Philosophy, Science and the New Atheists

This is a symbol intended to encompass polyamo...

This is a symbol intended to encompass polyamory, skepticism, and atheism. There are several symbols for atheists and many symbols for polyamory, but no other symbols for skepticism. Also, there are many different groups and symbols for the intersection of polyamory and spirituality/religion, but only one for poly atheists. Many atheists are also not skeptics and vice versa, so a symbol for all three was created for that niche group of polyamorous people who are both skeptics and atheists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several statements have appeared recently in the on going discussion about atheism, new atheism, and theism. Debates, papers, shouting and name calling abound. And there has been some calm discussion. Here are some examples to think about:

Physicist and heathen Victor Stenger has written a peer-reviewed article for Science, Religion, and Culture, which is now accepted and available free online. It’s called “In defense of New Atheism: A response to Massimo Pigliucci.” It’s a critique of Pigliucci’s article “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism  Movement” (Midwest Studies in Philosophy 37:141–53). – from Why Evolution is True

And there is a fine article by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker magazine which is available here. Gopnik writes clearly on many topics and in this article he reviews and comments on this disturbance in the intellectual world. For example:

Only in the past twenty or so years did a tone frankly contemptuous of faith emerge. Centered on the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the New Atheists were polemicists, and, like all polemics, theirs were
designed not to persuade but to stiffen the spines of their supporters and irritate the stomach linings of their enemies. Instead of being mushy and marginalized, atheism could proclaim its creed. But why did
the nonbelievers suddenly want stiffer spines and clearer signals? Why, if the noes indeed had it, did they suddenly have to be so loud?

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11 thoughts on “Philosophy, Science and the New Atheists

  1. Reblogged this on fryebt – wrtc 412 and commented:
    I would have been interested in these articles when doing our research because it explores the idea of polemicists. When advocating non-belief, does it matter if they are being pro-Atheism or anti-Religion? Yes, it does.


    • You write, “When advocating non-belief, does it matter if they are being pro-Atheism or anti-Religion? Yes, it does.” This sounds right; can you say more about the distinction?


  2. What would count as “a broad and general theory of the human condition and the human hunger for meaning”? At the most general level only two readings are possible: we humans are special and are a part of a meaningful divine plan which is unknown to us in detail but is hinted at in various ways and has been delivered to us in outline by some special text; or, we humans are the result of time and chance, not at all special except as we create our meaning and value through our lived and shared experience. The first reading seeks the universal and enduring Truth or a hierarchy of values which is crowned by God. The second reading opposes that approach and insists on subjective intensity of passion maintaining that the individual is always becoming as the result of choices, risks, and reactions to the experiences of the world of which s/he is naturally related. The reader of the first text often sees death as a door; the second reader sees death as a wall and as the inescapable and shared destiny of all persons. From Finding Patterns…


  3. Stenger argues that the existence of God can be treated as a scientific “hypothesis” simply because if God supposedly acts in the world, we should see evidence of that, just as we see footprints when an animal has been around. The problem I see is the characterization of that evidence.
    Stenger writes: “…Rather we are asking for tangible evidence —scientific evidence—that a God who plays an important role in the universe exists. If such a God exists, then his actions should leave some observable effects in the real world.” But, could not the believer say that the observable effects of God’s actions are simply those same effects? Very often I hear: my sick mother got well and that is thanks to God, we prayed and it is a miracle… And that is the evidence of God’s action.
    Stenger writes about absent evidence: “Cosmology should have evidence for a God who miraculously and supernaturally created the universe.” Well, could not the believer say that even the scientific idea of the big bang seems like a miracle? The creation of such a complex universe out of an invisible nothingness? (Obviously it is very difficult to understand the science of such theory; one should be able to understand things like the Higgs-boson etc, so when talking about the big bang, almost nobody knows what they are talking about. I am just thinking here about the possible answers of your typical believer).
    “If God is responsible for the complex structure of the world, especially living things, we should see evidence for it in nature.” The problem is: what kind of evidence are we looking for here? Once we define it we could set about to find it and be able to say whether we have it or not. Should we look for written drafts, architectural models or what? Stenger argues that evolution can explain complexity. This is simply to say that we have a scientific explanation and therefore supernatural explanation is not necessary. But it is not saying anything about not having evidence for God’s creation of complex beings.
    “We should see evidence for a God who has given humans immortal souls.” He argues that as emotions, memories, thoughts and personalities can be explained by physical mental processes, then no evidence exists for the existence of the soul. But this is no different to saying that we have a scientific explanation for our mind processes therefore supernatural explanation is necessary.
    “With billions of prayers being solicited every year, by now there should be some evidence for prayers being answered” Well, could not the believer say that he has in fact evidence as her prayers were answered when her sick mother got well? And it is also very common to hear that God has his reasons for not answering some prayers.


  4. I still like to go back to John Wisdom [perfect name for a philosopher 🙂 ] and read his paper Gods when thinking about these matters of belief.

    By John Wisdom

    1. The existence of God is not an experimental issue in the way it was. An atheist or agnostic might say to a theist ‘You still think there are spirits in the trees, nymphs in the streams, a God of the world.’ He might say this because he noticed the theist in time of drought pray for rain and make a sacrifice and in the morning look for rain. But disagreement about whether there are gods is now less of this experimental or betting sort than it used to be. This is due in part, if not wholly, to our better knowledge of why things happen as they do. [emphasis added]

    It is true that even in these days it is seldom that one who believes in God has no hopes or fears which an atheist has not. Few believers now expect prayer to still the waves, but some think it makes a difference to people and not merely in ways the atheist would admit. Of course with people, as opposed to waves and machines, one never knows what they won’t do next, so that expecting prayer to make a difference to them is not so definite a thing as believing in its mechanical efficacy. Still, just as primitive people pray in a business-like way for rain so some people still pray for others with a real feeling of doing something to help. However, in spite of this persistence of an experimental element in some theistic belief, it remains true that Elijah’s method on Mount Carmel of settling the matter of what god or gods exist would be far less appropriate to-day than it was then. Source.
    PDF of the original article here..


    • As far as I can understand Wisdom thinks that in this modern age, belief in God is a matter of using a name, a matter of feeling, unsolvable by scientific proof. But if it was simply like an aesthetic matter, a question of a gardener seeing God’s creation whereas another sees nothing but the garden, a matter of attitude, then it would not be much of a problem. Really, the problem is all the factual claims, as Stenger says, claims about physical phenomena. This makes religious belief not different from other beliefs subject to scientific scrutiny. If the expectations of the scientist and the believer about the sick getting better (one treats the patient with the methods of modern medicine and the other prays) are the same, namely, the patient will get well, then obviously both will affirm their beliefs are correct. There has to be a clearly different expectation from the scientist to, at least, make things uneven with the believer.


      • I remember Daniel Dennett saying during his recovery from surgery, that, based upon a recent test of the efficacy of prayer, he requested that no one pray for him.
        Seems to me that “God is powerful” and “Beethoven’s music is powerful” are part of the same language game,


  5. Pingback: It is nearly impossible for an atheist to exist… or science writers for that matter. #science | Unsettled Christianity

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