The past 10-15 years or so, the popularity of four men have dramatically increased: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, often nicknamed “The Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” or something along those lines. They have varying backgrounds: Dawkins is a zoologist, Dennett has his PhD in philosophy, Harris has a bachelor’s in philosophy and a doctorate in neuroscience, and Hitchens is a journalist. Likewise, while they obviously agree on many points, they often focus on different points of contention against theism. Nonetheless, they are united in their cause against religion and theism, or most particularly, the Judeo-Christian kind, and they have written many books and articles, participated in some public debates, and garnered much fandom and publicity.
Atheists love them because of their candor and their supposed espousal of reason, science, and “free thinking.” In fact, the tone often employed by them suggests that to disagree with them means that one is uneducated, brainwashed, and/or simply intellectually inferior. However, what I have come to find amusing and ironic about them, as well as their New Atheist fanboys, is that their popularity is tied more to the latter than the former, and that they also play upon the bitterness or anger many people feel against religion. In other words, even though atheists love to accuse religion of merely appealing to people’s emotions, this is exactly the thrust of the New Atheist movement. In effect, while these are smart men in their own fields, they have encouraged a lazy intellectualism without much argument because their beef with religion largely stems from appealing to a sense of anger and superiority. Now, keep in mind that I am not necessarily saying that appealing to people’s emotions is inherently dishonest or bad; what I am saying is that I find this ironic because these New Atheists consistently claim that they only rely upon the most objective of facts and reason and not emotion.
Let us look at Richard Dawkins first, perhaps the most brazen, and the most brazenly misinformed, one of the lot. Dawkins is a zoologist but has delved his hand in philosophy, and frankly he is very bad at it. In his book The God Delusion, you will be hard pressed to find a consistent thread of argument throughout the work. Most of it is filled with anecdotes and personal rants against religion, and he won’t even stay above using insults. The arguments he does present are poorly constructed and easily dismantled by anyone who has a cursory knowledge of the topics at hand and has the most rudimentary training in logic. I am by no means a genius, but even I had trouble finding things that were NOT horribly argued in his book when I reviewed it. It was so bad that I was astonished how anyone could take the book seriously, no matter what worldview they held. After all, while I am a Christian, I have read Christian works that I will readily say were not very good, so I just could not understand how atheists could not be embarrassed that the so-called “World’s Most Famous Atheist” delivered such a poorly argued book.
However, while many atheists were indeed embarrassed by Dawkins’ book (such as atheist philosopher Michael Ruse), many in the larger culture gobbled it up and championed the book as some landmark title. The reason for this puzzling phenomenon is clear when one interacts with Dawkins’ many fans: His very appeal to anger and a sense of enlightenment strikes a chord in many who already have bitter feelings toward religion. Nearly every single Richard Dawkins defender I’ve talked to initially claims that they rest upon the bedrock of science, facts, and reason. However, when I challenged many of their philosophical assumptions (which, for the most part, they don’t seem remotely aware of), the normal response is anger and dismissal. They then often attacked using subjects that were not even being discussed, such as the Crusades, Muslim jihad, Christians acting hypocritically, etc. Basically, instead of answering the philosophical questions at hand, they resorted to bringing up subjects, both in history and in their personal life, that made them angry and bitter. This is, of course, what Dawkins does repeatedly throughout the The God Delusion.
What is worse about these scattershooting and unfocused criticisms that often avoid the discussion is the refusal to debate on intellectual grounds. Again, Dawkins demonstrates this well in his constant refusal to debate William Lane Craig. Dawkins has claimed that he will not debate Craig because Craig is not famous enough and not a bishop or archbishop. Of course, this is ludicrous; not only has Dawkins debated those who are neither, Craig is plenty famous in philosophical circles. Of course, under much criticism, Dawkins has resorted to personal accusations to justify his avoidance of Craig, despite other claims that he’ll take on anyone and that he hasn’t heard anyone refute the garbage in the The God Delusion (maybe he’s just not reading around?). The amusing thing is that if he thinks Craig is a “apologist for genocide,” then why has he agreed to debate some other Christians who share the same faith as Craig? Also, it does not matter whether or not Dawkins has heard of Craig, and I’m frankly not surprised he hadn’t before a few years ago judging from his exceptional ignorance of philosophy. The fact that Craig is regarded by both theists and atheists alike as one of the top Christian philosophers is far more weighty than Dawkins’ own personal opinions. The level of arrogance and, frankly, cowardice displayed here by Dawkins would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. The bad part is that it is echoed by many of his followers. How ironic indeed that the so-called intellectual giants are avoiding intellectual discussion and have resorted to personal attacks and appeals to emotion.
Dawkins is by far the most classless and brashly ignorant of the four of them, so perhaps it is unfair to use only him to paint the picture of the New Atheist movement (although he is the most famous and beloved, so it really isn’t that unfair). While the others are many orders more tolerable than Dawkins and far more civil and polite, they too follow the trend of avoiding discussion on the matters at hand and throwing out a bunch of accusations that are meant to evoke an emotional response. In Sam Harris’ debate with Craig here (and we must applaud him for having the guts to do so in the first place, unlike Dawkins), Harris repeatedly avoids Craig’s points and changes the subject, which is simply on whether or not theism or atheism can provide a foundation for objective morality. Harris throws out the concept of Hell, the difference between Christianity and Islam, religious warfare, and the problem of evil when NONE of these topics were relevant; in fact, Craig said quite plainly that he was not arguing for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity but for the truth of these conditionals: If God exists, the we have a foundation for objective moral values, and if God does not exist, we do not. Craig even claimed that he had a logical refutation for Harris viewpoint, which is about as strong a claim as you can make, and Harris avoided replying to it (in other words, he got wrecked). Instead, Harris defaulted to appealing to the audience’s emotions about, for example, the plight of women and children in Afghanistan to try to establish the obviousness of his position. While we should of course care about that, it wasn’t really an argument.
Hitchens fared no better against Craig. In fact, at the end of debate, Hitchens asked the audience to think about the implications of God, which he thinks are horrible, and then to ask themselves if that sounds better than atheism. Now that was interesting, because many atheists love to say that we should not be afraid to face the facts despite what we might desire, so even if belief in God makes the world a better place, we should not believe in him if there is good reason not to. Hitchens, in effect, appealed to emotion, and spent much of the debate bringing up the same tired accusations about religion to evoke anger among the listeners.
In conclusion, the so-called “New Atheism” isn’t exactly new, for all of their arguments are quite old. What is unique about them in is their great appeal to emotional responses of anger and bitterness towards religion, intellectual superiority, and “free thinking.” It is an effective way of marketing, to be sure, which is why they have earned so much fame, but in the way of actual argument, it does nothing to actually show that atheism is true. I think I know why they have almost unconsciously resorted to such a strategy: There really aren’t good reasons to believe that atheism is true. Unfortunately, most of their fans do not care about that when they are angry and want to feel smarter than the average bear.