A Leading Scientist Notes that New Atheists are Militant

Oh, oh.  Yet another mainstream, well-respected scientist has publicly noticed that the New Atheists are militant.  This time, it’s primatologist Frans de Waal, as an excerpt from his book has been published on Salon.com entitled, “Has militant atheism become a religion? Can the gap between the religious and the non-religious be bridged, when the debate itself is so attention-getting?”  Frans de Waal is also an atheist.

Some excerpts and comments below the fold.

De Waal writes:

In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?

Many of us have noticed these traits for some time now.  The militant atheists comfort themselves by dismissing our observations as those of biased religious people.  But de Waal is both an atheist and a well-respected scientist.  As a scientist and atheist, he observes the same thing we do.

Look, when even atheist philosophers and scientists, such a Peter Higgs , Michael Ruse ,  Julian Baggini, and now Frans de Waal all independently recognize the militant, religious-like behavior/beliefs of the New Atheists, it’s probably because the New Atheists do indeed display militant, religious-like behaviors/beliefs.

De Waal then does an excellent job of highlighting the curious behavior of one the Gnu’s icons – “Hitch”:

All I get out of such exchanges is the confirmation that believers will say anything to defend their faith and that some atheists have turned evangelical. Nothing new about the first, but atheists’ zeal keeps surprising me. Why “sleep furiously” unless there are inner demons to be kept at bay? In the same way that firefighters are sometimes stealth arsonists and homophobes closet homosexuals, do some atheists secretly long for the certitude of religion? Take Christopher Hitchens, the late British author of “God Is Not Great.” Hitchens was outraged by the dogmatism of religion, yet he himself had moved from Marxism (he was a Trotskyist) to Greek Orthodox Christianity, then to American Neo-Conservatism, followed by an “antitheist” stance that blamed all of the world’s troubles on religion. Hitchens thus swung from the left to the right, from anti–Vietnam War to cheerleader of the Iraq War, and from pro to contra God. He ended up favoring Dick Cheney over Mother Teresa.

Some people crave dogma, yet have trouble deciding on its contents. They become serial dogmatists. Hitchens admitted, “There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb,” thus implying that he had entered a new life stage marked by doubt and reflection. Yet, all he seemed to have done was sprout a fresh dogmatic limb.

He then makes an excellent observation:

Dogmatists have one advantage: they are poor listeners. This ensures sparkling conversations when different kinds of them get together the way male birds gather at “leks” to display splendid plumage for visiting females. It almost makes one believe in the “argumentative theory,” according to which human reasoning didn’t evolve for the sake of truth, but rather to shine in discussion. Universities everywhere have set up crowd-pleasing debates between religious and antireligious intellectual “giants.” One such debate took place in 2009 at a large science festival in Puebla, Mexico. My own contribution concerned a different, more scientific session, but I sat in the audience of four thousand when we were being warmed up for the ultimate war of words. Asked whether they believed in God, about 90 percent of the people raised their hand in affirmation. The debate itself was set up in a distinctly unintellectual fashion. The stage showed a boxing ring (ropes around poles, red boxing gloves dangling in the corner), and the speakers walked one by one onto stage to martial music. They were the usual suspects. Apart from Hitchens, we got Dinesh D’Souza, Sam Harris, the philosopher Dan Dennett, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

It is crystal clear to me that New Atheists are “poor listeners” given their proclivity to misrepresent theism and cast it in straw man terms.  In fact, I think it a charitable interpretation to describe this trait as poor listening.

Better yet is when de Waal notes:

This ensures sparkling conversations when different kinds of them get together the way male birds gather at “leks” to display splendid plumage for visiting females. It almost makes one believe in the “argumentative theory,” according to which human reasoning didn’t evolve for the sake of truth, but rather to shine in discussion.

Ah, but this type of show is not restricted to debates about God.  A few months back, I used a debate about guns, among the atheists themselves, to make a very similar observation:

While you read their essays, chances are you have been conditioned to see them as detectives using logic and evidence to discover the truth.  Then you, using reason and evidence, are supposed to objectively decide whose position is best supported by reason and evidence.  But this is not how the human brain usually works.  In reality, it’s more like two tribes having a beauty contest.  The gun lovers have Harris and he uses reason and evidence to preen for them. The gun haters have Faircloth and he uses reason and evidence to preen for them.  And there are no objective judges.  The gun lovers will vote for Harris and the gun haters will vote for Faircloth.  Reason and evidence have simply played the role of adornments, like the peacock’s tail.

All of this leads me to think that these debates between the New Atheists and their religious counterparts, while telling us little to nothing about the existence of God, do indicate that the “argumentative theory” is more true than it is not.  There may indeed be some value to the New Atheist movement.

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One Response to A Leading Scientist Notes that New Atheists are Militant

  1. Crude says:

    The dogmatists line is important. I never cease to be amazed at how someone can be a know-it-all, lecturing jackass about something – religion, or programming, or science, or anything else – and then switch their position, completely change their view on the subject overnight… and yet they’re still the know-it-all, lecturing jackass. There’s rarely a result of self-skepticism or self-doubt, regardless of what the change was.

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