (At any rate, the evidence is convincing for me). I didn’t decide that Christianity was true before I started looking for evidence, I looked for answers and found compelling ones in Christianity.

      This is not to say that I conclude my search for answers, it is simply that I believe that I have made sufficient progress to be able to communicate something valuable. Think of it in scientific terms if you like – I’ve got enough results to publish, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop my research.

    • Don Severs :
      I resist letting kids suffer. Any god who violates that is not worthy of our devotion.

      Incidentally, I’m interested: Why exactly do you care if kids suffer?

      (I’m not being arbitrarily provocative, I’m genuinely curious).

  3. So let’s BE honest.

    1) What evidence do you have for God’s existence?

    2) Does that evidence, whatever it is, support the particular God you accept rather than gods of other faiths—or a different kind of god entirely?

    3) How would you know if you were wrong?

    Don’t be timid.

    • Not really sure how this is related to the post, but ok:

      1. Evidence from God’s word (aka The Bible). Justification for confidence in the Bible includes:
      Experience of Creation points me to conclude a Creator. The attributes of Creation are consistent with my understanding of the Biblical God as that Creator.
      Accessibility and character of God as described in Scripture are consistent with my personal experience of God (such as encounter with the Holy Spirit in prayer).
      Historical evidence for the truthfulness of the Biblical narrative is convincing, particularly for the New Testament accounts.

      2. It’s specific. See point 1.

      3. Several of the central tenets of Christianity are inherently falsifiable. Thus my core articles of faith could be disproved. Furthermore, my faith in Jesus is intractably joined to my belief in God as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

      If you mean “How do I know that I’m not a disembodied brain floating in a jar”, then of course I don’t. I take that on faith.

      • So your evidence for god is the bible and personal experience.

        This evidence supports your particular god but not, let’s say, the gods of Hindus.

        You would know if you were wrong if a or several central tenets could be disproved. Would you mind clarifying which ones?

        I ask these questions because you assume that morality is somehow derived from a supernatural cause and that the gnu atheists threaten this kind of morality with their arguments against there being any evidence for such a supernatural cause. Your position hinges on whether or not the god hypothesis is (likely to be) true.

      • tildeb :

        I ask these questions because you assume that morality is somehow derived from a supernatural cause and that the gnu atheists threaten this kind of morality with their arguments against there being any evidence for such a supernatural cause. Your position hinges on whether or not the god hypothesis is (likely to be) true.

        Not at all. I don’t think that evidence of the supernatural (whatever sort of evidence you may have in mind, which is a separate issue) is central to this discussion. My point is that there’s an inconsistency: the claim that “there is no external moral authority” has huge implications, and the New Atheist writers do not seem willing to engage with those implications.

        If your morality is “derived from Nature”, then kill your children and eat them, and let the strong oppress the weak: it happens in Nature all the time. If you believe that humans should operate according to different moral principles, then you need to explain on what authority you base that belief.

        My authority is God, by which I mean the Christian God as revealed in His son Jesus, the Bible, and personally through the Holy Spirit. You may choose not to accept that authority – He has given you that freedom. You may say that I am delusional – that again is your choice. The point is that my morality is consistent: it reflects the authority on which I base it. Jesus teaches us that we are all equal as children of God, and thus I believe that I am bound to love my neighbour as myself. Not because I have considered all possible moral codes and calculated that this one would be to my greatest benefit, but because I am instructed to follow this morality by One who is greater than I.

        My issue with the New Atheist writers, then, is a lack of exactly this inconsistency. If they refuse to acknowledge the moral authority of God, and yet still follow His precepts, this can mean only two things. Either they are insincere in their lack of belief, or they follow an independent morality which just happens to overlap greatly with the Christian moral framework. They claim that they are sincere in their denial of God; I have to wonder then whence they derive their morality.

      • Let’s follow your point about an external moral authority.

        You write My authority is God, by which I mean the Christian God as revealed in His son Jesus, the Bible, and personally through the Holy Spirit.

        So let’s clean this up.

        First, you believe that the kind of morality that stops you from eating your children is derived from authority. Must it be so?

        Second, you believe morality is derived from a christian god. Presumably, if you thought Shiva was the appropriate moral authority you would discard your christian god, yes? So does this mean that only people who worship the christian god you do can derive proper moral authority?

        Third, is it possible to derive proper mortal authority from just the OT god(s) or must one believe in the NT Jesus as god?

        Did anyone before Jesus have proper moral authority? If so, how so?

        There is no specific injunction anywhere in the bible against slavery. There is commentary on proper treatment and what to do in certain circumstances, but no clear injunction. Is slavery a moral issue and if it is how can one derive the proper moral authority to decide?

      • You’re not actually addressing the question of how to derive an independent morality, you’re just deflecting.

        As I pointed out in my previous comment, you don’t have to agree with my morality, but I have a clear basis for it. The question which you’re ignoring is whence an atheist morality is derived. Care to focus on the issue at hand?

        This is what it looks like to me:
        – Christian morality is based on the Christian understanding of God, and submission to the moral authority of God.
        – Atheist morality in historically Christian countries is based on Christian morality minus whatever bits are inconvenient to the particular atheist (frequently involving, for example, increased licence for sexual proclivities).

        If there’s another basis for atheist morality that I’m missing, please enlighten me.

      • I’m doing my best to figure out how your ‘objective’ morality is in any way different from the morality I as an atheist have developed. In order to do that comparing and contrasting (because like you I don’t eat babies), I have to find out how you derived yours and then figure out how it is different.

      • Well, I’ve explained where my basis for morality is.

        If you’d like to articulate how you developed your morality, perhaps I can help.

      • Let me put it this way: my morals were as sound as those of any atheist. And also as philosophically baseless.

  4. Sentinel, as usual an excellent post! I really enjoyed this discussion. I know you recently read my discussion of this same topic. I wonder the same thing sometimes: why don’t people take their philosophies/beliefs to their entailments? I think it’s because a lot of times such entailments are unacceptable (see the pointlessness of morality/ethics/life on atheism for one such case).

  5. This is really excellent. People like Dawkins seem like nothing more than publicists and posterboys for atheism, not people who are prepared for or interested in a serious discussion of philosophy, science, or religion. That’s why admire Nietzsche. He was wrong, but at least he was honest and had guts. A wonderfully artful writer, too.

    • He certainly had guts. His übermensch concept was much misappropriated (by Hitler for example) and re-imagined as a splendid creature, but Nietzsche’s original concept had a tragic quality which is usually missed.

      He wasn’t saying so much:
      “Now that we’re free of God, look at what we might become!”,
      but rather:
      “Now that we are adrift from God, this is the best we can do – and it’s pitiful”.

  6. Why on earth should an atheist or secular humanist care if someone uses religion to oppress and enslave others hypocritically? According to their values, albeit in my limited understanding thereof, it would be entirely ‘moral’ to do so given that morality is a malleable concept.

    IMO one could develop a morality from applying systems theory to a closed, though perhaps evolutionary open-ended, universe. This would call for a healthy relationship with our planet and all that moves on, under and over it. One would still have to choose what to priorities, e.g. life for all, but could develop something entirely moral and consistent.

    This would be scientific, from a given scientific perspective, while enabling atheists avoiding the need to grind the proverbial axe.

    • ‘Their’ values and your values are almost identical. Is the only thing stopping you from murdering, raping, eating children, and enslaving others your religious beliefs?

      • I see you’re still avoiding the question. Why do you think that it’s wrong to rape or murder or enslave others?

      • That’s not an answer. That’s yet another evasion.

        This is not a conversation. Dialogue is not possible with one person reflexively throwing out questions and never engaging.

      • You’re going to use whatever I write simply to argue before dismissing whatever points I make (see Don’s terrific answers first argued in portion before being summarily dismissed as ‘Thanks, but no thanks’) but my hope is that you can answer these false accusations against the lack of a consistent moral grounding of atheists yourself.

        I am arguing that you were a moral creature before you came to your faith, that your morality never for one second was free of rather strict self-imposed constraints that revealed to you why you should not eat the neighbour’s baby, and that these absurd accusations you and Tim make are answerable with intellectual honesty and integrity in your recollections rather than any need to hear (or read) it from atheists. Utilize your area of demonstrated strength and just listen to yourself, in other words.

        Because your site is called what it is, I thought you would be open to re-explore your own history and get you to remember why you didn’t seriously consider eating babies. I thought if you personalized why these vicious inferences against yourself (pre-ardent christian believer) are without merit because pre-and post conversion didn’t alter your morality substantially, you can better understand what Don was talking about, why people do not simply kill without compunction and seriously consider why your suggestion about eating babies without christian morality is baseless. The proof for yourselves lies in your own histories and the questions you pretend to ask of atheists are self-answerable even if difficult for you to face. What better voice to listen to than yourselves?

        Put another another way, if atheists are morally capable of eating babies because they do not believe in a divine absolute moral law accessible through belief in christianity, why don’t they? [Edit: trimmed – inflammatory and off-topic] I know you will attribute that biological fact of cannibalistic revulsion to your christian god, but our pre-Jesus histories should – if your assumption about the source of your morality is true – be littered with eaten babies. I’ve never come across such evidence.

      • Finally, an answer! …Or that’s what I thought until I read your comment, which still does nothing to explain on what you base your morality.

        You are still completely missing the point. I have never argued that an atheist cannot be moral. Indeed, Christianity gives not only a basis for my own morality but also for the morality of those who do not accept the authority of God (including, of course, myself before I became a Christian).

        I believe that humans are made in the image of God, and are thus innately aware of God’s moral guidance. I believe that this is why you, for instance, do not murder those who inconvenience you (at least I presume you don’t – I could well be wrong).

        I have not said that atheists are without morality, regardless of how fixated you appear to be on this claim. My point is that I do not believe that atheism provides a basis for morality.

        While recognising that it’s probably futile, it is that basis that I’m asking you to try and provide. (Please note: In case you’re still unclear, simply pointing out that atheists don’t eat babies does NOT provide that basis).

    • But my point, S, is that we share the identical base whether you attribute it to god or not.

      Don explained that very eloquently (I thought), introducing the notion that morality is based on values that are subject to a variety of influences – from biology to social interactions, from applied learning to necessity. The spectrum of upon which we place our sense of right and wrong is the same for you as it is for me, the same for the religious believer as it is for the non believer.

      Your claims that there is some immutable exterior and fixed objective moral law from which you draw yours fails utterly to explain why you reject something like slavery and yet are willing to suffer the teachings of a woman when your bible offers no injunction to the first and a clear injunction to the latter. Somehow, you put aside these commanding moral revelations from this ‘objective moral law’ and quite rightly because your active moral code (like mine) includes far more subtly of action than blindly following some ancient rule to kill a neighbour who works on the sabbath.

      The morality you have now precedes any that you have since ‘received’ from the bible in the same way that the morality of an atheist precedes your assumptions about an objective moral law revealed through the bible. You and Tim, for example, cherry pick your god-sanctioned morality when it suits the morality you already agree with and ignore or re-interpret those that fall on the immoral side of your moral spectrum. How is that possible?

      All this hand-waving about the lack of any substantial moral basis for the atheist is a way for you to avoid seriously questioning how you are able to pick and choose which parts of the ‘objective moral law’ to endorse and which parts of the ‘objective moral law’ to subvert and re-interpret and excuse and ignore. But that’s not my problem; that’s yours.

      The good news is that some of the answers you seek come from within you (aided, I hope, by fascinating new research about morality from those like Hauser and Haidt, Bloom and Knobe, Baumeister and Greene, Phelps and Pizarro, Dennett and even someone like Sam Harris who has just published a book about morality for goodness’ sake, putting to shame your assertion that gnu atheists “seem to lack the intellectual courage to follow their arguments through). This kind of interest in morality by many atheists is not fixated on some snapshot from our distant past but ongoing, and those who think they already have the answers they need from two millennia ago I think are shutting the door to really trying to come to a deeper and more satisfying understanding of morality. And I think that’s a fair criticism I offer to which you and your readers need to give serious consideration.

      • tildeb :
        …morality is based on values that are subject to a variety of influences – from biology to social interactions, from applied learning to necessity. The spectrum of upon which we place our sense of right and wrong is the same for you as it is for me, the same for the religious believer as it is for the non believer.

        …so you base your sense of right and wrong on your submission to the moral authority of your divine Creator? Because that’s where I base mine.

        You’re throwing out a lot of random phrases and a lot of hand-wavy ideas, but there’s nothing concrete here.

        I don’t “put aside these commanding revelations”, I study and pray in order to understand the intent of them and strive to live my life in accordance with that intent. This is not cherry-picking, it is rather seeking the unifying heart of the entire Bible rather than cherry-picking random bits out of context (as you seem wont to do). Is it, perhaps, just possible that what you see from your atheist presuppositions as arbitrary fiats are in fact deeper and more nuanced than you may have appreciated?

        But silly me – we’re talking again about the basis of my beliefs and morals, where I had hoped we were finally getting around to yours. I note that you have thrown around a lot of names, too, but I had rather hoped that you might eventually suggest an idea. “Look, all these people have been writing big books on the subject!” Yes, and…? What exactly is the “deeper and more satisfying understanding of morality” to which you have been guided by these venerable sages?

  7. Seriously guys, time out. Inflamatory remarks. Evasion. This is clearly an emotional issue not a rational one, and one barely marked with a veneer of civility. This is why many are opting out of religion, including atheism which for all intents and purposes is as religious as the next.

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