What’s the Matter with New Atheism?

Ned Resnikoff   August 14, 2014
Richard Dawkins laughing / Photo by Jason

Richard Dawkins laughing / Photo by Jason

Taken in its original context, Nietzsche’s famous dictum “God is dead” sounds more like a warning than a triumphant boast. When the line appears in The Gay Science, Nietzsche places it in the mouth of a village madman who soon realizes the world is not yet ready to hear the news. In the words of the madman, news of God’s death “has not yet reached the ears of men.” Even the atheists he encounters have not yet prepared themselves for a world without God.

The village atheists of Nietzsche’s parable are smug, frivolous, and wholly indifferent to the implications of their espoused worldview. In other words, they’re not all that different from the self-appointed spokespeople for what’s referred to as New Atheism. Case in point Richard Dawkins, the most prominent of those spokespeople, who got himself in trouble on Twitter a couple weeks ago while trying to advance some kind of argument about sexual assault and ordinal scales of badness. The actual point he was trying to make—something something, don’t you people understand syllogisms, something—is somewhat obscure, but the language he was using to make it was undeniably abhorrent.

The whole incident has evidently led a lot of other New Atheist activists to reconsider whether they want Dawkins as their public champion. As one of them recently told the Religion News Service: “Regretfully, I think Richard Dawkins has become a liability.”

But if the New Atheists are to shed Dawkins, it’s unlikely they’ll rid themselves of Dawkins-ism. That’s a shame, since by this point it should be obvious that his dunderheaded remarks about Islam, sexual assault, “mild pedophilia,” and so forth don’t emerge from a vacuum. The fact that Dawkins routinely says embarrassing things is a symptom; the root problem is that his particular brand of atheism is itself rather embarrassing.

That’s not a slam against atheism—I’m an unbeliever myself. Dawkins’s problem is that, much like the atheists in Nietzsche’s parable, he fails to take God’s absence seriously. Instead, he seems content to applaud himself and his acolytes for being the smart kids. Whereas the death of God was the starting point for a very long line of inquiry for Nietzsche, it’s the end of a very short one for Dawkins.

Thus while Dawkins may have excised God from his vocabulary, he’s only replaced it with a form of deracinated, unreflective, godless Christianism. Platonic epistemology, moral realism, and a sort of blind confidence in the inevitability of human progress all figure heavily into Dawkins’s worldview; the only thing missing is the big guy in the clouds who helped make these concepts intelligible. Dawkins and his ideological fellow travelers are the reason why John Gray described modern atheism as “a Christian heresy that differs from earlier heresies chiefly in its intellectual crudity.”

Granted, the most egregious offender in that regard might not be Dawkins himself, but fellow New Atheist guru Sam Harris. He’s the one who wrote an entire book trying to defend the conceptually flawed premise that we can derive objectively true value judgments from purely empirical observations. In doing so, Harris ran afoul of not just Nietzsche but also David Hume, an enlightenment philosopher with the intellectual courage to apply his skepticism consistently. Hume wrote that it is impossible to ever derive an “ought” proposition from an “is,” and while he might still be proven incorrect on that front, Harris never adequately rebuts the claim.

The New Atheists’ fondness for proselytization also has undeniably Christian roots. For Dawkins and his followers, as for their evangelical forbears, adherence to a specific creed is a precondition for being “saved” (or, rather, “enlightened”). Metaphysical, moral, and theological claims are either plainly true or plainly untrue; for the world to become a better place, more people must be convinced of the “true” claims’ veracity.

Unsurprisingly, that belief can take people in some pretty reactionary directions. Dawkins’ Twitter avatar is a photo of him wearing a T-shirt that says, “we can find the cure” to religious belief. Sam Harris tends to think of foreign policy in borderline-neoconservative terms, favoring aggressive military action to suppress “theocratic, tribal eruptions” (which, coincidentally, tend to be led by Muslims). And then of course there’s the late Christopher Hitchens, who wholeheartedly embraced the neo-millennialist project of spreading secular liberalism through violent intervention.

Note that while Dawkins may currently be on the outs with the New Atheist community, Harris remains in good standing, and the Hitch has been just about canonized. This suggests that whatever movement-wide soul-searching has emerged from Dawkins’s latest embarrassment isn’t likely to penetrate very deep.

And if that’s the case, it will have been a missed opportunity. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et. al., don’t have a monopoly on godlessness; there are better, more rigorous, more interesting ways to be an atheist. Even Nietzsche understood that, 120 years before The End of Faith, The God Delusion, or God Is Not Great ever hit shelves. Granted, he was a reactionary too, but at least he came by his appalling politics honestly. He at least understood what it means to engage in philosophical inquiry, rather than self-satisfied question-begging.

Ned Resnikoff is a reporter for MSNBC.com, where he covers class and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter at @resnikoff.

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