Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Final Blog Post: An Overview of New Atheism H01 Andrew Heim
New Atheism is a relatively new philosophical position that emerged in the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. Despite the fact that this brand of atheism does not necessarily constitute anything new philosophically, it does take a much more critical and aggressive stance towards religion and religious belief. At the forefront of this movement are “The Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse”: philosopher Daniel Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), neuroscientist Sam Harris (The End of Faith), and the late journalist Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great). While these four have undoubtedly contributed the most to this movement, several atheists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel), Lawrence M. Krauss (A Universe from Nothing) and many others have also made a substantial impact on New Atheism and its views.
One of the key differences between New Atheism and other atheists of the past century is the conviction that there can be, and in fact is, a universal secular moral standard. The argument continues that if we can accept this, then what use is religion to us? In fact New Atheism a moral superiority in this right due to the fact that these morals can be established and followed without having to include the bad parts of religion. Even though it is accepted that religion may have been helpful to our species in the past, the majority of new atheists argue that religion in its present form is not beneficial to the world as a whole because of all the problems and conflicts it causes.
Many have gone as far to describe this new form of atheism as anti-theist and many of the movement’s supporters would warmly accept that label as well. Most who take this position condemn religion and religious people for the horrible things that happen as a result of following some beliefs to their rational conclusion. They feel that people in general should not be able to hold religious beliefs based purely on faith, which Dawkins described as evil due to it not requiring justification and not tolerating argument. Other members of the movement have described faith as “wishful thinking,” “non-rational or irrational,” and “unreasonable.” The best possible strategy then is to challenge people’s religious beliefs in order to get them to change them. This position has drawn a ton of controversy, especially due to the fact that a lot of Western philosophy is built upon the idea that faith in a higher power is a rational position.
Another distinguishing characteristic of New Atheism is its use of the natural sciences to justify its position. In fact many of its proponents have taken to highlighting the fact that science is now able to explain many of the things religion were at one time or another used to explain. Not only that, but Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett have each proposed ways in which religion could have arisen naturally through a complex interaction of social, psychological, and social factors. All of their theories involve applying evolution by natural selection to the belief in religion. For instance, during our early history, children who are born with the cognitive ability to accept what their parents tell them would have been more likely to survive, but also more likely to accept commonly held beliefs such as religion. The New Atheists have, however, been criticized for focusing more on the science than focusing on atheistic and theistic arguments about the existence or lack thereof of god.
A final way in which New Atheism criticizes religion is by attacking the various holy books. They claim that there is no way that a supernatural being could have inspired such barbaric, atrocious and evil works. Instead, they claim these are merely the works of flawed human beings that have led to an untold number of deaths throughout human history. They also argue that if there is a god, he must be “the most unpleasant character in all of fiction” due to the fact that so many holy books portray his actions as jealous, arrogant, and vengeful. This argument also brings into question such a being’s priorities. For instance, it raises the question, couldn’t a divine creator have given us something better and more morally upstanding to work with?
Despite the overwhelmingly anti-religious rhetoric, the New Atheists feel that people should still try to find fulfillment in their lives. Harris and Dawkins especially think that people can find meaning through science and maintaining an open mind rather than a closed one. Hitchens feels that we should be striving towards a more humane world where people are better able to understand just how wonderful a world we have. Dennett feels that a humble attitude is the best approach, and, in an almost Saganesque way, that we should better realize just how small we are in the grand scheme of things.
Not without its fair share of critics, the most vocal of which include Ken Ham and William Lane Craig, New Atheism continues to grow and flourish in the world of today. Throughout the world, and especially in the United States and Western Europe, religiosity is decreasing dramatically and on an unprecedented scale. As church attendance falls, people are looking for other ways to find happiness and a personal philosophy that lines up with their new way of thinking. While not everyone who turns away from religion necessarily agrees with everything the four horsemen have to say, New Atheism definitely provides an outlet for people who have decided that religion isn’t for them. Not only that, but it encourages interesting discussions and promotes debate even among the more religious. People no longer have to fear the dangers of disbelief in the way they once did and can now find support through secular organizations and other atheists. As a whole, New Atheism has drastically changed the way the religious and the not so religious view atheism and religion, and it will continue to influence the debate on the place of religion in our modern world.