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Monday, February 4, 2013

The Straw Antitheist

The New Atheists have become the favorite whipping boy of religious apologists and accommodationists. The arguments are straw-men. As Hitchens defined it, antitheism can be as innocuous as atheism without regret. There is a call to eradicate religion, but it is a philosophical struggle armed only with reason.

New Atheists admittedly alienate potential allies by implicating religious moderates as complicit with fundamentalists. Religious moderates are in fact apologists for supernaturalism, but typically don't insist on teaching creationism in the schools. For secularists, the adversary isn't religious faith, but rather the encroachment of religious faith on public policy. A secularist is more interested in stemming the tide of religious fundamentalism than in calling out religious moderates and liberals for obscurantism.

Secularists operate in the political sphere and New Atheists in the philosophical, but not exclusively. If the truth matters, then obscurantism is problematic. Not everyone has the constitution for the debate, but not everyone needs to engage in it. Polite silence, however, accomplishes nothing.

For secularists, religious moderates are not the problem. Religious moderates, however, are reluctant allies at best. Their leaders enjoy an air of authority in public assemblies. Membership has its privileges. Interfaith activism attracts certain atheists, but how many believers are drawn to secularist activism? Given that secularism can be understood in strictly political terms and interfaith cannot, secularism might seem the more neutral umbrella for secular-interfaith dialogue.

Identifying religious moderates as complicit with fundamentalists excludes them from the coalition as apologists for supernaturalism, but objections are based on strategy--not truth. Supernaturalism is what prompts the devout to claim that reason is beside the point. Our coalition will depend on people with the courage to renounce their insincere religious affiliations, making it easier for subsequent nonbelievers to follow suit.

What follows is defense of the Antitheist argument. I hope to demonstrate that the New Atheism is hardly new and that its detractors have failed to consider some key points. I use the four classic ontological arguments as a point of comparison between the New Atheists and their predecessors.

The argument from reasonable nonbelief- If the existence of the gods were self-evident, everyone would believe. The burden of proof is on religion. The religious often use faith as an excuse to follow their own inclinations. As Spinoza observed, they invoke emotional--not empirical--support for their beliefs. Dawkins exposes religious faith as wishful thinking.

The argument from inconsistent revelations- Sectarian religions are mutually contradictory and internally inconsistent. As Hume observed, a literal interpretation of scripture depicting an anthropomorphic god is easily dismissed. Daniel Dennett concurs. Although some religious rationalists have traded supernaturalism for the obscurantist sacred cow of sectarian heritage, the antitheist's quarrel is with theism.

The argument from evil- If the gods are real, they have a lot of explaining to do. Percy Bysshe Shelly addressed the argument from evil with a reformulation of the Epicurean trilemma. Christopher Hitchens made a similar case. Hitchens was an extraordinary wit, but there was nothing new about his stridency. The resolve of the New Atheists may be new, but it was forged in the September 11 attacks and is fueled by historic demographic shifts. In this regard they are very much a product of their time.

Lack of empirical evidence- Discovery trumps revelation. This is the skeptical or naturalistic argument. As Bertrand Russell reminded us, we may not be able to disprove religion empirically, but there are any number of propositions that are absurd on their face. They may be beyond the reach of purely empirical approaches to evidence, but rational proofs present a compelling case. As Sam Harris observes, religious faith is inherently irrational.

New Atheists are often characterized as extreme for our desire to eradicate religion. The problem with this argument is twofold. First, the call is to eradicate religion through reason, not force. Yes, it excludes religious moderates as allies, but it's the religious moderates who are opting out by holding an incompatible position. Secularism similarly excludes religious fundamentalists. You're with us or against us, but there's no conscription.

It's possible to be a philosophical antitheist without ever confronting the religious directly, but New Atheists are considered extremists for making life more difficult for religious moderates. Writing books the devout may never read and preaching to the converted occupy many antitheists. We may not shirk from defending atheism, but we don't necessarily seek out every confrontation. Our public positions may make people uncomfortable, but their discomfort should signal that they hold their belief perhaps a bit too reflexively. Exposing ourselves to ideas that challenge our worldview is the way we grow and learn.

If it matters whether ideas are subject to reasonable scrutiny, then it's reasonable to call out religious moderates for obscurantism. The categorical position that "religion poisons everything" is absolutist, but it's not universally embraced by antitheists. Although rationalist religions such as Buddhism, Unitarianism and Humanistic Judaism exist, the word "religion" has semantic baggage that isn't easily shaken. When apologists assert that atheism is dogmatic, it's not unusual for them to make the analogy between atheism and religion. The analogy betrays implicit associations between religion and mindless acquiescence that even believers accept on some level.

Sam Harris qualifies his statements as critiques of faith-based religion. Not everyone is as careful, but rationalist religion it not yet the norm and the word "religion" still retains connotations of mindless devotion and mechanistic ritual. Faith and reason will be harder to reconcile. Even the devout describe faith as mindless acquiescence, although in more flattering terms. "Faith in faith" is not only obscurantist but also inherently coercive and intolerant of the nonbeliever.

Coming out as an atheist carries an implicit rejection of cherished beliefs. Therein lies the problem. Critiques of religion are judged by a different standard than critiques of other affronts to reason. Reactions to "blasphemy" are conditioned by religious privilege. We can either live in a world where the soundest ideas prevail or we can live in a world where faith restricts the debate. You don't have to pick a side, but straw-man arguments don't advance the discussion.


  1. Thank you! This clarifies my thought process, and will help me understand myself better. I feel better prepared to argue for reality.