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.
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
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
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.
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
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.