Developments in the New Atheism

Neil Brown. The Australasian Catholic Record. Volume 92, Issue 3. July 2015.

The New Atheism has been a remarkable marketing phenomenon of the first decade of this century. The various authors obviously struck a modern chord in the developed world, where a steadily increasing number of people describe themselves as belonging to no religion. They would seem also to be a radically secular response in the West to the rise of militant Islam, especially since the World Trade Center attack in 2001.

Their titles and names have attained celebrity status in the English-speaking world: Sam Harris, The End of Faith (2004); Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006); Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell (2006); and Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great (2007). A host of other writers have added to the initial flurry, A. C. Grayling even publishing The Good Book (2011) as a humanist alternative to the Bible.

The New Atheism leaves behind the ‘dry’ philosophical arguments of yesteryear, and gains traction from the contemporary scientific and technological mindset, where, if it can’t be demonstrated experimentally, then it mustn’t be true. Religion, they argue, is the ‘enemy’ of an enlightened secular humanity. But, is this true?

The Judeo-Christian Heritage


Judeo-Christianity has been a major influence in the development of Western civilisation. Planted deep in its Scriptures and doctrines is the belief that human beings are uniquely situated within creation and that what each one does in life is of supreme import. This belief in its many different expressions has combined with other cultural and historical influences to produce a sense of the inestimable worth of human beings.

This traditional view as commonly understood today involves a mix of the following:

  • The human has emerged along with countless other species from the eons-long evolution of the web of life on our planet-human beings have evolved;

  • The capacity for self-consciousness, a mental life, and rational reflection, are distinctive features of the human species-human beings have minds and the ability to recognise and communicate with other minds;

  • Human beings are social, possessing language skills, and together create complex social networks and cultural structures, with meaning, values and skills passed from one generation to the next-human beings are nurtured in community and culture;

  • Human beings are capable of being independent centres of agency, with the ability to imagine alternative scenarios to change outcomes and shape their environment-human beings are the authors of their own actions and so may be held morally responsible for their choices;

  • Personhood describes us as subjects, who we are, people with inner lives, motives, purposes and intentions, who construct their own self-narratives-human beings are selves who speak of themselves in the first person;

  • Each and every human being is deserving of respect, a bearer of human rights recognised by law, morality and convention-human beings are endowed with equal and universal rights, which protect the basic needs and dignity of all;

  • Human beings are always much more than the complex physical and biological bases of their existence-human beings have an irreducible spiritual dimension.

The New Atheist Revision


Piece by piece, the New Atheists have conjured away this traditional picture. The initial group of writers assumed that once God was removed from the stage, life could more or less continue as usual with only minor adjustments to the script.

Kerry Walters, for example, maintains that even though we are ultimately ‘material, physico-chemical’ beings, we can still act ‘as if we were free’ and can still find life ‘meaningful,’ ‘even if the universe isn’t.’ For A. C. Grayling, life is ‘what you make of it for yourself’: values remain as before, and human rights can be grounded in autonomy and rationality. The human mind, Daniel Dennett claims, ‘is something of a bag of tricks, cobbled together over the eons by the foresightless process of evolution by natural selection,’ but he remains committed to ‘democracy, to peace, to earthly justice-and to truth.’

The issue for these writers is to balance their ‘naturalism,’ which insists that human beings can be fully explained by their biological makeup, with all that has been built on top of nature by a culture working from vastly different premises. They do this by a combination of cherry-picking and redefining what they want to salvage-as they have to, for example, if they want to retain the notion of ‘spirituality,’ which many of them do.

More recently, however, the finger has been taken out of the dyke and the full implications of blind natural selection are being allowed to flood into the realm of human meaning and value. Jesse Bering asks the question, which really opens wide the floodgates:

Knowing what we know now, is it wise to trust our evolved, subjective mental intuitions to be reliable gauges of reality outside our heads, or do we instead accept the possibility that such intuitions in fact arise through cognitive biases that-perhaps for biologically adaptive reasons-lead our thinking away from objective reality?

For Bering, this is a question about ‘God,’ but for others it has much wider ramifications-Sam Harris, for example, along with most others, considers ‘free will’ an illusion:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we have no control.

Morality, of course, collapses too in this scenario, with no grounds remaining for ‘praise’ or ‘blame,’ and is seen for what it is as a combination of sheer luck and evolutionary strategies towards cooperation. In another work by Harris, ‘consciousness’ remains-’the only thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion’-but the ‘self’ is declared an illusion:

As a matter of neurology, the sense of having a persistent and unified self must be an illusion, because it is built upon processes that, by their very nature as processes, are transitory and multifarious ... The sense that we are unified subjects is a fiction, produced by a multitude of separate processes and structures of which we are not aware and over which we exert no conscious control.

For others, consciousness itself becomes a place of smoke and mirrors, rather than a region of direct contact with the real. For the evolutionary biologist, Edward Wilson, it is a place of storytelling, more fiction, it seems, than reality:

Conscious mental life is built entirely from confabulation. It is a constant review of stories experienced in the past and competing stories invented for the future. By necessity most conform to the present real world as best it can be processed by our rather paltry senses.

For neuroscience, when we speak about ‘consciousness,’ we are speaking of something else, as Michael Graziano explains:

When we say we are conscious, aware, self-aware, in conscious control of our actions, have a stream-of-consciousness understanding of ourselves, what we really mean apparently is this: there is a system in the brain whose job is to construct modes of intentionality of other people or of ourselves ... the self-model ... supplies the contents of our conscious minds. In this sense consciousness-a soul on a trajectory through waking life-is a perceptual illusion.

Consciousness is, rather, a matter of ‘signals’ and ‘models’ constructed by the brain: ‘I do not actually know my own mind, any more than I know anyone else’s-I know only the model that my social mechanism has constructed of it.’

In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Alex Rosenberg makes sure no dominos are left standing. Working from the premise that the ‘physical facts fix all facts,’ or, put differently, that there ‘are just fermions and bosons and the combinations of them,’ plus the assumption of a liberal amount of ‘dumb luck,’ he assembles his conclusions (78, 179, 194): free will-’just another event in my brain locked into this network of processes going back to the beginning of the universe ...’ (236); moral judgements-all based on false, groundless presuppositions (97); consciousness-’never let your conscious be your guide’ (145) ; self and personhood-’wishful thinking’ (223); and meaning-’There is nothing that makes our lives meaningful’ (280).

Because, he claims, the brain and its processes are physical, the brain is locked in on itself, and thoughts can’t be about anything, even when we think they are: ‘it’s got to be an illusion, since nothing physical can be about anything’ (193).

Rosenberg goes far beyond the other authors: human rights—‘clumps of matter (and that’s all we are) can’t have natural rights just by virtue of their composition, shape, origin, and so forth’ (288); history—‘No meaning, no purpose, no point,’ ‘bunk’ (242, 250); humanities—‘the endlessly entertaining elaborations of an illusion,’ ‘symptoms’ only (213, 307); therapy—‘In therapy, as in everything else in life, the illusory content of introspective thoughts is just along for the ride’ (286); and the human sciences—‘nearsighted,’ because from Darwinian biology, we know ‘that all the patterns to be discovered about human affairs are temporary’ (261, 267).

Richard Dawkins once claimed that the ‘atheist view is correspondingly life-affirming and life-enhancing,’ but there is precious little left of life as we know it after Rosenberg’s demolition derby. What is left? According to Rosenberg, only ‘nice nihilism’:

Nice nihilism has two take-home messages: the nihilism part-there are no facts of the matter about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad-and the niceness part-fortunately for us, most people naturally buy into the same core morality that makes us tolerably nice to one another. (286)

Nor is there anything to help, not even ‘secular humanism’ or ‘science’: ‘if meaninglessness makes it impossible to get out of bed in the morning,’ what you need is Prozac (281-6, 315).

Scientism


The rationale for these views comes from scientism, which, for James Ladyman, Don Ross et al. in Every Thing Must Go, holds that ‘science respects no domain restrictions and will admit no epistemological rivals ...’ Science occupies the whole human space. Common sense, they claim, constructs ‘approximate representations of the world’ for practical purposes, but these are by and large ‘illusions’ (130, 253). What truly exists, however, and that science alone discovers, is ‘structure and relations’ (153). Whether a particular pattern is ‘real’ or not, depends on the findings of science:

We take it to be an empirical question for any particular common-sense object whether it is a genuine real pattern, and so eliminativism about, for example, tables or mental states, cannot be ruled out a priori. If cognitive science concludes that mental concepts do not track real patterns then the theory of mind will have to go. (254)

In fact, they think, given the present state of science, the theory of mind will go, and, as in reality only patterns exist, so everything, even persons, are ultimately patterns, not ‘self-subsistent individuals’(229). It is the triumph of the third person view of the world over the first person view.

In any other context, turning everything that matters into ‘illusion’ would be dark magic. Yet, all of the above writers are neuroscientists or philosophers, not wizards. They do, however, seem delighted with their reductiveness, as Michael Graziano shows:

If religion is profoundly irrational, so is the rest of human culture. Culture is by nature a complicated, bizarre, irrational, fantastic, addictive pleasure, sometimes brutal, sometimes incredibly generous ... To me, that contradiction is one of the most marvellous properties that we humans possess.

Science, Not Scientism


Somehow, mainly on the rather dubious grounds that it has proved itself over the past centuries, science alone survives this mass extinction of all other forms of knowledge. Amid the ruins, nice nihilism claims that it ‘undermines all values,’ while Edward Wilson appeals to science to find the answers: ‘the scientific worldview ... encompasses the meaning of human existence-the general principles of the human condition, where species fits in the universe, and why it exists in the first place.’

This is, of course, an act of blind faith, a questionable ‘confidence’ that science will eventually unravel the ‘conundrums, dilemmas and paradoxes’ of mind and brain, and show that all is physical. This faith is the bridge over the chasm between, on one side, the admission that neuroscience is still in its infancy and, on the other side, the declaration that all we consider human is an ‘illusion’-overtones of the bridge to Camelot!

Neuroscience’s mapping of the human brain is one of the major scientific enterprises of this century, akin to the human genome project at the end of the last century. The literature surveyed draws on neuroscientific findings regarding such things as colour perception, neural activity, and blindsight. All such findings are to be respected, although there can be much discussion and debate about their interpretation. It is not at all clear that the experiments so far prove anything like the extravagant claims of the New Atheists.

The New Atheists, however, show no hesitation in coming to their conclusions-in every case their arguments move without a pause from brain mechanisms, neurons firing, and evolutionary processes, to human inner reality as we experience it now. Co-relating brain and mind is one thing (and it is undeniable), but to reduce mind to brain is another thing altogether. The mind can be altered by changes in brain function, but science is a long way from showing that all mental action is caused by the brain. Neurons firing are simply not thoughts, even though firing is necessary to thought processes. To talk about neurological activity is a function of science, but thoughts are in the realm of intersubjective experience, communication and culture.

To point to origins also tells us something, but it does not say everything about what something is now. Science too is bedded in evolutionary processes of learning, but it has become something vastly different today. Nature is the bedrock of our existence, but on that foundation we have built a human edifice, with its own meaning, values, and purposes.

Despite Rosenberg’s explicit disavowal of science being about stories (8- 10), his Atheist’s Guide is replete with stories about human origins (72-87), the development of core morality (116-45), animal stories morphing into conclusions about humans (180-6, 196-201, 214-8), and the biological arms race applied to culture, history and economics (246-64), from which a brave new world is effortlessly extrapolated: what might have been the case once becomes it must be the case now.

Scientists do science-it does not exist in a human or cultural vacuum. It is a creation of the mind, with a human practical purpose, built up over time out of human values and capacities, born from a striving for objectivity, integrity, honesty, commitment, professional standards, mutual respect and collaboration. If these values and capacities are conjured away, science also becomes an ‘illusion,’ and perhaps, given its capabilities, a dangerous one to boot. We respect science, however, precisely on account of the values and capacities on which it rests. It is a wonderful product of our culture.

Culture


There can no longer be any doubt that consciousness is underpinned and always linked to unconscious processes, models, and drives. These connect us to our evolutionary past and its learnings. Our present engagement with the world triggers this connectedness and configures our responses-probably more than we realise we are on automatic pilot set by evolution.

But it is also true that self-consciousness permits a gap to open up between human beings and their environment, a gap that also allows the objectivity striven for by science. Culture fits into this gap and over time has constructed a distinctly human dimension for nature, so that human life is never only a matter of survival and reproduction but involves values, reflection and purpose also.

In culture the human mind and will attain firepower over and above their evolutionary basic needs, which it turns to sourcing and creating values, meaning, and purpose. For Michael Polanyi this complex construction draws on many elements:

We owe our mental existence predominantly to works of art, morality, religious worship, scientific theory and other articulate systems, which we accept as our dwelling place and as the soil of our mental development. Objectivism has totally falsified our conception of truth, by exalting what we can know and prove, while covering up with ambiguous utterances all that we know and cannot prove, even though the latter knowledge underlies, and must ultimately set its seal to, all that we can prove.

While much of behaviour may be evolutionarily based, culture is able to intervene between ourselves and nature to offer us, at least on occasions, new alternatives, unknown to nature. Morality, especially, applies concepts, values and standards, to our wanting and our acting on our wants-justice and human rights, for example, make a qualitative difference to our responsiveness.

In our everyday, commonsense worlds, culture establishes criteria to distinguish such things as reality from illusion, voluntary from involuntary, true from false, right from wrong, correct from incorrect, and good art from kitsch. Our brains may work from models, but these models, like all cultural criteria, are corrigible, so that we learn, from everyday experience and reflection, to respond to our world as it really is. It is about learning how to live in a truly human world.

Ideas, values and standards arise from human interaction, and establish the conditions for mind, personhood and human freedom, which all combine to have effects over and above nature in individual life and history. These realities exist at the level of quality, not at the level of quantity and pattern investigated by science. This quality constructs our life world, where our minds, relationships, inner lives and ways of acting have their home.

What the New Atheists are proposing is a world seen predominantly from the objective viewpoint of the sciences. Roger Scruton imagines a world where ‘I,’ ‘you’ and ‘why’ are considered illusions:

Suppose we now replace folk psychology with some explanatory neuroscience ... we would all be condemned to a ... view of ourselves and others as objects ... We would be able to describe our mental condition only by investigating our brains, and the give and take of reasons between me and you would, since it depends on first person privilege, disappear. With it would disappear the possibility of interpersonal relations, and with inter-personal relations would disappear language and all that has been built on it.

This scenario is strangely borne out by Alex Rosenberg’s description of his own book:

Look, if I am going to get scientism into your skull I have to use the only tools we’ve got for moving information from one head to another: noises, ink-marks, pixels ... This book isn’t conveying statements. It’s rearranging neural circuits ...

Can human rights exist in that kind of world? They belong, not in the world as viewed through the telescope or microscope, but in the world of people relating to other people, mind addressing mind, and human actions needing to be curtailed or responded to. They depend upon the belief that there is something unique about each and every human being, something independent of particular attributes or abilities. It is what makes violations of human beings so wrong. Nor is it something that can be explained by evolutionary game theory, calculations of utility, nor expanded sympathies to others in the group, as many of the New Atheists attempt to do.

Human rights depend, at least in part, on our belief that individual human beings are subjects, with inner lives, where their thoughts, plans, emotions and intentions play out. Shake this belief and our fragile human house of cards will collapse, with nothing but force to resist the winds of terrorism and violence. We would be back in the red tooth and claw world of nature, before our attempts to create a truly human place for ourselves. There may be a long way to go in this endeavour, but what has been achieved has been hard won and remains precarious.

Darwin’s theory, which originally applied to biology, is now applied to social groups, economics, ethics, ideas and culture. ‘Fitness’ replaces ‘truth,’ ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty.’ It is science ‘overshooting’ itself. Our human world cannot survive without ‘persons,’ ‘minds,’ ‘values,’ ‘rights,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘truth,’ ‘freedom,’ etc. It is also the only world safely to do science in.

Scientism replaces the Creator God with nature as the supreme, and not so benign, blind Illusionist, before whom all that is truly human is conjured away. Yet, as Michael Buckley argues, God and our sense of personhood have always gone hand in hand:

Religion has too long recognised in god a personal density, a weight of intersubjective relationships ... The god who is so personal must have the personal as the foundation of his human assertion, and all other reflection that bears upon the existence of this god must have the personal as its critical context.

This view even finds some support in the recent scientific study of religion, which has for too long been interpreted in extraneous terms, such as social cohesion or misfiring agent detection. Todd Tremlin maintains, on the contrary, that gods fit into the personal world:

God concepts engage emotional intelligence as actively as social intelligence. Gods are represented in relational terms, as beings that are personal, subjective, interactive, and involved.

It may be possible to defend human dignity and personhood in secular terms against the iconoclasm of the New Atheists. It is also true, however, that the personal remains at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian heritage. God for believers is the Ground of unlimited possibility for all that is human, the One who addresses us as persons and calls forth everything that we might become. God and the fully human are inextricably locked together: with God as the Protagonist the human is offered its full potential, and we can only ever glimpse what this means.