Why are so many believers so strongly opposed to the mere act of atheists making our case? Why is so much anti-atheist rhetoric focused, not on flaws in atheists’ arguments, but on our temerity for making those arguments in the first place?
I was recently directed to this screed against the so-called “new atheism” by Karen Armstrong: In search of an “ultimate concern”: How the new atheists fail to understand what religion really means, an edited excerpt from her book The Case for God. I was directed to it by an old friend on Facebook (btw, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!), who posted the link with the comment, “I hope some of my atheist friends will read this. (Granted I’ve given up on reading a lot of theirs…)”
Now, given that he himself acknowledged that he wasn’t paying attention to our ideas anymore, I certainly was under no obligation to follow his link. But I was curious. This is not a stupid guy, and I wanted to see what he considered a nice knock-down argument against the “new atheists.”
And I was struck, not just by how bad and tired Armstrong’s arguments were, but by the degree to which they were entirely focused on trying to get atheists to shut up. I was struck — as I am often struck lately — by how much anti-atheist rhetoric has been focusing, not on why the case for atheism is incorrect or inconsistent or unsupported by the evidence, but on why atheists are bad people for making our case at all.
So let’s take this a step at a time. Let’s proceed with the fisking of Armstrong.
1: It is simply not the case that the so-called “new atheists” believe that “religion is the cause of all the problems of our world.” Many of us believe religion does harm, even great harm; but I’ve never yet encountered an atheist who thought religion caused all our problems, and that a world without religion would be a blissful utopia. Of all the straw men I’ve seen in critiques of atheism, this is one of the most absurd. That’s just a way of making our case look ridiculous… so you don’t have to deal with the actual case that we’re actually making.
2: I’ve said before, and I will say again: Thinking that you’re right about something, and making a case for it, does not make you “hard line,” “intemperate,” “ideological,” “fundamentalist,” or someone who believes “they alone are in possession of truth.” It makes you… well, someone who’s making their case.
It’s called the marketplace of ideas.
Why are so many believers so resistant to it?
Why do so many believers critique atheism, not by saying “Here’s why we think we’re correct and atheists are mistaken,” but by saying, “It’s bad for atheists to even make their case at all. How dare they that they think they’re right? How intolerant and dogmatic!”
3: It is simply not the case that atheists only critique fundamentalist religions. I, and many other atheists, have read and critiqued both progressive religion and modern theology. And we have found both to be very much wanting. They either make the same bad arguments apologists have been making for centuries… or they define God out of existence, reducing God to a metaphor (or a “symbol,” as Armstrong puts it), and reducing religion to a philosophy.
Not that there’s anything wrong with metaphors and symbols and philosophies. I just see no need to call them religion.
I can’t help but notice that Armstrong doesn’t actually make a case here for her “modern God.” (As if there were only one, which all theologians agreed on.) I can’t help but notice that she subtitled her piece, “How the new atheists fail to understand what religion really means”… and yet somehow neglected to explain what religion really means. All she says is, “There’s a better version of religion out there, and you mean old atheists aren’t paying attention to it.” All she does is carp at atheists for making our case… without actually making hers.
4: It is not the case that atheists see reason as an “idol,” and we do not see reason as our “ultimate concern.” We’re not Vulcans. We see the deep value in powerful subjective emotional experiences of art, love, etc., as Armstrong describes. We simply see reason, and the careful investigation of evidence, as the best way to evaluate what is and is not likely to be true in the external, objective world.
And that includes the question of whether God does or does not exist. The God hypothesis is not a subjective experience like art or love. It is a question about what is or is not true in the real world. Why shouldn’t be apply rational thinking to that question? Why shouldn’t we make our case for why our conclusion is more likely to be correct?
And atheists do not “deny the possibility of transcendence.” I, for one, have written about atheist transcendence at great length, many, many times. We simply don’t see that transcendence as having anything to do with a supernatural world. I find it fascinating that Armstrong speaks so rapturously of curiosity and seeking outside one’s self… and yet wants to shut off an entire avenue of inquiry and possibility: the possibility that the physical world is all there is.
Again: Why is she arguing that people shouldn’t apply rational thinking to this question? Why is she arguing that it’s “hard line,” “intemperate,” “ideological,” “fundamentalist,” and believing that we alone “are in possession of truth,” to come to a conclusion based on a rational evaluation of the evidence… and to then make a case in the public forum for our conclusion?
5 (and finally, for now):
Armstrong shows a gross misunderstanding of the process of science. She seems to think that, because scientific hypotheses rely on some assumptions and can’t be proven with 100% certainty, that therefore it is “faith” in the same way that religion is faith. This is flatly untrue. Science doesn’t say, “This is absolutely true, no matter what.” Science says, “This is probably true, based on the evidence we currently have.” Science is always provisional. But saying, “This hypothesis is consistent and supported by all the available evidence, and until we see different evidence contradicting it we’re going to proceed on the assumption that it’s true”… that isn’t faith. Not by any useful definition of the word.
And that’s exactly what the so-called “new atheists” are saying about atheism. We’re not the ones saying, “We have faith in atheism that cannot be shaken; no possible argument or evidence could make us change our mind.” We’re saying, “The atheism hypothesis seems to be the one that’s best supported by the available evidence. The God hypothesis doesn’t make sense, and there isn’t any good evidence for it… so we’re going to proceed on the assumption that it isn’t true. If we see better evidence or better arguments for God’s existence, we’ll change our minds.”
And again, I ask: Why are so many believers so strongly opposed to the mere act of atheists doing that? Why is so much anti-atheist rhetoric focused, not on flaws in atheists’ arguments, but on our temerity for making those arguments in the first place?
I can only assume that it’s because, on some level, they know they don’t have a case.
If they had a case, they’d be making one.
They don’t have one.
And so they’re reduced to trying to get us to shut up about ours.