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Atheists should be allowed to argue their case

Posted in News by Skepdude on April 3, 2009

Julian Baggini’s recent opinion piece, “The New Atheist Movement is Destructive”, strings together a series of flimsy claims and a general eschewal of the requirements of accuracy and relevance in criticizing the new atheists, to lead to a conclusion that, while truly extraordinary given the briefest glance at history, is unfortunately all-too-typical of such criticism.

First, a methodological quibble. Pointing out that he has not read the books of the new atheists, Mr. Baggini argues that this does not disqualify him from opining about them. He need not read the books, he claims, since they would only tell him what he already believes and could only be addressed to agnostics and open-minded believers. I confess to doing much the same thing, though not for the same reasons. For something like a text book or an introduction to atheism, I feel confident in passing over them, not because I expect to believe everything in them but because I expect they will provide no new information to me. But that is based on having looked at dozens of them and found them to be much of a piece.

The books by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris are not just freshman texts in philosophy of religion though, something Mr. Baggini cannot know without at least cracking a cover. I can vouch for two of the books, Dennett’s and Dawkins’ – I haven’t read the other two, so I couldn’t say, and will hereafter confine my remarks (tacitly) to the two new atheists mentioned. Neither Dennett’s book nor Dawkins’ contains an atheist manifesto, listing only things every atheist believes, or a Cole’s Notes summary for philosophy of religion.

Still, I wouldn’t force Mr. Baggini to read anything he regards as a waste of time. And fortunately, when he turns to justifying his right to an opinion, it turns out the books he has not read are not actually the subject of his critique anyway. After a brief reference to Bayard’s book to support his claims – a book I find in the Humour section of my bookstore, by the way – he redirects his criticisms to “the general tone and direction [of] the new atheism”, “how [the new atheists] are perceived” and “the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews”.

I am uncertain whether I should bother to point out that criticising ‘general impressions’ of such phenomena is inevitably superficial and highly questionable, unless one can comment on their accuracy and relevance, which would require Mr. Baggini to have better information than simple ‘perceptions’. Surely this seems too obvious a concern.

However, I would not prevent Mr. Baggini from discussing these general perceptions and impressions all he likes. Had the rest of his article been this scrupulous, there would be no issue between us. For he quickly moves on from these, to attribute faults to the new atheists themselves, attributions which his admitted information cannot support. If he had stuck with criticising perceptions, his apparent point, that the perception of the new atheism, not the new atheism itself, is counter-productive, would be indisputable, in my view.

No such scruples. He proposes to combat the misunderstanding that atheism is “a negative attack on religious belief”, and so, is ‘parasitic’ upon religion. The new atheists are at fault, he says, for lending credence to this myth.



3 Responses

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  1. Jesse said, on April 3, 2009 at 5:42 PM

    Baggini is right. And anyone with any formal philosophical experience doesn’t need to buy (and therefore support) the opinions of a few, colonial white intellectuals when their perspectives are so easily reducible and also very easily invalidated:

    1) That there is no God, we can know it is such and cannot be otherwise (universalism/idealism/absolutism).
    2) Science as a telological totality (and not purely instrumental; big difference there); scientific reduction as unlimited (and not purely local, contingent, and descriptive).
    3) Religious belief necessarily leads to negative or malicious actions (“necessary” = a religious person cannot do otherwise; unfortunately, this is hypostatisation and/or reification at its worst).

    I think those are the main arguments, most of which passed decades–even centuries–ago. The biggest contradiction is that when you throw Existential ethics into the mix, “new” Atheists being to look ironically anti-existential because they can’t seem to make any argument on their own behalf without mentioning “god” or religious people in some way (very telling). Taken together they only form a kind of pastiche atheism without any stable philosophical basis or origin. In the end, this “new” regeneration of atheism starts to look like just a social or political agency without any beneficial views as far as cultural or philosophical development.

    • Skepdude said, on April 3, 2009 at 10:00 PM


      First it seems to me that you’re making atheism into this whole world view which it appears you think it must have some “beneficial views as far as cultural or philosophical development”. That would be the first point where I disagree with you. I don’t think atheism has or needs to have anything to do with cultural or philosophical development. Atheism is simply lack of belief in God. The rest is up to each individual, you can make whatever you want out of that.

      Second it seems to me that your 3 points are a bit of a straw man. At least on points 1 & 2 it seems to me that the “new atheists” are not making those claims. I have yet to hear Dawkins or Hitchens say that they know there is no God as you say on #1 or that a religious person must necessarily make malicious actions. I don’t know where you’re getting that from. I can’t quite speak for Dennet or Harris, I am not very familiar with their works.

      • Jesse said, on April 3, 2009 at 11:10 PM

        I was trying to make the point that Atheism and “new” Atheism are irreconcilably different; the one regards philosophically-derivative positions (deconstruction, Marxism, existentialism, etc.), while the other is merely a product of cultural circumstance and, yes, mutual antagonism (“new” Atheist fundamentalism is part of the same fundamentalist whole as far as a reaction to religion).

        Those are no straw men. Those points are universal to “new” Atheists, and the points which they must prove in order to claim any legitimacy in discourse. They won’t be able to do so–but with a positive net effect for respecting other beliefs, hopefully. And if a person can’t bear the logical and philosophical implications of the absolute claim that there is not God, then one is NOT Atheist by definition. Atheism is not simply “lack of belief”; the so-called “default” argument is completely invalid, and ultimately just an evasion from articulating one’s position (lest it be criticized). If a person lacks belief, they are simply a non-Christian, or simply non-religious. (I’m not a lot of things, but isn’t it superfluous to identify them?) And the argument for “weak” Atheism is either just agnosticism (an unfairly religious term, I know) or skepticism (the secular term, though less focused); but if you still want to argue from “weak” Atheism, well that fails because its just a stealth reassertion of the same prior, absolute truth (no God).

        Again, not a theist. Just sayin.

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