True Believers: Have the new atheists adopted a faith of their own?
The atheist, by merely being in touch with reality, appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.– Sam Harris
Just those who feel they are...most fully objective in their assessment of reality, are most in the power of deep unconscious fantasies.– Robert Bellah
The bestselling books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens provide colorful portraits of the evils of religion. They appeal especially to the moral sensitivity of readers and easily awaken outrage at the “poison” associated with the various faith traditions, not least those that claim descent from Abraham. Ultimately, however, as our “new atheists” would surely agree, it is not in the name of morality alone, but especially in the name of reason that they must convince their readers of the wrongness of religious faith. In this essay I shall show how they fail to do so by posing three sets of questions to highlight the fundamental beliefs—that is the appropriate word—that underlie the worldview of Dawkins and company. Before doing so, however, let us look at the historical and scientific roots of the new atheism and how it has developed into its current insidious form.
The intellectual foundation of the new atheism is not new. It is the well-worn modern worldview known as “scientific naturalism,” a label first used by T. H. Huxley in the 19th century to emphasize the principle that science must never appeal to supernatural explanations. As understood today, however, scientific naturalism goes far beyond what Huxley intended. It decrees that the natural world, including human beings and our creations, is literally all that exists. There is no divine creator, no cosmic purpose, no soul and no possibility of life beyond death.
Most scientific naturalists are avowed materialists. They believe that lifeless and mindless physical stuff, evolving by impersonal natural processes over billions of years, is the ultimate origin and destiny of everything, including living and thinking organisms. “According to the materialists,” the philosopher Daniel Dennett claims in his book Consciousness Explained, “we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition and growth.”
Since Darwin, scientific naturalists have increasingly alloyed their materialism with evolutionary accounts of life. Darwin’s notes reveal that he too was tempted occasionally to make materialism the foundation of his own understanding of evolution. But where Darwin felt uneasy splicing biology onto such an inherently atheistic metaphysics, today many biologists and philosophers have no such hesitancy. Especially after it became possible in the last century to understand evolution in terms of genes migrating blindly from one generation to the next, the irresistible temptation has arisen to resolve the entirety of life into a special instance of matter in motion.
This reduction is the basis of Dawkins’s and Dennett’s understanding of evolution, and both Harris and Hitchens go along with it. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Dawkins’s The God Delusion assume that all living phenomena, including our own ethical instincts and religious longings, can be adequately accounted for in an evolutionary and materialist manner. Theological explanation, therefore, is now utterly superfluous.
Scientism and the End of Faith
The materialist worldview espoused by the new atheists is itself the offspring of “scientism,” the widely shared assumption that modern scientific method is the only way for reasonable, truth-seeking people to gain knowledge of the real world. Science, Harris insists, “has become the preeminent sphere for the demonstration of intellectual honesty.” Dawkins is even more emphatic: “It may be that humanity will never reach the quietus of complete understanding, but if we do, I venture the confident prediction that it will be science, not religion, that brings us there. And if that sounds like scientism, so much the better for scientism.”
For the new atheists science always trumps religious belief. Why? Because scientific method formulates hypotheses about phenomena on the basis of physical observations that can be tested over and over. Since religious ideas, by contrast, are not subject to publicly repeatable empirical verification (or falsification), rational inquiry requires that they disown them.
Religions, the new atheists complain, stem from “faith,” that is, from irrational acts of what they call “belief without evidence.” This is far from being a theologically informed definition, but it supports the new atheists’ declaration that faith is utterly opposed to science. “Pretending to know things you do not know is a great liability in science,” says Harris, “and yet, it is the sine qua non of faith-based religion.” Hitchens adds, “If one must have faith in order to believe in something, then the likelihood of that something having any truth or value is considerably diminished.”
Since there is no scientifically accessible “evidence” to support the claims of religious faith, the authors classify them as “delusions.” According to Dawkins, the methods a good theologian should use “in the unlikely event that relevant evidence ever became available, would be purely and entirely scientific methods.” Science alone can decide the question of God.
Scientism and scientific naturalism frame every page of the new atheistic tirades. These weary constraints on human thought have been around for a long time and still command a wide following in academic circles. What, then, is so new about the “new” atheism?
Aside from the heavy dose of Darwinian materialism in Dawkins’s and Dennett’s accounts of religion and morality (and even this is not peculiar to them), the only real novelty advanced by the four authors examined here is their astounding intolerance of faith in any form. Since they take faith to be the root cause of innumerable evils in the world, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens instruct readers that it is time to erase every instance of “belief without evidence” from every human mind.
Our critics warn that this ideal will never be actualized as long as we keep nurturing the modern liberal tolerance of faith. In democratic societies most of us still assume uncritically that people have a right to believe whatever they want, but this leniency only makes the world ever more dangerous, the critics say. Most instances of faith may seem harmless enough, but permissiveness toward any beliefs for which evidence is lacking opens an abyss in human minds that will inevitably be colonized sooner or later by the most monstrous religious lunacy. Events such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, should be proof enough that by tolerating faith to any degree, religious and secular liberals alike become accomplices in evil.
Theologians are especially to blame for making space for faith in people’s minds, according to the new atheists. That academic departments of theology still exist in an age of science is, to them, a nauseating anachronism. “Surely there must come a time,” Harris remarks, “when we will acknowledge the obvious: theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings.” Adopting the spirit of science, on the other hand, should help rid the world of theology and faith. Thereby it should also help dispel our liberal tolerance of all kinds of “belief without evidence.”
Three Questions for the New Atheists
What do the new atheists mean by evidence? They do not bother to clarify the term carefully, but undoubtedly it signifies for them whatever can be subject to scientific testing. To the new atheists, therefore, we must put the question whether the imperative to ground all claims to truth in scientific evidence is itself reasonable. We might begin by posing three sets of questions to all four authors.
Isn’t your belief that science is the only reliable road to truth self-contradictory? Your scientism instructs you to take nothing on faith, and yet faith is required for you to embrace the creed of scientism. You have formally repudiated any ideas for which there is no tangible or empirical “evidence.” Yet where exactly is the visible evidence that supports your scientism? What are the scientific experiments that lead you to conclude that science alone can be trusted to lead you to truth? Wouldn’t you have to believe—without evidence—in science’s capacity to comprehend everything before setting up such experiments in the first place?
To undertake scientific research, don’t you have to start out with several important beliefs? You must take it on faith, as Albert Einstein was perceptive enough to realize, that the universe you are exploring is intelligible or comprehensible. That the universe is intelligible at all is a great mystery that you cannot account for in scientific terms. Instead you must approach the cosmos with a sustained faith that it will continue to make sense as you probe deeper into it.
Next, you cannot commit yourself to a life of rational inquiry—or even write your atheistic manifestos—without believing constantly that truth is worth pursuing. Here again you cannot provide any scientific evidence to support this belief.
Moreover, to claim with such conviction that scientism is right and religion wrong, each of you must believe (since you cannot prove) that your own mind is of sufficient integrity to grasp meaning and decide what is true or false. Your evolutionist materialism, however, should, logically speaking, subvert your own intellectual swagger. As Charles Darwin himself observed, evolutionary explanations of the human mind, accurate though they may be historically speaking, are not enough to embolden us to trust our own thought processes.
Evolutionary accounts of your mind’s origin are important and interesting as far as they go, but your need for logical consistency demands that you look for a more secure reason to trust your mental functioning. Evolutionary materialism, far from providing such a foundation, gives you every reason to distrust your mind. A theological worldview, on the other hand, could conceivably ground and justify the trust you place in your capacity to understand and know the world without in any way contradicting the discoveries of Darwin’s science.
How so? Theology’s claim is that all of creation is everlastingly embraced by the mystery of God and is invited to enter ever more fully into that mystery. It is this invitation that accounts ultimately for both the world’s evolutionary character and the human mind’s own restlessness. A profound faith that your own mind somehow already participates in infinite being, meaning, truth and goodness can in principle justify your cognitional trust, explain your tireless search for deeper understanding, fortify your love of truth and ground your obedience to conscience. In this sense theology does not compete with science but provides essential support to its ongoing adventure of discovery.
Can you deny that there are avenues other than scientific method by which you experience, understand and know the world you inhabit? In your interpersonal knowledge, for example, the evidence that someone loves you is hard to measure scientifically, but is that love unreal? Have you arrived at your knowledge of another person by way of the objectifying road of scientific experimentation? Most reasonable and ethical people believe that such an approach to other human persons is both intellectually and morally wrong.
Do you truly believe that if a personal God actually exists, the evidence for this God’s existence could be collected as cheaply as the evidence to support a scientific hypothesis, as Dawkins requires? Even in your ordinary experience, only a position of vulnerable trust can allow you to encounter the subjective depths of another person. How could it be otherwise with God, whom believers experience not merely as ordinary, but as a supreme “Thou”?
Remarkably, Dawkins insists that only science is qualified to decide the question of God’s existence, even though science, with its impersonal objectivity, is not wired to detect subjectivity or personhood in any sense. Would not any effort to determine the existence of God primarily require an interpersonal kind of experience, one that could lead one to knowledge of God?
If the universe is encompassed by an infinite love, any conceivable encounter with this ultimate reality would require nothing less than a posture of receptivity, a readiness to surrender to its embrace. The new atheists believe that they can decide the question of God’s existence without having opened themselves to the personal transformation essential to the formation of faith. One can only ask: what is the evidence for such a belief?
Read the editors on "Darwinism & Popular Science," from 1909 & 1910.