The New Atheists

By David B. Hart
First Things, May 2010


Edited by Andy Ross

How long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists with their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral truths, their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about religion in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for?

The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets.

But a true skeptic is also someone who understands that an attitude of critical suspicion is quite different from the glib abandonment of one vision of absolute truth for another. A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said.

The only points at which the New Atheists seem to invite any serious intellectual engagement are those at which they try to demonstrate that all the traditional metaphysical arguments for the reality of God fail. At least, this should be their most powerful line of critique, and no doubt would be if any of them could demonstrate a respectable understanding of those traditional metaphysical arguments, as well as an ability to refute them. But not even the trained philosophers among them seem able to do this.

As a rule, the New Atheists' concept of God is simply that of some very immense and powerful being among other beings, who serves as the first cause of all other things only in the sense that he is prior to and larger than all other causes. Dawkins even cites with approval the old village atheist's cavil that omniscience and omnipotence are incompatible because a God who infallibly foresaw the future would be impotent to change it as though Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and so forth understood God simply as some temporal being of interminable duration who knows things as we do, as external objects of cognition.

The New Atheists' favorite argument turns out to be the old argument from infinite regress: If you try to explain the existence of the universe by asserting God created it, you have solved nothing because then you are obliged to say where God came from, and so on ad infinitum.

The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier. They start from the observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being. Thus, one may conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a supreme being, not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.

Only a complete failure to grasp the most basic philosophical terms of the conversation could prompt this strange inversion by which the argument from infinite regress is now treated as an irrefutable argument against belief in God.

But something worse than mere misunderstanding lies at the base of Dawkins' own special version of the argument from infinite regress. Any being, he asserts, capable of exercising total control over the universe would have to be an extremely complex being, and because we know that complex beings must evolve from simpler beings and that the probability of a being as complex as that evolving is vanishingly minute, it is almost certain that no God exists. But this scarcely rises to the level of nonsense. We can all happily concede that no such superbeing exists.

Numerous attempts have been made to apprise Dawkins of what the traditional definition of divine simplicity implies, and of how it logically follows from the very idea of transcendence, and to explain to him what it means to speak of God as the transcendent fullness of actuality, and how this differs in kind from talk of quantitative degrees of composite complexity. But all the evidence suggests that Dawkins has never understood the point.

Christopher Hitchens is the most egregiously slapdash of the New Atheists. His book is so extraordinarily crowded with errors that one soon gives up counting them. Hitchens gets almost all the details in the history of religion extravagantly wrong. His case against faith consists mostly in a series of anecdotal syllogisms of which the major premise has been suppressed.

The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists is rereading Nietzsche. Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity portends another shift in moral and cultural consciousness.

Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated.

For Nietzsche, the future that lies before us must be decided between a final nihilism or some great feat of creative will. He recognized that mere formal atheism was not yet the same thing as true unbelief. He was referring principally to those who think they have eluded God simply by ceasing to believe in his existence. For Nietzsche, the belief that the modern scientific method is the only avenue of truth is the worst dogmatism yet.

Among the New Atheists, Grayling epitomizes the spiritual chasm that separates Nietzsche's unbelief from theirs. All his efforts to produce an atheist manifesto suffer from historical errors, sententious moralism, and glib sophistry.

Grayling would have done well to have reflected on the sheer strangeness of the historical and cultural changes that made it possible for the death of a common man at the hands of a duly appointed legal authority to become the captivating center of an entire civilization's moral and aesthetic contemplations.

AR  Good arguments spoiled by intemperate style, but I agree that Nietzsche does it better.