Padding the Case for the New Atheism

Recently there has been a flurry of books from the “New Atheists.” Such figures as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have been holding forth to state . . . well, not anything new.

The reason there is nothing new to say is that there cannot, by the nature of the discussion, be anything new to say. When it came to the question “Does God exist?,” St. Thomas could only think of two reasonable objections in the whole history of human thought.

Objection 1: It seems that God does not exist, because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

Objection 2: Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

Every reasonable atheistic argument is a restatement of one or both of these basic points.

Objection 1: The Argument from Evil is a rich treasure trove for the New Atheists, providing as it does multiple opportunities to bang on about how Religion Poisons Everything and brandish the usual rap sheet of evils done by theists. And, best of all, should some theist timidly observe that 20th-century atheists shed oceans of blood dwarfing anything ever achieved by theists, the New Atheist can then rail against the uncaring and immoral God who lets innocents suffer and die. It’s win/win! If you are as quick-witted as Hitchens, you can even try to reclassify communism and Nazism as “religions.”

This last ploy may not pass the laugh test with most people, but it’s still workable with the Chattering Classes. All the New Atheist need do is hope that his reader won’t inquire too deeply into just how he arrives at certitude about what “good” or “evil” is without smuggling in all sorts of transcendent categories from a supernatural worldview.

For the New Atheist is full of moral prescriptions and proscriptions: We should be teaching children about Darwin. We should not be teaching children religion. We should have greater tolerance for sexual diversity. We should not be subjecting infants to circumcision. We ought to be doing X, we ought not to be doing Y, etc.

The problem is this: Trying to derive a moral universe — any moral universe at all — of Should from a purely materialistic universe of Is turns out to be impossible. The perfectly just outrage of a Hitchens at some crime by a theist turns out — if you grant the New Atheists’ materialism — to be just one more biochemical reaction. And privileging a biochemical reaction merely because it is a lot more complex than, say, combustion is as crude a mystification as bowing down to a rock because it’s really really big.

In the atheistic universe of Is the biochemical reactions going on in the piece of matter called “Adolf Hitler” can have no greater or lesser Oughtness than the biochemical reactions going on in the piece of matter called “Martin Luther King Jr.” They just Are. Attempts to impose meaning or value judgments on these biochemical processes are, in the final materialist analysis, simply one more sample of the human brain’s innate tendency toward pattern-making — which, according to Dawkins, is the source of the God Delusion. As the real modern atheist, Richard Rorty, pointed out, there is no universally valid answer to moral questions such as, “Why not be cruel?” Quoth Rorty:

Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question . . . is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.

The New Atheists, however, seem to be blissfully unaware of all this, because they are, in fact, Old Atheists of the 18th and 19th centuries who retain a serene confidence that the privileged bits of the moral and rational order looted from the Christian civilization they are laboring to destroy will just go coasting on of their own accord. Because of this, the New Atheists retain the charming Enlightenment faith that they can hold on to that particular pattern-making epiphenomenon of brain tissue called Reason as they deploy the other staple argument of any really substantial atheistic case: Objection 2: The Everything-Works-Fine-Without-God Argument.

This argument is what undergirds most attempts to back up the New Atheism with a gloss of scientism. It goes like this: People once thought lightning was the Wrath of God and disease was caused by evil spirits. Now we know the physical laws behind a lot of phenomena. Therefore, there is no Legislator of those Laws, and he cannot alter those laws or feed new data into his creation because that would interfere with the philosophy of a lot of tenured people.

Put briefly, you propose a huge metaphysical hypothesis that Absolutely Everything popped into existence 13 billion years ago with the help of Nobody, but loaves and fishes cannot pop into existence 2,000 years ago with the help of Jesus of Nazareth, despite the eyewitnesses who inexplicably chose to die in torments proclaiming He did. The trick to establishing this hypothesis as dogma — when the odds currently stand at 10137 to 1 against the fine tuning of the universe — is to take a particular methodology that, by its nature, only looks at time, space, matter, and energy and have thousands of people repeat “Only what our methodology can measure is real!” for two centuries over millions of loudspeakers. Voila! The words of C. S. Lewis’s Mr. Enlightenment become the Received Wisdom of an entire culture:

Hypothesis, my dear young friend, establishes itself by a cumulative process: or, to use popular language, if you make the same guess often enough it ceases to be a guess and becomes a Scientific Fact.

If people still are troubled by those 10137 to 1 odds, just wave your hand like Dawkins and say there are probably lots of universes, so ours was bound to turn up. Admittedly, there’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever for that claim. But if you invoke “string theory” and mention Stephen Hawking’s name you can generally intimidate people into silence.

If this doesn’t work, you can, like Dawkins, argue that “any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself.” Have another New Atheist named Dennett declare this argument “unrebuttable.” Then quote Dennett quoting you and declare him spot on. You might also want to throw in something about how much more science knows about the complexity of universe today than in St. Thomas’s day. Don’t play up the fact that medievals knew as well as anybody else with two eyes that the universe is a really complex place. And, in particular, don’t discuss the fact that St. Thomas addressed your brand new unrebuttable objection nearly 900 years ago in his Summa Theologiae (Part I, Question 3, Article 7).

Most of all, overlook the fact that the question you are supposed to be attending to is “whether God exists,” not “whether God is complex.” Ignore the fact that all a theist has to do is show that creation is contingent and therefore necessarily depends on what is not contingent for existence. Do not remind yourself that the theist is not obliged to say he or she understands that non-contingent Being, merely that such a being exists. If all this fails and your reader still thinks St. Thomas is getting the better of you, call your reader a creationist in the same tone of voice you’d use to say, “You left your used Kleenex on my coffee table.” Or, if you are Hitchens, just compare him to Osama bin Laden.

Now Objections 1 and 2 are all she wrote as far as good atheist arguments. You can expand on them by multiplying examples of evil or by ringing the changes on various natural processes that seem to be getting on fine without God. But you can’t add to these arguments.

And that’s what fascinates me about the New Atheists. Because, as Dawkins’s “unrebuttable” fallacy just demonstrated above, the New Atheists and their disciples do not stick to these, the only two really reasonable objections to God’s existence there ever have been or ever will be. Instead, they exhibit the telling tic of the nervous rhetorician and incorrigibly lard on various other arguments known as “fallacies.”

To borrow a term from Dawkins, one common meme among the New Atheists is the Argument from Intellectual Maturity. It’s a gripe as old as Celsus, eloquently repackaged in the words of Christopher Hitchens:

[Religion] comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs).

This boast of being the first adults after humanity’s long childhood of irrational mysticism is a theme to which the New Atheists (who like to refer to themselves as “Brights”) return again and again. Only the Trained Measurers of Time, Space, Matter, and Energy are the natural custodians of the Knowledge of Ultimate Reality; while only the stupid, immature, or crazy can suppose the existence of the supernatural. The Brights are, in Carl Sagan’s phrase, the candlebearers in a demon-haunted world, the Vanguard of Humanity Come of Age.

If St. Thomas were around to summarize the argument, it would go something like this:

Objection 3: It seems that God does not exist, because children, fools, and other simpletons believe He does. Therefore, God is a delusion concocted by mental and emotional juveniles.

This argument has a certain appeal in a world of ululating Cartoon Rioters, six-day creationists, spoon-benders, Art Bell fans, and Marian Apparitions on Grilled Cheese Sandwiches. Yet, curiously, right in the middle of his own discourse on the immaturity of the theist, Hitchens makes a strange and startling confession of faith in the infallible mystical insights of one particular child named “Christopher Hitchens.” In God Is Not Great, Hitchens describes how, at the age of nine, he concluded that his teacher’s claim that the world must be designed was wrong:

I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong.

Hitchens’s brother, Peter, drily replies:

At the time of this revelation, he knew nothing of the vast, unending argument between those who maintain that the shape of the world is evidence of design, and those who say the same world is evidence of random, undirected natural selection.

It’s my view that he still doesn’t know all that much about this interesting dispute. Yet at the age of nine, he “simply knew” who had won one of the oldest debates in the history of mankind.

What is marvelous is how nakedly Hitchens reveals his own atheist convictions to be entirely faith-based and — what is more — based on faith in a mystical epiphany to a nine-year-old boy. All the massive artillery of his adult wit and eloquence is, in the final analysis, ranked and ranged to protect that boy and his emotional epiphany. In contrast, all Christ asks of us is to have hearts like children, not minds like children. St. Thomas’s faith was childlike; his intellect was formidably adult. Hitchens, in contrast, demands we reject St. Thomas’s fifth demonstration of the existence of God — because a nine-year-old boy had a really strong feeling once half-a-century ago.

Another curious strategy of the New Atheists has, like the Argument from Intellectual Maturity, a certain prima facie appeal. It is the Argumentum Contra Suckers. Again, in Thomistic terms, it goes something like this:

Objection 4: It seems that God does not exist, for shepherd children, peasants, polyester-clad tourists from Jersey, and other people I regard as suckers say they see miracles. But any God worthy of the name would submit to my demand for experimental proof, not manifest Himself to such tacky people. God does not submit to my demands, therefore God does not exist.

This conundrum goes all the way back to the New Testament, of course. The Pharisees made a similar demand, and Christ replied:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah (Mt 12:39).

The New Atheists and their students have, of course, a simple explanation for this: Jesus would give no sign because he could give no sign. His miraculous claims were fraudulent, so he just shouted critics down and bolted for the door. His equally fraudulent disciples imitated him, giving us the fiction of the New Testament.

There are two problems with this simple explanation.

First, why would the Gospels record this rather embarrassing incident? If the whole thing is, as it appears, an account of the time the Master dodged getting caught as a fraud, it seems much easier for his chroniclers to just skip it. Particularly since the evangelists are frauds themselves whose entire task was to doctor the record in order to paint their dead rabbi as a god.

Second, why do the chroniclers then record that, after this, Jesus promptly goes off and started working various signs? Can such cunning frauds really be so dumb as to not think anybody would notice?

Or might it be that Jesus’ words and deeds do not admit of such a surface reading? Again, the New Atheist account of the Gospels winds up sounding a great deal like Lewis’s Mr. Enlightenment:

The Landlord is an invention of those Stewards. All made up to keep the rest of us under their thumb: and of course the Stewards are hand in glove with the police. They are a shrewd lot, those Stewards. They know which side their bread is buttered on, all right. Clever fellows. Damn me, I can’t help admiring them.

But do you mean that the Stewards don’t believe it themselves?

I dare say they do. It is just the sort of cock and bull story they would believe. They are simple old souls most of them — just like children. They have no knowledge of modern science and would believe anything they were told.

This curious pattern of trying to have things both ways is on remarkable display among the New Atheists. On the one hand, we run into contradictory explanations that do not explain, such as diabolically clever evangelists who are too stupid to read their own books. On the other hand, we run into a curious role reversal when it comes to dealing with claims of the miraculous, not 2,000 years ago, but right here and now.

Theists, you will recall, are dogmatists utterly closed to empirical evidence that challenges their tidy little universe. The New Atheists, in contrast, are realists who just follow the evidence where it leads, and luckily it leads to what they “simply knew” since they were nine years old. Yet curiously, we so often meet New Atheists like London Times columnist Matthew Parris.

Recently, Parris wrote his coolly intellectual reaction to the story of Sr. Marie Simon-Pierre, who, as doctors confirm, was suddenly healed of a well-documented case of Parkinson’s Disease on the night of June 2, 2005, after praying for the intercession of the recently deceased Pope John Paul II. By way of careful scientific examination of these facts, Parris deployed the following analytical algorithms:

1. Link the story with crazy dispensationalist notions about the Second Coming;

2. Call for “intelligent Christians” to voice their “righteous anger” and “contempt” for this “nonsense” (apparently meaning “any belief in the supernatural”);

3. Ridicule the “excesses of Lourdes”;

4. Lament “the woeful confusion of faith with superstition”; and

5. Categorically condemn anyone stupid enough to “honestly entertain the possibility that from beyond the grave the late Pope John Paul II interceded with God to cause a woman to be cured of Parkinson’s disease.”

Parris concludes this dispassionate pursuit of the evidence with the following de fide definition:

“But how can you be sure?” Oh boy, am I sure. Oh great quivering mountains of pious mumbo-jumbo, am I sure. Oh fathomless oceans of sanctified babble, am I sure. Words cannot express my confidence in the answer to the question whether God cured a nun because she wrote a Pope’s name down. He didn’t.

Simple-minded folk might think that the truly rational first step is to find out if the nun had Parkinson’s and then find out if she was cured. Why not research the strange and well-documented deeds of St. Pio of Pietrelcina? Or the miracles at Lourdes?

Instead, the tactics of Parris are defended with a sort of mantra: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This slogan is designed to persuade us that the debate is over what the facts are — not over whether the New Atheist materialist dogma permits him to so much as look at them.

The reality is that extraordinary claims are established on the basis of human evidence every day. No man can prove in a lab that his wife loves him, yet for millions of men it is an extraordinary fact more certain than the age of the universe, accepted entirely on human testimony. For centuries, extraordinary claims were brought back from Africa of a mysterious manlike creature that dwelt deep in the jungles. The way the reality of this creature was determined was not by sitting in a lab parroting “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” but by going and seeing whether or not gorillas were there.

And that’s the thing: The believers go and see. Credo ut intelligam. New Atheists stay at home and rail at what Hitchens calls the “ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage.”

Seventy-thousand eyewitnesses (including atheists and skeptics) to the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima are told by the stay-at-home dogmatist that it was spontaneous mass hallucination unprecedented in history.

People who have experienced scientifically documented and inexplicable healings at Lourdes are commanded by New Atheists to believe they are victims or perpetrators of some sort of unnamed “excess.”

A Host begins bleeding human blood at a Mass in Betania, Venezuela, and the whole thing is caught on video by an ordinary tourist? Conspiracy and trick photography, despite the fact that the Host (still preserved in a monstrance after being subjected rigorous tests) continues to bleed now and then to this day.

And when the resolve to Just Not Look begins to crumble under the suspicion there might be something to the supernatural after all, the solution is “Pop in a DVD of the Amazing Randi or Penn and Teller debunking something and repeat to yourself ‘Some claims of the supernatural are bunk, therefore all are.’”

God’s obstinate tendency to conform to the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior (“God, under carefully controlled, laboratory conditions, will do whatever he likes”) has prompted some particularly desperate New Atheists to propose one final objection in a last ditch attempt to show who is boss. This is known as the Argument from Chronological Snobbery. It may be seen in chemical purity in the words a devotee of the New Atheism who recently wrote me:

Because science is evidence-based and ever-evolving it is actually better suited to unravel the mysteries of life and the universe than ancient “divine” texts. (Is it unreasonable to ask, for instance, that the Lord offer us at least a cursory sketch of DNA in his “authoritative” text on the workings of the world? Or perhaps it’s time for the old man to reveal a revised edition that at least pays lip service to the Enlightenment and the wonderful discoveries of science, none of which were implied or indicated in the slightest in his original “bible.”)

St. Thomas would put it thus:

Objection 5. It seems God does not exist, because if he did exist he would meet my demand for proof by giving a biblical author knowledge — such as the soil composition of Mars or the design of a microchip — impossibly ahead of the Bronze Age. He has not done this, therefore God does not exist.

Now there are only two sorts of people who think Scripture is supposed to be The Big Book of Everything: New Atheists and Fundamentalists (who are more alike than either realizes). Catholics, in contrast, believe Scripture to be about God’s progressive revelation of salvation in Jesus Christ and reject the notion that its mission is to give us the atomic weight of the hydrogen atom or a schematic for a transistor. That’s because our present is not, in the words of Lewis, “the final and permanent platform” from which all is to be judged and the ultimate summit to which all has been leading.

Think about it. Suppose some earlier skeptic made similar demands. If he is God, says the medieval skeptic, then why doesn’t Exodus discuss the four humors of the body? Where is the blueprint for the astrolabe in Genesis or the science of leechcraft in Numbers? The 17th-century skeptic demands to know why God nowhere reveals ultimate truth — Newtonian physics — in Scripture. The 19th-century skeptic demands to know why God never deigned to reveal the hard scientific fact of aether to Moses. In the 1940s, the Stalinist skeptic laughs at the Bible’s ignorance of Lamarckian evolution.

In short, it is the glory of science to progress. Meanwhile, the purpose of revelation is not to tell us everything about everything, but to tell us about the important things. And the irony is, the revelation of creation ex nihilo is precisely the sort of thing that transcends both Bronze and Digital Age mythologies. Paganism tended toward a cyclical, not a linear, vision of time. It universally imagined the gods making the universe from some sort of “stuff.” Only one people held the fixed belief in creation ex nihilo: the Jews, who insisted that “God created the heavens and the earth” out of nothing. Scientifically, the question of whether the universe even had a beginning remained open until about 40 years ago. How that beginning came about is still — and always will be — a question that transcends science and can only be known by revelation.

At this point, the sane metaphysician must sooner or later say, “Very well then, science is limited and I must grow beyond its narrow confines. I must embrace a larger metaphysic that encompasses science, yet allows for supernatural revelation that transcends, not contradicts, the truths revealed by science.” The insane metaphysic says, “No! Everything must fit my narrow empiricist worldview!”

That is what the Catholic Tradition calls “pride.” And that, ultimately, is the real issue here, not “sufficient evidence.” The solution to this blunder is what the tradition calls “humility.”

G. K. Chesterton once remarked that the only response a believer can give to the one who will not understand is “You don’t understand.” It should be noted that the operative term here is “will not,” not “cannot.” There are two sorts of questioners, roughly speaking: those who ask to find things out and those who ask to keep from finding things out. This is the explanation for Jesus’ mysterious refusal to give a sign, coupled with his curious willingness to give all sorts of signs. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. But those who ask in order to keep from finding also get what they seek. For all find what they truly seek.

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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  • Warren Jewell

    Mr. Shea, you are the epitome of faith and reason at home in one soul.

    Of course, it has long been obvious that atheism ‘has faith in its presumption and self-service that it has no faith in God’. And, there is nothing about actual science that argues for this ‘faith’ they possess; in facts, as time passes, science proves their faith is surely no one true faith. Consider the miraculous, about which even atheist-leaning evolutionists bow to the fact of miracles, even as they claim no shred of understanding. For, what true faith can argue against the miraculous with that unstudied New-Age-of-Enlightenment arrogance, for which read: stupidity? Then again, stupidity has always depended upon presumption and been at heart self-service. I ought to know: I have been stupid over and over again.

  • http://catholichawk.com PrairieHawk

    A wise man said (perhaps it was Mark, I don’t recall), “The nonbeliever absolutely must NOT believe. The believer is free to believe or not.” Atheists have painted themselves into a corner, and if anything big ever happens that is indisputably of God, they’re going to scatter like rats. Or find ever hoakier and impossible “scientific” explanations for phenomena like the sun dancing in the sky at Fatima. Mass hypnosis, perhaps?

    Mark, I would really like to see you debate Dawkins or one of these New Atheists on CE. Or maybe your opponent would insist on a neutral meeting place, which would be fine as long as the event was well-publicized to CE readers. I think it would be an incredible exposition and, if we’re lucky, may even win a few converts to the Gospel. Mark and Mary, can something like that be arranged?

  • mrteachersir

    I think I can summarize Mark’s point: much of New Atheist’s drivel are words that are “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” They lack taking their arguments to the next logical step, or they fail to realize the consequences of their statements. But hey! It sounds fancy, so it must be true!

  • http://psalm402.blogspot.com/ mandrivnyk

    Brilliant, Mark. I can think of a few friends I would rather like to have read this. Except, of course, for the fact that (as you point out) rational argumentation never seems to go very far with those who really don’t want to believe.

  • florian

    @PrairieHawk as Chesterton said “The man of the nineteenth century did not
    disbelieve in the Resurrection because his liberal Christianity allowed him
    to doubt it. He disbelieved in it because his very strict materialism
    did not allow him to believe it.”

  • plowshare

    Mark Shea, as usual, does an excellent job of capturing the mindset of the New Atheists. I might add that a variation on Objections 3 and 4 by Bertrand Russell is often quoted by admiring atheists–unaware that Russell was hoist by his own petard in the presence of Malcolm Muggeridge. Russell wrote in _Human Society in Ethics and Politics_ (Simon and Schuster, 1954):

    “There is something feeble, and a little contemptible, about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comforting myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dare not face this thought, and he therefore cannot carry his own reflections to any logical conclusion. Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed.”

    Malcolm Muggeridge wrote the following, in _Esquire_, Dec. 1970, p. 157:
    “The liberal assault on Christianity has been undertaken with a fury and fervor which today, when the battle seems to have been conclusively won, is difficult to comprehend. I well remember to my surprise, in a television encounter with Bertrand Russell, at discovering in him an almost demented hatred of Christianity, to which he attributed all the horrors and misfortunes mankind has had to endure since the fall of the Roman Empire. As I attempted to confute this view, I found myself watching in fascination a red flush which rose steadily up his thin stringy neck and spread to his face. … The script of this strange encounter is still extant, and reveals the philosopher in a most unphilosophic mood, roaring and bellowing like any atheist orator at Hyde Park Corner.”

  • grumpydude

    Mr. Shea—always enlightening to read and listen to you.

    I had a realization about atheists after hearing the debate between Daniel Dennett and Dinesh D’Sousa. Dr. Dennett compared religion to nurse crops. The purpose of a nurse crop is to give the choice crop a better chance of success, so you plant it alongside the intended crop, and once the nurse crop has done its thing, it is mowed and the intended crop can then grow to maturity. I am not sure that I have heard a major atheist degrade his faith so badly–or so publicly. Is saying that atheism has *required* religion in order to exist? (and didn’t Chesterton say something about that?) Furthermore, does one plant just one nurse crop, or one every year? Do atheists really require this much nursing? My guess is ‘yes’.

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  • Don

    Your “10^137 to 1 odds” point makes no sense. We are living in this universe, therefore, there is a 100% chance it exists. Even if the chances are 1/10^137 that a given universe can support human life, those odds don’t matter from our perspective because you will only experience the universe after you have come to life. This is called the anthropic principle.

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