What New Atheism?

There's been a lot of talk about the "New Atheism" recently. Last week, I confessed to not having a clue what distinguished "new" atheism from "old," and not for a lack of acquaintance with atheist ideas, past and present. The … Read More

By / December 10, 2007

There's been a lot of talk about the "New Atheism" recently. Last week, I confessed to not having a clue what distinguished "new" atheism from "old," and not for a lack of acquaintance with atheist ideas, past and present. The Damon Linker piece Stefan links to below is helpful in that it both acknowledges that the supposedly identifying feature of "new" atheism isn't new at all, and also gives a historical and analytic account of atheism's two strands. Unfortunately, Linker's analysis is barely more rigorous than Matthew Yglesias's (new atheists are jerks; old atheists were not), which is unsurprising given how superficial his understanding of the history of the relevant ideas is.

According to Linker, there are two basic approaches (for lack of a better term) to atheism, "one primarily concerned with the dispassionate pursuit of truth, the other driven by a visceral contempt for the personal faith of others." True, the latter is relatively newer than the former, but since each stretches back at least to the 18th century, 'old' and 'new' aren't terribly informative descriptions of them. So Linker goes with "Liberal Atheists" (the good kind) versus "Ideological Atheists" (the bad kind).

The deficiencies in Linker's argument come to the fore almost immediately. Among the liberal atheists are: Socrates, Sextus Empiricus, Rousseau, Locke, Hume, and Kant. Among the ideological atheists are: Comte, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Some prima facie objections: In what sense can Socrates or the ancient stoics plausibly be called "liberals" (or "atheists," for that matter)? In what sense can their liberalism, whatever on earth it might consist in, be comparable to the liberalism of the Enlightenment? What is the common ideology uniting Feuerbach, Nietzsche, and Dennett? (Illiberalism, apparently. More on that in a moment.)

Let's pause on just a few of Linker's examples. I have in front of me a copy of David Hume's Enquiry. Hume, let us recall, is supposed to be a liberal atheist. Here are the famous concluding lines of his masterwork:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry or illusion.

Granted, this isn't quite as radical an idea as Diderot's hope of strangling the last king with the entrails of the last priest, but it is at least as radical as Sam Harris's proposal that public schools "announce the death of God." In fact, simply announcing the death of God is considerably less likely to halt the transmission of religious belief to younger generations than burning all books of theology. Perhaps Linker should have another go at explaining how it is that Hume belongs to one intellectual tradition and Sam Harris another, and try harder this time. For that matter, perhaps he can explain why having public schools instruct children to proclaim "one nation under God" every morning is a liberal value. (I must pause here to observe that misinterpreting David Hume seems to be a stock in trade of TNR writers. As I explain at some length here, whereof Linker and Leon Wieseltier cannot speak, thereof they should remain silent.)

Linker's remaining examples are similarly risible. Socrates, presumably in virtue of the fact that Plato records him as questioning the preconceived beliefs of his fellow Athenians, is counted among the liberal atheists. Presumably this is so because there is no other evidence of any kind that Socrates was an atheist, let alone that atheism in the modern sense is a concept that can be applied to ancient Athens. (Linker, noting that Aristophanes' inculpation of Socrates in The Clouds contributed to the latter's execution, seems to be endorsing the idea that Aristophanes' accusations were accurate.) In the Phaedo, by contrast, Socrates recounts for his followers an elaborate myth of creation and reincarnation, and as he approaches his death, instructs Crito to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius. (Needless to say, Linker completely elides the difficulty inherent to attributing any views to Socrates in light of the fact that everything we know of Socrates' beliefs is filtered through Plato, and further, that Plato, as a proponent of a kind of totalitarian aristocracy, is hardly an exemplar of the liberal politics Linker seeks to foist on Plato's teacher.)

Likewise, Sextus Empiricus' beliefs are just totally incongruous to modern ideas of theism and atheism. I leave it to readers to decide whether Sextus' claims that we should suspend all judgments, that the acquisition of knowledge is impossible, and that we should live our lives utterly indifferent to whether we are on a torture rack or in the throes of ecstasy, constitute a hitherto unrecognized thread of the liberal atheist tradition, or whether instead including Sextus in the liberal atheist camp is a desperate effort to get recalcitrant data to fit a theoretical procrustean bed. It's worth noting, however, that the Pyrrhonian cosmology — eternal recurrence of the same — is also Nietzsche's cosmology.* Yet Sextus and Nietzsche, neither of them atheists in the same sense that Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins are, sit on opposite sides of Linker's divide. Funny, that.

We can go on. Kant represents liberal atheism? But Kant was not an atheist, and whether or not he can meaningfully be called a liberal is very much up for debate. (I say he can't.) Kant and Hume both belong to the same camp? But Kant and Hume sit at opposite poles of the most contentious debate of Enlightenment philosophy, namely empiricism vs. rationalism. Rousseau's skepticism was "self-limiting"? Are we talking about the same Rousseau whose policy prescriptions for education are as radical as anything in Plato (let alone Sam Harris), and who advocated government acting according to a "general will" which might not bear any actual relation to the preferences of the governed? Etc. etc. Read all of Linker if you don't believe me that every single example he adduces in support of his analysis is historically or theoretically confused, and that every thinker he cites could be construed according to criteria he provides as belonging to either of his camps.

The reason Linker's distinction is so historically flimsy, that his proffered exemplars of each tradition could just as easily belong to the other, is that it is not a conceptual distinction, and no logical rule precludes maintaining both sets of beliefs that Linker suggests characterize each camp: There is nothing inconsistent in affirming, on the one hand, that people should be free to reach their own conclusions about ontological and theological questions, and on the other hand, that certain answers to ontological and theological questions deserve contempt. Nor is there anything illiberal in trying to convince one's peers of the rightness of a certain view, provided one makes no effort to coerce them.

Conceding this point without realizing it, Linker writes that

[T]he tone of today's atheist tracts is so unremittingly hostile that one wonders if their authors really mean it when they express the hope, as Dawkins does in a representative passage, that "religious readers who open [The God Delusion] will be atheists when they put it down." Exactly how will such conversions be accomplished?

Well, so what? The fact that Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris adopt a hostile tone doesn't mean that they don't wish to persuade anyone. They could have simply embraced a poor strategy for persuasion. Even if so, their strategy is at least as effective for persuading believers as the one Linker endorses in citing the example of Sidney Hook: quietly noting that the evidence for theism is minimal, and observing that religious belief is a comfort for many people against loneliness and fear of cosmic meaninglessness (Marx made this observation too, by the way, and in fairly stirring language). Is the idea supposed to be that believers who read Hook's line on religion, finding his civility irresistible, will take the next possible opportunity to resign from their congregations and join the closest chapter of the Ethical Culture Society?

Or is the idea, instead, supposed to be that to try to persuade one's peers that their beliefs are false is in and of itself illiberal? I suspect this is indeed Linker's argument, as I can't find any other way to interpret the conjunction of the purely descriptive claim that

[A]lthough I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way–that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God.

with the claim that atheists like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris cannot accept this state of affairs. Since all three of them do in fact acknowledge that this description of the world is true, in what sense can they not accept it? The fact that it is "highly unlikely" that a free society will reach unanimity about theological questions does not entail that it is impermissible to both pose and answer such questions in a public forum. Either Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris' beliefs about religion are true, or they're false. If they're false, then by all means refute them. If they're true, then adopt them. The tone in which they are expressed doesn't enter the calculation.

*Well, there's a question in both cases of whether eternal recurrence should be interpreted literally or as a heuristic device.

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