An article by Paul Pardi ("Philosophy News Service") at the Huffington Post sums up the significance of "new atheism:"
1. The arguments of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens tend not to be "new" and don't engage the actual arguments of liberal theologians.
2. As a social movement, they're nonetheless affecting the perception that the mass of people have on "the role religion is permitted to have int he public square:"
Political point scoring aside, serious talk that God is somehow involved in the daily workings of this world and that public life should be oriented toward pleasing Him and following His will has almost vanished. The New Atheism has succeeded in shifting broad attitudes towards public talk of this kind from one of mild amusement or irritation to one of outright fear and derision and has done so inside of just a decade.
3. An approach modeled on the natural sciences does not seem to be optimal for delving into questions of meaning and ethics. Which is to say (and this is not Pardi here:) that the history of philosophy offers multiple alternatives (e.g. Heidegger's phenomenology or Montaigne's "practical wisdom") to both scientism and theology to approaching these issues.
Brian Loftus says
“So modern atheism, while not necessarily new in the ideas it presents, is new in that it comes out of a position of cultural authority that it formerly lacked.”
This is the real teeth of new atheism. Tyler Roberts, Professor of Religious Studies at Grinnell College, in a TTC audiolecture basically agrees there is nothing in Dawkins that holds water in philosophical argument, but cites Dennett as having done something new. The idea that breaking the spell of religion and God as being immune from criticism or scrutiny is necessary, not only for the religious themselves but for the public sphere.
In the post 911 atmosphere, many were more than happy to engage in religious war, but many others were not. New atheism flourished in the wake of this debate. New atheism was a healthy dose of critical thinking at a time America needed it most. I’m not sure if everyone who read God Delusion is now a staunch atheist, where they have traded one dogmatism for another, but I’m sure a few people came out of that read with a sense that they ought not to assume God and God’s plan, but rather should really introspect on the matter.
Roberts also accuses Sam Harris of doing such a dogmatic switcheroo. He says there is little difference in declaring empirical science as the answer to all questions as opposed to divine inspiration.
In my own experiences I agree Dennett has opened a much needed window in airing out the funk. While I hadn’t purposely sought out discussions for or against God in the first half of the last decade, I can’t go 10 seconds without finding a theism vs. atheism thread on a forum, or links in email to debates on religion. In my own little world, I’ve seen the debate on religion proliferate in was I could never have imagined as a good young Catholic boy.
Wes Alwan says
I prefer to think of New Atheism as the latest religious cult. And the cultural authority with which it successfully advances its idiotic ideas is the problem.
I like this from Alvin Plantinga (quoted in the article Mark links to): “You might say that some of [Dawkins’] forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class.”
Ethan Gach says
“Many are responding to the new atheism by claiming that science is unable to answer two of the most important questions humans face: What does life mean and how can we be good?”
The first of these questions seems poorly suited to any kind of analytic endevour, whether science, philosophy, or theology. In fact, life seems meaninful, and its meaning quite simple and clear, right up until the moment when we ask that very question. That’s clearly not a very satisfactory response but as you guys discussed (or at least I think it was brought up) in the Danto episode, there seems to be something in the idea of art as manifestation of the self that is perhaps the best avenue for exploring any meaning of “meaning.”
In that respect, religion as exploring meaning could be quite legitimate. But for religion to identify as a form of art-making/art-understanding would seem to cede a lot more of the political/moral ground than the staunch supporters of “religion” would like.
I was listening to a philsopher the other night from the Philsophy Bites podcasts (I can’t remember her name at the moment) but she was exploring questions of meaning and what a meaningful like was/might be. Obvioulsy the Bites podcasts are abrupt and truncated versions of more thorough and nuanced theses in response to very general philosophical problems, but many of her responses were on the whole, extremely unsatisfying and based on apparently arbitrary premises. That’s not to say that on an intuitive level I did not agree with her, but only that, in the end, it seemed like all she was doing as far as philosophy went was rationalizing in highly abstract ways, what she (and I) already felt.
All that is only to say that questions of “meaing” are far from a failing ONLY of science. And if any of the “New Atheists” are in anyway claiming that they can “scientifically” explore questions of meaning, well then they either have a narrow vew of “meaning” or of “science,” and either way they should rightfully be called out.
On the second question about “how can we be good,” the phrasing seems strange. Often we speak of “what” does it mean to be good, rather than “how can we.” The former being the question as usually articulated by philosophy, the second as more akin to the religious/theological problem.
With regard to being “good,” the “New Atheists” have made certain claims of jurisdiction while trying to bounce religion at the door. And yet, both religion and science only have valid claims to morality and ethics when they are doing so in a “philosophic” sense anyway. Whether they admit it or not, and whether they are good at it or not, to whatever extent either side wants to legitimately discuss morality, they will be doing so philosophically, so it really seems an empty argument for them to be having.
However, what the NA crowed does seem to have a valid interest in, is having religious speak pertain to the same rules that science and philosophy do, i.e. non-contradiction, identity, internal coherence, etc. Maybe some philosophers would side with the religious on this. But to the extent that the religious want to go beyond art, meaning, and social experience, and actually start putting forth propositions, especially with regard to ethics and morality, wouldn’t most philosophers also have a stake in making them adhere to some general rules for analyzing facts and claims to truth?
Sorry for the crazy amount of text. I’ve just been listening to an insane number of the podcasts while doing the most inane data entry and had to say something, about something, somewhere.
Jeffrey Jeffers says
Is the animus for religion something “new” New Atheism offers? I’m sure there were always secular people that disliked religion, but calling out religion (rather than ideology, which can manifest in varying human institutions) for special criticism, claiming that its uniquely suited to make an on balance bad contribution to the world, all with an epistemological commitment to this being unambiguously true, seems new.
Also seemingly new is the concerted effort to discard the moral nihilism and relativism atheism has sometimes been popularly associated with.
On this second front, I think what Ethan Gach said about meaning applies. In other words, it’s tough for everyone. Finding firm footing for moral truth, in an abstract sense, is a large task. So instead of saying, “Weeell, OK, but look don’t pick on us, because you only kid yourselves to say you’ve got it all figured out,” doesn’t seem nearly as promising a PR campaign as “we succeed where you fail.” New Atheists have chosen this latter route, which promises to have more mass-appeal than the former route.
David Buchanan says
Howdy Phellow Filosophers: I’m currently writing a thesis on the pragmatism of Pirsig and James and can’t help but think like a pragmatist. What’s interesting and alarming is that the debate hasn’t changed in a hundred years. If anything, we’ve gone backwards. Pragmatism was originally offered as a way to mediate between the seemingly irreconcilable differences between theism and materialism. James was radically empirical and his view was informed by Darwinism and yet he was more than sympathetic to the appeal of his opponents’ point of view and especially shared their horror at the thought that the universe might be nothing but whirling particles, the thought that all our strivings will eventually dissolve into nothingness. The solution, as I understand it, is to find a way to have both at the same time, to find spiritual meaning right down here in the dirty old world. The Absolutists and rationalistic philosophers can have their lofty abstractions and metaphysical principles to the extent that they can be grounded out in experience, to the extent that they make an actual difference in the life of the believer and do not clash with other vital beliefs. In that sense, words like “God” and “Matter” are both metaphysical assertions. Like Kant’s thing-in-itself, God is not something that can be known in experience but is posited as the real reality behind our experience, the cause of experience. But of course the difference is that “matter” simply works better as an idea, especially in rush hour traffic or a boxing ring.
What you end up with, I think, is a kind of non-theistic mysticism, a philosophical mysticism that requires no faith or supernaturalism. As Pirsig puts it, the Buddha can be found in the circuits of a computer or the gears of a motorcycle or the petals of the lotus flower. Turning water into wine, then, is not about some miraculous transubstantiation. It’s just about being intoxicated by the seemingly ordinary stuff of life.
The New Atheists only speak to the crude, childish, fundamentalist types of religious belief and yet I think this is an important service because they have basically been running the country throughout my entire adult lifetime and that is a freaking nightmare. It’s not even religion. It’s just reactionary politics and when fascism comes to this country that’s what it’ll look like. Our Franco or Mussolini will be some bible-thumping, flag-drapped cowboy.
Ethan Gach says
Though David I quite agree about the non-theistic mysticism. I think this can be a point of strong mutual agreement between the two sides, and is often what ends up coming to the forefront in debates anyway. Religion makes claims to general spiritual mysticism and vague cosmic forces while the NA try to nail religious believers to the claims of one holy book or another. What it comes to is either retreating (though I would see it as progressing) into a kind of west coast Allan Watts new-age mysticism and give up the right to make moral claims insulated from general argument, or you live and die by scriptual authority and end the discussion with a wave of the hand and an proclemation of “faith.”
Ethan Gach says
“…shared their horror at the thought that the universe might be nothing but whirling particles, the thought that all our strivings will eventually dissolve into nothingness. ”
That seems to me to be the important impetus behind why a lot of religious experience seems threatened by science.
And yet even that proposition, that the facts eluded to via the scientific method leaves the universe as, “nothing but whirling particles,” requires philosophic relfection. The skepticism of Descartes and others as well as the seeming fatalism that many feel acompanies our increasing knowledge of how things work, are both domains of philosophy. And even the scientists who enter the domain do so at their own philosophic peril.
The trouble seems to come along when spirituality goes from the imperitive, “to find spiritual meaning ,” to more practical spheres of life of the kind, “But of course the difference is that “matter” simply works better as an idea”
Morality and matters social arrangement seem to be in the grey area between both of these places, strattling the gap between individual subjective “meaning,” and the larger “how to’s” of social and civil life.
While the NA group have entered the frey with rhetoric blazing to shift the balance of legitimacy, away from “religion”, and towards a general kind of “secular empiricism,” they seem more in the middle than at the opposing poll. In the middle in the sense that, philosophers feel threatened by science, and so either castrate themselves on its alter or sneer at it from closed towers, and that most religions seem to feel science as an existential threat to it’s own domains of knowledge (spiritual/ethical).
Thus the NA group bashes religion, religion pushes back by doubling down on science’s own skepticism, and philosophers, at least many, use this squabble as an opportunity to take back some ceded territory from the scientists. It all feels very political and schoolyardish.
What I don’t understand is why most philosophers don’t see the insularity of religious beliefs as a problematic for themselves. How can one be reflective when certain things are out-of-bounds, taken on insufficient reason, or held despite sufficient reason to the contrary.
The pragmatist compromise David mentions seems to be a live and let live approach. You have your domain of knowledge and I have mine. That kind of isolation never seems to take. But on the other hand if a genuine compromise is to take place, the realm of religion will have to give something up, rather than the one side bargains that usually seem to take place, i.e. philosophy appeases religion by treating it only with a sort of descriptive taxonamy all while bestowing a kind of one way diplomatic immunity to relgion. Thus religion can make forays into philosophy whether ontologically or morally even as philosophy is refused the right to critically probe and reflect upon religion’s claims. I have only taken a few philosophy of religion classes, and maybe Seth, Mark, and Wes could speak to this subject. But at least in my experience philosophical probing of religion was kind of walking-on-egg-shells endevour limited mostly to a kind of anthropology of religion.
Good thoughts, David.
Probably related to ‘mysticism’ is ‘mythology’, which seems more concrete – like analogous. Joseph Campbell was the great master of myths. I think speculative theology is often myth (whether intentionally so or not). But what is the analogue the myth is getting at. On this, I see a near complete correspondence of Pirsig’s Quality and another pragmatist, Whitehead’s, ‘creativity towards novel advance’.
Pirsig said that the dynamic flux of Quality was made stable – real, concrete – by taking on stable inorganic, biological, cultural, and intellectual patterns (which are akin to archetypes, or Platonic receptacles – I think). Likewise, Whitehead felt that there had to be a limiting/governing and directing of the flux associated with Creativity; also, he held that abstract archetypical forms – Plato’s Eternal Objects – provided the definiteness that allows for richer experience within the cosmos. So, he somewhat reluctantly introduced a unique Godhead into his metaphysics. In the hands of zealous liberal theologians and philosophers, this probably unnecessary move surely helped to give justifiable cause for succeeding philosophers to lazily dismiss Whitehead as passe. (This, and the anti-metaphysical speculative atmosphere ushering forth from such profound wisdom like Wittgenstein, who closes his first opus with the immortal brilliance of ‘If you don’t know what you’re talking about, shut up.’)
But Pirsig and Whitehead are brilliant minds that DO lnow enough to postulate metaphysical speculations which, if only seen as ,ythic analogs, still get us practically closer to Kant’s noumena.
David Buchanan says
Thanks for your comments, gents. I’d like to reply all day, but I won’t.
Interesting that you should mention Campbell, Burl. I’m a big fan and in “Lila” Pirsig recommends Campbell’s “Masks of God”. But the more I learned about Jung’s theory of archetypes, the less plausible it seemed.
Maybe the “archetype” is like “God”, “Matter”, and Plato’s Forms. Supposedly, they are the eternal reality behind the changing forms of our temporal, empirical reality. Against this, the pragmatist insists they are not prior to experience and we couldn’t possibly know that even if they were. Instead, they are taken as nothing more than conceptual abstractions or generalizations. They are derived from experience and are considered to be secondary. We add them to the empirical flux.
The pragmatist says that they are perfectly fine as concepts and we can even say they are true ideas if they successfully guide future experience. But they are almost always reified or thingified. These useful ideas are mistaken as a things, as actual metaphysical entities and the real reality behind appearances. On top of that, the ordinary empirical reality from which they were drawn in the first place then becomes somehow less real, illusory. And so this problem of reification becomes a problem of otherworldliness. Heaven help us!
This isn’t about your local Baptist church, exactly. But they would take “God” to be an actual metaphysical entity and not as a working hypothesis – or as a metaphor for a mystery as Campbell might have it. But then again, how many physicists would say that “matter” is just a good working theory? Materialism can be just as guilty of reification and in fact Platonism still lives in the sciences.
Also, you might be interested to know there is a Master’s thesis that compares Whitehead with Pirsig. Author’s name is Sneddon, Andrew Sneddon, if memory serves. There is some kind of access to it at robertpirsig.org, if you’re interested.
I may say more later, but I meant to clarify what a Jungian might be thinking an archetype is. I once asked a Jungian analyst speaker to give a definition, and she said it is like the waterless riverbed of a flowing/raging river – it is a form to which the ‘psychic energy’ (water). I am becoming convinced it is affective animal emotion that is the real stuff of ‘psychic energy’.
The riverbed reminds me of Pirsig’s ‘stable Quality patterns’, but you might offer your description of his patterns. I recall a good MoQ essay on the function of Form.
I have often read and recommended Sneddon’s Whitehead/Pirsig thesis — thanks.
*Maybe the “archetype” is like “God”, “Matter”, and Plato’s Forms. Supposedly, they are the eternal reality behind the changing forms of our temporal, empirical reality. Against this, the pragmatist insists they are not prior to experience and we couldn’t possibly know that even if they were. Instead, they are taken as nothing more than conceptual abstractions or generalizations. They are derived from experience and are considered to be secondary. We add them to the empirical flux.*
I like that. I wish Whitehead had followed this line of thinking rather than adhering so closely to Plato and his eternal objects. Perhaps it was his profound existential oneness with mathematical abstractions that afforded him a ‘faith’ that Plato was correct about the ontology of Ideas. So, maybe ANW is right?
Tom McDonald says
I can’t agree more with Mark’s general point that the public debate between theism and atheism, or between traditional religion and scientism, in the United States at least, is utterly impoverished by lack of philosophical subtlety and insight on both sides.