18 December 2011
Yesterday, James Barham took issue with a recent vulgar attack by new atheist Jerry Coyne on philosopher Alvin Plantinga. He also spoke a little about why he himself is an atheist who has no use for the “new atheists” and their vulgar attacks on intellectuals in general.
Note: See Barham’s recent article “50 Top Atheists in the World Today”
New atheism hopes to advance the atheist cause by treating all other forms of beliefs as delusions. Many new atheists despise scholarly courtesy and discussion; they are vigilantes against whatever they regard as superstition, that is, anything other than new atheism. They have (who is surprised?) alienated traditional atheists, with tactics like,
Last month, atheists marked Blasphemy Day at gatherings around the world, and celebrated the freedom to denigrate and insult religion.
Some offered to trade pornography for Bibles. Others de-baptized people with hair dryers. And in Washington, D.C., an art exhibit opened that shows, among other paintings, one entitled Divine Wine, where Jesus, on the cross, has blood flowing from his wound into a wine bottle.
Another, Jesus Paints His Nails, shows an effeminate Jesus after the crucifixion, applying polish to the nails that attach his hands to the cross.
From the media perspective, what’s not to like about the new atheists? Tenured academics shrieking insults worthy of a brat pack of drunken starlets catching out each other’s sexual indiscretions are dead easy to cover. Reasoned scholarly objections are not. Thus, increasingly, new atheists get to define what an atheist is, to a broad public.
The new atheists treat the old atheists and agnostics similarly. Here, in Rabbi Moshe Averick’s summary, is what Coyne said recently about agnostic mathematician David Berlinski,
“Berlinski makes an ass of himself”
“full of lies”
“pompous and awkward”
“he’s a liar”
“[he’s] lying again”
“morons like [Berlinski]”
The fact that the scholarly community does not consider the new atheists’ contribution to intellectual debate an asset makes no real difference. They have been an overwhelmingly popular media hit.
From the media perspective, what’s not to like about the new atheists? Tenured academics shrieking insults worthy of a brat pack of drunken starlets catching out each other’s sexual indiscretions, are dead easy to cover. The risks of misrepresenting anyone by falling below their intellectual level are very low.
Reasoned scholarly objections are not easy to cover. They don’t get the ink. Thus, increasingly, new atheists get to define what an atheist is, to a broad public.
I believe that, for those who care, the best immediate antidote to the new atheists is the old atheists and agnostics. That is, it is helpful to know something about the cultural tradition the new atheists have hijacked. So many old atheists and agnostics have taken exception to new atheist program planks that I will provide a quick rundown of who some of them are and what their objections are. We will start with three of them now, more in Part II.
Humean philosopher Antony Flew (1923–2010): For decades, he was the atheist philosopher that first year students were introduced to, due to his sparkling clarity. True, in 2005 at the age of 81, after fifty years as the world’s leading intellectual (as opposed to polemical) atheist, he concluded that, as the title of his 2007 book puts it, There IS a God, on account of the design of the universe and life forms. He subscribed to a form of deism thereafter but here we focus on the vast majority of his life in philosophy when he was an atheist. He considered Richard Dawkins a “secular bigot,” and there is no reason to believe that deism was his reason; he simply thought new atheism unworthy.
Note: Some have claimed that Flew “converted” due to late-life fear of death, but he made clear to any who would listen that he expected no hereafter.
Common sense agnostic Australian philosophers David Stove (1927–1994) and Hiram Caton (b. 1936) both fell afoul of contemporary Darwinian culture. Common sense philosophy holds that the basic principles by which we reason and form beliefs can offer us true knowledge of the world.
The common sense philosophers would say that the measure of a brain’s fitness is its ability to perceive truth. That’s what a brain is fit for.
What about atheist cognitive scientist Steve Pinker’s claim that our brains are shaped for Darwinian fitness, not for truth? The common sense philosophers would say that the measure of a brain’s fitness is its ability to perceive truth. That’s what a brain is fit for.
Stove, sometimes considered “the funniest and most dazzling defender of common sense,” wrote a brilliant takedown of evolutionary psychology, Darwinian Fairytales. Evolutionary psychologists claim to explain everything from why we evolved to like a certain type of car grill to why some of us vote conservative by speculating on how that behavior supposedly aided the survival of ape-like ancestors, and thus got encoded in our genes. Stove admitted that his only professional qualification was “40 odd years’ acquaintance with Darwinian literature, and a strong distaste for ridiculous slanders on our species.” That was quite enough, under the circumstances.
Caton has responded to the recent frenzy of almost-literal Darwin worship in recent years by keeping track of the idiocies and excesses on a Web site. Perhaps it is the destiny of agnostic, common sense philosophers to call folly when they see it; he certainly does.
Why are the old atheists/agnostics indispensable? It’s not possible to evaluate what we believe except by hearing from a literate person who doesn’t believe it. There’s the role a new atheist can’t fill. Listening to Jerry Coyne on David Berlinski inspires one to read more Berlinski and less Coyne.
Hang in, there are many more to go, including the atheists!