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The New Atheists’ Position

Fideism and Evidentialism

3.2 The New Atheists’ Position

New Atheists include thinkers like “Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens” (Taylor J. E., n.d). They criticize religious faith and religion. They hold that

“belief in God is irrational and socially unacceptable” (Meister, n.d). Dawkins writes, “religion is a virus, indeed a type of mental illness” (Dawkins R. , 2006, p. 330). His central concern is whether religion is true. Dawkins suggests that religious belief is made less possible by Darwinian science.

He says that religion presents a poor image of the world. “The universe presented by organized religion is a poky little medieval universe, and extremely limited” (Dawkins, 1996, p. 85). “In contrast, science offers a bold and brilliant vision of the universe as grand, beautiful, and awe- inspiring” (McGrath A. E., 2013). Dawkins states that religion avoids any human requirement to think. He remarks that science and reason prove their beliefs with evidence. In contrast, religious people stay away from facts and evidence. They live in an unreal world. Dawkins claims, “faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence” (McGrath A.

E., 2013, p. 84). For Dawkins, we should oppose all types of dogmatism grounded in faith. It is like that evil virus that infects human minds. According to him, religious faith is inconsistent with the scientific method. He says religion leads to violence. And if we eliminate it, this will be the best thing for human life (McGrath A. , 2005).

In similar lines with Dawkins, Harris says, “all reasonable men and women have a common enemy...our enemy is nothing other than faith itself” (Jennek, 2017, p. 10). According to Harris, religious faith causes conflict in the world. “Harris sees reason in a very unfavorable position in the battle against religion” (Jennek, 2017, p. 10). Harris states that instead of religion, only science should answer most questions related to morality as well as conflict or violence (Jennek, 2017, p.

10). In short, Harris regards religion as the primary source of violence and hate. For Harris, there

is an absence of a rationalized “interpretive method” (Silver, 2013, p. 16). This method may help people in reading, and most importantly, socializing religious zones between the religious authority and followers. Harris describes religion as an outdated worldview. “Harris suggests that scripture should be considered within more modern social and rational examinations as opposed to faith alone” (Silver, 2013, p. 17). Silver further writes, “for Harris, religion has contrasting potential from being a social system of open-mindedness and acceptance to a potentially reactionary and aggressive conservative form of religiosity” (Silver, 2013, p. 16). Harris states that only those beliefs which can be observed and tested should be regarded as real beliefs. Harris, in some cases, seems like suggesting the appointment of a pragmatic approach to scripture. He talks about society’s social welfare, which will be determined by the usefulness of religion (Harris, 2005).

Again, Hitchens explores some examples of how religion hampers the growth of human beings. He tries to look into all kinds of examples, such as - historical, theological, and behavioral.

Hitchens criticizes almost all three major religions - Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, particularly posing ethical challenges to religion (Hitchens, 2007). He criticizes Hinduism based on the Hindu suttee system (Sati practice) that recommends widows’ ‘suicide’ (Walker, 2007). According to him, religion as such is bad, unwanted, and troublesome (Hitchens, 2007). Hitchens writes, “There are, indeed, several ways in which religion is not just amoral, but positively immoral. And these faults and crimes are not to be found in the behavior of its adherents (which can sometimes be exemplary) but in its original precepts” (Hitchens, 2007, p. 71). These include a lot of things such as- “presenting a false picture of the world to the innocent and the credulous, the doctrine of blood sacrifice, the doctrine of atonement, the doctrine of eternal reward and/or punishment, the imposition of impossible tasks and rules” (Hitchens, 2007, p. 71).

Another member of the atheists’ group Dennett argues that religious beliefs need scientific analysis so that people can understand their nature in a better way. He denies the reasonableness of “belief in God” (Taylor J. E., n.d). According to him, “the concept of God is too radically indeterminate for the sentence ‘God exists’ to express a genuine proposition” (Taylor J. E., n.d). He wonders whether the believers of God really believe that God exists. “He thinks it more likely that they merely profess belief in God or ‘believe in belief’ in God” (Taylor J. E., n.d). He thinks that, according to the believers, belief in God is the right thing. Hence Dennett argues that

“no theistic belief is reasonable or rational” (Dennett, 2006).

The new atheists’ comments about religion may roughly be equated with what Geertz and Weber classify as ‘traditional’ religion. For them, religion can be classified as two different types:

one is ‘traditional,’ and the other is ‘rationalized.’ The characteristic of ‘rationalized’ religion is abstract and logical as against ‘traditional’ religion (Wartono, 2012). For Geertz, in ‘traditional’

religion, there is a “cluttered arsenal of myth and magic” to be used whenever disaster strikes; the rationalized religion is “more abstract, more logically coherent, more generally phrased” (Geertz, 1973). But the new atheists do not subscribe to this distinction. They think that religion is dogmatic, inflexible, and rigid. What Weber and Geertz would have considered as rationalized religion might not be acceptable to the new atheists.

For instance, new atheist Harris has criticized the Abrahamic religions and wanted to eliminate Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. He is critical of belief in things for which there is no evidence, such as gods or deities. “Harris also argues that people who turn to violence because of religious reasons are not ‘stupid’ or uneducated; they suffer from something much more dangerous, namely, from faith” (Jennek, 2017, p. 19). Another atheist member Hitchens criticizes religion. He describes how religion is a human-made wish causing dangerous sexual domination

(Hitchens, 2007). Hitchens realizes that religion lacks justification and offers no explanation of anything important (Hitchens, 2007). Among the new atheists, Dawkins and Dennett focus on conflicts between science and religion, whereas Harris and Hitchens pay attention to the political, cultural, and psychological criticisms leveled against religion.Religion, though difficult to define, may be understood in two aspects: one is the discussions related to doctrinal aspects of religion, which generally can be brought under theology; the other is the practical and day-to-day affairs of religious practices that impact the moral, social, and cultural aspects of human life. The new atheists level criticisms against both these aspects of religion, though they do not make such distinctions. They target religion in its entirety. They use the same word religion to denote the theistic beliefs and the moral and cultural aspects of religion. However, I make a distinction within the new atheists’ criticisms to exclude the moral, social, and cultural dimensions of religion from the theistic beliefs. In this chapter, I focus on their understanding of theism and argue that their understanding is wrong.

What is common in their criticism is that everyone talks about the absence of reason in theism. Dawkins claims that “faith is blind trust without evidence and even against the evidence”

(Taylor J. E., n.d). He regards faith to be an evil element. He further states, “it does not require justification and does not tolerate argument” (Taylor J. E., n.d). According to Dawkins’ earlier view, faith is irrational, whereas, in his latter description, he regards faith as evil, implying that it is at odds with rationality. Holding a similar view with Dawkins’ earlier position, Harris calls religious faith an “unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern” (Taylor J. E., n.d).

Philosopher Kai Nielsen criticizes the assumption of atheism. He argues that the atheist’s understanding of rationality differs from the theist. Therefore, there is no mutually accepted ground of rationality to justify God’s existence. Thus both theism and atheism can be rationally justified.

Atheists are wrong in assuming theists’ position for god’s existence as irrational (Nielsen, 1985, pp. 139-140) (Nielsen, 1977, p. 147).

Anthony Kenny writes,

Many different definitions may be offered of the word ‘God.’ Given this fact, atheism makes a much stronger claim than theism does. The atheist says that no matter what definition you choose, ‘God exists’ is always false. The theist only claims that there is some definition which will make ‘God exists’ true. In my view, neither the stronger nor the weaker claim has been convincingly established (Kenny, 2006, p. 21).

So, according to Kenny, neither atheism nor theism holds a stronger position. Craig also asserts that their assumed belief is mistaken. Thus, for these critics of atheism, the position claiming “there is no God” is the same as the position asserting “there is a God” (Craig, 2007).

Both the positions are not strongly established. Both the assertion requires the same kind of justifications (Kenny, 2006).

In short, with respect to the atheists view on theism, the critics of atheists point out the absence of proof of the new atheists’ position (Corlett, 2009) (Craig, 2007), the impossibility of proving atheists position (McCormick, 2008) (Garvey, 2010), and the possibility of proving God’s existence (Markham, 2010). I bother about the new atheists’ rigidity in holding on to their opinion with respect to their understanding of theism. They keep repeating that theism is irrational and inflexible as it is faith-based.

Again, it is true that theism employs faith. But it doesn’t mean there is no scope for reason, or it doesn’t mean reason was not employed in understanding God. Some schools of thought say there is no need for reason to understand the religion and religious matters. Fideism talks about faith in matters of religion. It is defined as a theory that argues that “faith does not need the support

of reason, and should not seek it” (Quinn & Taliaferro, 2000, p. 376). But even fideists are of different types, and all do not subscribe to faith without any reference to reason. While some fideists argue about faith without reason (Quinn & Taliaferro, 2000), other fideists emphasize faith in matters that go beyond reason (Carroll, 2008). So, even if we concede to the new atheists’

position that reason does not play a part in theism, we can, at best say, that it refers to one group of believers. And even in that group, not all will be blind to reason.