Yes, I Like the New Atheists

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 13, 2010 in General Atheism

four new atheists

I have been critical of the New Atheists before for their lack of clarity and philosophical rigor. My main point is that they say lots of great things, and quite eloquently, but they also make lots of mistakes, especially when discussing the arguments for and against God’s existence, on which none of them are trained.

One of my goals on this blog is to reveal that nearly all of the issues typical of internet and interpersonal debate about theism and atheism have been discussed with much greater clarity, precision, and care by analytic philosophers. Soooooooo much of the popular discussion on these issues is badly confused or misguided, and I’m not so much trying to win the debate as to clarify it by summarizing what more careful thinkers have already written about it.

The New Atheists have done tremendous good for nonbelievers and for the world in general. My message to them is: “Keep up the good work!” Sure, I disagree with them here and there, but that’s true of everyone.

What I would like to see is a million-selling, popular-level book on atheism written with wit and humor, but by someone actually trained in these issues, like Graham Oppy or Bill Rowe or, well, Matt McCormick, whose upcoming book The Case Against Christ will probably not sell a million copies.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Beelzebub May 13, 2010 at 3:17 am

It’s harder to synthesize a compelling argument than it appears. What I like about the New Atheists is that, between them, they have brought a lot of firepower to the table in several disciplines, biology, philosophy, neuroscience and cognitive science and worldly knowledge. They have made a few strikes, yes, but they have also presented a lot of new material reflective of their own specialties and an extraordinary amount of creativeness. I don’t think they would have enjoyed the success that they have if there wasn’t more “right” about their arguments than “wrong.” Basically, that’s what has driven their critics nuts — and perhaps turned a few of their comrades green with envy. Never underestimate the amount of “friendly fire” a person must endure when trespassing on another’s expertise.

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Beelzebub May 13, 2010 at 3:30 am

Also, you have to consider that they’ve argued honestly from their perspective, and impartial reviews of their work must recognize this. They didn’t write as philosophers (except Dennett). For instance, take Dawkins’s infamous ultimate 747 gambit. You can say that this presupposes a God nobody believes in, but the contingent God that Dawkins assumes is his perspective of God as a scientist, and there is no error in his opinion that it makes no scientific sense — even if in theological discourse his argument may fall apart. In other words, specialists ridicule the NA for not making the assumptions they would make before writing their opinion. But this was never a requirement, and few authors would ever concede to it. Reflect for a moment on why anyone, least an atheist, should be held to admit the possibility of a non-contingent being before embarking on a skeptical argument. This is one instance singled out, but A LOT of NA criticism is like this.

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Jacopo May 13, 2010 at 3:49 am

Well said Beelzebub.

I think that a lot of what the New Atheists say about reason and evidence can seem so obvious to secular people that we can sometimes miss the value of bringing it to others. Sure it’s obvious to most people interested in these matters that it’s good to have evidence for your claims, and bad to just have faith – but that’s far from obvious to many. Getting this through is fantastic. Opening up a conversation about it is absolutely vital.

Also, I think that really the case brought by the New Atheists is generally against the everyman’s God and everyman’s religion. I think in the end, it probably makes sense to attack the everyman’s God and religion – which is generally rather divorced from the greatly learned defences of scriptural authenticity and philosophical theology of academics and advanced apologetics. I agree with Theodore Drange who said this in a review of Logic and Theism:

Overall, the book is excellent and of great value for professional analytical metaphysicians and philosophers of religion. Such people should make every effort to obtain a copy. I do not see how there could be important cutting-edge research on the relevant topics that fails to take account of Sobel’s work. But for the average person with an interest in arguments for and against God’s existence, it would be quite safe to pass it by.

I’d tentatively suggest the same applies to all academic philosophical (a)theology.

When outside of that territory of ‘dealing with everyday conceptions of God and religion’, I agree with Luke. In fact it heartens me, ultimately, that there are people like Luke in the blogosphere and Oppy in academia who are really dealing with, honestly and openly, the best Craig, Swinburne and so on have to offer. It would be a complete abrogation to all basic intellectual responsibilities and an act of outright hypocrisy to just let the New Atheists get by with bad arguments against more sophisticated conceptions of God. I think Luke is right to publicly criticize attempts where the New Atheists have obviously had an unsuccessful crack at philosophical theology (like Dawkins’ Ultimate 747) and hold off where they obviously haven’t (like Dennett’s chapter in Breaking the Spell, which clearly wasn’t intended to enter into the deeper waters).

We don’t need bad reasons to support atheism. There are plenty of good ones out there. And it would be a shame if people read someone like Swinburne or Craig and thought ‘well, they’ve trashed the New Atheists ergo atheism fails’, so publicizing and promoting the people who have stopped even the most sophisticated defences in their tracks is a great idea.

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Dan May 13, 2010 at 5:20 am

I guess what might help is if such a new book or books were to be visibly endorsed on the front cover by onf of the horsmen – Dawkins in particular of course.

Dawkins for exmple recently publised a book of science writings by various respected scientists. Now hardly any chapters were by him, but the mere fact it had Dawkins on the front cover probably boosted sales no end.

So even if none of the four horsement have any urge to write such a philosophically rigorous book, if Matt or others can get a “horseman” name emblazened on front, along with- say a foreword/epilogue etc, this would help our cause greatly.

it would of course be cool if the only philosopher of the four were to publish a decent readable tome to rebut the philosophical theists but apparently it isnt his main speciality. Maybe now that consciousness is gradually becoming a proper science topic, he can shift away from refuting dualism and attack kalam etc etc head on.

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Bill Maher May 13, 2010 at 5:57 am

I would like to see someone like Oppy reverse engineer WLC’s “On Guard” and make an atheist version. I think that would be cool beans.

Thankfully though, The Christian Delusion is carried by Barnes and Nobles in their stores.

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Justfinethanks May 13, 2010 at 7:09 am

Dawkins for exmple recently publised a book of science writings by various respected scientists. Now hardly any chapters were by him, but the mere fact it had Dawkins on the front cover probably boosted sales no end.

Are you referring to the The Oxford Book of Moderrn Science Writing?

http://www.amazon.com/Oxford-Book-Modern-Science-Writing/dp/0199216800

It’s not like he just slapped his name on the book. He actually edited the book, selecting the pieces to be included. (Though I won’t deny that his fame probably helped sales.) Considering that Dawkins is certainly the most successful and arguably one of the best writers of popular science in the 20th and our current century, you would be hard pressed to find someone more qualified to edit such a collection.

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Bill Maher May 13, 2010 at 7:28 am

I agree with Justfine.

In addition, it is a really good anthology. I would recommend it.

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portwes May 13, 2010 at 11:00 am

I am not a philosopher. I have had no classes/training in logic or debate. I’m just an ordinary person with a bachelors degree, who cannot, in most cases, follow the esoteric discussions involving the writings of Plantinga, WL Craig, and the atheist/secular thinkers that frequent this site. So possibly I shouldn’t even be offering my opinion here, but I think I represent the common person who finds the talks and writings of the new atheists valuable, exactly because they are NOT trained philosophers. Their writings and talks are entirely comprehensible to the person on the street.

The very reason that secularism and non-theism has visibility and has gained an audience in modern western society, esp. in the USA, is a result of these new atheists. Those of you on the right edge of the bell curve will pretty much always be conducting your dialogues in an intellectual bubble (and that is not meant to be perjorative), although your ideas may eventually get translated and find their way into popular culture.

In essence, if religion is to be de-bunked successfully (if never completely), we need both types of atheist spokesmen: the deep thinkers and philosophers, and the mass communicators.

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lukeprog May 13, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Well said, portwes.

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Atheist.pig May 13, 2010 at 12:29 pm

My main point is that they say lots of great things, and quite eloquently, but they also make lots of mistakes, especially when discussing the arguments for and against God’s existence, on which none of them are trained.

If we take this argument seriously, then we’d all better hurry up and get trained in astrology before we make lots of mistakes discussing divine celestial predictions. This argument is ridiculous right?

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Mark May 13, 2010 at 2:19 pm

If we take this argument seriously, then we’d all better hurry up and get trained in astrology before we make lots of mistakes discussing divine celestial predictions. This argument is ridiculous right?

I agree that you don’t need professional training to discuss the existence of God intelligently, but there are individual cases where such training would really, really help. Perhaps this is one of those cases.

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Martin May 13, 2010 at 3:53 pm

The point isn’t so much that the New Atheists need to be trained philosophers as such, but that they should use proper reasoning.

Dawkins wants to argue that God does not exist, right? Fine. But he doesn’t do it. He offers a logically invalid argument against a strawman version of God.

Bad reasoning is bad reasoning, right? In what way is this a “valuable” thing?

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Beelzebub May 13, 2010 at 4:44 pm

The point isn’t so much that the New Atheists need to be trained philosophers as such, but that they should use proper reasoning.
Dawkins wants to argue that God does not exist, right? Fine. But he doesn’t do it. He offers a logically invalid argument against a strawman version of God.Bad reasoning is bad reasoning, right? In what way is this a “valuable” thing?  

It’s not a strawman God. In fact, there’s no such thing as a stawman God since that presupposes a “true” God. The most you can possibly charge them with is attacking God from their perspective, and one that isn’t shared by the masses. At first this may seem like a futile project, but it’s not when you consider that these arguments always fall within the framework that these authors have built around them. For instance, if you extract the U-747 argument out of God Delusion it may fare badly in isolation, but when it remains within the rhetorical flow of the book, it is very appropriate. What I’m complaining about, I guess, is the kind of reductionist critique that is used against these books, especially by theists who constantly decry reductionism. Unfortunately, the very reason the debate for and against God is difficult is that belief seems to be a gestalt phenomenon, not reductionist.

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Atheist.pig May 13, 2010 at 4:52 pm

I agree that you don’t need professional training to discuss the existence of God intelligently, but there are individual cases where such training would really, really help. Perhaps this is one of those cases.

I half agree with what your saying, but even if thats the case though, Harris is trained in philosophy and has studied eastern and western religion for years. Dan Dennett’s training is even greater again.

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Hermes May 13, 2010 at 4:53 pm

To listen to the answers theists give, there may be more gods than there are humans. To say anything coherent when dealing with that mess requires ignoring the multitudes of variations and picking some very narrow subset. To do anything else is to remain entirely silent on the issue. Some deity-self-defense mechanism, eh?

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Dennis N November 10, 2010 at 8:09 pm

I’ve just started going through your back catalogue of podcasts, and I like it, but this sounds an awful lot like The Courtier’s Reply. There is little point in arguing against the god of Plantinga which literally exists because all of the other arguments for a god have been shot down a million times. As far as I can tell, only Plantinga believes in that form of god. Christians who have had all their other arguments refuted and are looking for a place of shelter to continue believing then suddenly believe in his god as well. There is no amount of sophistication that can argue something that does not exist into being. For that reason, sophistication in and of itself should not be respected. An entire discipline, that is, theology, is based on clouds and wishes, and while I find the quirks of theology and religions interesting, I don’t respect it as a discipline. It’s given me no reason to. I agree with Atheist.pig here, religion should be engaged with on the same level as astrology. I don’t even know all of the Zodiac signs, but I don’t have to. I know planetary motions don’t affect causality in every day lives in predictable way.

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m. January 6, 2011 at 2:57 am

Just a short comment, and I will be revisiting your blog to read through it more thoroughly.
Scientists sometime speak about topics that are beyond their specific expertise, but the compliment claim is true as well, and unfortunately to a much greater extent. Philosophers and theologians popularly engage science to use its discoveries in order to support their arguments or to argue against science. I suppose that this prevasive and pleibian understanding of science is a breech of their expertise as well.

The problem is that there is so much information and it is so highly intricate and specialized that one must accept a shallow understanding of it. One should be aware of this, and attune for criticisms from eminent scholars in the specific field of the example brought. We should accept this and trust that the thinking of these people are developed and refined to deal with matters in an astoot manner.

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