Where Now for New Atheists?

| by Helen Pluckrose |

“New Atheism” is dead. This is what we are told by many people both positive and hostile to the New Atheist approach and to a large extent they are right. The conversation has moved on, at least in the West. (At the last count, the 2013 Arabic translation of The God Delusion had been downloaded 10 million times and the numbers continue to rise.) In the West, anyone involved in discussing religion and non-religion is very familiar with the arguments and in all real senses, the debate has been won. There is no evidence of God, faith is a terrible epistemology and religion is responsible for much bloodshed and oppression. Constantly belaboring the points is tedious and tiresome and it seems likely that people who have not been persuaded by them so far never will be.

However, in another sense, the underlying ethos of the New Atheists is needed now more than ever. In a society in which we are faced with postmodernism on the Left and post-truth on the Right, this skeptical, rational, evidence-based, unapologetically outspoken, liberal mentality can act as an effective antidote if applied broadly, consistently and strategically.

The term “New Atheist” to describe the development in atheist writing pioneered by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett is much disputed.  Those who think favorably of the development will often argue that it is a nonsense term because there’s nothing new about the atheism (how could there be?) People simply became less accommodating of and conciliatory to religious feelings in their discussion of it.

From left to right: Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris.

However, directness to the point of abrasiveness and a refusal to pull punches in consideration of religious feelings is not the defining feature of New Atheism (although the fact that it is often perceived this way could indicate a need for discussion about whether this could be getting in the way of convincing people). The wounding of religious feelings is essentially a by-product. The New Atheist ethos gave no respect to unevidenced claims and granted no privilege to well-established theological beliefs. The scientific element placed religious claims (which Dawkins pointed out were, in fact, scientific claims about the origins of the universe, the nature of humanity and the ability to survive the death of one’s brain) on the same level as other claims and required them to prove themselves. The philosophical component took apart the faulty thinking and showed its flaws with no respect for the cultural value we place on “faith.”  The ethical element refused to look the other way politely when religion inspired human rights abuses on a massive scale.

For the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, James Taylor defines the central features of New Atheism on two grounds: epistemological and ethical,

“[T]hey insist that a belief can be epistemically justified only if it is based on adequate evidence… Moreover, they think that it is possible to live a satisfying non-religious life on the basis of secular morals and scientific discoveries.”

I would qualify that to “on the basis of secular humanist morals” and broaden “scientific discoveries” to “exploring the world with an understanding that an objective reality exists and knowledge about it can be discovered by empirical and rational means.” This is “scientific” in the etymological sense. The word “science” comes from the Latin stem Sci which gives us the verb scire — to know as a fact — and the noun scientia — knowledge in the empirical sense. This is not limited to the objects of study typically undertaken in the natural sciences. The same thinking can be and should be applied to culture, history, art and more.

Taylor goes on:

“The epistemological component is their common claim that religious belief is irrational. The moral component is the assumption that there is a universal and objective secular moral standard.”

Or at least that we can develop one from a humanist perspective in which the wellbeing of humans and other animals are assumed to be of primary importance. Discussion about the best way to go about this will probably continue until our extinction.

Faith-based thinking which makes huge unevidenced claims about the nature and purpose of humanity, the universe and everything and religious moral frameworks which perpetuate values positively harmful to human (particularly female, LGBT & non-believing human) wellbeing have run afoul of New Atheism.

New Atheists have been criticized for not evaluating religious claims in the way they have been for centuries; using philosophy and theology which assumes that God exists. There is an enormous sense of entitlement here which is as amusing as it is exasperating. When James Taylor says,

“Dawkins’ assumption that God would need an external cause flies in the face of the longstanding theological assumption that God is a perfect and so necessary being who is consequently self-existent and ontologically independent,” 

one wonders what he expects a biologist arguing for believing in things on the basis of evidence to do with such a claim!

Other critics of New Atheism have argued that religion brings comfort, community, a sense of protection and alleviates the fear of death and softens bereavement. In short, they accused New Atheists of ignoring the psychological needs met by religion. This observation is a sound one. New Atheists don’t tend to be very sympathetic to claims that religion is comforting (particularly when made by atheists who claim not to need it themselves but be concerned for other people who do.)

Both the “But philosophy/theology…” and “But psychology…” criticisms of New Atheism are founded in the flaw of human thinking in which we imagine that if something is satisfying intellectually or psychologically, it must also be true, or, at least, that this is more important than what is true. Although arguing against believing something because there is no reason to think it true is perfectly reasonable and no further justification is needed, motivations for disbelief are often assumed and they are rarely charitable. A sincerely held position which holds that truth is important for its own sake and that evidence is the best way to get closest to it accompanied by an argument that humanity progresses best this way is often unrecognized.

by Bradley James Peterson

However, whilst New Atheists may be impatient with demands that they take on metaphysical assumptions when they consider the existence of God or that they acknowledge that religion feels good when considering whether its truth claims are justified, it is untrue to say that atheists have neglected philosophy and psychology. Atheist philosophers who have argued for the importance of evidence and logical reasoning in philosophy and applied this to religion include Daniel Dennett, Peter Boghossian and Russell Blackford. Theirs is a philosophy which believes that objective truth exists and that when it can be found, it is by applying reason to evidence. There are also good arguments for not neglecting the importance of understanding the psychological needs met by religion. Arguably, the best one has been made by James A. Lindsay in Everybody is Wrong about God in which he argues that an understanding of the social and psychological needs enables us to find other ways to fulfil those needs and more effectively loosen religion’s grip on humanity.

Everybody is Wrong About God

The connection between New Atheism and liberalism has also frequently been criticized. To the political philosopher, John Gray, its liberal values amount to a false belief. In his essay, “What Scares the New Atheists,” he asserts,

“This is, in fact, the quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism: the belief that all human beings are born freedom-loving and peaceful and become anything else only as a result of oppressive conditioning…But in the larger sweep of history, faith-based violence and persecution, secular and religious, are hardly uncommon – and they have been widely supported. It is peaceful coexistence and the practice of toleration that are exceptional.”

This history is hard to deny (although it’s not clear any New Atheists do and, in fact, many have written about it at length). Historians and social scientists are well aware that WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) societies are a recent and unusual phenomenon. There is a consensus that when societies become more stable & wealthy and their inhabitants’ most essential needs are supplied, religiosity declines and secularism & liberalism increases. Jonathan Haidt observes that:

“Countries seem to move in two directions, along two axes: first, as they industrialize, they move away from “traditional values” in which religion, ritual, and deference to authorities are important, and toward “secular rational” values that are more open to change, progress, and social engineering based on rational considerations. Second, as they grow wealthier and more citizens move into the service sector, nations move away from “survival values” emphasizing the economic and physical security found in one’s family, tribe, and other parochial groups, toward “self-expression” or “emancipative values” that emphasize individual rights and protections—not just for oneself, but as a matter of principle, for everyone.”

For New Atheists and secularists and liberals more broadly, this has been a positive development. Secular scientists, including Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer, have measured the increase in liberal values worldwide and celebrated them. John Gray is both less hopeful and less optimistic:

“The predominant varieties of atheist thinking, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, aimed to show that the secular west is the model for a universal civilisation. The missionary atheism of the present time is a replay of this theme; but the west is in retreat today, and beneath the fervour with which this atheism assaults religion there is an unmistakable mood of fear and anxiety. To a significant extent, the new atheism is the expression of a liberal moral panic.”

It is clearly incoherent to accuse New Atheists of both being complacent about the inevitability of secular, liberal democracy and observe that their whole raison d’etre is to make strong arguments for it and criticize failures of it. In fact, optimism or pessimism about the future of liberal, secular democracy varies hugely among liberal skeptics but whether or not they think secularism, liberalism, science, reason & the fruits of modernity generally will triumph, they are united on believing they should and committed to fighting for them. This is a fight all liberals should engage in right now. The rise of authoritarian identity politics and cultural relativity on the far-Left and populism and a racist form of nationalism on the far-Right in addition to the ongoing problems of religious fundamentalism leaves no room for complacency. If taking these threats to liberal, secular democracy very seriously & arguing against them is a “liberal moral panic,” so be it.

The New Atheist ethos can be summarized as a commitment to the importance of evidence and reason, a respect for science, a liberal humanist ethos based on the wellbeing of all humans regardless of their identity and a refusal to respect or capitulate to unevidenced claims no matter what historic or academic or religious or ideological authority they may have, how good they make people feel or how sacred they are held to be.

Western society had made good progress towards being able to criticize or mock sacred ideas and promote reason and evidence as a basis for knowledge over subjective belief and revelation. The consensus that religious ideas were entitled to a respectful deference not afforded other ideas had begun to be shaken. However, the last few years has seen something of a reversal. Skeptical, secularist liberals, by promoting skepticism and critical thinking and a respect for evidence over subjective experience and personal “truths,” are accused of a bullying intolerance and even bigotry even though religious privilege still dominates society. The balance is swinging back again against the skeptics, the empiricists, the rationalists and the universal liberals, but the pushback is not driven by the religious.

Western society’s resurgence of respect for subjective and unevidenced narratives and lived experience comes from a philosophical shift in the largely secular Left. The postmodern shift towards irrationalism, subjective truth and faith-based thinking opens the door again to religion, particularly those of minority groups, but also quasi-religious theories and movements within Social Justice. As science and reason and universal liberalism became associated with an oppressive, ruling, western, white, male elite in postmodern theory (thereby “erasing” the contributions of scientists, rationalists and liberals who do not fit the description), the demand to respect “alternative ways of knowing,” unscientific truth claims, irrational belief-systems and illiberal values intensified.

That social justice is now seen in opposition to liberalism is significant and this is exemplified in the shifts in the concepts of diversity and tolerance. Support for diversity once meant support for a range of different people and ideas. In liberalism, this indicates an inclusion of all people and all ideas in the marketplace of ideas which can be evaluated on their merits. In the new Social Justice, it means promoting ideas stereotypically associated with marginalized identity groups. Evaluation of these ideas by members of other groups is discouraged (to say the least.) The understanding of “tolerance” as an acceptance that ideas one dislikes must be allowed to exist and be expressed in words and lives has shifted towards a requirement to accept the ideas themselves and refrain from criticizing them. Furthermore, it is increasingly believed within social justice circles that tolerance in the old sense naturally indicates tolerance in the new sense. If one accepts that an idea may be expressed, one must accept the idea and commit to refraining from criticizing it. Equally, working backwards, criticism of ideas is thought to equate to a desire to denying the holders of those ideas the right to exist and hold their ideas.

If one accepts these premises and commits to a thoroughly postmodern SocJus ideology, it becomes essential to oppose free speech, ban certain types of speech and even enforce other kinds of speech. To let a racist speak, even to argue with him, is to endorse racism. To criticize the speech of a Muslim is to deny Muslims and Islam the right to exist. In this way, heresy (belief or opinion contrary to doctrine) and blasphemy (disrespecting sacred values) are making a resurgence and its advocates seldom advocate separation of church and state. In the same way that religion has opposed science which conflicts with ideological beliefs on principle, so too do adherents to ideologically motivated theories of gender, race, sexuality, criminality and more. The similarities between theories of privilege and Original Sin have been argued for convincingly.

There is a need for a response to this and the New Atheist ethos of commitment to the importance of evidence, reason and science, a universal liberalism and a refusal to be cowed into capitulation to sacred orthodoxies seems ideal. And yet, it needs to adapt and expand to encompass diverse irrationalisms and the need for this is only slowly being recognized. It should be apparent to all that some of the people pushing the most irrational, illiberal and anti-humanist SocJus views are atheists whilst some of those most committed to breaking this down and establishing reasonable, consistent principles which apply to everyone are religious. Most notable among these are Muslim reformers and liberals who don’t want the conservative values which oppress them to be respected and protected. They’d much rather have the same right white non-Muslim westerners have had to critique and change their own culture. Other people committed to secularism and concerned about SocJus authoritarianism and irrationalism are believing Christians, Jews, Hindus and more.

In addition to the problems on the Left, we also have the rise of a “post-truth,” “alternative facts,” conspiracy theory-loving Right to contend with. Again, we find atheists among the traditionally Christian Religious Right and Christians among the liberal opposition. There have been considerable attempts to legitimise irrational and illiberal positions under the guise of New Atheist skepticism and rationalism, but a closer inspection reveals them to be nothing of the sort. Instead, there abound conspiracy theories about liberal Muslims secretly lying in wait to impose Sharia Law on western civilisation leading some atheists to undermine and disparage the very reformers and liberals trying to ensure this doesn’t happen. A virulently tribal “anti-SJW” element has emerged, hostile not only to SocJus extremists but liberalism generally and willing to overlook or justify far-Right versions of the very authoritarianism they condemn from the far-left and the social conservatism they condemn in Islam. Sam Harris, in particular, has enraged this type of atheist by being intensely critical of Donald Trump and supporting and working with Muslim Reformers, particularly Maajid Nawaz. Richard Dawkins too has been berated for his scathing comments on Trump, on Brexit and on racist forms of nationalism.

New Atheists who consistently combine reason and a respect for evidence with universal liberalism and argue for these unapologetically come under fire from religious apologists for failing to respect their beliefs, from the far-Left for criticising both minority religious and postmodern nonsense and from the far-Right for refusing to abandon their liberalism. These are very good detractors to have if one wants to consider oneself a balanced, ethical liberal. Furthermore, these forms of ideological blindness are exactly the problems their ethos can address.

If we atheists of the “New” variety rather than the SocJus variety or alt-Right variety want to persuade people and avoid establishing our own tribe forever in opposition to those groups and forever encountering the Backfire Effect, we will need our skeptical, rational, liberal principles but also some psychological and philosophical tools. Lindsay’s Everybody is Wrong about God is an essential read for anyone wanting to have more productive conversations with believers and understand what “God” signifies on a psychological level. For understanding the moral frameworks people with different political beliefs are working within and being able to speak to them in their own language, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is unsurpassed. Peter Boghossian’s Socratic “Street Epistemology” approach, outlined in A Manual for Creating Atheists with a practical accompaniment in the Atheos app provide a powerful method of questioning and reducing confidence in unsubstantiated beliefs and a way to get people to think about what is true and how we can know this.

It might well be time to retire the name “New Atheist,” which few have ever adopted and which could lend itself to tribalism and exclusiveness. My point here is not to define the in-group “New Atheist” and identify out-groups but to argue for a skeptical, liberal attitude which can cross boundaries, make alliances with reasonable liberals from all groups and influence society. It is time to expand our horizons and argue against the irrationalism and illiberalism of religious extremism, far-Left postmodernism and far-Right post-truth. We need to maintain a consistent skepticism regarding ideological truth claims and demand evidence for them, to pick flawed arguments apart and try to rekindle a dying respect for science, evidence and reason. Above all, it is time to focus on promoting a universal liberalism which does not shy away from criticizing bad ideas from any ideological group but supports reasonable liberals & secularists from every group. The New Atheist ethos adapted and expanded and backed by an understanding of psychology and philosophical tools can do this.


Helen Pluckrose is a researcher in the humanities who focuses on late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities. You can connect with her on Twitter @HPluckrose


Header Photo: Greg Rakozy

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  1. Teed Rockwell

    I do appreciate the fact that you are now actually arguing with me, rather than just hurling insults. Thank you for that.

    Theism is the position that the force responsible for the creation of the universe is a person with goals and purposes. Atheism is the position that this force is a mindless motiveless mechanism. That definition is present in the above quote from my paper, and in numerous places in Dawkins and Dennett. All I’ve done here is label which side is which, and expand the definitions of “person” and “mechanism” from the material immediately surrounding my quote. The quote within my quote comes directly from Dennett. There are various other subspecies of each position that attribute particular characteristics to this force (omnipotence, supernatural powers etc.) but I am not defending any of those subspecies.

    No one defines Agnosticism as the position that God is unknowable. Agnostics only claim that they themselves don’t know whether or not God exists.

  2. Juo

    Well I’m still missing a clear and concise definition of god, but in any case I don’t believe that Dawkin’s intent was to say what you claim as being his theology, i.e.: “…the only conscient beings are…”.Rather he points out that we don’t have any evidence of other types of beings having conscience, but in order to find plausible explanations for the world around us we don’t need to rely on other beings not yet discovered . That of course is very different to saying what you claimed it to mean when translated into a positive statement.

    Something else to consider: did it ever occur to you that a-gnostic might also be exposed with your tilde fallacy argument? I mean who are you to claim that you can’t know – are you omnisavant and omnipotent to know that something is unknowable? Saying something is not knowable or not everything is knowable is also only a claim that begs for proof, don’t you think?

  3. Teed Rockwell

    JUO, here are some direct quotes from the tilde fallacy article where I grant your request for a definition of Theos and it’s opposite, with some passages removed to make it clearer that this is what I am doing.

    “There are two different kinds of entities in the world, conscious agents and mechanisms. . . conscious agents possess “foresight: the realtime anticipatory power that Mother Nature wholly lacks” . . .With this distinction in mind, we can assert Dawkins’ theology in the positive by saying “the only conscious agents with foresight are medium sized biological creatures with very big brains. All other organized patterns, micro and macro, are mechanisms, not agents.” There is no contradiction in this claim. It might even be true, and there are other arguments which support it. (The argument from evil, for example.) But Blind Watchmaker theology cannot claim a right to use Occam’s Razor because it is allegedly the null hypothesis. The fact that it has as much positive content as theism becomes clear once it is stated in the positive.”

  4. Teed Rockwell

    JUO, you are correct that my position is not in agreement with what most organized religions preach. In fact, many of my views would have gotten me burned as a heretic in the middle ages. Although I think the great “sacred texts” are worth reading, I don’t think any of them are the revealed word of God, whatever that might mean, and so they must be read critically not reverentially.

    I call my position meta-agnosticism, because although I think agnosticism is a legitimate position given the evidence, or lack thereof, I think that atheism and theism are equally compatible with the evidence. IN other words, I am agnostic about agnosticism itself. As you correctly point out, standard agnosticism is not behaviorally different from nondogmatic atheism. However, I think our level of ignorance is equally compatible with certain forms of theism, and the only reason that agnosticism or atheism appear more justified is because of their reliance on the tilde fallacy.

  5. Juo

    It is funny that you bring up the blind watchmaker as the antithesis to Theos. If that was true then there is a lot of proof, or better say hints, as you certainly know that on a pure formal basis nothing can ever be proved, that the Atheist position is true.
    Unfortunately the blind watchmaker is only a set of theories and examples united in a conceptual explanation on why the world or better biological life is not “build” in the way as one would expect it to be if it was done by a most perfect entity.
    What you need to do first is get a final definition if Theos, then define what the exact opposite of that is and then define what the exact positive statement of that opposite is. If you follow this true, with all intelectual honesty then you may prove your tilde fallacy concept on a purely formal locigal level.
    However I suspect it will be for nothing as my assumption will be that your definitions don’t hold with what organised religions are preaching

  6. Juo

    It is funny that you bring up the blind watchmaker as the antithesis to Theos. If that was true then there is a lot of proof, or better say hints, as you certainly know that on a pure formal basis nothing can ever be proved, that the Atheist position is true.
    Unfortunately the blind watchmaker is only a set of theories and examples united in a conceptual explanation on why the world or better biological life is not “build” in the way as one would expect it to be if it was done by a most perfect entity.
    What you need to do first is get a final definition if Theos, then define what the exact opposite of that is and then define what the exact positive statement of that opposite is. If you follow this true, with all intelectual honesty then you may prove your tilde fallacy concept on a purely formal locigal level.
    However I suspect it will be for nothing as my assumption will be that your definitions don’t hold with what organised religions are preaching

  7. Teed Rockwell

    You don’t have to establish the existence of something in order to define it. We all know the definition of the word “Santa Claus”, even though we all agree he doesn’t exist. If Atheists don’t have a definition of God, then how can they assert that he doesn’t exist?

    Your claim that you are not asserting something because you put the prefix “A” in front of your position (A-theist, A-Zeusist) is a perfect example of the tilde fallacy. That prefix is one of the many examples of an English verbal structure that functions as the logical tilde. Your statement above that “the burden of proof should always fall on the claimant.” is as perfect a statement of that fallacy I have seen. You think that because you have put that “A” prefix in front of your claim, that you are not a claimant. This is a mistake, because your position can and has been stated positively as the Blind Watchmaker thesis. Even if you want to claim that you don’t accept the Blind Watchmaker thesis, you are still implying it. Saying otherwise is like saying “I think that there are lots of nieces and nephews, but no aunts or uncles.”

  8. Juo

    Teed, I suspect that no arguments will convince you as you seem already to be in the realm of self defining what an argument is and what not – if that doesn’t work you are playing the offended card. But I will give it a last analogy: In the same logic I call myself an atheist I will call myself an a-pink-unicornist (slight mock indented), an a-zeus-ist (in earnest now), an a-thor-ist and an a-ra-ist – add some more if you like. The only difference there is, is the difference you (!) defined between Theos and, for example as in your paper, Santa-Claus. That’s the intellectual dishonesty you are perpetuating – you define what Theos is and what makes it different although you haven’t even established it’s existence. Think about it – if the burden is equally on the claimer as on the target you may claim whatever you wish and can always get an out by using your Tilde fallacy (which you adapt over the course of the argument, by redefining your premises).
    In simpler terms, I claim you have used a lot of philosophical jargon to square the circle to be able to eat the cake and have the cake.

  9. Teed Rockwell

    I can put up with insulting arguments DJA. It’s insults that contain no arguments that seem pointless. I mentioned my feelings just because that rarely happens in arguments like this, and I thought it might help things from degenerating into a flame war. To some degree your second response to my comment on your use of the word “blinding”, which was a model of courtesy and personal honesty, was my role model for this.

  10. DJA

    Sorry mate I had no intention of trying to insult you. You sound a bit too ‘thin skinned’ to be risking making comments at all.

  11. Teed Rockwell

    Juo I do appreciate you taking the trouble to read my paper, which I know contains some very long and complicated arguments. I’m afraid, however, that your replies miss the point I am making. Perhaps this will help. This paper is NOT an attack on the claim that we have proof that God doesn’t exist. It is an attack on the claim that the Atheist doesn’t need proof, and that the burden of proof is on the theist. Both the Atheist and Theist claims are equally extraordinary and speculative, so the atheist has no right to say to the theist “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”. The only reason it appears otherwise is that the Atheist phrases her position in negative terms which gives the false appearance that the Atheist doesn’t have a position. That assumption–that if you state your position in the negative your position is last speculative than its opposite– is what I call the Tilde fallacy. In fact, every negative position, including Atheism, can be stated in the positive, and when it is so stated, it is revealed to be every bit as speculative as theism.

    I am tempted to attack both your position and DJA’s position more thoroughly, but I think it is best to mention that reason I want to do that is motivated by the fact that both of you insulted me personally and unfairly, and that as a result my feelings were hurt. That might not have been your attention, and may have resulted from the fact that English is not your first language. JUO, you have unfairly accused me of being intellectually dishonest. My arguments may be bad, (although you have yet to show me why), but they are the positions I genuinely believe. DJA, you have claimed I was trying to use my arguments only to impress people “to demonstrate a sort of Intellectual superiority.” If I were only trying to impress people, I would lift weights, or buy an expensive car. The only reason I write these articles is because I want to acquire some clarity on these topics, and possibly help others find a similar clarity. If you have some objections to the arguments, I would like to hear them. If you don’t find these articles worth reading, then don’t read them. But don’t merely insult them, without bothering to give arguments that actually critique them.

  12. djaramblings

    I hope this last time I have got your name correct (the spell checker takes over whenever I take my eye off the ball.
    I obviously don’t know who or what you are (wish I did know more) but I have enjoyed reading your posts and your comments/replies to me. But I am going to leave this conversation now as my deminished mental acuity is starting to embarrass me. I wish that I could have had a conversation with you 20 years ago.
    I have never wanted to join any ’cause’. I just like to sit back and observe what is going on and my conclusion after many years is ‘what a lot of stuped buggers most people seem to be’.
    Over my many years I have rarely found people who even understand me ( I don’t intend to be arrogant and have always told myself that I must be the oddity not them). I include in this list most of my school teachers and college lecturers.
    That is why I started posting on sites like this. But unfortunately “age does not come alone” and aided by several TIAs (mini-strokes) I am beginning to struggle.

  13. Juo

    No you haven’t, and I am sorry to have made it appear as if I had counted you into that category – this is only due to my bad style of the sentence. Also I should have written: “…religious are as good as any other”, which wouldn’t have pointed to the political pressure group I might personally identify as the most trustworthy. There are of course other moral positions that might be better, but surely not all claims shall be seen as equally beneficial to society and some should just be pointed out as bad. However if you want to have a shot at changing society and opposing the influence of organized religion on it, you have to rally behind some flag even if you don’t agree with all they do.

  14. djaramblings

    Thank you for that comment. I don’t think that I have said anything to indicate my moral relativism have I?
    My answer to your point is that because I don’t know if God exists, (and if he does,his attitude to morals), I have to be pragmatic again and resorting to my own rational reasoning, based on all the information I can find, I have to arrive at a probability value for each of the of the views (the religious and the secular humanists).
    I never align myself with any ‘isms. I have previously declined the invitation to join the humanist association, but requested that they continue to send me their news letters.

  15. Juo

    And you may and should, this is the philosophyval sound position – however what always bothered me with people claiming to be agnostics is their moral relativism: “I don’t know if God exists or not ergo the moral claims by the religious are as good as the claims from secular humanists”. The moral relativism by the postmodernists which is supported by this view is as bad for free societies as the cultural chauvinism on the right

  16. djaramblings

    I agree with what you say that we, for practical day to day behavior ,may as well be pragmatic and live our lives free from god. I think Russel also said ” I should be an agnostic but in practice I behave as an atheist” (or words to that effect). My day to day behavior regarding what I treat as true or false is much like other people’s, but still wish to retain (and diffend) my agnostic opinions.

  17. Juo

    Hi Teed, you certainly put a lot of effort and thoughts in your paper, but I am sorry to say it is not convincing. you assume, interpret and reframe your premises so that they can fit in some logic, but at the expense of intellectual honesty. Further on other points you smash through open doors: Of course it seems very plausible that the mind is an emerging phenomenon and as such immortal in theory, but you miss the point. Your Tilde fallacy is not really a fallacy at all as no worthy “New Atheist” (a qualifier only taken on for practical reasons) would claim with absolute certainty the absence of a god, rather they are indeed at any time ready to concede the existence of say invisible pink unicorns flying around the moon if proof exists. The absence of this counterclaim without proof of it’s own lets your whole Tilde fallacy reasoning break apart in this case. Nobody should make extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence…

  18. djaramblings

    Mr Rockwell,
    I have now realized where you got the blinding notion from. I accused you of ‘blinding us with science’. I used that metorphorically because it is a well known/often used figure of speech in the language I speak, and I did put it in parenthesis.
    So I now think I realize why you have posted replies to my posts that seem to me to have missed my point; you just don’t seem to under stand my English. Sorry about that but I can’t do anything about it because that is the way I have used the language for the last 80 years.

  19. djaramblings

    Where the hell do you get the notion that I said anything about blinding and that I said that if you can’t see something it means there is nothing there (even metorphoricly).
    If I ever did say anything on the subject It would be the very opposite: If you can’t see anything does not mean there is nothing there and the opposite, if you can see something it does not mean that it is there. What you ‘see’ is in your own brain and seems to be triggered by all sorts of stimuli.
    Please try not to misquote me in order to prove the validity of your own point of view.

  20. Juo

    Well don’t extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. I will read your paper out of curiosity as I’d like indeed to understand by what you can actually bridge the issue of philosophical unfairness to claim something and have your audience prove that it is not so – the burden of proof should always fall on the claimant

  21. Teed Rockwell

    Dawkins waffles back and forth on this issue. At one point in a NYtimes interview he did described his position as one he “believed but cannot prove”. But a very different message is contained in the title “God Delusion.” If you think the people who disagree with you are delusional, that implies not only that you think they are wrong and you are right, but that this fact is obvious. That is the position he takes in most of his books.

  22. Juo

    Of course that is – to stay fair and intelectually honest – until someone comes along and proves god’s existence without a doubt,

  23. Juo

    Seems that you don’t know the teapot argument so well after all. The conclusion is not that the absence has been proved – the conclusion is that the burden of proof lies on you and if unable we might as well assume the absence for practical reasons – we just don’t know so let’s be pragmatic about it and live our lives free from god

  24. Teed Rockwell

    JUO The Teapot argument is the most well known example of what I call the Tilde Fallacy in the paper linked above. The paper explains in great detail why that argument is fallacious. DJA says he finds the arguments “blinding”. If that is your experience, I hope you will not make his inference that the fact you cannot see something proves there is nothing there.

  25. djaramblings

    I suspect that we all know about Russel’s teapot.
    I coincider that because something can be shown to be highly unlikely is not a reason to dismiss it by saying therefore we are justified in treating it as absolutely untrue.
    What we are rationally intitled to do is to analyze all the information available to arrive at a mathematical probability (as one would at the conclusion of a scientific experiment) and then we can say ( always remembering that the probability figure will always revivable in the light of new evidence) the probability that it is correct is high , so for practical purposes we can behave as though true.But never claim to have proved only say we have approached the truth.

  26. Juo

    Very great article – you have so very elegantly put into words what I have been thinking for some time now. Thanks to you I have now a logic sequence and the adequate vocabulary to express my thougts in discussions.
    To my fellow commentators:
    The argument was made that the most prominent “New Atheists” where not philosophically honest to deny the existence of god with absolute certainty – please know that Dawkins and company willfully concede that. However they also concur with the phrase Bertrand Russel coined: “I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist.”
    Regarding the nitty gritty of the arguments for the impossibility to prove that god does not exist, I’ll also invite you to have look at Russell’s Teapot analogy – if that doesn’t convince you than nothing can.

  27. djaramblings

    Mr Rockwell,
    No that is not my position at all. I do not believe or have faith in anything, I simply ‘think’ that we can have no knowledge of the nature of God (I call myself an agnostic), and so far I have seen no rational argument that suggests we ever can/will have such knowledge.

  28. Teed Rockwell

    SO DJ, what you are saying is that you are not interested in using argument to settle these kind of questions, and would prefer to believe what you want to believe without giving reasons? Sounds a lot like the Christian position that we should accept answers to these questions on faith.

  29. djaramblings

    I have read one or two of your writings in the past (and other people’s writings in a similar vein) and all I can see is attempts to demonstrate a sort of intellectual superiority by ‘blinding us with science'(or perhaps I should say pseudoscience).
    Putting my opinion simply “is there a santa clause” and ” is there a god” are not fundamentally different questions and although at first glance it would seem to some people that one question will be more easily answerable than the other, when you get down to the nitty gritty they will both have the same answer.
    As I see it ,there is a big difference between what I will call ‘the relative truth’ that we need to assume to run our daily lives and the ‘absolute truth’ that I am afraid we continue to search for in vain.

  30. djaramblingsJA

    I just don’t agree with you. In my opinion the same statement is still valid for the examples you give. It is simply that the reader of the question is more likely to say ” the answer to the question is obvious”. But this is where my opinion differs so much from yours. Let me ask you this: Can you PROVE that there is no Farther Christmas? If you can, how?
    I can’t prove any negative so I have to say “I don’t know”.

  31. Samedi

    Make your question more generic and see if it still holds. For example, “Is there a Santa Claus”? Is the rational answer still “I don’t know”? There are lots of possible examples, “Do the planets determine our personality?” (i.e., astrology), “Do ghosts exists?”, “Are there angels?”

    I do not think that the only rational answer to the question “Is there an X” (where X is some idea you have in your head) is “I don’t know”. Having a mental concept is not proof that that it exists in the natural world.

  32. djaramblingsDJA

    There are lots of other ‘answers’ we could quote, but they can either be simply alternative ways of giving one of the three option answers that I quoted or are follow up answers to one of the three. Or are totally irrational statements.
    Your ‘answers’:
    1. I don’t know because I have never heard of the concept of God.
    2,3,4 and 5. All statements but not answers to the question.
    If anybody wishes to answer ‘yes’ to my question that is up to them, they do not have to give a reason or justification for their answer; like ‘because I know’, etc. or even ‘ because I am God’.!

  33. hiramcrespo

    When I read about “promoting a universal liberalism which does not shy away from criticizing bad ideas from any ideological group but supports reasonable liberals & secularists from every group”, I wonder why no mention is made here of Epicurean philosophy, which is at the very roots of Western civilization, is ancient, promotes friendship and happiness, and helps to tackle fear of death and superstitious claims. It fulfills many of the roles that religions fulfill for the faithful, without the supernatural claims.

    Epicureanism also incorporates a critique of consumerism, a curriculum of control of desires somewhat like in Buddhism, but decidedly not ascetic, and an ethics doctrine that is confirmed by modern science of happiness research. Epicurus is also entirely scientific in his cosmology and worldview. The moral authority of Epicurus becomes more relevant with each passing day.

    Although Epicureanism is apolitical, it does call for a kind of truth-activism known as frank criticism (or parrhesia, in Greek), which criticizes religion and society in general, and does not fall in the error of the post-modern anything-goes ideology. The Epicurean satirist Lucian wrote exposés of religious frauds (and was nearly killed for it) over 1,800 year prior to Charlie Hebdo and the recent cartoon controversies. Christopher Hitchens was an Epicurean. So was Thomas Jefferson.

  34. Peter Hinchliffe

    At the risk of taking this off topic I absolutely disagree that it is undemocratic to continue to oppose brexit.
    Brexit has huge implications and touches all of our lives, why should it gain the precedence of being beyond debate. Many of us plan to fight what may be the long fight to return to the EU, that is democracy.
    If its condescending to put out the faults in another person’s position we may as well all pack it in and just support the status quo.

  35. Michael Nugent

    There are at least five answers to the question “Is there a God?” and they involve overlaps of beliefs and claims of knowledge.

    1. I have never heard of the concept of a God, so I cannot answer the question.

    Then, for whatever concept of God you are considering:

    2. I believe that there is a God, and I also claim to know this.
    3. I believe that there is not a God, and I also claim to know this.

    4. I believe that there is a God, but I do not claim to know this.
    5. I believe that there is not a God, but I do not claim to know this.

  36. djaramblings DJA

    If the question “is there a God” is posed. As I see it there are three possible answers; yes,no and I don’t know. The only one of these answers that I can see as rational is “I don’t know” and I would expand that answer with “I can envisage no way that we will ever be able to know.”.
    The so called new atheists give me the impression that they have answered “no” to the question and are now struggling to find something else to ‘believe’ in instead.
    I ask why ‘believe’ in anything, it is just not rational to do so. I think that the only rational thing to “believe” is that it is not possible for man to ever know the nature of God.

  37. Phil

    Also, a technical note: unless I missed something it looks like your first mention of Jonathan Haidt was simply by his last name. Might need to add Jonathan there.

  38. Phil

    Great piece, Helen. You are consistently producing some of the best content in this magazine.

  39. Eric Wayne

    Never. There is only the quotidian and banal for you. According to you, you are capable of no more. If you insist, I’m bound to agree, but speak for yourself.

  40. Speaker To Animals

    Psychedelic shamanism, meditation practices, and Eastern mysticism pose valid checks on a reductionist model of the universe in which subjectivity is discounted.

    Yeah, man, like what if there’s a whole universe in my finger?

  41. Teed Rockwell

    I see the New Atheists as a kind of rationalist fundamentalist. Religious fundamentalists violate the principles of their religions in the name of the religions they are allegedly defending. Similarly, rationalist fundamentalists talk a lot about the importance of reason and evidence, but they don’t walk the talk. They give responses to traditional religious arguments that show an ignorance of the traditions they are criticizing, and the principles of science they defend are a naive form of logical positivism which serious philosophers (including the philosophers who originally proposed it) rejected almost a century ago. This is the main reason that they can’t tell the difference between their own metaphysical speculations and the scientific facts that allegedly support them. I deal with this issue at greater length in the paper linked below.


  42. Eric Wayne

    While opposing overzealous and firebrand postmodern/identity politics, alt-right reactionary blow-hards, and those who want to impose fundamentalist religious dogma is probably necessary, atheism, old and new, has its own limitations.

    Dawkins theory of the “selfish gene” and Harris’ conviction that we don’t have free will undercut our humanity. Extrapolations based on how a gene behaves are outside of the realm of science (Adam Curtis made a documentary on how this believe in human selfishness was used as a model of society and ultimately failed in its application), as are those which Harris uses to conclude we don’t have free will (I can argue against Harris on this myself). If they limited themselves to the conclusions of relevant experiments, that would be fine, but they create “narratives” based on science which reflect a certain reductionist outlook.

    Psychedelic shamanism, meditation practices, and Eastern mysticism pose valid checks on a reductionist model of the universe in which subjectivity is discounted. What if enlightenment IS possible? Science can’t even find consciousness, but it is undeniable because it is the fundamental nature of our existence, as Descartes honed in on so long ago. I would not deny science or reason and logic especially in areas which they best apply. But when atheists start denying freewill (because of Libet’s experiments, which do not even include thought…), or assuming that humans with minds and imaginations and compassion must operate just like a gene, we have a problem. Consider that if we did not experience consciousness ourselves, science would deny its existence. Thus, there is validity in subjective experience, consciousness being the ineradicable example.

    Science, reason, and logic are essential, but the reductionist model that Dawkins, Harris, and company present is not a complete answer.

  43. Lighten Up

    Thank you for composing this wonderful article. You have articulated so well my concern about preserving essential liberal values.

  44. Chris

    Not heard of the book by Lindsay, maybe it contains answers… but I think, in the face of the failure of all non-faith based societies, all the secular religions, especially Europe right now, we’re looking for a way to square a circle and revalidate what’s been debunked and discarded. Hence ,I think, the way Jordan Peterson has.been pounced on as a kind of John the Baptist. I don’t have his ideas off pat,but he takes our myths seriously, almost as co-evolved with the populations and societies they travelled with. He isn’t a conventional believer but seems to equate truth and necessity, in some manner.
    Anyhow, a third way…

  45. David Lloyd

    I think “Atheism” as a label should ideally be left to convey EXACTLY what its structure as a word suggests – a lack of theism.

    Not an active disbelief, not a greater platform of goals or a social agenda of ANY kind… just an absence.

    I think it serves a very profound, meaningful, & large enough role in being entirely *non-prescriptive* to its very core…

    It is difficult enough to identify as an atheist and combat all of the misconceptions society has attached to the label, and there is a beautiful, literal simplicity in explaining the word to anyone who asks as simply meaning “without theism”.

    I think “Secular Humanism” comes closest to what’s being articulated in this article (sign me up!), but I’d go one step further: I think “Humanism” is inherently secular, and inherently liberal, so I think the qualifier is ultimately unnecessary… I’m a humanist, and that means I’m also liberal and secular and atheist, by derivation. And “New,” for that matter 🙂

    As for what’s next, I feel like humanism is a terminus; everything else is sussing out the details, until we “go extinct” as Helen writes, or until we meet an equally-if-not-more-advanced species which would make “humanism” an awkward label to retain.

    Just my two cents; good piece.

  46. Speaker To Animals

    Pretty much agree with all of this except the minor point about Dawkins’ comments on Brexit. I was a Remainer but there has always been a strong Left-wing opposition to the EU.

    The refusal to acknowledge this and the determination to frustrate the Brexit process at every turn is condescending and antidemocratic.

    We lost the argument. We should move on.

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