Wired Mag caricatures New Atheism

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The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there’s no excuse for shirking.

Three writers have sounded this call to arms. They are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. A few months ago, I set out to talk with them. I wanted to find out what it would mean to enlist in the war against faith. – Gary Wolf, The Church of the Non-Religious.

Wired Magazine’s November issue carries a cover story on The New Atheism. The article, contributed by Gary Wolf, contains interviews with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, referred to as “intellectual brothers” who belong to “The Church of the Non-believers”.

Wolf regards his interviewees, particularly Dawkins and Harris, as fundamentalists for atheism. This analogy is flawed. Typically, fundamentalism, as applied to religion, regards a religious book as infallible. For instance, the Bible, or the Koran or other equivalent texts are accepted by religious fundamentalists on faith and without question. The penalty prescribed for non-believing is often quite severe. The “book” in question here is science or scientific discovery or scientific theories, and it is here that Wolf’s analogy breaks down completely. Not a single scientist worth his salt accepts a scientific discovery or theory without skepticism. Indeed, evidence must be found to support a hypothesis, and if it is found, then the hypothesis is considered to be true with a probability commensurate with the strength of the evidence. Wolf demonstrates ignorance of the scientific method when he calls the new atheists fundamentalists.

He also calls them rabble-rousing evangelicals. Now, as polemical as “The God Delusion” is supposed to be ( I haven’t read it, as yet) , I strongly doubt that Dawkins favors an organized conversion of people to atheism. It may be his hope that people who are uncertain will convince themselves that the findings of evolutionary biology render God unnecessary, and he may assert that some facets of religion are harmful and wrong, but one wonders what he thinks about being called “evangelical” – and thus being mentioned in such company as Ted Haggard with whom Dawkins once had a unfriendly episode during the shooting of a TV program. I’m ambivalent about the evangelical label, because Dawkins does tread some dangerous ground when he wonders whether the state should disallow parents from inculcating their religious beliefs in their children. Though his intention is good, and is derived from his conviction that children should be allowed to make their own choices, this restriction on parents is deeply problematic and very difficult to implement.

The title of the piece The Church of the Non-Religious is very disconcerting because it implies that there is an organized movement taking hold. Wolf goes further in the subtitle saying that there is a “band of intellectual brothers who are mounting a crusade against belief in God.” This is a great way to attract readers but is a gross misrepresentation of the reasons for an atheist viewpoint and of the state of atheism in the world today. It implies an equivalence with religious churches, and with faith-based fellowship, which I find non-existent in the scientific/academic community. This imaginary institutionalization of atheism probably plays right into the hands of its opponents.

While reading the article, it is clear that Wolf tries very hard (almost too hard) to provide a viewpoint that is skeptical of atheists. In a lot of cases, this policy makes for good journalism by taking the moral “high road” and giving both sides a 50-50 chance. But in this instance, it comes across as a little hollow, and seems almost to trivialize the scientific method by placing it at the same level as religion – almost like saying that “one is based on evidence, and one is based on faith. Take your pick.” As a researcher who must depend on the scientific method every waking minute, I do not like this equivalence.

There are other ways in which to present a different viewpoint than atheism. Unlike Gary Wolf, Frederick Turner in TCS Daily describes a point-of-view which leads to the conclusion that deism could be a more likely possibility than atheism. In an article titled What’s Good About Atheism, Turner writes:

Cosmological physics, as I pointed out some time ago in a piece on evolution here, has rather taken the wind out of the sails of this argument, because it is now forced to postulate trillions of universes with every possible set of initial conditions before the Big Bang—a mess perhaps even more in need of Occam’s Razor than the postulation of a self-creating creator. If indeed every possible configuration of universes must have coexisted with this one, presumably at least one of them must have been so put together as to constitute, by sheer chance, a gigantic beneficent Intelligence capable of manipulating all of its own constituents and creating from them an ordered universe like our own. So the only current viable non-theistic theory of the origin of the cosmos virtually mandates a beneficent creator somewhere that would look an awful lot like God.

What Turner means by an ordered universe is not clarified, but I take it to mean the order imposed by the laws of physics, and more precisely, by the values of the physical constants. I think that Turner’s argument is more interesting than Wolf’s juxtaposition of atheism and religion because, philosophically and scientifically, a debate between atheism versus deism is a lot more interesting than one between atheism and theistic religion. In fact, a scientific debate between atheism and theistic religion is impossible, since the latter rejects the scientific method. Deism, which views God as an entity that “set things in motion in the beginning and then switched to don’t-care mode” is a worthier rival for atheists. In today’s cultural context however, we have to keep splitting hairs over the less interesting problem.

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7 thoughts on “Wired Mag caricatures New Atheism”

  1. I have seen Richard Dawkins in a TV interview, and to me he was no fundamentalist. In fact, I was wondering whether I might quote him in my ‘proof that God exists’ post, as he says just what I want to say: you cannot disprove God, just like you cannot disprove elves or the flying spaghetti monster.
    I like it when God stays put where it belongs, deep inside everybody’s opinion, and is not used for any other purpose than personal wellness. And certainly does not try to step into scientific debate. I also like it when atheism does the same.
    But I agree when atheism goes on a crusade against bigotry, just as I would agree when christians go on a crusade against aggressive proselytizing atheists. But again, (you’ll tell us more when you’ve finished reading his book), Richard Dawkins did seem quite reasonable and certainly not a fundamentalist sending all believers to atheists’ hell (which might be what exactly?)

  2. Mandarine: The tone of The God Delusion is certainly more strident than Dawkins earlier work. However, if you have ever switched on your TV to Falwell, Robertson or Haggard, you’ll find that Dawkins tone is rather mild in comparison; there is certainly no proselytizing at this point in the book. In the part that I have covered so far, he is debunking aspects of the God hypothesis, from relatively easy targets such as the “literal” meaning of the Old Testament verses, to the point that you mentioned, i.e., disproving a negative.
    Now, it is getting more interesting because he is addressing Stephen Jay Gould’s opinion that Religion and Science are Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) and that science can not say anything meaningful about religion and vice versa. Dawkins considers this as a sort of cop out of reasoning which gives a free pass to religion and God. I wrote about this in an earlier post and find myself agreeing with Dawkins.
    I fully agree that God should stay deep inside everybody’s opinion, but am not so sure if I can use it for my personal wellness. Can I be comforted by it, if I am not even sure that it exists?
    As you see, I readily adopted your use of the pronoun “it” for God, thereby sidestepping the male chauvinism debate ;).

  3. I agree on the reasoning issue (call it fault or leeway), but my belief is this one: whatever makes you feel good, as long as you do not impose it on anybody and you can lead a normal life. It does not give a free pass to triumphant religion. It does give leeway to personal, dumbed-down, discrete belief. It could be leprechauns in your attic if it suits you and you do not start wars against pixies in the name of leprechauns.

    My personal cop out of reasoning is to say that God is not an external concept that exists or does not exist. I can personally choose that God exists, therefore I can be sure about its existence.

    Depending on the situation (e.g. if I intend to read Dawkins’ book) I can choose otherwise, therefore avoiding any awkward feelings when I need to keep God out of a specific situation. How fabulously Jesuitical!

  4. It would be a silly tangent to the article to start talking about deism. The point of the article isn’t really to address the philosophy of Atheism or the theists for the sake of philosophy. The comparison with the evangelicals is because the evangelicals and Dawkins both take an absolutist line. Which is a fair comparison I think. Its missing the point to say that scientists don’t question a particular theory, Dawkins is as sure there isn’t a God (perhaps even more sure) then the evangelicals are sure there is a God.

  5. Ian, yes of course, it would be strange to discuss Deism in this particular article. My point, at the end, was simply that I consider it a more interesting debate than the one we are having at present. Now that I reread the post, I realize that I made a hodge-podge of it, when I should have explicitly stated that I like Turner’s comparison more than Wolf’s.

    I disagree with your last line though, because I think that Dawkins allows for a (negligibly small) probability of error in his assumption. Do the evangelicals allow this? I don’t think so. This is one of the reasons why I find the equivalence misleading, philosophically speaking. I accept that, from an non-nitpicky perspective, the equivalence makes some sense.

  6. “Wolf regards his interviewees, particularly Dawkins and Harris, as fundamentalists for atheism. This analogy is flawed. Typically, fundamentalism, as applied to religion, regards a religious book as infallible. For instance, the Bible, or the Koran or other equivalent texts are accepted by religious fundamentalists on faith and without question.”

    No, there are plenty of Christians who view the Bible as infallible, and there are Muslims who view the Quran as inerrant, but that does not make them fundamentalist. Now a Christian fundamentalist, for example, will read His Bible in a sort of stone literalism method. (For instance Genesis 1)

    So I would agree with Wolf. Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitchens, are very much atheist fundamentalists. Their book is Science, and they hold science as something that either has all the answers, or will have all the answers in the future. It has no limits. Due to this, they inevitably opted a view of scientific naturalism, where nature and man’s cultural inventions is all there is and science is there to explain why.

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