We interviewed Peter S. Williams, an EPS blogger and contributor to Philosophia Christi, about his just released book, A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism (Paternostre, 2009). A talk by Peter about his new book can be downloaded by clicking here.
What is unique about your book compared to other critical treatments on the “new atheists”?
The new atheism is characterised by the propositions that belief in God is false and evil. The new atheists believe that at the core of even the most outwardly benign theism is an immoral commitment to flouting one’s intellectual responsibilities. That means that the new atheism presupposes both an account of rationality and an account of morality. What’s unique about my book is that I examine those accounts and turn the results of this analysis against the new atheism. By systematically reviewing their major arguments, I show how the new atheism is grounded in incoherent accounts of knowledge and morality.
It’s not just that the new atheists are wrong to define ‘faith’ as ‘belief without evidence’ or ‘belief against the evidence’. It’s that their positive account of what it means to live up to one’s intellectual responsibilities is self-contradictory. I counter with an epistemology that isn’t self-contradictory, which frowns upon both ‘blind faith’ and belief despite overwhelming counter evidence, but which opens up the possibility of a faith in God that’s compatible with living up to one’s genuine intellectual responsibilities.
Then again, the new atheists put a lot of emphasis on arguments against belief in God, as opposed to arguments against the existence of God, and these arguments all have a moral dimension. For example, the argument that faith means being committed to ignoring one’s intellectual responsibilities presupposes that we have an objective moral responsibility to reason in a certain way. However, for the new atheists to invoke objective moral responsibilities is self-contradictory, since the naturalistic worldview of the new atheism excludes the reality of any objective moral values. For example, Dawkins says both that there are no normative facts, no good, no evil, and that faith is an evil that leads people to do evil things. These claims form an in consistent set.
Of all the different new atheist voices that are out there, who do you find to be the most compelling in their case against the existence of God?
Dawkins makes the most compelling case against the truth of belief in God; but that’s partly because, despite being such a poor logician, he is a good rhetoritician, and partly because the other new atheists are even worse on this issue! The God Delusion was the first new atheist book I read, and I thought at the time that it was a low point for atheistic apologetics. Dawkins clearly doesn’t even understand the theistic arguments he critiques, and his book is consequently full of embarrassing errors. When it comes to his ‘central’ argument against theism, it turns out to be an exercise begging the question. Dawkins’ engagement with natural theology is a litany of formal and informal logical fallacies; but he’s a zoologist and not a philosopher. I expected more from new atheists who are philosophers, and I was disappointed to discover that Dawkins is actually the high water mark for new atheist engagement with the question of God’s existence!
The new atheists spend very little time arguing against the existence of God, or trying to counter the arguments for God’s existence. Dawkins’ is the most sustained effort on offer. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is crucially predicated upon the non-existence of God, but he only spends eleven paragraphs (from pages 240-245) on this issue! Like his compatriots, Dennett skims over straw-man presentations of a small sub-set of theistic arguments which he dismisses using long discredited counter-arguments.
Anyone who didn’t know better and was inclined to trust what the new atheist’s say would come away from their books with the false impression that the cosmological argument depends upon the premise that ‘everything has a cause’ (thus leading to the question ‘Who made God?’), and that the moral argument claims that people can’t discern or behave in accordance with the good unless they believe in God (or in the Bible as the inspired word of God). As far as I’m concerned, that’s an academic scandal.
What are some of the sociological, cultural-historical or philosophical factors that have empowered the new atheism to emerge now compared to, say, fifty years ago?
I think the explanation is multi-factorial. The terrorist attacks of September 2001 clearly put the issue of religiously motivated violence smack in the centre of Western public consciousness; but I don’t think we can simply point the finger at the actions of a certain type of Muslim and say that the new atheism is a secular reaction to their actions. For one thing, Christians shouldn’t let themselves off the hook here. Many atheists have legitimate cause to feel themselves an oppressed minority. In 2006 researchers at the University of Minnesota identified atheists as America’s most distrusted minority, and the American Sociological Review reported that it is generally thought socially acceptable in America to say that you are intolerant of atheists. I think that the Church must ask itself if it is ‘speaking the truth’ to atheists ‘in love’, or in fear and hate? Perhaps we’ve had a hand in creating a stick with which to beat out own backs.
Another factor is the way in which the new atheism offers an apparently meaningful and purposeful existence to its converts. Materialism is the metaphysics of nihilism par excellence (cf. my book I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning: A Response to Nihilism) but the new atheism dresses itself up in fake robes of meaning and purpose, like the fairy-tale about the Emperor’s New Clothes. The fake meaning comes in the guise of moral outrage at the (generalised) behaviour of theists. The fake purpose comes in the form of an intellectual-cum-socio-political crusade against theistic belief and for a metaphysically naturalistic worldview. The ‘new atheism’ thus offers an apparently valuable meaning and purpose to people’s lives, a daring intellectual identity and a community of like-minded fellow-pilgrims. And the Emperor’s new tailor appeared to offer him the finest new robes…
Where do you think the discussion is going between new atheists and theists in the years to come?
I suspect that the new atheism has already had its cultural hay-day. It has now lost something of that ‘lure of the new’ to which our media-saturated culture is so in thralled, and it seems unlikely that Dawkins et al can sustain their movement’s momentum even if they manage to write a new set of books to keep their ideas in the public eye.
Nevertheless, significant numbers of people have been profoundly influenced by the new atheism. If there’s one thing to be said for the new atheism it is that antipathy towards Christianity is better than apathy; and the new atheism means Christians will meet more antipathy, albeit an intellectually under-resourced antipathy. Christians must ‘speak the truth in love’ to those influenced by the new atheism, engaging them with the real reasons for the hope that we have (rather than the straw-men boldly eviscerated by Dawkins et al), but also engaging with them on a personal level as friends whom Christ loves. If the new atheism can lead to more disagreements that are not disagreeable, then it may be a blessing in disguise!
Peter S. Williams is a philosophy and apologetics researcher, lecturer, and author with the UK based Damaris Trust.