Intelligent Design

What really scares the new atheists

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Atheist philosopher John Gray has written an unflinchingly honest article in the Guardian, titled, What scares the new atheists. It’s an excellent piece, and I warmly recommend it to readers. A few revealing quotes convey the tenor of the article:

In fact there are no reliable connections – whether in logic or history – between atheism, science and liberal values. When organised as a movement and backed by the power of the state, atheist ideologies have been an integral part of despotic regimes that also claimed to be based in science, such as the former Soviet Union. Many rival moralities and political systems – most of them, to date, illiberal – have attempted to assert a basis in science. All have been fraudulent and ephemeral. Yet the attempt continues in atheist movements today, which claim that liberal values can be scientifically validated and are therefore humanly universal…

Evangelical atheists today view liberal values as part of an emerging global civilisation; but not all atheists, even when they have been committed liberals, have shared this comforting conviction. Atheism comes in many irreducibly different forms, among which the variety being promoted at the present time looks strikingly banal and parochial…

The predominant varieties of atheist thinking, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, aimed to show that the secular west is the model for a universal civilisation. The missionary atheism of the present time is a replay of this theme; but the west is in retreat today, and beneath the fervour with which this atheism assaults religion there is an unmistakable mood of fear and anxiety. To a significant extent, the new atheism is the expression of a liberal moral panic.

Sam Harris, … who was arguably the first of the “new atheists”, illustrates this point. Following many earlier atheist ideologues, he wants a “scientific morality”; but whereas earlier exponents of this sort of atheism used science to prop up values everyone would now agree were illiberal, Harris takes for granted that what he calls a “science of good and evil” cannot be other than liberal in content.

Today, it’s clear that no grand march is under way… But the ongoing reversal in secularisation is not a peculiarly Islamic phenomenon.

The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development. Russian Orthodoxy is stronger than it has been for over a century, while China is the scene of a reawakening of its indigenous faiths and of underground movements that could make it the largest Christian country in the world by the end of this century. Despite tentative shifts in opinion that have been hailed as evidence it is becoming less pious, the US remains massively and pervasively religious – it’s inconceivable that a professed unbeliever could become president, for example.

And this:

When they [modern atheists] assert that science can bridge fact and value, they overlook the many incompatible value-systems that have been defended in this way. There is no more reason to think science can determine human values today than there was at the time of Haeckel or Huxley. None of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science. How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time [Nietzche] argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.

…Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values.

To be sure, evangelical unbelievers adamantly deny that liberalism needs any support from theism. If they are philosophers, they will wheel out their rusty intellectual equipment and assert that those who think liberalism relies on ideas and beliefs inherited from religion are guilty of a genetic fallacy… The trouble is that it’s hard to make any sense of the idea of a universal morality without invoking an understanding of what it is to be human that has been borrowed from theism. The belief that the human species is a moral agent struggling to realise its inherent possibilities – the narrative of redemption that sustains secular humanists everywhere – is a hollowed-out version of a theistic myth. The idea that the human species is striving to achieve any purpose or goal – a universal state of freedom or justice, say – presupposes a pre-Darwinian, teleological way of thinking that has no place in science. Empirically speaking, there is no such collective human agent, only different human beings with conflicting goals and values. If you think of morality in scientific terms, as part of the behaviour of the human animal, you find that humans don’t live according to iterations of a single universal code. Instead, they have fashioned many ways of life. A plurality of moralities is as natural for the human animal as the variety of languages…

Universal values don’t add up to a universal morality. Such values are very often conflicting, and different societies resolve these conflicts in divergent ways… (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

Finally, this:

…The conviction that tyranny and persecution are aberrations in human affairs is at the heart of the liberal philosophy that prevails today. But this conviction is supported by faith more than evidence. Throughout history there have been large numbers who have been happy to relinquish their freedom as long as those they hate – gay people, Jews, immigrants and other minorities, for example – are deprived of freedom as well. Many have been ready to support tyranny and oppression. Billions of human beings have been hostile to liberal values, and there is no reason for thinking matters will be any different in future…

Evangelical atheists at the present time are missionaries for their own values. If an earlier generation promoted the racial prejudices of their time as scientific truths, ours aims to give the illusions of contemporary liberalism a similar basis in science… More than anything else, our unbelievers seek relief from the panic that grips them when they realise their values are rejected by much of humankind…

What do readers think of Gray’s thought-provoking piece?

18 Replies to “What really scares the new atheists

  1. 1
    awstar says:

    It’s pretty scary to encounter an atheist who speaks a great deal of truth.

  2. 2
    kairosfocus says:

    AW,

    Pardon what may be painful, but must be asked, to grasp the force of what is at stake:

    (1) why should an atheist — especially a devotee of evolutionary materialist scientism speak the truth, and

    (2) why should we trust or take seriously claims by such an atheist that he or she does know, rationally ground, understand and speak the truth?

    KF

  3. 3
    awstar says:

    KF #2

    (1) why should an atheist — especially a devotee of evolutionary materialist scientism speak the truth,

    it is written “…for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. ”

    (2) why should we trust or take seriously claims by such an atheist that he or she does know, rationally ground, understand and speak the truth?

    We shouldn’t because they do not give credit where credit is due.

  4. 4

    Another excerpt:

    If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up?

    Exactly one of the things I asked myself during my last days as an atheist.

  5. 5
    CHartsil says:

    So are you guys ready to give up the notion that ID isn’t religious?

  6. 6
    Timaeus says:

    CHartsil:

    I don’t see how anything in John Gray’s words, as quoted in the column above, would lead anyone to suppose that ID is a religious movement. I don’t see that Gray’s column has anything to do with ID at all. Your question comes out of left field.

    By the way, I think you missed a question of mine in all the clutter in the Mazur discussion. See post #16:

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....ginalized/

  7. 7
    ppolish says:

    I think many New Atheists have not thought about it enough to “be scared”. I think what “really scares the New Atheist” is Dawkins saying something stupid on Twitter.

  8. 8
    JimFit says:

    I think the new Atheists are young in age and have all the life in front of them that’s why they think that atheism offers them a free world without responsibility based on what their ego says, the cold shower will come when they are old enough to think about death. There you will see many atheists to change their view about life.

  9. 9
    Dick says:

    “More than anything else, our unbelievers seek relief from the panic that grips them when they realise their values are rejected by much of humankind…”

    I imagine, too, that some of the new atheists break out in a metaphorical cold sweat when they reflect upon the fact that their values are grounded in nothing more substantial than their own subjective preferences. They can really offer no non-pragmatic, non-self-interested reason why anyone else should voluntarily adopt them. Thus the attractiveness of compulsion in our secular age.

  10. 10
    Hangonasec says:

    Dick @9

    They can really offer no non-pragmatic, non-self-interested reason why anyone else should voluntarily adopt them.

    What non-pragmatic, non-self-interested reason can you offer someone to voluntarily adopt your – or your God’s – values?

  11. 11
    Dick says:

    Hangon @10: “What non-pragmatic, non-self-interested reason can you offer someone to voluntarily adopt your – or your God’s – values?”

    Good question. If values are in fact grounded in the nature of a perfectly good, omniscient Creator then they have objective validity. If there is no such being then values, including moral values, are mere matters of subjective taste, and nothing is either right or wrong in a moral sense. If that’s the case then, among humans, might makes right which, along with moral nihilism, is a logical consequence of atheism.
    Perhaps another way to answer the question is to say that the only way we can avoid human subjectivity about moral values is if moral authority resides in a personal, transcendent being. On atheism there is no moral authority, certainly not impersonal nature which knows nothing of morality.

  12. 12
    Seversky says:

    If you think of morality in scientific terms, as part of the behaviour of the human animal, you find that humans don’t live according to iterations of a single universal code. Instead, they have fashioned many ways of life. A plurality of moralities is as natural for the human animal as the variety of languages…

    I think that puts it in a nutshell. Human beings have indeed “fashioned many ways of life” and concocted a “plurality of moralities”. There is no clearcut objective morality, just individuals promoting unwarranted claims for the supremacy of their own particular faith’s morality over all others.

    If there is fear and anxiety amongst atheists it is roused by the resurgence of more aggressive, intolerant and bigoted versions of the world’s great faiths. Yes, the atheist regimes of the twentieth century were responsible for for millions of deaths and the most appalling atrocities. But almost all the regimes of the previous twenty or thirty centuries were religious in one form or another and they were also at various times responsible for the most appalling atrocities and millions of death.

    My birthday also happens to be the anniversary of the execution of Thomas Aikenhead, the last person to be executed for blasphemy in Britain. There are a small number of Christians today who would like to see that penalty restored. There a parts of Islam where it is still practiced.

    As I have argued before, in my view the danger is not from religion or atheism but from totalitarian thinking. Most human beings understand at some level they they are fragile and vulnerable creatures. They crave a sense of certainty and security. In times of increasing uncertainty they gravitate towards whatever and whoever promises to give them that. It could be a faith or it could be a political ideology. It doesn’t matter. It just has to be asserted as an Absolute Truth which, if accepted, will lead to everything they desire.

    Once that Absolute Truth has been accepted as such, be it the Bible, Quran, National Socialism, Marxism-Leninism or Chinese Communism it is but a short step to believing that almost anything is justified in the furtherance of that Truth. Add to the mix a charismatic leader who also happens to be intoxicated by the power of his or her position and utterly ruthless in pursuit of their aims and you have the recipe for many of the self-inflicted disasters that humanity has suffered over the millenia. That is what we should all fear.

  13. 13
    ppolish says:

    I agree with you Seversky – belief in a Master Religion is more frightening than belief in s Master Race.

    Master Religion includes White Germans and Brown Africans. Master Religion goes beyond Race. Potentially more evil than Master Race.

    Need to be tolerant of Race & Religion. Need to be accepting of Race & Religion. Need to be be NonDarwinian. Angry Atheists & Angry Theists suck sorry.

  14. 14
    Hangonasec says:

    Dick @11,

    I appreciate your answer, but the fact that objective morality may be ‘grounded’ in the views or opinions of a transcendent entity does not quite address the question you yourself posed. I am familiar with the argument on subjectivism (though I disagree with the way it is generally framed, as merely ‘doing what I fancy’), but there are 2 issues:

    1) What values one has oneself
    2) Why ‘should’ anyone else share those values?

    You seem to have given a reason to adopt personal values (1) on the basis that it forms a logical grounding for (2) – but when it actually comes to that hypothetical other person, your take on the basis of morality runs up against a buffer IMO – ‘they’ should adopt your values because you argue that such things are objectively grounded. They actually could be, but that’s not the issue. I can never quite see how objectivists practically avoid this assumed trap of subjectivism vis a vis the dissemination of wider moral values.

    My own take is that a certain element of morality is innate – genetic IMO, though you may prefer God-given. When we have moral conversations, we are talking about a shared sense: right and wrong. What specifics fall into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are of course a little more variable, but there are generally fundamental social principles at work. So I’d tend to appeal to senses of justice, of fair play. Some people don’t have them, of course.

  15. 15
    Dick says:

    Hangon@14: “I appreciate your answer, but the fact that objective morality may be ‘grounded’ in the views or opinions of a transcendent entity does not quite address the question you yourself posed.”

    Actually, I didn’t say that objective morality is grounded in “the views or opinions” of a transcendent entity, but rather in the nature of that entity, which is a bit stronger claim, I think.

    In any case, I agree with you that a certain amount of our moral understanding is innate. However, I would want to insist that unless it’s “God-given,” if it’s merely a product of impersonal forces shaping us for life in the stone age, then it cannot impose any duty upon us to behave one way rather than another. Natural selection cannot create a moral duty.

    Unless the source of our moral understanding is a personal, transcendent, perfectly good being I don’t see how there can be objective moral values or objective moral obligations.

    IOW, Rorty was right, I think, that the secular man has no answer to the question, ‘why not be cruel?’

  16. 16
    0812681 says:

    Hey y’all,

    Coming monday, John Gray will do a interview at the public library of the Hague, where I live.

    http://www.writersunlimited.nl.....aal=engels

    I had already planned to attend this event before I red the article. I don’t know if there will be an Q&A session, I hope so. So, I’d appreciate if you guys could post a (few) question(s) you would like me to ask him.

  17. 17
    Mung says:

    CHartsil: So are you guys ready to give up the notion that ID isn’t religious?

    You have scientific proof that ID is religous? Do tell.

    CHartsil claims that ID ought to be subjected to the rigour of the scientific method. So how should we evaluate the claims of one CHartsil? Should we just take them on faith?

  18. 18
    Axel says:

    This endless-seeming imbroglio about our word, ‘religion’ in the context of ID seems a complete red herring – crimson enough to render the multitudinous seas incarnadine, even.

    The derivation of the term, ‘religion’ is from the Latin verb, ‘religere’ : to bind. In arriving at a conclusion that the natural world was designed by a super-intelligence that implies divine omniscience and omnipotence, the only binding feature is the purely intellectual import of the evidence, and does not demand or actively invite intellectual assent to it, save in the sense that lawyers will talk about evidence being ‘persuasive’, or ‘binding’.

    They are witholding such assent on the basis of a specious cavil about religion. In the context, a singularly callow form of political correctness, akin to an absurd obeisance to the paranoia of a coke-head. Fear is a bad counsellor, atheists, and thinking with your emotions in this particular context, is not a mark of intellectual integrity.

    Although perhaps technically correct – ‘inference to the best explanation – ‘persuasive’ leaves ‘wriggle-room that even atheists concede, however tacitly, just isn’t there. So ‘binding’, it is, and your helpless compulsion to kick against the goad, atheists, must not be allowed to cloud your judgement.

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