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How should one view the "new atheist" literature?

David H. Bailey
Updated 2 March 2018 (c) 2018

Introduction

Recently several books written by prominent authors have been published that attack religious belief as a pernicious delusion. The four most prominent authors are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who collectively are often called the "new atheists" [Dawkins2006; Dennett2006; Harris2006; Hitchens2007]. In his book, prominent biologist Richard Dawkins asks us to imagine "a world with no religion ... no suicide bombers, no 9/11 no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers,' no Northern Ireland 'troubles,' no 'honour killings,' no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money" [Dawkins2006, pg. 23-24]. Cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett asks for a "forthright, scientific no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many" [Dennett2006, pg. 17]. Sam Harris cites contradictions in the Bible as evidence that it is not divine and criticizes moderates who try to find a common ground [Harris2006, pg. 1-10]. Christopher Hitchens declares that religion is "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children" [Hitchens2007, pg. 56].

The above four authors are the best known examples of this genre, but several other authors could be listed who espouse the same general philosophy. Physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow declare that emerging theories of physics "can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit" [Hawking2010, pg. 165] (see Hawking for more details). Physicist Victor Stenger, after reviewing numerous claims for God's existence, including "intelligent design" arguments, claims for God's influence in biology and the claimed effects of prayer, concludes that God is a "failed hypothesis" [Stenger2008]. Stenger continues this theme in his 2011 book The Fallacy of Fine Tuning, where he argues against claims that a supreme creator fine-tuned the universe for intelligent life [Stenger2011].

Harvard social scientist Steven Pinker, whom the present author admires and quotes from in other pages on this site, nonetheless recently declared, "the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world's traditional religions and cultures ... are factually mistaken" [Pinker2013]. In his 2018 book Enlightenment Now Pinker further develops this theme, arguing that there no good reason to believe in God, and in fact religion arguably retards humanistic progress [Pinker2018].

One common theme in several of these writings is that religion is not just empty, but is actually dangerous to modern society. Jeff Schweitzer declares, in response to the poor showing of U.S. students on international science tests, "[R]eligion is killing us ... American religiosity has become an existential threat, undermining the foundation of our future prosperity by contaminating our educational system with superstition, fable and myth. " [Schweitzer2013].

Another common theme is that there is no reasonable middle ground between science and religion. Some of these writers even criticize by name other writers, such as biologist Kenneth Miller and philosopher John Haught, who have sought harmony. For example, Biologist Jerry Coyne is relatively circumspect in he recent book Why Evolution Is True, where he says that accepting evolution need not promote atheism, because "enlightened religion has always found a way to accommodate the advances of science" [Coyne2009, pg. xx]. But in a more recent article, he declares, "It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time," and "accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard" [Coyne2009a]. William Provine of Cornell University, in response to a letter from a Texas attorney who asked whether there is an intellectually honest Christian evolutionist position, or whether we must "check our brains at the church house door," responded, "you indeed have to check your brains" [Provine1988]. Henry Gee agrees: "[S]cience could not be more different than religion" [Gee2013].

Valid points in the "new atheist" literature

It must be acknowledged that the above authors make some valid points in their criticisms of religion. It is undeniably true that there are some translation errors, internal discrepancies, and historical difficulties in the Bible (see Bible-inerrant). There is also a substantial amount of violence recorded in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, which is difficult to understand from a modern perspective, to say the least. Numerous wars throughout history have been fought in the name of religion. Many claims of "miracles," both historical and modern-day, likely have more prosaic explanations. Certain religious doctrines are dubious, even, in some cases, to adherents of the sects that teach them. For example, in a recent study 45% percent of American Catholics were not aware that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ, according to official Catholic doctrine [Goodstein2010]. Even on topics of social morality, science can provide productive insights, which religious writers are reluctant to acknowledge. Finally, it is sadly true that religious beliefs are sometimes misused as an excuse to oppose scientific research and education, under the pretext that since "God did it" or "God designed it that way," further inquiry is either unnecessary or even inappropriate.

Religious wars

As mentioned above, criticisms by several of these authors that religion has often led to armed warfare are quite well taken. Hundreds of thousands died in the crusades of the early second millennium (1095-1291). Between two and four million died during the French religious wars of 1562-1598. Between three and 12 million died in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), which was fought between Protestants and Catholics in what is now Germany. Hundreds of thousands were tortured or killed by the Inquisition and in similar persecutions by Protestants. And millions of Jews died in the Holocaust of the 1940s. Will Durant, after reviewing this history, solemnly declared, "[W]e must rank the Inquisition, along with the wars and persecutions of our time, as among the darkest blots on the record of mankind" [Durant1975, vol. 4, pg. 784].

Horrible as these conflicts were, however, they need to be weighed in comparison to secular conflicts of the same general time period, most of which were even worse. At least 30 million died in the An Lushan rebellion of China during the eighth century, which was approximately one-sixth of the world population at the time. Between 30 and 60 million died in the Mongol conquests of central and eastern Asia during roughly 1200 to 1500. Between 3.5 and 6.5 million died in the Napoleonic Wars. Between 23 and 65 million died in World War I, and between 40 and 72 million died in World War II [Wikipedia2010]. Finally, between 20 and 30 million perished in the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. In none of these conflicts was religion a major factor. Note that the Jewish Holocaust was conducted under the cover of World War II.

Along this line, it is worth pointing out that contrary to the claims of some of the above-mentioned writers, atheistic figures and movements have also wreaked considerable havoc throughout history. In the 1790s, leaders of the French Revolution systematically repressed religion in an attempt to replace God, the Son and the Holy Ghost with a new trinity of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Approximately 25,000 priests, who refused to swear allegiance to the new regime after it confiscated the church's property, fled to other lands. Many who did not flee were guillotined. Six carriage-loads of priests were executed on a single day in 1792 [Durant1975, vol. 11, pg. 42-80]. Anti-religious violence, conducted specifically in an attempt to eradicate religion, continued even into the 20th century. For example, Stalin's regime, in addition to directly or indirectly killing millions of Russian citizens, also methodically closed or destroyed thousands of Greek Orthodox churches, and killed hundreds of priests. Fifty-five priests were executed on a single day in 1938 [Dickinson2000; Brown2006].

The atheists' treatment of theology and religion

Several of these authors deal with theology, and here the writings of the "new atheists" are less reliable, to say the least. For example, Hitchens devotes one chapter of his book to historical arguments for God, a chapter which, even from a cursory examination, is both superficial and, in some places, inflammatory. He termed Augustine of Hippo, for whom even the contemporary philosopher Bertrand Russell had profound respect [Russell1954, pg. 352-366], as "a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus" [Hitchens2007, pg. 64]. Hitchens concluded this chapter by saying, "Now that religion's monopoly has been broken, it is within the compass of any human being to see these evidences and proofs as the feeble-minded inventions that they are." [Hitchens2007, pg. 72]. Along this line, these authors are fond of setting up unrealistic dichotomies that are reminiscent of those proposed by religious fundamentalists when they tell impressionable youth that one must choose evolution or God but not both. Sam Harris, in particular, writes "Either the Bible is the word of God, or it isn't," and "Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't." Harris then mentions a few passages, such as the Law of Moses directives to stone adulterers and beat rebellious children with a rod, as evidence that the Bible cannot possibly contain any worthwhile material, let alone reflect divine inspiration [Harris2006, pg. 3-9].

In addition to the openly polemic tone of much of this material, none of it is really new -- all of these topics have been studied at length in the field of religious history and biblical studies. Indeed, the treatment of these topics by the "new atheists" is decidedly cherry-picked -- these writers have culled out a handful of provocative details but have utterly ignored the much larger context of religion in western culture. Historians and other scholars who have investigated these matters in much greater detail than the above-mentioned authors have, in most cases, fully acknowledged the many positive aspects of religion. For example, historians Will and Ariel Durant (neither of whom were particularly religious) wrote that "Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. ... There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion." [Durant1968, pg. 43, 51]. Along this line, Michael Shermer, a well-known skeptic, has noted that religion has its undeniable positive side [Shermer2000, pg. 71]:

However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go largely unreported in the history books or on the evening news. Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.

Nicholas Kristof adds [Kristof2006]:

Every time I travel in the poorest parts of Africa, I see missionary hospitals that are the only source of assistance to desperate people. God may not help amputees sprout new limbs, but churches do galvanize their members to support soup kitchens, homeless shelters and clinics that otherwise would not exist. Religious constituencies have pushed for more action on AIDS, malaria, sex trafficking and Darfur's genocide, and believers often give large proportions of their incomes to charities that are a lifeline to the neediest.

Here and there one can find some conciliatory comments in the writings of the new atheists. Dawkins, for instance, recognizes that religion has valuable "cultural and literary traditions," and suggests that we can give up dubious supernatural beliefs without "losing touch with a treasured heritage" [Dawkins2006, pg. 387]. Pinker writes [Pinker2018]:

Among the positive contributions of religions at particular times and places are education, charity, medical care, counseling, conflict resolution, and other social services. ... Religious organizations can also provide a sense of communal solidarity and mutual support, together with art, ritual and architecture of great beauty and historical resonance. ... I partake of these myself, with much enjoyment.

But beyond this it is hard to find much balance in the writings of the "new atheists" -- their treatment is almost entirely polemic.

The atheists' treatment of scientific issues

As mentioned above, well-known physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, in their 2010 book The Grand Design, argue that string theory (in particular, the "M theory" of Edward Witten) leads to a huge ensemble of universes (the multiverse), so that we should not be surprised that our particular universe is life-friendly. They declare that these theories "can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit" [Hawking2010, pg. 165]. However, these authors do not address the objections that other well-qualified scientists have raised against these theories, notably widespread unease about the invocation of a multiverse, given that we are unable to observe any of these other universes. Published reviews of this book are lukewarm. For additional discussion, see Hawking.

Victor Stenger, as mentioned above, after citing the lack God's direct influence in biology and the claimed effects of prayer, concludes that God is a "failed hypothesis" [Stenger2008]. In his more recent book, The Fallacy of Fine Tuning, Stenger responds to claims that a supreme creator fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, by fundamentally countering the claim that the universe is fine-tuned at all [Stenger2011]. In other words, Stenger claims that the universe is not fine-tuned for life, because the laws of physics forbid it to be anything but the way it is. Stenger's book has been widely hailed as a final response to fine-tuning, and was cited, for example, by Steven Pinker in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now [Pinker2018]. But other knowledgeable researchers, in the field of astrophysics and cosmology, strongly disagree with Stenger's conclusion, to say the least, and have pointed out numerous fundamental errors of fact and reasoning in his treatment. On some points Stenger appears to not even fully understand the issue [Barnes2011, Lewis2016]. See Fine-tuned for additional details.

Richard Dawkins, like Hawking, is frequently quoted elsewhere on this site as an expert in his field, namely evolutionary biology. However, in his book The God Delusion, he ventures into matters of philosophy and theology, and here he has overextended his expertise. For example, Dawkins argues that "Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as ... a universe would have to be even more improbable" [Dawkins2006, pg. 120]. Later he elaborates, "Any God capable of designing a universe ... must be a supremely complex and improbable entity" [Dawkins2006, pg. 140]. But Dawkins' argument relies on the highly questionable assumption that something complex is less probable than something simple. To the contrary, the very laws of nature and of evolution that Dawkins elsewhere champions show that complex entities can be produced as the effects of relatively simple laws and conditions. For additional discussion, see Dawkins.

One common thread of these authors is that they insist that religion be treated as a scientific hypothesis, to be tested by empirical methods and rejected if found wanting. But most other scholars disagree with this premise. As John Haught observes, "thinking of God as a hypothesis reduces the infinite divine mystery to a finite scientific cause, and to worship anything finite is idolatrous" [Haught2008, pg. 43]. Theologian Keith Ward notes that "the question of God is certainly a factual one, but certainly not a scientific one." Instead, "[i]t lies at the very deep level of ultimate metaphysical options" [Ward2008, pg. 30]. For additional discussion, see God hypothesis.

Have the "new atheist" writings been peer reviewed?

In summary, none of the "new atheist" authors break any new ground in their treatments of biblical scholarship, religious history, world history, theology or science and religion. No one who is familiar with the depth and sophistication of modern biblical and religious studies will be impressed by this relatively superficial material. And some of these writings are as polemic as that of fundamentalists who attack science [Lanman2011].

Perhaps it is not surprising that these writers have failed to formulate airtight scientific arguments against religion. After all, science, by its very definition, is the empirical pursuit of natural laws and processes underlying the physical world. Therefore, science cannot possibly comment one way or the other on the existence or nature of a Supreme Being. Thus any attempt to scientifically "prove" that God cannot exist is doomed from the start.

Along this line, one fundamental criticism of creationist-intelligent design literature is that its writers have not, as far as anyone can tell, submitted their work to reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journals for review. If creationists and intelligent design writers really think that they have some new insights or arguments that would pass the scrutiny of peer review in geology, biology, evolution, physics or cosmology, then they are invited to submit this material to a leading publication in the appropriate field. Otherwise, their work will not be taken seriously by professional scientists.

But exactly the same criticism can be leveled at the "new atheist" authors: Few, if any of them have published their arguments in professional, peer-reviewed journals in the field of religious studies. If they believe that they have some valid new insights or arguments in religious studies, religious history, theology or science and religion, they are invited to submit manuscripts to an appropriate publication for peer review. Otherwise, their writings cannot be taken seriously by professional scholars in these fields. For additional discussion, see Peer review.

Published reviews

Numerous observers have deplored the great division that these books and articles have spawned, and have written responses. Many of these criticisms are admittedly amateurish, defensive, polemic and, in general, of rather poor quality, based on the standards of serious scholarship. But other responses and criticisms have been written by some of the world's leading scholars of religion and science, and thus cannot be easily dismissed. Here are some excerpts:
  1. Karen Armstrong (American religious historian) [Armstrong2009, pg. 303-305]:

    Like all religious fundamentalists, the new atheists believe that they alone are in possession of truth; like Christian fundamentalists, they read scripture in an entirely literal manner and seem never to have heard of the long tradition of allegoric or Talmudic interpretation or indeed of the Higher Criticism. Harris seems to imagine that biblical inspiration means that the Bible was actually "written by God." Hitchens assumes that faith is entirely dependent upon a literal reading of the Bible, and that, for example, the discrepancies in the gospel infancy narrative prove the falsity of Christianity: "Either the gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps a moral one at that." Like Protestant fundamentalists, Dawkins has a simplistic view of the moral teaching of the Bible, taking it for granted that its chief purpose is to issue clear rules of conduct and provide us with "role models," which, not surprisingly, he finds lamentably inadequate. He also presumes that since the Bible claims to be inspired by God, it must also provide scientific information. Dawkins's only point of disagreement with the Protestant fundamentalists is that he finds the Bible unreliable about science while they do not. ...

    This type of reductionism is characteristic of the fundamentalist mentality. It is also essential to the critique of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris to present fundamentalism as the focal core of the three monotheisms. They have an extremely literalist notion of God. For Dawkins, religious faith rests on the idea that "there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it." Having set up this definition of God as Supernatural Designer, Dawkins only has to point out that there is in fact no design in nature in order to demolish it. But he is mistaken to assume that this is "the way people have generally understood the term" God. He is also wrong to claim that God is a scientific hypothesis, that is, a conceptual framework for bringing intelligibility to a series of experiments and observations. It was only in the modern period that theologians started to treat God as a scientific explanation and in the process produced an idolatrous God concept.

  2. E. Brian Davies (British mathematician) [Davies2010b, pg. 209]:

    The worst feature of Dawkins' book is its failure to get grips with the variety of religious belief. Dawkins' real enemy is fundamentalism, but he attacks religion indiscriminately. ... He is unable to grasp that many moderate believers dislike fundamentalists of all religions as much as he does. ... I am afraid that The God Delusion is a deeply flawed book that does not approach Dawkins' usual standards, and suspect that he got carried away by the sheer enjoyment of writing it.

  3. Freeman Dyson (British mathematical physicist) [Dyson2006]:

    As human beings, we are groping for knowledge and understanding of the strange universe into which we are born. We have many ways of understanding, of which science is only one. Science is a particular bunch of tools that have been conspicuously successful for understanding and manipulating the material universe. Religion is another bunch of tools, giving us hints of a mental or spiritual universe that transcends the material universe. To understand religion, it is necessary to explore it from the inside, as William James explored it in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

    The sacred writings, the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran and the Bible, tell us more about the essence of religion than any scientific study of religious organizations. The research that Dennett advocates, using only the scientific tool kit that was designed for a different purpose, will always miss the goal. We can all agree that religion is a natural phenomenon, but nature may include many more things than we can grasp with the methods of science.

  4. John Haught (American religious philosopher) [Haught2008, pg. xv-xvi]:

    However, even though the new atheists reject the God of creationists, fundamentalists, terrorists, and intelligent design (ID) advocates, it is not without interest that they have decided to debate with these extremists rather than with any major theologians. This choice of antagonists betrays their unconscious privileging of literalist and conservative versions of religious thought over the more traditionally mainstream types -- which they completely ignore and implicitly reject for their unorthodoxy. The new atheists are saying in effect that if God exists at all, we should allow this God's identity to be determined once and for all by the fundamentalists of the Abrahamic religious traditions. I believe they have chosen this strategy not only to make their job of demolition easier, but also because they have a barely disguised admiration for the simplicity of their opponents' view of reality.

  5. H. Allen Orr (American biologist) [Orr2007]:

    Despite my admiration for much of Dawkins's work, I'm afraid that I'm among those scientists who must part company with him here. Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I'm forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he's actually more an amateur. I don't pretend to know whether there's more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins's general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case.

  6. Michael Ruse (British-American philosopher of science) [Ruse2014]:

    Like every first-year undergraduate in philosophy, Dawkins thinks he can put to rest the causal argument for God's existence. If God caused the world, then what caused God? Of course the great philosophers, Anselm and Aquinas particularly, are way ahead of him here. ... In the end, I am not sure that the Christian God idea flies, but I want to extend to Christians the courtesy of arguing against what they actually believe, rather than begin and end with the polemical parody of what Dawkins calls "the God delusion."

  7. Max Tegmark (American physicist and cosmologist) [Tegmark2013]:

    Just as it would be unfair to blame all religious people for what some fundamentalists do, I'm obviously not implying that all anti-religious people are mean-spirited or intolerant. However, I can't help being struck by how some people on both the religious and anti-religious extremes of the spectrum share disturbing similarities in debating style.

Conclusion

In summary, the writings of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and others, while bringing to light some matters that need to be considered in a dispassionate analysis of modern religion, nonetheless have significant flaws: (a) they repeat some well-known issues of biblical scholarship and religious history without any fundamentally new insights; (b) they focus on religious fundamentalists and ignore more sophisticated writers and movements; (c) they rely on flawed arguments against the existence of God; (d) they treat religion as merely another scientific hypothesis; (e) they often use hyperbole that is unbecoming of serious scholarship; and (f) they have, for the most part, not submitted their writings to peer-reviewed journals in the field of religious studies. The task of critically analyzing issues in the arena of science and religion will fall to others.

For additional discussion, see Dawkins, Hawking and Scientific materialism.

References

[See Bibliography].