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Sound and fury of the New Atheists - Comments

Atheist medic's Avatar Comment 1 by Atheist medic

Oh, here we go again. The "New Atheists are unreasonably nasty" argument.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 08:36:04 UTC | #618334

Mumbo-Jumbo's Avatar Comment 2 by Mumbo-Jumbo

I'm rather happy with this article. It shows that McGrath has almost nothing of substance to contribute to the conversation. Well, we knew that already but it seem more glaringly obvious now than ever.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 08:50:36 UTC | #618337

msloane's Avatar Comment 3 by msloane

"The debate concerns which is the better explanation, not who is deluded."

This article is mush. The better explanation for what?

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 08:52:45 UTC | #618338

josephor's Avatar Comment 4 by josephor

Sound and fury of the New Atheists indeed! It is far more polite to tell theists that they are full of shit then to revert to their age old methods of burning people at the stake,stoning people to death.Atheists are perfectly within their rights to expose the hypocrites,child rapists and violent megalomaniacs that delude people into doing the most horrific things to each other in the name of God!....We are in a new era where education and knowledge reaches more people than ever, non belief in the supernatural will be a natural consequence of this!

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 09:00:41 UTC | #618343

jamiso's Avatar Comment 5 by jamiso

First, it is characterised primarily by its attacks on religion, rather than by its own positive beliefs.

Given that atheism, as it were, does not have any "positive beliefs", it would be difficult to focus on them. The only belief to speak of really is that the people who do make these claims about space ghosts and goblins are full of it. I mean, I cant speak for everyone here, but my atheism is not a claim, its a rebuttal to one. Which brings us back to the reason why "it is characterised primarily by its attacks on religion".

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 09:12:17 UTC | #618345

TheRationalizer's Avatar Comment 6 by TheRationalizer

This tactic represents a move away from some older forms of atheism, which appealed to evidence-based arguments and insisted on respect for religious belief

Yeah, such as Epicurus's "Whence cometh evil" - People have philosophised about an intelligent creator for millennia. Scientific discoveries have dispelled a lot of religion's claims and I think that helps a lot of people to become atheists, or at least deists/agnostics. The evidence based approach is the new one, not the philosophical one.

Religion hooks people in on many levels, emotional distress, guilt, fear, etc. It's only logical that counter assaults should attack those hooks using philosophy, evidence, appeals to the emotion, etc - but never the tactic that the religious use......lies!

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 09:12:35 UTC | #618346

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 7 by AtheistEgbert

The tone trolling argument. The problem with this argument is that it's based on a stereotype, and not on reality. Atheists are sometimes rude and sometimes polite. Theists are sometimes rude and sometimes polite.

Also, to try and support arguments that society needs religion, evidence is selected and evidence to the contrary is ignored. That's called conformation bias.

And so the anti-atheist rhetoric so often used by these accommodationists is based on prejudice and therefore ignorance. We should constantly remind them that they're being prejudicial. This prejudice and stereotype even persists with some atheists.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 09:18:08 UTC | #618349

old-toy-boy's Avatar Comment 8 by old-toy-boy

Regarding

... older forms of atheism, which appealed to evidence-based arguments and insisted on respect for religious belief.

The only thing that has really changed is "the respect for religious belief". Respect has to be earned. The one common demoninator of all religions is their presumption that they have a god given right to tell lies. And they expect respect for that?!

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 09:28:45 UTC | #618351

Roger J. Stanyard's Avatar Comment 9 by Roger J. Stanyard

Good grief, no wonder newspaper readership is plummeting. I can read drivel like this all over the Internet, free of charge, ad rectum, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 09:29:03 UTC | #618353

Nunbeliever's Avatar Comment 10 by Nunbeliever

How many times are they (the media) going to allow for the exact same article to be written and published over and over again. I could go on in lengths about how McGraths arguments are both intellectually empty and foremost ironical, but I won't becuase I have done that so many times in the past. This is getting really boring. I mean honestly, I have read so many of these articles that I can paraphrase the last paragraph without reading the introduction. Could they please renew themselves before I die out of boredom. Perhaps that is their strategy?

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 09:39:41 UTC | #618358

Stevehill's Avatar Comment 11 by Stevehill

Reactionary pieces will continue to appear like confetti, but we have to keep plugging away.

I get renewed hope when the Bishop of Oxford, who happens to chair the Church of England Education Board, announces that there are big problems with faith schools.

And if it were not for noisy new atheists, I suspect he would not feel compelled to admit that.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 09:46:17 UTC | #618360

ScottB's Avatar Comment 12 by ScottB

Due to recent cutbacks the article has been rewritten using only those words necessary to convey the actual content of the article:

"Some people believe in God, some don't. I don't like Dawkins and Hitchens. "

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 09:47:02 UTC | #618361

rsharvey's Avatar Comment 13 by rsharvey

"Cultural discussions about the reasonableness of belief in God have gone on politely for centuries. The recent rise of what is now inaccurately called the “New Atheism” has changed all this."

This statement is either laughably ignorant or insultingly dishonest.

If the debate has been perceived as more polite or deferential in past centuries, its because you could be killed or imprisoned for pointing out the obvious for most of those centuries. Religion appears here, as always, inextricably bound to hypocrisy and ignorance.

I realise this summary may well have been written by an editor, but it accurately sums up McGrath's argument all the same.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 09:57:07 UTC | #618365

ajs261's Avatar Comment 14 by ajs261

A generation later political debate in western Europe — the most secular geopolitical region in the world — now routinely addresses such topics as how best to work with faith groups, and how faith may generate social cohesion.

This is probably because there are more vile fundamentalist religious groups in Europe that need to be dealt with. The majority of the population, however, are less religious than ever.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 09:59:34 UTC | #618366

bachfiend's Avatar Comment 15 by bachfiend

As a common run of the mill atheist, I want there to be very vocal atheists out there, to balance the very vocal theists, so that I don't feel that my position is unreasonable.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 10:19:18 UTC | #618375

PhilipK's Avatar Comment 16 by PhilipK

Sound? Good, we're getting heard. Fury? In a world as ----'ed up by religion as this one, why exactly WOULDN'T we be furious?

Of course, us new Atheists are completely outspoken, we put up a billboard a few times a year. That's outrageous, I mean, we may as well put "In god we don't trust" on ALL our money! Oh look there's a door-to-door Christian recruiter, how modest, completely not outspoken and not pushing their beliefs on me, that person is.

When the theists start complaining about "New Atheism" rather than defending their beliefs, it's clear that they're just running on empty. It's the last desperate attempt at debate.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 10:19:35 UTC | #618376

Cartomancer's Avatar Comment 17 by Cartomancer

Easter is a time for celebration and reflection for Christians. How do the Cross and Resurrection of Christ help to make sense of the ambiguities of our experience? How do they shape our understanding of the world, and our place within it?

They don't. There, saved you all the effort. Now you can concentrate on the important things like time off work and chocolate eggs instead.

For many Christians such traditional reflections now take place against an unsettling debate about the place of religion in public life.

Good. They deserve to be unsettled and shaken up. They've got away with being fat and complacent and intellectually lazy for far too long. People nourishing infantile wish-fulfilment delusions in the public sphere should not be allowed to get away without being called out on it.

What disquiets people are not the questions but their dismissive and aggressive tone.

No, it's the questions that disquiet religious people. They disquiet religious people so much that they have to pretend that we're being aggressive and strident and shrill in order to avoid having to answer them, because they know deep down that we're right, and there isn't any serious debate to be had anymore. And dismissive? Sure, of course we're dismissive - just as dismissive of god belief as we are of fairy belief and goblin belief and alien abduction belief and the belief that the emperor is wearing clothes. Not being dismissive of such things is a sign of a crippling inability to process evidence properly.

Cultural discussions about the reasonableness of belief in God have gone on politely (if inconclusively) for centuries.

They did indeed. Anselm and Aquinas were very polite in their abstract musings on whether the existence of god could be proved by reason alone. Except that their view held that, even if it couldn't, you should still believe it anyway on blind faith. Unfortunately a few centuries later some people started not believing in gods at all. The church became very polite at this point. Crushingly, maimingly, burningly, agonizingly polite in fact. So polite you'd die. As PZ says, the definition of a "New Atheist" is "any atheist the catholic church can't legally set on fire anymore".

The recent rise of what is now (inaccurately) called the “New Atheism” has changed all this — at least, in the short term. For the fashionable few, rubbishing faith has become a mark of cultural sophistication.

So inaccurate is the term that McGrath uses it routinely, enthusiastically, repeatedly and without a hint of dissociation. Indeed, I seem to recall that he was one of the first to do so and may very well have invented the term...

And no, it's not a mark of cultural sophistication, it's a mark of basic intellectual capacity. And since when did atheism become "fashionable", or the preserve only of a few? In Britain at least we're something like 60% nonbelievers according to the surveys.

Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain to Harvard University, is one of many secularists to express alarm at the ridicule and contempt that he found in some recent atheist writings, such as Christopher Hitchen’s God is not Great (2007). Their aggressive anti-theism, he argued, set out “to shame and embarrass people away from religion, browbeating them about the stupidity of belief in a bellicose god.”

Deep Rifts! Deep Rifts! And how dare we try to make those widdle christians and muslims and jews embarrassed about their beliefs! Perhaps if those beliefs weren't so deeply stupid and embarrassing in the first place this tactic wouldn't be so useful, effective and powerful...

And it's not just the bellicose god we think is stupid, it's the lot of them, including the vague, mushy, incoherent one you believe in Mr. McGrath. In fact belief in that one is even more stupid and embarrassing, because it takes a massive effort of creative sophistry to support it.

This tactic represents a move away from some older forms of atheism, which appealed to evidence-based arguments and insisted on respect for religious belief. Slick soundbites took precedence over what were often ponderous and inconclusive arguments.

So we don't appeal to evidence-based arguments now, despite the fact that pretty much the foundational argument we come back to again and again is "there isn't any evidence for the existence of gods", and the fact we constantly laud and deeply admire science and the evidence-based scientific method? And it's soundbites over long arguments despite the fact that the main touchstones of what is called "New Atheism" are four several hundred page books packed with nothing but reasoned arguments? That sounds suspiciously like a slick soundbite to me...

And as for the arguments being inconclusive, nothing could be further from the truth. The existence of gods was definitively shown to be nonsensical centuries if not millennia ago. The debate has moved on now - from whether gods exist, and even from whether belief in them can be dangerous and harmful, to how best to diminish, remove and discourage such belief. We won the metaphysical and scientific argument ages ago, the one that remains is the social and political one.

Where some seemed to think that the New Atheism would achieve closure on the question of God, the reverse seems to have happened. Cultural interest in God and religion has resurged.

In the 1960s, as the sociologists William Bainbridge and Rodney Stark noted, “the most illustrious figures in sociology, anthropology and psychology” believed that they “would live to see the dawn of a new era in which, to paraphrase Freud, the infantile illusions of religion would be outgrown.”

A generation later political debate in western Europe — the most secular geopolitical region in the world — now routinely addresses such topics as how best to work with faith groups, and how faith may generate social cohesion.

This gets it entirely the wrong way round. Richard and co. are on record, in many, many interviews (and even in the introductions to their books and TV programmes themselves) as saying that they wrote the books largely in RESPONSE to the curious resurgence of religious sentiment during the 90s and 2000s. McGrath is trying to suggest that the resurgence came after, as a response to the books, not the other way around. And yes, of course it's in the most secular part of the world that the most debate about how to deal with religious groups happens - in non-secular (i,e, religiously partisan) areas, there isn't any debate because the religious authorities stifle it, dictate their own favourable terms for preferred religions and try to suppress and oppress others.

Society has not bought into the New Atheism’s analysis of the intrinsically “pathological” role of religion or its “God is a delusion” soundbites.

An awful lot of it has. Almost everyone I know is an atheist, and while not as openly and fulsomely derisive of religion as I am, none of them has a good word to say about it. I suspect that one can only maintain such a view that British society rejects atheism when one is a professor of theology and spends most of one's time around believing christian theologians, as McGrath does.

For the New Atheists it is obvious that religious extremism was behind 9/11, so why, they ask, did Barack Obama praise faith in his election campaign?

Because the overtly jihadist rhetoric of both the hijackers and the middle-eastern response wasn't an obvious enough clue I suppose? And yes, we have asked the question, because we rather like asking questions and prefer not to just assume the world works in a simplistic way like McGrath does. But it's not a very difficult one to answer, since the political and social culture of America has always been sodden with religious sentiment. ALL presidents of recent times have praised faith, because they know a large chunk of their voters would be dissuaded if they didn't. What's more surprising is that Obama is the first to have mentioned and praised those WITHOUT faith in his speeches. If you're talking US political rhetoric he's about the most secular one they've had.

In 2009 the atheist Julian Baggini, author of the excellent Very Short Introduction to Atheism, made two fundamental criticisms of the New Atheism. First, it is characterised primarily by its attacks on religion, rather than by its own positive beliefs.

Oh please. The War on Straw continues apace - soon there might not be any strawmen left. I get mightily annoyed when people say that Gnu Atheist writings are primarily destructive and lack their own positive values and beliefs. The God Delusion is filled with appeals to the explanatory value of the scientific method and humane, secular social policy. God is Not Great waxes lyrical on the importance of enlightenment values. Pretty much everything AC Grayling writes includes a paeon to humanism and progressive ethics, Sam Harris has recently written a whole, controversial book on deriving positive values from science, and one of PZ's hobbyhorses in recent years has been the fact that atheism always sits within a network of positive values and beliefs, and the "it's only a dictionary definition" idea is facile and obfuscatory.

In fact, if we look at older atheist material, such as Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian, or the writings of Nietzche, we find far less on positive values and far more on the technical, "combative" logical demolitions of religious belief. If anything what characterises "New Atheism" is the INCLUSION of so much stuff on how it is possible, desirable and necessary to live a complete life along secular, humanistic, freethinking lines. New Atheism is, if anything, triumphal atheism, holistic atheism, all-inclusive atheism, and the reason we're so passionate about spreading it is that can we see how patently superior it is on a social and cultural level to religious ideas.

Secondly, its exponents seem to think they have a monopoly on reason. It cultivates “the impression that only through stupidity or crass disregard for reason could anyone be anything other than an atheist.” For Baggini, belief is God is based on reason and evidence. So is atheism. The debate concerns which is the better explanation, not who is deluded.

We don't have a monopoly on the use of reason and evidence, but the conclusions we derive are the only ones you can derive if you're using them properly. That's the thing about reason and evidence - they point definitively in one direction (or, if they don't, we remain undecided). It's not that theists don't use reason and evidence, that's not where they're going wrong, it's that into the use of reason and evidence they introduce faith, personal feelings, emotional appeals, wishful thinking and a reverence for authority. You can't do that and expect reason and evidence to give good answers in the same way you can't expect a car to work well if you fill the petrol tank with treacle, tie the fenders to a cattle grid and charge the battery from a box of spoons.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 10:22:13 UTC | #618377

Dhamma's Avatar Comment 18 by Dhamma

McGrath, just another of those "new religion" people. Leeches that would've been no one without the "new atheists".

Being pro god has somehow become an elite opinion again, because the new atheists apparently used too shallow arguments against the belief in a god. But there can't be "advanced" arguments against such a silly notion as god. Everyone tells me I should read the bible and that will somehow make me understand. But there's not a single argument for a deity in the bible, so why should I waste my time, when I could beforehand ask whether god makes sense or not?

God has been established by silly, uncritical, and very shallow ideas, which is why advanced mathematical theorems are somewhat useless to dismiss him.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 10:23:46 UTC | #618378

paulmcuk's Avatar Comment 19 by paulmcuk

Where some seemed to think that the New Atheism would achieve closure on the question of God, the reverse seems to have happened. Cultural interest in God and religion has resurged.

He has this the wrong way round I think. It is the rise in religious fundementalism that has forced atheists to adopt a more combative tone. In the past, most atheists (in the UK at least) were generally content to "respect" religious beliefs because those beliefs were largely irrelevant. Religion wasn't much talked about, faith groups adapted their dogmas in the face of scientific truth and churches weilded little power. Religion seemed to be undergoing a steady (if slow) natural death so there was no need for atheists to stick the boot in.

But the rise in fundementalism - in the US but exported to some degree in the UK too - has changed things. Suddenly the religious have massed around their old flags of creationism, biblical literalism and moral superiority. They once again want to impose their myth-inspired version of reality on the rest of us so we can no longer stay quiet. Irrationality is gaining ground again so must be challenged. They have zero respect for us, so why should we respect them?

And not to be too patronising to atheists in the US, but since they're on the "front line" it is important for those elsewhere to lend support - be "the arsenal of reason" so to speak - and supply them with weapons like the Dawkins Missile.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 10:34:47 UTC | #618382

neotropic9's Avatar Comment 20 by neotropic9

Cultural discussions about the reasonableness of belief in God have gone on politely for centuries. The recent rise of what is now inaccurately called the “New Atheism” has changed all this.

Is McGrath trying to set a record for mistakes can you make in the first two sentences? Let's analyze this thoughtless dribble.

1) First of all, it hasn't been many more than two centuries since people were being executed for their atheism in the English speaking world. Since then, discrimination against atheism continues to occur to this day, including laws against atheists holding office in several states in the USA. Atheists remain the most distrusted minority in America, more disliked than homosexuals and blacks (this is saying a lot, recognizing how "politely" American society has treated these other groups). Execution of atheists continues to this day by the godly in other areas of the globe. How then can Mr McGrath claim that this debate has been going on "politely"?

2) It is worth noting that none of the so called "four horsemen" of atheism went out and declared themselves "new atheists". But this is beside the point. They are new atheists. We used to have Bertrand Russell, and before that David Hume (who, incidentally, was often discriminated against for his atheism -so much so that he had to disguise it in his writings). Now we have Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris (and I would add Stenger to this list). These guys are new, and whether McGrath likes it or not, they are having a different social impact than their predecessors. That goodness for this genuinely new development in the fight against religion.

While many of their arguments reflect arguments made by atheists in the past (most of the arguments of the new atheists can be traced back to David Hume if not earlier) they are also making some new arguments as well. For example, Sam Harris talks about the dangers of religious extremism in the context of Islamic terrorism in the nuclear age. Another example -Richard Dawkins discusses religion in the context of "memes" -a term he coined himself. Neither of these arguments have been made in the previous centuries that McGrath refers to.

3) And, of course, McGrath here is engaging in the same old tired argument of attacking atheists by calling them "impolite". Personally, I don't find any of the new atheists impolite. The godly just aren't used to having their beliefs questioned so openly. The new atheists say exactly what they believe without pulling any punches. They ask hard questions, and they deliver criticism where it is deserved. Religious people interpret this as being "impolite". Richard Dawkins isn't impolite, he is just extremely rational in dealing with nonsense beliefs. Hitchens isn't impolite, he just feels very strongly that religion is totalitarian at its core, and is willing to share this sentiment with believers.

I think the reason religious believers are so sensitive is because they know, on some level, that their beliefs stand on flimsy ground. They must avoid scrutiny at all costs. To do otherwise might mean admitting that their religious beliefs are irrational and frequently immoral. So instead of engaging with the arguments against them, they do what many people do when they feel threatened and they are on the losing end of an argument -they attack the person instead of the argument. Here we have a prime example of that -Mr.McGrath, writing an entire article attacking the "politeness" of his ideological opponents.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 10:51:06 UTC | #618388

Opisthokont's Avatar Comment 21 by Opisthokont

Damn, Cartomancer, you made all the points I wanted to, and beautifully.

I need only add that it continues to astound me that people like McGrath get any respect as intellectuals at all. What he claims is to patently at odds with what Dawkins et al. have written that he must either not have read what they wrote or be intentionally pretending he didn't. Either option is dishonest, and far more derisive than what he claims of the "New Atheists". His position deserves receive the ridicule we toss at it.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 10:52:36 UTC | #618390

Stafford Gordon's Avatar Comment 22 by Stafford Gordon

15: sunbeamforjeebus.

Why bother to read them? They're all the same and always have been.

The infuriating thing about this particular individual is that he is incapable of listening to anything but the sound of his own voice, which is why he never says anything different from what he's been waffling on about for donkeys years.

He's beyond help!

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 10:56:33 UTC | #618392

debonnesnouvelles's Avatar Comment 23 by debonnesnouvelles

I find this piece very entertaining. Relishing McGraths condescending tone with each phrase, it's hard to pick a favorite. Maybe "How do the Cross and Resurrection of Christ help to make sense of the ambiguities of our experience?" He makes me think of a grumpy school teacher who tries to stop the children from playing and running around in the courtyard. We are certainly not going to stop for him, with this kind of approach, because reality is so much more interesting and important than his dusty old arguments.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 10:58:01 UTC | #618393

pittige 's Avatar Comment 24 by pittige

cartomancer How do the Cross and Resurrection of Christ help to make sense of the ambiguities of our experience? How do they shape our understanding of the world, and our place within it?

They don't.

exactly, they don't.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 11:03:32 UTC | #618394

pittige 's Avatar Comment 25 by pittige

in germany Michael Schmidt-Salomon wrote a book for children : „Wo bitte geht's zu Gott? fragte das kleine Ferkel“ (where please can i go to god, ask the little pig). The conclusion at the last page is simple as truth. If you are not indoctrinated with the idea of a monotheistic superbeing (of course a man) you don't need him. In the best way (i mean without the negative sides of religion, if there is a positive side) you could say that the inventors of religion had better used the name "nature".

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 11:16:18 UTC | #618395

debonnesnouvelles's Avatar Comment 26 by debonnesnouvelles

Comment 27 by pittige :

cartomancer How do the Cross and Resurrection of Christ help to make sense of the ambiguities of our experience? How do they shape our understanding of the world, and our place within it?

They don't.

exactly, they don't.

which ambiguities of experience? what's that supposed to mean? there's no need for an explanation in religious shop talk, what is that supposed to mean in the real world?

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 11:17:03 UTC | #618397

debonnesnouvelles's Avatar Comment 27 by debonnesnouvelles

Comment 28 by pittige :

in germany Michael Schmidt-Salomon wrote a book for children : „Wo bitte geht's zu Gott? fragte das kleine Ferkel“ (where please can i go to god, ask the little pig)...

brilliant, thanks for the tip, I'll get it right away.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 11:18:48 UTC | #618398

Erik Andreas's Avatar Comment 28 by Erik Andreas

Right, the discussion of God's existence has not been going on peacefully until "New Atheism". Until recently it was a social and physical suicide to argue against his existence. It still is in the muslim part of the world.

This reminds of a classic Jesus & Mo: http://www.jesusandmo.net/2010/05/11/ears/

So shrill!

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 11:20:01 UTC | #618400

superbeanson's Avatar Comment 29 by superbeanson

This tactic represents a move away from some older forms of atheism, which appealed to evidence-based arguments and insisted on respect for religious belief.

oh dear, what a prat this man (still) is.

His ability to write reams on a null subject is impressive though

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 11:30:58 UTC | #618404

Donna M's Avatar Comment 30 by Donna M

You know, this is the guy (or one of them) that theists mean when they demand that we debate with "intelligent theologians" instead of...er...less sophisticated fundies who "misrepresent Christianity".

I'm sure he's a smart guy in many ways (certainly smart enough to make a shed load of money off the back of certain other writers of our acquaintance) but with regard to religion his arguments are just as fatuous, illogical and stupid as all the others.

And if that sounds rude and insulting....meh.

Sat, 23 Apr 2011 11:33:40 UTC | #618407