First Published in “Theology, Ethics, and Philosophy: The New Atheists: The Twighlight of Reason & the War on Religion
Abstract: This paper considers work by Christopher Hitchens, who is part of the group called the ‘New Atheists’, and a response to this by Tina Beattie. The concern of Hitchens is to alert his readers to the problems that arise from fideistic belief, and his proposed solution in common sense naturalism. The author argues that while Hitchens does raise important questions about fideism, he himself is a fideist in his claims about reality. Far from being new, these are the same claims as held by ancient materialists: all of reality can be reduced to atoms in motion. Also considered is Tina Beattie’s analysis and response to the New Atheists. Her cogent analysis is helpful, although her own proposal to resolve the debate encounters difficulties similar to those attending fideism.
Can all of reality be explained as atoms in motion? Is belief in some-thing besides atoms in motion mere superstition? Can violence between humans be attributed to the unwillingness to use commonsense naturalism to solve problems? The ‘New Atheists’, including writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, have asserted as much in a number of bestselling books. And yet the designator ‘new’ may be a misnomer in that their form of naturalism is not different than ancient materialism, and Hitchens seems to acknowledge this in selecting Lucretius as the first reading in ‘The Portable Atheist’. In the following, I will analyze the worldview of Hitchens, his claims about religion as a hindrance to the maturity of humanity, and Tina Beattie’s volume which lays bare some of his pre-suppositions. I will argue that there are important challenges from Hitchens to fideism and the failure to use reason, that this failure extends to many of those who respond to him, and yet that Hitchens himself is a fideist when it comes to positing his own belief system. Itis one thing to note the failure of fideism, indeed it is easy although rare; it is another thing to avoid it oneself. Two lessons can be taken from Hitchens and other ‘new atheists’: fideism is insufficient to find meaning and solve problems, and these skeptics who are pointing this out fall into a more painful fideism precisely because they claim to be so concerned to avoid it.
‘The Portable Atheist’ could have been a helpful collection of readings by materialists. As a resource it aims at being a collection of primary sources expressing materialism. Beginning with Lucretius the focus is set: all that exists is atoms in motion – all other belief is superstition. After this, most of the readings are attacks at religion understood in its most superficial forms. Hobbes argues that religion is used to oppress opposing viewpoints and censure free thinking. Hume’s famous critique of miracles is included, although his arguments from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion are more potent but perhaps not as threatening to popular fideism. After this the selections are mostly attacks at the superficial and hypocritical nature of popular fideism. These attacks might just as easily originate from religious philosophers wishing to call believers out of the unexamined life of fideism. It is in this sense that the collection is disappointing. Arguing against the least thoughtful forms of religion is easy, as is arguing against the least thoughtful forms of materialism. This is a classical straw man argument – having set up the weakest (although perhaps the most widely held) form of religion, these authors have knocked it over. But what about engaging with the most thoughtful forms of religious belief? Indeed, why not begin with addressing the criticisms of Plato or Aristotle against the belief that only atoms and motion exist? This would only be the beginning, there is a long history of strong arguments against atomists. The real concern seems to be not so much a defense of some actual belief, but a rejection of fideism as a source of problems in the world.
This is where Hitchens’s book ‘God is Not Great’ takes over. It is a sustained argument against the evils of religious belief. It is largely aimed at Christian theism but includes criticisms of Islam and Eastern Religions. The essence of the argument is that religious belief is used to control others, therefore leads to wars and violent oppression, is unfounded and disproven by scientific naturalism. The origin of violence can therefore be overcome if people would be willing to abandon superstition and fideistic belief in favor of scientific naturalism. Hitchens’s arguments could be helpful in pointing out to fideists why their position is less than what they think it is. Often, feelings of confidence are mistaken for epistemic certainty, and yet since these feelings are found in believers with logically contradictory beliefs they are not a source of certainty. A witness who confidently proclaims from the witness stand but has no proof is dismissed as unhelpful. While most theists seem to think that the traditional theistic proofs are successful, Hitchens points out some reasons that this is not so. While most theists seem to think that religion is a positive thing for human civilization, Hitchens argues that in its fideist forms it is harmful.
His argument that all violence can be attributed to religious belief would be more powerful if it were modified to claim that all violence can be attributed to fideism. Similarly, his claim that all religion is harmful would be more powerful if it is were about fideism. Because Hitchens does not make this distinction, and instead uses the term religion to refer to belief in anything nonphysical, his arguments are not sound – they overextend from some to all. Essentially, he maintains that empirical naturalism is the correct worldview and all other views are fideism. It is true that many/most persons are fideists, this is a result of their leading the unexamined life. Plato (not a materialist) was also concerned about this problem. The question becomes: is Hitchens’s approach and argumentation method the most successful way to argue against fideism and encourage people to live the examined life? Isn’t Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion a more powerful argument against theistic and fideism belief, and one that theists have yet to fully and successfully address? Is Hitchens himself doing this, or is he also a fideist (blindly accepting empirical naturalism)? I suspect that his arguments will convince those who already agree with him, and further alienate the fideists he wishes to instruct.
Tina Beattie offers a helpful study of the New Atheists. She points out that they are engaged in religious belief themselves because religious beliefs are those used to give meaning to one’s experiences and empirical naturalists use these metaphysical beliefs to give meaning to their lives. Her attention to the need for meaning is perhaps the most useful critical tool in her book. She categorizes the New Atheists as fitting within the British-American philosophical tradition. This is because they use empirical argumentation to argue that God does not exist and therefore should not be an object of belief. Here, she offers her own position which is that such arguments are male-dominated and marginalize the majority of religious believers who do not believe in God as a being that can be proven to exist through empirical argumentation. ‘Christian theology has been hamstrung by its preoccupation with rationality, at the expense of other ways of speaking about God’ (p. 165). This is because reason is not universal, but is instead culturally conditioned (p. 125). That is, what counts as rational depends on an historical and cultural setting, and this has been male-dominated in an attempt to maintain privilege and power (p. 126). The solution is in moving beyond God as the name for a thing, and instead use of this term to refer to a shared experience that is best expressed through creativity and art (p. 175).
A focus on power structures, and taking power in the material world as the basic explanatory concept, is indicative of postmodernism. Unfortunately, this is a kind of ad hominem where focus is shifted from critical analysis of what is said, to who said it and why they said it. This is unfortunate because the who and why misdirect attention away from the truth and meaning of what is said. Power structures and motivations do not help in determining truth; presumably, a person who is not part of the dominant group can utter a false statement, and a powerful elite can utter a true statement. Furthermore, it is far from clear that power structures are basic, indeed they seem to assume beliefs and ideas which are in the realm of reason. Therefore, Beattie’s analysis does not threaten the claim that reason is universal, or that there are rational structures of power that are necessary to help humans live the good life. Reason as the laws of thought is not cultural or conventional (as if ‘a is a’, or ‘not both a and non-a’ is true for the Greeks but not the Chinese). The ability to use these laws to critically analyze assumptions behind power structures is universal, and is something both men and woman can do.
Beattie seems to be correct in arguing that the method of New Atheism is unhelpful in actually solving the problems of belief. However, her analysis of power structures and attempts to find sexual imagery behind belief gets in the way of her argument. Rather than thinking of descriptions of belief as based in imagery for sexual con-quest and male dominance, it might be that sexual descriptions are signs for the reality which is thought and the world of ideas – taking the physical to be the basic reality and the mental to be symbolic assumes what must be proven.
But does art offer a solution? Does art communicate cognitive truths, propositions, such as ‘the formerly unknown can be understood to be…’If so, then won’t these require support of some kind to avoid becoming another form of fideism? Competing artists will communicate contradictory propositions and need to argue in favor of one or the other. If instead art does not communicate propositions but instead invokes feelings, then it does not help in answering questions about what exists, questions which trouble even those who otherwise lead the unexamined life. These particularly arise in one’s consciousness when a competing claim is made, which is what Hitchens does. While Hitchens may not convince a fideist, he will most likely provoke a response as an attempt to justify fideism. In saying that the debate needs to move beyond God as a being Beattie seems to concede that this belief is not that important, or is used to justify oppressive power structures. But this in itself is a belief about what exists, and needs to be justified. Art that will invoke a feeling will not provide this justification.
The crux of these books is that fideism cannot be maintained in the contemporary world. Fideism does result in violence because when pressed to its limits, it cannot offer a rational response. It does result in the censorship of free inquiry because it cannot support rational justification of its own beliefs. Furthermore, it comes in materialist as well as non-materialist forms. The problem is the unexamined life, rather than belief in something besides atoms in motion. A successful response would engage the presuppositions of materialism, and encourage the examined life.