In what way(s) does popular New Atheism fail to be philosophical?

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I've seen some derision against the popular New Atheism movement, in particular against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (particularly interesting since he makes a big deal that he studied and received a philosophy bachelor's). I don't have citations--this is just something I've observed reading forums, listening to podcast, so maybe I'm totally off base--it just seems like these popular New Atheist authors are scoffed at by the philosophy community.

Is there a sense in which New Atheism fails to be philosophical? Is it that New Atheism isn't philosophy? Or rather that it's just not good philosophy? Does it ignore important historical philosophical work done on the topic of atheism? Does it ignore important modern and/or contemporary philosophical work relevant to the topic of atheism? Can most of it be ignored as polemic? Is it just a matter of a few bad/non-philosophical authors that get all the attention at the expense of ignored authors with philosophically substantive things to say?

If the criticism is fair, what are some philosophical works that substantiate this? Truly philosophical (or truly good philosophical) works on atheism (either historic or contemporary)?

adhoclobster

Posted 2014-10-28T11:14:18.207

Reputation: 471

2http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_atheist_philosophers – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-28T13:16:12.077

4I imagine "The New Atheism" fails to engage with formal philosophy because mainstream religious figures do not either, and it is the mainsteam practice of religion, as opposed to fringe philosophical figures around it, that most such people would consider their target in terms of public discourse. I.e., you're right, it's not really a philosophical movement but AFAICT, it does not really pretend to be one anymore than, e.g., Dawkins pretends to be a philosopher. Philosophy is not something your average church goer (or citizen generally) has any particular use or respect for. – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-28T13:26:28.107

2

You may like my answer to In what sense is atheism scientific?. I also suggest Edward Feser on scientism.

– labreuer – 2014-10-28T16:26:53.290

1it's a bit isolated, and its target audience are a bit like a cult. just cos it's aimed at the pop.ulace. – None – 2014-10-28T20:15:09.397

...New Atheism fails to be _philosophical_? Is it that New Atheism isn't _philosophy_? "Philosophical"? Or a "Philosophy"? Regardless, since 'philosophy' hasn't solved any significant human problem, perhaps it's just a high compliment to say it's not a philosophy'. – user2338816 – 2014-10-29T09:15:00.160

@user2338816 It's not a philosophy in the sense that "The Republican Party" is not a philosophy. Is there philosophy involved? Sure, but it is not unique to or originating with "The New Atheism". Philosophy wise, it is the same as "the old atheism". I think they -- or at least Dawkins -- make a convenient target, particularly if there is nothing substantial to hit. E.g., Dawkins would be the straw man for atheism ;) "Obviously atheism is wrong, look at what this fool has to say..." Actually I guess that's a composition fallacy. – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-29T12:55:24.480

3It's probably not on-topic as an answer here, but the main criticisms of the leading lights of the New Atheists that I've seen is that they often say racist/islamophobic/misogynist things (and provide intellectual cover for fascists, at least in the UK) and act as cheerleaders for empire. This seems to stem mostly from a lack of perspective -- seeing religion as the Worst Thing Ever and arguing about that without a serious evaluation of actual material conditions. – evilsoup – 2014-10-29T17:00:22.510

@goldilocks Ooh, I see Julian Baggini in that list of atheist philosophers. I'm not familiar with any of his serious work--I just know of him as the author of that indispensable bathroom reader The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten. I'll have to check out his "meatier" works.

– adhoclobster – 2014-10-30T23:50:20.057

Dunno Baggini. If you're looking for a weighty modern treatise on atheism as a philosophy, I don't think there are any because it doesn't really merit such; that list is philosophers who were/are atheists by their own admission, may comment upon it (to greater and lesser extents), and whose philosophy is presumably copacetic with atheism, the belief. It is not something which requires much explanation even if reactions to it can be quite convoluted -- theism has theology, but since atheism is a negation (a statement about what is not true), there's no corresponding -ology to study... – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-31T19:04:02.427

1...Perhaps agnostics tend to wax philosophical more because it requires a more creative epistemology. Atheist critiques of religion are ideally socio-political and in that sense interdisciplinary (involving sociology, anthropology, psychology, political theory, etc). There's a lot of that around, but atheist epistemology, ontology, etc. would not be any different than regular scientific materialism. There's a lot of 20th century stuff -- e.g. the Nietzsche -> Heidegger -> Derrida trajectory -- regarding metaphysics that is very "atheistic", but it's not about atheism per se. – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-31T19:16:50.813

This might help answer your question https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/reflections-on-the-skeptic-and-atheist-movements/

– Alexander S King – 2015-05-20T21:19:24.267

One classic in the atheist vein is Hume's "On Miracles." Though Kant was by no means an atheist his analysis of the proofs of God is good. Many atheists seem to draw on the authority of science, while reaching well beyond the self-limiting, evidential principles from which science derived that authority. – Nelson Alexander – 2015-10-16T17:20:44.613

i don't think these guys are able to get past the "Multiverse-of-the-gaps" reasoning for discounting teleological explanations of fine-tuning, when at the same time, they throw at folks like me the "God-of-the-gaps" critique. – robert bristow-johnson – 2015-10-18T03:27:06.293

Answers

17

Dawkins and Hitchens aren't particularly philosophically sophisticated. Dawkins often attacks straw man versions of theistic arguments. (Search on this site for some discussion why his understanding of Aquinas's arguments for the existence of God miss the mark.) Further, they utterly fail to take into account criticism of their own epistemology. One crucial idea that you see in Dawkins is that nobody should believe things without evidence for them. This is a position that some people still defend in contemporary philosophy, but there are serious, important challenges to it and Dawkins simply ignores all of that. That turns philosophers off because it is irresponsible--you don't get to ignore problems for your own view.

I think the best contemporary introduction to the philosophy of religion is probably Brian Davies, "Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion" (Oxford University Press) 2004. He gives a fair, evenhanded treatment of various topics in the philosophy of religion from a theistic point of view. I don't know what the best book from an atheistic point of view is.

EDIT: for an example of Dawkins attacking a straw man, see this discussion: What does Dawkins suggest, is the main flaw in Aquinas's these three arguments?

user5172

Posted 2014-10-28T11:14:18.207

Reputation:

For a review of Dawkins by a really good philosopher, see http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2007/marapr/1.21.html

– None – 2014-10-28T12:30:11.723

For an even meaner review of Dawkins, but not a particularly philosophical one, see http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/terry-eagleton/lunging-flailing-mispunching

– None – 2014-10-28T12:34:39.383

4Dawkins is not a logical positivist. The "Tooth Fairy Agnostic" line he uses suggests he is falsificationist or Bayesian. If you're going to claim he doesn't respond to criticism of his views it would help to accurately identify what those views are. – Quirk – 2014-10-28T15:04:25.250

3There's a difference between logical positivism and the contemporary position known as evidentialism. (Logical postivists would claim that "God exists" isn't false, but just literally nonsense, like "Colorless green leaves sleep furiously." That doesn't look like D.'s view to me.) Rather, it looks to me like Dawkins is most charitably interpreted--as I do above--as an evidentialist. Evidentialists believe that you shouldn't believe something unless you have evidence for it. There are serious philosophers who endorse evidentialism, like Conee and Feldman. – None – 2014-10-28T15:08:25.047

2Notice too that you could be a falsificationist and an evidentialist, or a Bayesian and an evidentialist in that you could take that fact that your experiment has not been falsified yet after n many trials to constitute some kind of evidence that your theory is correct. So it's not a matter of being an "verificationist" vs a "falsifications" that's relevant here. That debate is just a different debate than the one about evidentialism vs. non-evidentialism. – None – 2014-10-28T15:19:22.907

2I would upvote if you edit in some examples of Dawkins attacking straw man examples. – DVK – 2014-10-28T15:33:48.843

2Not sure of your definitions here. Logical positivism can be happy with the claim "God exists" - but only if God's existence is verifiable via either logic or empirical evidence. This is evidentialist. Falsificationists dispute the notion of verifiability. Nothing is empirically correct, only not disproven. If you take your theory as entirely correct after several trials fail to falsify it, you are not a falsificationist but a verificationist. – Quirk – 2014-10-28T16:45:18.137

"For an even meaner review of Dawkins, but not a particularly philosophical one, see lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/terry-eagleton/lunging-flailing-mispunching" ...nicely rebutted in the comments by A.C. Grayling, a professional philospher – Anentropic – 2014-10-28T19:41:49.733

1No, logical positivism is a position about meaning, fundamentally. It is the position that a statement is meaningful only if it is verifiable. Evidentialism is a position about "justification" that says S is justified in believe p if and only if S has evidence for p. These are technical terms in philosophy. They aren't absolutely settled. You can use terms however you want, but this is how these terms are usually used in epistemology and philosophy of religion. – None – 2014-10-28T19:42:54.160

@Anentropic Grayling's a good philosopher, but his response to Eagleton is facile, focusing on one statement he doesn't understand to pronounce the whole mass of complaints Eagleton has put together woolly-headed and unserious. – None – 2014-10-28T19:48:15.843

As I said, logical positivism is happy to accept "God exists" if that statement is backed up by verification. The meaningful is that which can be verified. Evidentialism tacitly assumes verification via the claim that evidence for p is justification for believing p - i.e. you have verification which lets you correctly believe p. Falsificationism does not believe in justification at all. Does that help? – Quirk – 2014-10-28T20:13:39.173

@shane can you be more specific about the statement that Grayling didn't understand? I also found Eagleton's review woolly-headed... his argument seems to be that if you give up trying to explain things you can think up a bunch of nice thoughts such as, "[God] is what sustains all things in being by his love," and just believe them and wouldn't that be lovely. It doesn't seem like the sort of idea that can lead to deeper understanding of anything. He seems to waffle on for a long time without actually making an argument. – Anentropic – 2014-10-28T20:25:41.460

@Anentropic I believe he's talking about the 'condition of possibility' phrase. That's a pretty egregious one though. Eagleton merrily assumes the responsibility of speaking for the whole Judeo-Christian tradition, before imposing his very personal view of the Christian deity on us. God is not an entity, but a condition of possibility? Most of the Christians I've met - in a soft liberal agnostic Western country - believe that something real exists out there which is capable of answering prayers, affecting reality. As far as I can see, Dawkins understands this where Eagleton does not. – Quirk – 2014-10-28T21:13:29.767

1Eagleton isn't denying God exists. He's trying--in a way I agree is not perspicuous--to make a point about the limits of human concepts to speak of God, and in doing so is representing a tradition Christian theological doctrine about God's incomprehensibility. – None – 2014-10-29T00:44:09.420

Please consider taking extended discussion to chat – Joseph Weissman – 2014-10-29T01:26:17.537

@Quirk & shane: Both of you are right wrt to logical positivism. See the quotation from Carnap in my answer to another question: http://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/4207/1582

– DBK – 2014-10-29T16:05:01.177

16

Is it that New Atheism isn't philosophy?

Yes -- it is not a philosophy; wikipedia describes it as "a social and political movement" first associated with Sam Harris, an American writer who holds a B.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D in neuroscience but does not practice either professionally in the sense of having academic tenure. Harris's works appear to be bestseller non-fiction, a category which includes celebrity biography, self-help, travelogue, etc.; Harris is a popular writer and "New Atheism" is a essentially a populist movement.

I have participated in online atheist discussion groups with people who would be considered part of the "New Atheist" movement, and they are, like most religious practitioners, not particularly interested in philosophy. By this I mean, most of them (like most churchgoers) have never read a single volume from the Western canon (almost however you want to define it) and most likely never will.

I think the significance of "social movement" may need a bit of explaining for people who live outside of (particularly the southern) United States. In most of the western world it is probably not a big deal to be an atheist; there is no great social tension around it. I currently live in Canada and a decent proportion of average, non-philosophical people will casually admit atheism; if not, they are not particularly upset by it.

However, this is not the case in most of the United States. Even when living in liberal, multi-cultural New York City -- a generally fantastic place -- it was very rare for me to meet someone who did not claim to believe in God and profess one religion or another. Further, while I was never made to feel uncomfortable as an atheist, it was a bit bizarre to sometimes be an object of curiosity ("I've never met an atheist before...", "What does the atheist have to say about this?", etc), as opposed to here where the topic is generally considered too dull to bother with.

In other parts of the U.S. the situation is considerably less palatable for people who publicly deny the existence of God. For example, in many U.S. states, atheists cannot legally hold a public office.1 This is not a context in which a philosophical movement is very useful. An average person in the online discussion groups may be a young adult living somewhere where he/she does not know any other atheists and may already have been subject to repercussions amongst his/her family, at school or work, etc. To these people, the discussion groups offer encouragement and hope in the form of a positive, progressive social movement. Some of them are interested in reading (or may have been motivated by) Dawkins et. al., but most of them are not. They enjoy commiserating with other people about their predicament, and many of them do end up finding people to connect with in the real world because of online acquaintances.

The average atheist, like the average theist, does not consider his/her belief something that needs any particular tuning and so the idea of doing copious reading to support it is besides the point.

This is why such groups often bar argument about the topic. I.e., if you join up and then say, "I'm a theist here for a philosophical debate!", you will politely be told that is not welcome. They are not there to argue about it any more than the person who shows up to church on Sunday.


1. Note that these laws have long been deemed invalid by U.S. Federal Courts, however, they still mysteriously exist, with occasional minor consequences. Further discussion and references are in the comments. Please also note I am not trying to argue for the "New Atheism" movement but only explain some of its self-justifications, which (for better or worse) often include citing these State laws.

selfConceivedAsEvil

Posted 2014-10-28T11:14:18.207

Reputation: 1 228

13"athiests cannot legally hold a public office" - that's somewhere between "not nearly nuanced reading" and "outright falsehood", sorry. At best, there are laws that say that atheists don't enjoy protection under "no religious discrimination" laws (e.g. an atheist CAN hold office... but if they are barred from office for some reason due to their atheism, the religious protection clause of state constitution doesn't apply to that person. BIG difference). Also, none of those clauses, when tested in court, were found valid, because they contradict US Constitution that supercedes state laws. – DVK – 2014-10-28T14:57:59.900

For good references, please look at the sister SE site, http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/15686/are-atheists-barred-from-holding-public-office-in-texas

– DVK – 2014-10-28T14:59:21.990

6Also, I don't mean to imply that you made things up, but "may already have been subject to repercussions amongst his/her family, at school or work, etc." just begs for a citation, since if this indeed happened, anti-religious left wing US mass media would be all over the case like bees on honey. Usually, the persecution in schools is the opposite (students castigated for praying, or displaying religious symbols); and I won't even go to US colleges where professors out and out discriminate against those whose political views they find hateful (and that includes being religious) – DVK – 2014-10-28T15:02:25.920

Anecdotally, as an non-christian agnostic, I found that I'm much less opposed in the religious south than in atheist NYC circles when people find out my position. – DVK – 2014-10-28T15:03:49.907

5@DVK Sure, as the linked article clearly states, these laws would not hold up if challenged. My point is simply that they are still on the books -- most first world governments would consider this abhorrent -- and this reflects something about the society. "No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state," repeated in one State Constitution after another, is not an unambiguous or nuanced statement: It's a threat (albeit a mostly empty one) but... – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-28T15:05:44.457

2

...still used to hassle people: http://www.alternet.org/story/145501/north_carolina_politicians_seek_to_unseat_councilman_because_he%27s_an_atheist (e.g.)

– selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-28T15:06:05.477

WRT my uncitable cases of discrimination, I can't say I would call it significant legal discrimination, and if, e.g., a father refuses to talk to his son because he has come out as gay, this is not against the law nor is it newsworthy. The point of such a social movement is not vengeance, its collectivity. WRT "making things up", I'd say outside of fairly radical lower Manhattan subcultures it is very difficult to find "atheist circles" in NYC. I am sure 95%+ of the population believe in God. That is a very high figure relative to the rest of the modern first world. – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-28T15:12:19.270

2@DVK is correct. As soon as article IV of U.S. Constitution and the "No Religious" test doctrine was adopted (1788), it became legal for anyone, anywhere in the US to hold any office, regardless of their religious opinions or lack thereof. The existence of a state statute to the contrary doesn't mean anything. – None – 2014-10-28T15:15:58.280

Also (@DVK) the difference between athiesm and agnosticism is far from lost by many normal religious people, who may even have had somewhat "agnostic" periods in their lives. But athiesm is a direct refutation; it is not, "You may be right so what you are doing is fine", it is "You are wrong and so is what you are doing". So we are not talking about people who have quietly decided to stop going to church, we are talking about people who actively challenge the beliefs of the people around them. – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-28T15:19:04.723

1@goldilocks - there's a major difference between being ostracised because of sexual inclinations (even if the background is religion), and being an atheist. Let's not conflate the two. I will cede that there were a couple of cases of office-holding hassles based on atheism, although even your linked article freely admits that the opposition in the latest case was NOT really caused by atheism but by progressive politics, with atheism merely being a chosen tactics of attack. My point that ALL such state laws are likely to be found unconstitutional if tested stands. – DVK – 2014-10-28T15:30:27.633

@shane I haven't said DVK is incorrect. I've just pointed out these laws (however ineffectual) still exist and this reflects something of the socio-political culture. But to be fair I have added a clarifying footnote. This all goes to my main point, that "New Atheism" is not a philosophy and not intended to be taken as such. It is, explicitly, a social and political movement. – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-28T15:30:57.763

1Also, I fail to see what 95% and circles have to do with anything. By your logic, Jews should be much more severely persecuted than Atheists by Christians, since outside of NYC they make up even less of a minority numerically. – DVK – 2014-10-28T15:31:43.180

@DVK WRT ostrasization of atheists; although you mangled my analogy (the point was that family problems due to sexual or religious orientation are not newsworthy) -- fair enough. *I'm not here to argue the validity of the social movement* (although I believe it is valid and justified) -- just to point out that's what it is. Neither of us has to like it or agree with its touchstones (one of which is the bit about State laws). – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-28T15:34:38.697

"first associated with Sam Harris, an American neuroscientist ... a scientist first and foremost". This is a misrepresentation. The first book he is famous for was published before he got (or even enrolled in the program, if I remember correctly) his neuroscience PhD. Also, having a PhD in neuroscience does not necessarily make you a neuroscientists -- as far as I know he has never held an appointment in neuroscience (except his PhD studentship) and has not published his own neuroscience work outside of what was required for his PhD. Please correct me if I am wrong, I am going off memory. – Artem Kaznatcheev – 2014-10-28T18:27:01.140

@ArtemKaznatcheev Thank for that, I have edited the first paragraph accordingly. I'm not a follower of Harris and saying he is "a scientist first and foremost" was an excessive inference. – selfConceivedAsEvil – 2014-10-28T18:33:16.893

2

've seen some derision against the popular New Atheism movement, in particular against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (particularly interesting since he makes a big deal that he studied and received a philosophy bachelor's). I don't have citations--this is just something I've observed reading forums, listening to podcast, so maybe I'm totally off base--it just seems like these popular New Atheist authors are scoffed at by the philosophy community.

Sam Harris proves why post graduate studies in philosophy is really required. The lack of substance to their books and the immense shrill tone of the rhetoric really makes it unappetizing reading for those who are not already in acceptance of their views.

They seem to be more concerned with the size of their wallets and their pseudo celebrity status than creating literature that has any long lasting influence on the field of Philosophy of Religion.

Just the fact that they pretend to be intellectuals but go on Bill O'Reilly and Mahers TV shows should explain to you what kind of pop academia they are interested in.

The arguments are also often poor. Dawkins seems to think everything has a cause which on its own is an incredible statement that would warrant a great deal of qualifying to be a real premise for an argument. He does no qualifying of this view at all. He seems to just assume three premises and makes his case from them.

To me, the main issue with their movement is not the atheism. It is the cavalier attitude that they bring to the issue. Now, it is OK to not be an expert on everything. No one is forcing them to write these books. But if you are going to take the time to write responses to views that you find abhorrent then they should at least be of enough substance as to not get a failing grade in a freshman philosophy class.

That is of course if you really are this champion for reason and that which is rational as you claim to be.

Neil Meyer

Posted 2014-10-28T11:14:18.207

Reputation: 2 161

1"If you are going to take the time to write responses to views that you find abhorrent then they should at least be of enough substance as to not get a failing grade in a freshman philosophy class", I don't think so. All they have to be is appealing to the target audience, and apparently they are. Nuanced philosophy never appealed to masses, and mass movements weren't very nuanced philosophically, even if they were originated by philosophers, like Marxism. – Conifold – 2014-11-04T21:34:25.997

Yes if all you are after is a quick buck then these books are fine for that purpose but these writers do portray themselves as being intellectually superior to those they criticize. – Neil Meyer – 2014-11-05T17:03:14.633

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The disconnect between Atheists and Theists largely stems from using very different semantical contexts to really describe the same perspective. Especially the difference between Atheism and Animistic Pantheism is purely semantic. If we were to adjust our semantics more to each other, many of us might see more similarities than they ever held possible.

The so-called New Atheism movement lacks any significant knowledge of religion beyond Judeo-Christianity and therefore fails to appreciate the mere semantic difference between Atheism and Animistic Pantheism. It fails to truly comprehend why the belief in Gods is so popular and how the perception of natural phenomena relates to the perception of supposedly supernatural phenomena.

Additionally, the New Atheism movement doesn't contribute any new ideas of significance to Atheism, making it mostly an anti-movement (focused on countering Christians and Christian rationale in American culture).

I’m a materialist…yet there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic. […] It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work, without this we really would merely be primates. It’s important to appreciate the finesse of that, and religion has done a very good job of enshrining it in music and architecture.

— Christopher Hitchens

John Slegers

Posted 2014-10-28T11:14:18.207

Reputation: 944