Do you remember those ridiculous childhood arguments, “My big brother can beat up your big brother”? They were pathetic then, and no grown-up with any self-respect would think that that kind of fantasy boxing by proxy is any kind of way to settle a disagreement…but we atheists have to remember that we aren’t dealing with self-respecting grownups. Scott Stephens, some guy at ABC news, has taken that tactic and made it even more feeble and irrelevant: his argument against the New Atheists is basically “Your big brother can beat you up, ha ha, I win.” This is such a dreary and dishonest approach; it involves puffing up dead or less popular atheists into demigods who strode the earth with cosmic seriousness, while anyone new and slightly less moribund is sneered at as inferior, the weak and enfeebled scions of a diminished age, and therefore deserving nothing but dismissal.
There seems to have been an innate sense among atheists that the Promethean quest to topple the gods demands a certain seriousness and humility of any who would undertake it. Hence those atheists worthy of the name often adopted austere, chastened, almost ascetic forms of life – one thinks especially of Nietzsche or Beckett, or even the iconic Lord Asriel of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – precisely because our disavowed idolatrous attachment manifest in practices and habits and cloying indulgences, and not simply in beliefs (this was Karl Marx’s great observation about the “theological” dimension of Capital).
By comparison, the “New Atheists” look like sensationalist media-pimps: smugly self-assured, profligate, unphilosophical and brazenly ahistorical, whose immense popularity says rather more about the illiteracy and moral impoverishment of Western audiences than it does about the relative merits of their arguments.
Ah, yes, that makes it easy. Those New Atheists aren’t wizened mummies who whisper a few gnomic words of wisdom and then lie back to contemplate eternities — why, they strut confidently (how dare they!), they write a lot (how undignified!), and they engage vigorously with the popular culture (then they must be boorish louts). Nietzsche would kick their butts and Marx would shame them into silence.
I disagree — these New Atheists are simply basing their ideas more strongly on science, something the theistic critics don’t seem to comprehend — and I don’t consider them less than the Old Atheists, just different, and even there, we’re all making the same argument that gods don’t exist.
Which brings up the relevant point: Old Atheists and New Atheists don’t disagree on the existence of gods, so isn’t invoking both generations of atheists simply doubling your opposition? And if the New Atheists are such scrawny, flabby specimens, why aren’t you simply clobbering us with those powerful arguments you developed to crush our predecessors? Oh, is it because you never had any crushing arguments of that sort?
Scott Stephens has made no counter-argument to atheism at all, except to name-drop an assortment of atheists he thinks were more “serious” in his opinion than any contemporary atheists who would bother to disagree with him. That says nothing about atheism, but much about his own inadequacies.
This is the same nonsense that Terry Eagleton and David Hart, among many others, have tried to pull off, and it simply doesn’t work. Go ahead, you can wave my big brother over and try to belittle me with his awesomeness, but it just means the two of us will work together to punch you out and take your lunch money, wimp.