Wednesday, June 2, 2010

David Hart on New Atheists for First Things

A friend recommended that I read a book review by David Hart on the so-called New Atheists. I have not read the book, so I cannot make much in the way of substantive commentary. I will comment on what I can of the article, however. (After basically exhausting myself on this post after getting only through about the first half of the article, I bailed out. So comments on half the article is all I've got it.)

Before beginning, I should note that the New Atheism isn't all that new. It's really just a term used to designate a particularly vocal group of atheists whose views, books and arguments have become somewhat fashionable lately. I don't know whether it was just a coincidence of books coming out more or less at the same time (mostly Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens) or whether perhaps the culture is more willing to take atheism seriously and actually consider the possibility that it may be correct. But the ideas and the arguments have a long history, going back at least to Epicurus (not really an atheist, but one who rejected his traditional religion using arguments that feel remarkably relevant today), including prominently Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll. No one should be surprised at the content of the arguments. Perhaps the only difference between these New Atheists and older atheists is that they exhibit a more positive attitude toward atheism or naturalism than have others. But even that is not new to the New Atheists. All the people I cited a moment ago viewed rejection of religion as liberating, not cause for depression but celebration. Still, the name is here, and perhaps there is even a growing movement instigated by this work, so there may be something to the name. (Wikipedia says: "The latest statistics show that a lack of religious identity increased in every US state between 1990 and 2008.")

On to the critique of Hart. Hart begins his review of by citing the "intellectually and morally trivial" arguments of New Atheists in general and describing the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists as a "whole drab assemblage of preachments and preenings". Hart claims that he hoped it "would contain at least one logically compelling, deeply informed, morally profound, or conceptually arresting argument for not believing in God" but found no such arguments. He does allow that "Some of the writers exhibit a measure of wholesome tentativeness in making their cases, and as a rule the quality of the essays is inversely proportionate to the air of authority their authors affect." (It's hardly surprising that people who affect a greater air of authority would also be less tentative in making their claims. In fact, this is almost a triviality. The key in this sentence is that Hart claims these authors "affect" the "air" of authority. What constitutes affecting an air of authority rather than actually being authoritative presumably has something to do with whether they assert things with which Hart agrees.)

Hart then backs up his assertion by giving one sentence descriptions of each article with the description itself being insulting or appending a brief insult to the description. Here are a couple of examples:

Nicholas Everitt and Stephen Law recycle the old (and incorrigibly impressionistic) argument that claims of God’s omnipotence seem incompatible with claims of his goodness. Michael Tooley does not like the picture of Jesus that emerges from the gospels, at least as he reads them.

The first sentence is an example of poisoning the well (describing a position or argument in such a way that one could not reasonably accept it). The second sentence is a strawman, the fallacy of describing an opponent's position in an exaggerated or inaccurate way. Tooley, clearly, does not think that Jesus is just unlikeable, especially just unlikeable on his own reading. I haven't read Tooley's article, but I can guarantee that's not his point. Apparently, the need for tentativeness and "logically compelling, deeply informed, morally profound, or conceptually arresting argument" is only something that applies to people besides David Hart.

It should go without saying that a book written for a popular audience will not include all the subtleties one might hope for in work for an expert audience (a point to which I shall return). Perhaps the flaws in the book come to no more than that although I cannot say whether that's the case. Nonetheless, Hart seeks an explanation for the oh-so-obviously flawed arguments of the book.

For one thing, it seems obvious to me that the peculiar vapidity of New Atheist literature is simply a reflection of the more general vapidity of all public religious discourse these days, believing and unbelieving alike. In part, of course, this is because the modern media encourage only fragmentary, sloganeering, and emotive debates, but it is also because centuries of the incremental secularization of society have left us with a shared grammar that is perhaps no longer adequate to the kinds of claims that either reflective faith or reflective faithlessness makes

If he really meant the first part of this criticism, he would focus on the media rather than this book. But he still manages to turn a critique of the media into a critique of secularism, if not atheism and agnosticism. Unfortunately, I have no idea what this argument comes to. People do not all share the same religious beliefs. In the US, at least, the Constitution guarantees that each person is free to believe as he or she chooses, and the government can (in theory) favor no position on religion. Moreover, US culture has become increasing multi-cultural, so if one wants to communicate as broadly as possible, then one has to pitch one's discussion to people of all faiths, or of no faith, in order to be convincing.

One might praise this increase in inclusiveness, diversity and tolerance, but Hart thinks this indicates a lack of, as I quoted above, "shared grammar that is perhaps no longer adequate to the kinds of claims that either reflective faith or reflective faithlessness makes." I have no idea what this claim means. Why should it be impossible to express true claims about religion in neutral terms that do not assume some shared background of faith? If it is not possible to make oneself intelligible and persuasive to those who do not share one's faith, then the fault does not lie in the "grammar" of a secular society but in the arguments themselves.

Hart then bemoans the brilliant atheists and agnostics of the past. Here's the quote:
What sad times are these when passing ruffians can say "Ni!" at will to old ladies. Why even those who arrange and design shrubbery are at considerable economic distress at this period in history.

Sorry, the quote is:
The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).

Yes, Hart is nostalgic for a time when atheists had to be courageous in order to express their opinions. Perhaps the 16th and 17th centuries were good times to demonstrate your true, courageous, atheist bona fides. Here are a few examples of the treatment of atheists at that time:

How dangerous it was to be accused of being an atheist at this time is illustrated by the examples of Étienne Dolet who was strangled and burned in 1546, and Giulio Cesare Vanini who received a similar fate in 1619. In 1689 the Polish nobleman Kazimierz Łyszczyński, who had allegedly denied the existence of God in his philosophical treatise De non existentia Dei, was condemned to death in Warsaw for atheism and beheaded after his tongue was pulled out with a burning iron and his hands slowly burned.

Perhaps that is not the kind of courage Hart has in mind. Perhaps he only requires the courage of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who (from the same source):
was expelled from Oxford University in 1811 for submitting to the Dean an anonymous pamphlet that he wrote titled The Necessity of Atheism.

Yes, those were the days. Losing one's tongue or even one's education was not cheap, and nothing cheap, as is atheism these days, is worth having.

Hart is involved in the time-honored tactic of concern-trolling, in which the concern-troll voices his or her concern that his or her opponents are too boorish, impolite or otherwise uncivil. It's really not relevant whether these atheists are boorish. Their claims and arguments should be subjected to serious critique (not Hart's flippant rejection), and Hart should stop whining about their behavior.

One thing we can state with confidence. People who constantly lament a lack of politeness on the part of their opponents are the ones who are losing an argument. The ones who complain to the referees about the unfairness of the game are not the ones dunking, they are the ones being dunked on. So, the passive-aggressive appeal to one's opponents to be more civil, is both completely irrelevant to the truth of their claims and a sign of weakness in one's own argument.

But Hart does get serious, so let's be serious with him.

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

One wonders if it's really worth it to be a truly profound atheist if this is the requirement. Does anyone really need to be a truly profound anti-Rastafari? Or is it enough to be a naive and simplistic anti-Rastafari? It is easy to suspect that there is a "No-True Scotsman" fallacy lurking here: anyone who disagrees with Hart's views in a way he views as insufficiently respectful does not actually know the literature in its most sophisticated forms. Still, let's take him to be making an honest claim here and move on to the second sentence.

Here is the fundamental mistake that virtually every critic of the New Atheist movement makes. These New Atheists are not concerned with the beliefs of the intellectual elite but the beliefs of ordinary people. According to most polls, about 40% of Americans believe in the literal truth of Genesis. Is there any point in addressing a book to them and talking about the most sophisticated theologians' views (since those theologians do not believe in the literal truth of Genesis either)? The problem nearly all critics of the New Atheists have is that they think the New Atheist arguments should be addressed to them and their elite, sophisticated view. They aren't. Philosophers are not the audience for these works. If that means the New Atheist authors sometimes miss a subtle point, they may still be effectively critiquing an argument that lots of ordinary people accept or making an argument that ordinary people will accept. I don't mean to excuse fallacious reasoning or anything of the sort, but to criticize the New Atheists for failing to address one's treasured, sophisticated view is simply to miss the point. This isn't about you; it's about the views of a distressingly high percentage of Americans who have patently superstitious beliefs. Actual human beings, not philosophers, often believe in God because the Bible says God exists. So, while it might be nice to address some other argument, or not worry about the tired issues of the fallibility of the Bible, a New Atheist who wants to have an effect on those Bible-believers had better address that argument.

I'll get back to the issue of what the consequences of disbelief are or should be, but for now I want to reinforce my claim about what it is that people believe and why they believe it.

Hart moves on to talk about the "Infinite regress" argument as he calls it. Basically, Hart asserts that New Atheists argue that God does not exist because to appeal to the existence of God to explain the existence and nature of the universe would be unhelpful because one would then need an explanation for the existence of God in terms of something else and so on ad infinitum. Hart then points out that this is a fairly poor argument for the non-existence of God. Indeed, this regress argument is really an objection to one argument for the existence of God. Hart has some other objections that I will quote in a minute, but for now, let me say that I think Hart has the dialectic wrong. I do not have all the relevant literature here before me (and I haven't read everybody's work in any case), but I think the way this goes is that New Atheists argue that there is no need to posit the existence of God to explain anything (appearance of design, existence of universe, etc.). If one does not need to posit the existence of something in order to explain the data, then one should not do it (as a simple application of Ockham's razor). Thus, one should not posit the existence of God. I think that's the argument, and it does not render the "Infinite regress" argument irrelevant. On this understanding of the broad form of their argument, the infinite regress argument, or more accurately the critique of the cosmological argument, is one way of undermining the need for God to explain anything. Hence, this is a legitimate part of a much larger atheistic argument. One, of course, needs to say why there is not something else (say, appearance of design) that needs to be explained. But once one has exhausted all the things that proponents say require divine explanation, then one has at least a fairly compelling inductive argument against the existence of God.

So what about the further critique Hart has of this New Atheist argument? His critique is that their argument is based on (the common) unsophisticated view of the nature of the divinity. That God is just one more thing in a universe of things. He writes:

The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.

Honestly, I find this hilarious. Are we to suppose that the ordinary folk believe in God, God's creation of the universe, his special purpose for them, and that this plan is revealed through Christianity because "all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such"? Oh, I didn't realize I was supposed to believe in an "absolute plenitude of actuality" as my Lord and savior. Please forgive me, and take my apologies to the essence of being as such while you're at it.

Again, the first issue is that New Atheists do not care about this because no one really cares about this. Do we say that "the absolute plenitude of actuality" created humanity with a plan so that we could obey Its commands and be rewarded with infinite bliss in heaven and punished with infinite suffering in hell if we do not? No one believes this, and New Atheists would render themselves as culturally irrelevant and impotent as professional philosophers and theologians are if they spent any time at all talking about this.

The second issue is whether there is a compelling argument for the existence of God hidden in all this verbiage. The talk of actuality, or pure actuality, or the essence of being as such is highly suspect. First, talk of something's being an actuality or pure actuality relies on a long-rejected Aristotelian physics (or metaphysics). Aquinas relied on Aristotle's distinction between actuality and potentiality in order to argue for the existence of God, and, in particular, claim that things can only come to have an actuality rather than simply a potentiality by being "moved" by something that has that property in actuality. So, potentially hot things become actually hot by being changed by something that is actually hot. This is not, in general, true. Matches become hot without being actually being struck by something hot. Aquinas's assumption is just a piece of outdated and incorrect physics. So any argument that makes such an assumption is flawed.

Do we need to think that things must be "sustained in existence"? Here the argument avoids the well-known fallacies of the simpler versions of the cosmological argument, and claims that we need to look not for a cause (efficient cause, in Aquinas' and Aristotle's terminology), but for something on which everything depends for its existence (or something that explains its existence--more on that later). But here the assumption that there must be a series of such sustainers is simply not, forgive the pun, sustainable. I can see why one might think that for X to come into being there must be a cause for X, but I cannot see one would think that X would wink out of existence were there not something to sustain X in existence. Do we have some empirical evidence that supports this contention? Have we observed things popping out of existence when their sustainer-in-existence disappears? One supposes, then, the claim is a priori. But on what grounds could one make this claim? Is there a contradiction in thinking things might just exist without something, pure being or whatever, sustaining them in existence? It seems perfectly coherent to me to think that even contingent things might simply exist without a sustainer-in-existence.

Does the existence of contingent things require that there be a necessary being (defined as this pure being or whatever) in order to explain their existence, not as caused by something but in some other sense? Perhaps in order to know why X exists, it is not enough to appeal to other contingent beings (e.g. causes) but we must appeal to a necessary being. Appeal to other contingent beings, one might claim, is just not enough because then we have not explained why there is anything at all (that's the best way to make the argument--I don't have time to say why here). To say why there is something rather than nothing takes us outside the sequence of contingencies and asks why there even is a sequence of contingencies at all. This is, as I said (and following William Rowe's introductory book on philosophy of religion), the best form of the argument. However, the principle that everything, including even the fact that something exists at all, must have an explanation is not true.

First, we know it is false for quantum events. (Alas, the quantum mechanics defense--not to be confused with the Chewbacca defense.) Second, we could ask why the principle (Leibniz' principle of sufficient reason) is true. If there is no explanation for why it is true, then the principle is false. The assumption that it must have an explanation could only be justified if we already think that it is true. And if there is an explanation for it, then that explanation would have to invoke some other principle. We must then ask for the explanation for why that principle is true. This begins to look like the whole cosmological argument over again. The principle (PSR) cannot support itself on pain of circularity; and any explanation for its truth, then, must involve a series of further justifications which must either end with a principle that is unexplained or continue ad infinitum.

The third issue is whether this kind of theological talk has any meaning at all. Is it even coherent to talk of something being pure actuality or being as such? I certainly don't know what this is supposed to mean. Does God have all properties in actuality to an infinite degree? I suppose that's what it means to say something purely actual (at least that's what Aquinas appeared to mean). Clearly, that's not what anyone wants. God is not infinitely hot or infinitely angry or moving with an infinite velocity. So, pure actuality and pure being must be something else.

But what? Is pure being something other than just having being or existing? What could that mean but that something exists? Perhaps it means that something has existence but no other property at all. That's certainly impossible.

If God is pure being, does that mean God has more existence than everything else. (Plato and Augustine talked as though this made sense, but I've never seen it.) Everything that exists has being just as much as anything else that exists. I don't have more being, or exist any more, than does my cat. If all Hart means is that God's existence explains itself given his perfection, then at least I can make sense of that (although I am not convinced that this can be used to prove that God exists--see above), but I don't see how this renders talk of "being as such" intelligible. I'm sure I'm not sufficiently profound to count as a legitimate critic of this argument, but at this point, I cannot distinguish any further meaningful claims that we have reason to believe are true. This is where metaphysics starts to become, as Carnap said, poetry (and nothing more).

Lest I lose the thread of this whole argument, and Hart goes on for about another week and a half, I'll stop with one final note. There's been a repeated insistence, by Hart and others, that true, profound, noble and good atheists recognize the tragic loss if God does not exist, and it upsets these critics that the New Atheists do not feel that loss. What is exactly lost is unclear. It's nothing metaphysical such as meaning or purpose or morality or happiness (assumed to have an objective moral dimension). One can have those equally well whether God exists or not. It's not community or fellow feeling or anything social. Again, that's just as possible for atheists as for others. And it's not a subjective state of happiness since atheists can be just as happy as theists by any subjective measure.

I can only think that what's supposed to be missing is the fear of death. These critics want atheists to be afraid of their own future non-existence and regret the loss of an immortal soul and eternal bliss. I suppose I can be a bit bummed out by that lack. But I'm also bummed that there aren't personal jet packs or hover-boards. When you recognize that something is a fantasy, you can be depressed about not having it, or you can work towards the good things that are possible. This is a purely subjective matter. There's nothing morally, epistemically or aesthetically wrong with not being depressed about one's lack of immortality but instead embracing the good things that life does have to give any more than it is objectively wrong to be depressed that there aren't personal jet packs. If Hart wishes us to be disappointed about the loss of something that does not exist, rather than enjoy the things that do, then I'm afraid he's the one who will be disappointed.


  1. I like it. Hart is depressing.

  2. The sustainability issue seems connected to a common pop culture belief that objects don't exist without something propping them up. This is particularly common with magic in various fictional universes such as in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter where any form of magic goes away after the individual who created that magic dies. TVTropes dubs this a lack of . I don't think it is speaks highly of Hart that one of his arguments essentially amounts to implicitly accepting a common fictional trope.

  3. That last paragraph you quoted had me laughing out loud. What a load of pompous nonsense.

  4. It's a shame you couldn't make it through the rest of the article. Hart's best critique is offered towards the end.

    Suffice it to say, you have misunderstood parts, misread parts and misrepresented most of Hart's critique.

    One such point worth pointing out is your contention about Hart's nostalgia. His point is that contemporary atheists are not offering an alternative from within a known and understood discourse but cheap anti-religious diatribe that addresses only the most farcical of religious propositions. Nietzsche on the other hand offers a compelling and important critique of the religious climate of his time (and still today), not because he is Nietzsche and we are not, but because he has a profound and nuanced understanding of that which he is attacking.

    While you are correct that most new atheists are critiquing popular religion and not nuanced theology, you cannot begrudge theologians resisting the critique when it is offered as scholarly.

    There is much that is wrong with religion and theology for that matter, that desperately need the external critique atheists could offer. What we get so often however, is vitriol and shallowness that offers people of faith little if anything constructive.

  5. I'm not sure what I have misunderstood, misrepresented, or misread. My main point was that recent atheist (or New Atheist) writings are not directed towards sophisticated theology. To note that sophisticated theists are unhappy about being bypassed in the public discussion does not really address that point. I don't know to what extent we should care whether the New Atheist works are "offered as scholarly". They are not attempting to publish in philosophy journals, and they are marketed to a popular audiences. So, I think it is fair to suppose these works should be directed toward the less sophisticated view. These sophisticated theists should be happy to have public critiques of the unsophisticated theists so that ordinary theists would see the need for a sophisticated view. Hart, and other sophisticated theists, have not made themselves relevant to the public debate. If one wanted to legalize marijuana, one would not generally be upset if someone argues for legalizing all drugs because, then, one could publicly shift the debate towards a more moderate (or sophisticated) view but one could also show why the total legalization view goes too far. For myself, I am not convinced that Hart's sophisticated theology has any real meaning. I had more comments on the rest of his article in a later post (but I am too much of a Luddite to know how to link to it in a comment).

    New Atheists typically do not find any common ground with more sophisticated theists, thinking that they provide a patina of respectability to the unsophisticated views. It's good to be respectful when others are similarly respectful and give, and are willing to listen to, good reasons. But it's hard for me to take seriously pleas for greater charity from Hart when he so clearly does not provide charitable interpretations of the views he critiques. Is that sophisticated?

  6. I agree that Hart is disrespectful at times and unhelpfully so. I felt that while I was reading it. Well actually, I thought that he was assuming the same kind of disrespectful tone that Dawkins and Hitchens use. Not that that is any kind of excuse.

    However, I still think that 'New Atheism' in general, while it appeals to the popularist audience for book sales, it simultaneously assumes a scholarly position of superiority to any and all theology. Maybe this is just one of those things I need to get used to.

    My real point was more to do with Hart's insightful observations regarding Nietzsche and the gaping chasm between a philosopher like him and the rigor of the new atheists. I would be interested to hear you opinion in that regard.

  7. Both Hart and the New Atheists tend to play to their partisans. Everyone enjoys insulting the intelligence and morality of the opposition; we all get to feel better about ourselves by pointing out the inferiority of those who disagree with us. And there's even a place for extremists in public debates. Without people taking up extreme positions, there would be less motive to change public opinion. Essentially, this is Mill's argument for free speech: if the status quo beliefs are correct, questioning them can only lead to better justification for them; if the status quo beliefs are wrong, then questioning them can lead to their overthrow. So, we have to accept partisan bomb-throwers on either side for the good of the public debate overall.

    We can, of course, disagree with either set of bomb-throwers and decry the quality of the bomb-throwing. I'm no Nietzsche scholar, but he was not subtle. He subtitled his Twilight of the Idols "How to Philosophize With a Hammer". From what I remember from high school, I thought Nietzsche was right about religion. I wish there were philosophers now capable of taking the good reasoning that I think undermines religion and translating it into a publicly accessible argument that speaks to people both rationally and emotionally.