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February 17, 2008

The “New Atheists” : Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens…Oh My!

Perhaps it goes without saying that the "new atheists" have arrived. Richard Dawkins, [2] Sam Harris [3] and Christopher Hitchens [4] (among others [5]) have recently published volumes capturing many intellects and imaginations. As international bestsellers, their publishing efforts are likely to produce challenges to our faith for years to come. These authors have superb rhetorical skills and deploy the English language to great effect. Dawkins and Hitchens have particular appeal with their posh British accents and witty idioms.

It is not that their polemics are novel, however, nor their arguments especially successful. And they have not gone unanswered. [6] Yet it appears they have not always understood or felt the weight of their opponents’ objections. [7] For instance, Hitchens regularly denounces people, their beliefs, and their actions as "immoral." Nevertheless, within an atheist universe it is difficult to see how such moral disdain rises above a merely emotive, "I don’t like them/that." After all, within that perspective, what precisely is good or evil? Does atheism have the resources necessary to produce coherent accusations of immorality? It is most difficult to see moral assessment as meaningful within an atheist worldview.

Morality and Materiality

Atheists tend to suppose that what exists is only that which is open to scientific scrutiny, that which is natural. Yet moral truths are not entities amenable to such analysis. As one atheist perceptively observed:

If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. [8]

It simply is the case that one does not discover moral truths through microscopes or telescopes. However, neither does one so discover numbers, the laws of logic, other minds (as distinct from brains), or love. This, of course, doesn’t keep anyone from enjoying each of these!

If moral truths cannot be scrutinized as physical entities or forces of physics – because they are not entities or forces of that sort – then do they exist in the naturalistic universe of the atheist? And if moral assessments cannot meaningfully be made of such things as granite or grass or gaggles of geese, then can they be leveled at human beings – entities that are, on atheistic and naturalistic assumptions, merely alternate forms of the same material stuff? Thus the moral disapproval of atheists appears to reduce to an expression of preference or personal disapproval – nothing all that serious, unless you desire their approbation. The naturalistic worldview of atheism is unable to account for the reality of moral truths or provide for their meaningful expression.

Atheists and Moral Actions

Along a different path, Hitchens places great confidence in this challenge: "name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer." [9] He triumphantly proclaims that he has yet had no takers. Now, Christians might be tempted to troll about to find that one exceptional deed on which to pin this tail. That, however, would be a mistake for Hitchens’s challenge is an evasive maneuver, a red herring. Of course atheists can perform moral actions. They can tell the truth, remain faithful to their spouses, feed their children, be generous with their possessions, forgive others their faults – each of which is wholly commendable. The problem is in making sense of the alleged morality or immorality of actions within an atheist perspective. In other words, what eludes atheism is an objective standard of assessment, the precondition for deeming such actions moral and not merely preferable. Their counterfactual worldview lacks the requisite resources for coherent moral assessments.

Again, this problem is one the new atheists so often fail to see. For example, Sam Harris once asserted, "If religion were the only durable foundation for morality, you would expect atheists to be really badly behaved." [10] But the argument is not, if you are an atheist, then you’ll necessarily behave badly; rather, it is an observation that within an atheistic worldview there appears no objective means of assessing actions as good or bad. Additionally, atheists do pronounce moral assessments, and often Christians agree (or at least we should). Even so, these assessments do not appear to cohere with the atheistic worldview, a perspective that lacks the preconditions for such moral categories.

Atheists and Innate Moral Sense

Regardless, one can’t help but suppose that since the new atheists were raised within cultures influenced by a Judeo-Christian worldview, they have absorbed and retained many such values. Perhaps this is no more visible in one of Hitchens’s autobiographical anecdotes.

There is something about [donating blood] that appeals to me, and I derive other satisfactions as well from being of assistance to a fellow creature… Nobody has to teach me any of this... The so-called Golden Rule is innate in us, or is innate except in the sociopaths who do not care about others, and the psychopaths who take pleasure from cruelty. [11]

One may doubt that Hitchens was not taught to share. He may not recall the lesson; but it remains pervasive in Western culture. It is embedded in our histories, movies, fairy tales and poetry. Our culture rewards generosity both socially and emotionally. Thus Hitchens’s feelings are, at least in part, a resonant with his culture. In addition, lesser forms of the Golden Rule have been used to support distinctly ethnocentric ends throughout history, with "the other" to whom one should do good being restricted to members of one’s family, tribe, nation or ethnic group. [12] This is precisely the limitation countered in the parable of the good Samaritan, a parable that likely has also informed Hitchens’s moral sensibilities. Our neighbor in need is our neighbor indeed.

But this anecdote takes us back to our earliest suspicion, that within a atheistic and naturalistic worldview moral assessments reduce to emotive expressions of preference. In the anecdote above, Hitchens conflates a feeling of satisfaction with a moral imperative. He supposes that mimicking personal sacrifice (and it is only mimicry that he admits to, as he sees blood donation as not truly sacrificial since he loses nothing), he is aping something altruistic and ethically upright. Would it remain good to donate blood even if it had no appeal and provided no such satisfactions? Of course it would. But would it be so within an atheistic worldview? One is at pains to see how it would be. After all, Hitchens does it because he likes the resultant feelings. It appears that what we encounter here is precisely what we noted earlier: moral claims reduce to preference claims within an atheistic world. Hitchens prefers the appeal, the satisfaction of helping other people.

Morality without God?

Even so, he tries hard to retain the objectivity of morality by locating in evolutionary biology (something unsuccessfully attempted by others). I find it interesting that he even attempts to retain some semblance of universal moral standard and impulse? Perhaps Friedrich Nietzsche was suggestive when he criticized Georg Eliot, and English atheists more generally, in Twilight of the Idols. "They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality…," wrote Nietzsche. "In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there." He continued:

We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet… Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands….When the English actually believe that they know "intuitively" what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem. [13]

Now, to be fair, Christopher Hitchens became a U.S. citizen on the 13th of April, 2007. He has expatriated from Britain. Nor need one wholly agree with Nietzsche to notice the rationality of his comments: when one removes God, one removes the foundation for morality. The attempt to retain morality absent the Deity is desperate and incoherent. Of course, we can be glad that many atheists insist on recognizing a difference between good and evil. We can be glad for their intuitions, the thoughts that arise from them as human beings made in the image of the Deity they deny. Thankfully, that image is permanent.

In the end, the philosophical naturalism of atheism, the fallacious diversions, and the non-physicality of moral truths combine to show that the "new atheists" strike an implausible pose. It also explains why their bullish announcements of moral criticism smack of so much bluster. Having misplaced the foundation for moral outrage, they pilfer from the Christian worldview. But it’s wrong to steal.


Notes

  1. An earlier and shorter version of this essay appeared in the January 2008 edition of the Summit Oxford Quarterly, a publication that may be downloaded here.
  2. C. Richard Dawkins (b.1941) holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and is the author of numerous books, including The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).
  3. Sam Harris (b.1967) holds a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience. He is the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (W.W. Norton, 2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006).
  4. Christopher E. Hitchens (b.1949) is an ex-patriot Britain now an American Citizen (as of 13 April 2007, his 50th birthday), an awarded journalist, and an incredibly prolific author. Among his most recent books is his bestselling God Is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve Books, 2007).
  5. E.g., Daniel Dennett (b.1942), Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin, 2006); Michael Shermer (b.1954, editor of Skeptic magazine); Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis (Prometheus, 2007).
  6. Among a heavy stream of published responses, see especially Dinesh D’Souza (b.1961), What’s So Great about Christianity? (Regnery, 2007). There are many other very helpful responses being published right now. I highlight this volume since it interacts with several of the significant "new atheists," and does so with regards to so many facets of their arguments. I would note, however, that I see D’Souza’s work as inadequate or misleading particularly with regards to his embrace of evolutionary theory and his attempts to downplay the tensions between this theory and tenets of the Christian faith.
  7. This seems particularly acute in the case of Hitchens’s debate with Rev. Douglas Wilson on the Christianity Today website: "Is Christianity Good for the World?" http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/mayweb-only/119-12.0.html (accessed 18 January 2008).
  8. J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1977), 38.
  9. C. Hitchens, "Introduction," in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, ed. C. Hitchens (London: De Capo, 2007), xiv.
  10. As quoted in, "The New Atheists," Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, PBS, January 5, 2007; http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week1019/cover.html#, accessed 18 January 2008. See also Hitchens, "Introduction," xvi.
  11. Hitchens, "Introduction," xvi-xvii.
  12. This was pointed out to me by Prof. George H. van Kooten (of the University of Groningen) during a discussion of the Golden Rule (and its many permutations) at the British New Testament Conference at the University of Exeter in early September 2007.
  13. Available online: http://www.handprint.com/SC/NIE/GotDamer.html, accessed 18 January 2008.

Kevin James Bywater directs the Summit Ministries Oxford Study Centre. For information on the centre, please visit the Summit Oxford homepage. Applications for the fall of 2008 are now being received.


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