Did New Atheism go too far?

May 15, 2022 • 10:00 am

Here we have a 30-minute talk given on April 24 by British philosopher Julian Baggini at the Institute of Art and Ideas’ annual philosophy and music festival, HowTheLightGetsIn. You can find it on their site, but you’d have to pay to see the whole thing.

Fortunately, Baggini has posted it on his own site, and you can see the whole talk by clicking on the screenshot below. It was billed to me as a discussion of the question “has New Atheism gone too far?”. Though there’s precious little discussion of that (if you want to see repeated “yeses,” go to Pharyngula), but Baggini does give a qualified “yes” toward the end of the talk.

While I disagree with Baggini’s view that there can be a general coalition of the “reasonable” that includes both believers and atheists working together to find truth, Baggini is generally sensible and measured in his views, as he was in his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press. It’s a good introduction to the ins and outs of atheism, and to the widespread but mistaken consequences to most people of embracing it (i.e., atheism leaves us no grounds for morality).  Below are the introductory notes from both sites.

Atheism revisited

The first decade of the 21st century saw an extraordinary rise in confident atheism. Now the whirlwind has settled, what does the future of belief look like? In this talk philosopher and author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, Julian Baggini explores the new landscape of atheism.

The Speaker

Julian Baggini is a British philosopher, journalist and author of over 20 philosophical books. Since graduating with a PhD from University College London in 1997, he has co-founded The Philosopher’s Magazine and been a regular contributor to both national and international newspapers.

Click below to go to the vieo.

Baggini begins with a very short history of Western atheism, mentioning three prominent exponents:  Jean Meslier (1664-1729), a Catholic priest whom Baggini considers the first “modern” western atheist (his Catholicism was not really his own belief, but his framework for helping others), David Hume, and Bertrand Russell.

The common strand of all three men is that they were atheists in the sense of being “rational skeptics.” That is, they maintained that there was no reason to believe that God existed, and therefore the probability was strongly against it.  Some people call those “agnostics”, but I prefer Baggini’s definition: “a -theists”: those who dont embrace theism.

Like all who are empiricists, I adhere to a form of Dawkins’s “spectrum of theistic probability,” which scores in a Bayesian way one’s degree of certainty that there’s a God. Dawkins constructed a seven-point scale of increasing atheism, with “1” denoting the view “Strong theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of Carl Jung: ‘I do not believe, I know,'” and with  7 denoting the view “Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one’.”

Richard ultimately put himself at 6.9 on that scale, but I’d probably be even closer to 7 given the total absence of evidence for God. After all, where would you rest on a “spectrum of leprechaun probability”?

And indeed, that’s the true scientific attitude towards something. One can never say with absolute certainty that something does not exist, but you can come damn close to certainty. In my book Faith Versus Fact, I draw out one scenario that would make me believe in the Christian God, but even that scenario would confer on me only provisional belief.

At any rate, I’m happy with Baggini’s definition of atheism as “one who does not accept the existence of God” and will leave it to others to argue about the slippery term “agnostic”.

Baggini adds that there is an add-on to this definition of atheism (not, thank Ceiling Cat, the necessity for promoting “progressive” social justice), but the view that this form of atheism, being empirical, also entails “naturalism”:  the notion that “the natural world is the only world there is, a world described in physical terms at its most fundamental level” by the natural sciences. To Baggini—and again I agree—everything else, like emotions and consciousness, are emergent phenomena of natural processes. There is no evidence for the “supernatural”. Although people are put off by the “dogmatism” of atheists, when you embrace it as a provisional position that can be quantified on a scale, it doesn’t look so dogmatic.

The good part starts when Baggini tackles New Atheism (NA), whose onset he attributes to Dawkins’s 2006 The God Delusion, though Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, which I take as the real beginning, was published two years earlier. (It all, says Baggini, was formented by the 9/11 attacks.) Clearly Dawkins’s book did the most to popularize NA, but Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris (and, says Baggini, to a lesser extent Dennett) were the main promulgators of NA.

Baggini then ticks off what he sees as the distinctive claims of NA, which he says in the main created a “problematic view of atheism”. (I disagree.) The claims (not direct quotes) are indented; my comments are flush left.

a. Religion was about offering a quasiscientific view of origin of the world. It was explanatory, the way that science was, and this created a false clash between science and religion. In reality, as Baggini says later , there were theologians like Karen Armstrong who argued that religion was more about practice than fact: “ways of understanding the world that would give us a moral framework.”

Yes, there are apophatic and Sophisticated Theologians®, but Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins explicitly addressed religion as it is practiced and taught by regular folks, not tendentious pseudointellectuals like Armstrong. And as I argue in my book, without some empirical assertions about the world (i.e., Christ was the son of God, was crucified, resurrected, and can bring us eternal salvation), no Abrahamic religion, nor most religions, have credibility and would have no believers. Even cargo cults depend on assertions about the existence of John Frum, for crying out loud!

b.  Religion was harmful in various ways, valorizing faith and dogma, discouraging people not to think for themselves, and making people enemies of reason (a quality said to be monopolized by the atheists).

To me this claim is largely true and I have nothing much to say about it. Of course most believers behave rationally at most times, but they abandon that the moment they walk through the door of the church, synagogue, or mosque. Nobody thinks that all religionists are automatons or zombies who never think for themselves.

c.  Religion was a source of evil by promoting absolutist world views, tribalism, extremes, and division.

There’s no way to determine whether, over history, religion has been a net good or bad in the world. I’d argue for the “bad” side, but at least one can make a good case that it’s outmoded today based on the a-reglious countries of northern Europe which seem, if anything, morally better than religious countries like the U. S. And then we have the annoying issue of “is it good to make people believe something for which there is no evidence?”

d.  Religion’s respect by society was undeserved; this taboo had to be broken.

Again, this is palpably true. How many charlatans have gotten respected (and rich) by becoming pastors? As Christopher Hitchens said of Jerry Falwell soon after the Reverend’s death, “”The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing: that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called ‘reverend’.”

e.  Religion is a monolith; New Atheists ignored nondogmatic and intelligent religious people.

I see this as untrue, and know that several times the NA’s have discussed this problem. What they did not do was assert that because some believers are smart and nondogmatic, that this somehow gives extra credibility to their religious beliefs.

Given that these assertions of NA supposedly caused unnecessary division in the West—and especially the U.S.—what does Baggini recommend? What he calls for is a  “coalition of the reasonable”, an alliance in which people, “no matter what their fundamental convictions about God or not God are, are committed to a way of thinking reasonably and rationally about the world.”

Well, we already have that, and it’s called humanism. Insofar as religious people start thinking rationally about the world in arms with their atheist comrades, they are abandoning their religious belief, which is perforce irrational.

Now I’m not exactly sure how this coalition is supposed to work (Baggini slips it in at the end), or how one can get to get many Muslims, Orthodox Jews, or Southern Baptists to sign on to an adherence to reason. (Baggini mentions one Muslim of the past who believed that empirical truth trumped the dictates of the Qur’an, but that was ages ago.)

This all sounds good, but I don’t see it happening. A world of rationality has no room for religion, nor for any sort of harmful superstition.

Have a listen and see what you think.

Fom Barry:

h/t Ginger K

26 thoughts on “Did New Atheism go too far?

    1. Hey, Ken. You ever check out that movie I recommended a few weeks ago? I can’t even remember what it was anymore; I just remember knowing you’d enjoy it.

      I was watching Calvary for perhaps the tenth time a couple of days ago. It was written and directed by the brother of Martin McDonagh, of whom I know you’re a fan. His brother has very similar sensibilities. If you haven’t seen Calvary yet, you absolutely must! And you should check out his far more comedic film, The Guard, as well (though Calvary certainly has moments of levity, it’s far more drama than comedy)!

        1. A lot of people tell me how much they love that movie. I thought it was just OK. I really liked what I felt it could have been, but no so much what it was. Does that make sense?

          I’m definitely a fan of Paul Schrader. He’s directed some very good movies (Hardcore, Auto Focus, Mishima, Affliction) and written even more. I just wasn’t that into First Reformed, even though every single person I know who has tastes similar to my own loved it.

          Perhaps I need to watch it again…

  1. It seems to me that there’s a tendency among (some) academic philosophers to paint others as being a bit native and simplistic in order to position themselves as being more insightful.

    [OK, lots of people other than academic philosophers might also be charged with that.]

    1. Well if Baggini – I haven’t finished listening yet – says, as Jerry summarizes:

      New Atheists ignored nondogmatic and intelligent religious people

      Then he is straw manning NAs and positioning himself like you say.

      1. Paul,

        Exactly my reaction.

        Far from ignoring the “non-dogmatic” religious, much of the case made by the NAs, especially
        by Harris, was AIMED at the “non-dogmatic” religious. Those who felt they were holding the more flexible sophisticated(tm) view of religion vs the “fundamentalists/literalists.” The New Atheists like Harris pointed to the liabilities of literal and dogmatic believers, but also importantly argued that more “sophisticated” believers end up giving credence to the literalists by still upholding Faith as a virtue, and STILL holding the holy books to be the communications of a deity. As the new atheists continually pointed out, the “literalists” actually tended to have the better, more consistent arguments as believers – the more lax, liberal takes being far more mushy.

        And note that almost EVERY debate Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens had were with the representatives claiming the more liberal or “sophisticated” version of Christianity! You didn’t have Harris or Dawkins debating Ken Hamm, you had them debating a who’s who of the sophisticated liberal Christians.

        If Baggini really argued that the New Atheists ignored the non-dogmatic, he’d be falling right in to the strawmen of other NA critics, which is disappointing.

  2. My preferred label would be ‘Freethinker’- basing my degree on belief on reason and evidence, while maintaining a healthy dose of intellectual humility given the limitations of human understanding.

    Though my values generally align with those of ‘Secular Humanism’, I find the term bit too ‘anthropocentric’ for my taste. My religion is simply: Be kind.

  3. I think religion has certainly been the justification for much violence in history. As we’ve seen, though, there is a type of person who looks for answers, and latches onto them when they tell him he’s good and gives him someone to hate. It doesn’t require god. It plays to the worst in our natures. Would European History, for example, have been so violent without religion? We can’t say no, but the fact that religion didn’t seem to do much to stem the violence isn’t in its favor. Did New Atheism go too far? No. It showed people you could buck orthodoxy, which is always good.

    1. Well, isn’t the conventional explanation of The Crusades that the Church wanted to find some other
      channel for the natural violence of younger, loutish knights? So, they sent them to slaughter other
      people outside of Europe. Of course, they had to do a lot of killing along the route, just to keep in practice. Their victims were mostly (but not entirely) Jews in towns along the Rhine. In Hungary, the
      pillaging by gangs of crusaders was so bad that King Kalman had to annihilate some of the gangs.

  4. To borrow Baggini’s phraseology, the whirlwind created at the beginning of this century by the Four Horsemen and the other New Atheists, such as Michael Shermer, Dan Barker, and A. C. Grayling, was caused by them seizing the opportunity post 9/11/2001 to stake out new territory in the public discourse on what it means to lead a good life. They may have seemed to be Rough Riders in staking out this new territory, but they did their job well and did not go too far for their time.
    After the whirlwind settled, we saw how expansive and fertile this territory was. The surviving Horsemen/New Atheists no longer needed to be so rough, and they have been cultivating this fertile territory to bear sweet fruits and turn the field over to the next generation, the Newer Atheists, such as Stephen Woodford, Alex O’Connor, Drew McCoy, and Thomas Westbrook, who, as digital natives, have been using social media to expand the territory humorously and gently but nevertheless firmly.

  5. Too far compared to the religious people who are right now trying to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies? Give me a break.

    1. A sound bite rarely convinces, or even lets the listener know what the speaker is actually trying to say. To a non-religious person who believes that at some point before birth a fetus becomes worthy of protection, and who can organize a political consensus to legislate, then yes, absolutely the women can and will be forced after that point to carry a fetus to term. That is the law or regulatory practice in all but 7 states in the U.S. and in all other jurisdictions in the world. Nowhere in the world outside those 7 states does a pregnant woman have absolute reproductive autonomy to end her pregnancy. Either a time limit or a “reason” exemption or both are imposed to constrain her choice.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_law#:~:text=National%20laws,-The%20examples%20and&text=According%20to%20a%20United%20Nations,of%20fetal%20impairment%20(61%25).

      Now, yes, the devout would legislate to prohibit all abortions from conception on. They will have some but only modest success because most jurisdictions are willing to compromise politically to allow society to function. Those who hold out for total reproductive choice will get nothing because they haven’t got the votes to win that.

  6. From time of Epicure and his contemporaries nothing really changed.
    I admire his calm answers to question if Gods do exist? If they do they are made of the same atoms like you and me.
    The Nature God of Enlightenment, the personification of laws of nature, was an answer to all those disturbing persecutions of freethinkers. Spinoza was just very lucky…
    To me: the language, religion, curiosity and need to create… are biological instincts.
    They exist in every society through history under different forms with different mythology.
    Did NA went too far? I don’t think it went far enough. George Carlin went further in correct form and attitude.
    I just think direction towards, what ignorants see as yet another dogma à la Soviet “scientists”, does not explain that particular kind of behaviour of humans and maybe of other species.
    Religion and scientific curiosity are different faces of the same behavioural coin.
    Religion comfort people by groundless explanations when scientific method does not accept impossible to verify assertions. Instead of answers multiples questions.
    They do not have the same terminology, they do not even cross.
    They happen for the same reason (spirituality, curiosity, compulsion) to the same herd of people… but they prevent cooperation because uniformity of society is broken. Motivations can be different.
    That leads to conflicts and violence.
    As we all inhabit bodies, mastering our minds for many years under care of families and friends, in environment which often tests limits of our good will and knowledge, there is no hope to find uniform basis of believes or behaviour in a close future.
    The only way to coexist is tolerance and epicurean self moderation in pursuing common goals. As Harari says we do not need new Gods, but we might need unification by new godless religion…
    😉

  7. Great talk. Informative, well-reasoned, and objective. I’m curious about his obvious revisionist view of Al Ghazali as a rationalist Muslim though. That is not how history records his writings and views, although I am aware of the considerable effort now to redeem him as a moderate.

    He is quoted as writing “Scientific deduction is the work of Satan” Hamid al Ghazali 1058-1111

    And as Joseph Campbell explains in his Cooper Union explains:

    “… for five or six rich centuries (8th century to the 13th century ) the authority of the general community, the Sunna, or consensus– which Mohammed the Prophet had declared would always be right– cracked down. The Word of God in the Qur’an was the only source and vehicle of truth.

    Scientific thought led to “loss of belief in the origin of the world and in the creator.” And so it was that, just when the light of Greek learning was beginning to be carried from Islam to Europe- from circa 1100 onward- Islamic science and medicine came to a standstill and went dead; and with that, Islam went dead”.

  8. Important as Jean Meslier was, Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789), might be a better choice as the first “modern” western atheist. His “The System of Nature” (1770) argues outright for atheism, determinism, and naturalism, and takes a hammer to Christianity and God. The book, published under a pseudonym, was a scandalous success—an 18th century “God Delusion.”

  9. As it turned out, the New Atheists went too far when they assumed they all meant the same thing by “New Atheism.” At least the critics were worse, because few saw it as anything other than an in-your-face-religion-sucks movement, a bad attitude just asking for rebuttal and dismissal.

    It was instead I think a rebellion against Accomodationism. And “Accomodationism” had nothing to do with thinking all the religious were equally bad and atheists shouldn’t work with them. It referred primarily to the view that there was no conflict between science and religion, or between faith and virtue.

  10. I don’t care whether religion exists any more than I care about veganism, same sex marriage, animal rights, or any other personal belief systems. I DO care when a personal belief system insinuates itself into the public sector and the beliefs and rights of other belief systems, and most of all into education and the rest of secular society. I especially abhor evangelism and the arrogance of those who try to convert others to their preferred system, such as the Christians preaching their faith to indigenous people. I am sick of people like Davie Brooks and Ross Douthat and others who think the decline or absence of religion is at the root of global problems. It is perfectly clear that atheism does not cause
    evil acts, and it is perfectly clear that atheists are quite capable of living highly moral lives. I wish believers would just drop the whole concept of a god and develop a moral philosophy based on
    a naturalistic world. Without god to worrry about we could just all agree on a philoosphy, not a
    doctrine.

  11. I’m also a 6.9/7. While I don’t believe in any kind of personal god, and certainly not anything in the style of the Abrahamics, I don’t discount that there may be some kind of disembodied entities with knowledge and power beyond the physical plane. If they do exist, though, they must have come about through some kind of an evolutionary process, like everything else.

  12. (It all, says Baggini, was formented by the 9/11 attacks.)

    That might be the case in America, but for me it was just another nail in the lid of a coffin that had been nailed up, wrapped in steel, welded shut, embedded in concrete, then had a large mountain range dumped on top of the 6ft (1.85m) or soil, to leave it buried somewhere in the granulite facies, warming up to cook for a billennium or so. That was back in the late 1970s, after a lifetime (now, a longer lifetime) of watching :
    – Monotheists (var Abrahamist (sub-var Christian (sub-sub var Protestant))) slaughter innocents and Monotheists (var Abrahamist (sub-var Christian (sub-sub var Catholic))), and
    – Monotheists (var Abrahamist (sub-var Christian (sub-sub var Orthodox))) slaughter innocents and Monotheists (var Abrahamist (sub-var Muslim (sub-sub var [several]))), and
    – Monotheists (var Abrahamist (sub-var Jewish (sub-sub var various))) slaughter innocents and Monotheists (var Abrahamist (sub-var Muslim (sub-sub var various))), and
    – Monotheists (var Abrahamist (sub-var Muslim (sub-sub var various))) slaughter innocents and Monotheists (var Abrahamist (sub-var Jewish (sub-sub var various) )) and
    – Polytheists (var Hindu (sub-var various)) building nukes to slaughter Monotheists (var Abrahamist (sub-var Muslim (sub-sub var Sunni, mostly))) and vice versa,

    [deep inhalation] in Ulster, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and India and Pakistan.

    There were assorted other wars in Africa and SE Asia (I’m old enough to have watched the Viet Cong beat the shit out of the Americans in Vietnam, not that that was a particularly religious slaughter) to keep the attention deflected. But it was very clear that the considerable majority of planned and organised slaughter was taking place for and under the aegis of religions. Sometimes they added the proxy of money too, at least as a screening tactic, but religion was generally there, preaching peace while promoting slaughter. Hypocrites.
    2001-09-11 was just a new front opening on one of the Monotheist vs Monotheist wars. For people ignorant that there were wars going on, that may have been a shock. But ignorance has never been terribly good protection.
    Now, does WP do lists? Evidently not.
    Religion has always been one of the most dangerous enemies of people and peace. That is why I spent (comparatively) so much time in the 70s learning about them. Know thine enemy!

  13. Believer, agnostic or atheist, it depends on how U define God, doesn’t it? If God is defined as the reason for the existence of the universe with nothing else tacked on, how can U be anything but an agnostic because U just do not know? But if God is presented in some variation of the dogmas of the major monotheistic faiths, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity or Islam, one can comfortably and rationally be a non-theist.

    1. Believer, agnostic or atheist, it depends on how U define God, doesn’t it? If God is defined as the reason for the existence of the universe with nothing else tacked on, how can U be anything but an agnostic because U just do not know?

      I think there has to be some reification before we can be agnostic about anything. What does ‘reason’ mean? Does it refer to an event? And so on…

      Otherwise we could be dealing with grammatically correct nonsense to which the agnostic position may not even apply. I am not saying that religion should be nonsensical to you; I am merely saying that much of it is nonsensical to me, and that there is an important step I must take before even saying that I don’t know.

      If someone were to tell me that they were holding a pebble in their hand, I could say that their statement is
      1) true (believer);
      2) false (non-believer);
      3) or that I don’t know if it is true or false (agnostic).

      This is possible because I understand the meaning of the statement — I know what ‘pebble’ means, and I know it is something one can enclose in one’s hand.

      But if someone were to tell me that they were holding the eternal greenness of serenity in their hand, I would have to determine what it refers to before taking one of the three positions above.

      Therefore, with regard to religion, I am an atheist in the sense that I don’t have any religious beliefs; I have not figured out what the hell it is I am supposed to believe or not believe or not know whether to believe or not believe. This is not to say that other people don’t know what it means; it is just that I do not 🙂

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