The “New Atheists”: Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens . . . Oh My!

i By Kevin James Bywater Perhaps it goes without saying that the “new atheists” have arrived. Richard Dawkins,ii Sam Harrisiii and Christopher Hitchensiv (among others)v have recently published volumes capturing many intellects and imaginations. As international bestsellers, their publishing efforts are likely to produce challenges to our faith for years to come. These authors have superb rhetorical skills and deploy the English language to great effect. Dawkins and Hitchens have particular appeal with their posh British accents and witty idioms. It is not that their polemics are novel, however, nor their arguments especially successful. And they have not gone Yet it appears they have not always understood or felt the weight of their opponents’ objections.vii For instance, Hitchens regularly denounces people, their beliefs, and their actions as “immoral.” Nevertheless, within an atheist universe it is difficult to see how such moral disdain rises above a merely emotive, “I don’t like them/that.” After all, within that perspective, what precisely is good or evil? Does atheism have the resources necessary to produce coherent accusations of immorality? It is most difficult to see moral assessment as meaningful within an atheist worldview. Worldview analysis unveils why this is true. Morality and Materiality Atheists tend to suppose that what exists is only that which is open to scientific scrutiny, that which is natural. Yet moral truths are not entities amenable to such analysis. As one atheist perceptively observed: If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.viii It simply is the case that one does not discover moral truths through microscopes or telescopes. However, neither does one so discover numbers, the laws of logic, other minds (as distinct from brains), or love. This, of course, doesn’t keep anyone from enjoying each of these! If moral truths cannot be scrutinized as physical entities or forces of physics – because they are not entities or forces of that sort – then do they exist in the naturalistic universe of the atheist? And if moral assessments cannot meaningfully be made of such things as granite or grass or gaggles of geese, then can they be levelled at human beings – entities that are, on atheistic and naturalistic assumptions, merely alternate forms of the same material stuff? Thus the moral disapproval of atheists appears to reduce to

the precondition for deeming such actions moral and not merely preferable. expression of preference or personal disapproval – nothing all that serious. be generous with their possessions. “If religion were the only durable foundation for morality. would be a mistake for Hitchens’s challenge is an evasive manoeuvre. a perspective that lacks the preconditions for such moral categories.”ix He triumphantly proclaims that he has yet had no takers. one can’t help but suppose that since the new atheists were raised within cultures influenced by a Judeo-Christian worldview. That. and the psychopaths who take pleasure from cruelty. Atheists and Moral Actions Along a different path. The naturalistic worldview of atheism is unable to account for the reality of moral truths or provide for their meaningful expression. In other words. Even so. They can tell the truth. Now. feed their children. or is innate except in the sociopaths who do not care about others. The problem is in making sense of the alleged morality or immorality of actions within an atheist perspective. remain faithful to their spouses. Of course atheists can perform moral actions. this problem is one the new atheists so often fail to see. For example. Atheists and Innate Moral Sense Regardless. they have absorbed and retained many such values. if you are an atheist. Sam Harris once asserted. Their counterfactual worldview lacks the requisite resources for coherent moral assessments. forgive others their faults – each of which is wholly commendable. Additionally. it is an observation that within an atheistic worldview there appears no objective means of assessing actions as good or bad. Christians might be tempted to troll about to find that one exceptional deed on which to pin this tail. and I derive other satisfactions as well from being of assistance to a fellow creature… Nobody has to teach me any of this. a red herring.. The so-called Golden Rule is innate in us.. and often Christians agree (or at least we should). however. what eludes atheism is an objective standard of assessment. Hitchens places great confidence in this challenge: “name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer. unless you desire their approval. then you’ll necessarily behave badly.xi . you would expect atheists to be really badly behaved. Again.”x But the argument is not. these assessments do not appear to cohere with the atheistic worldview. atheists do pronounce moral assessments. There is something about [donating blood] that appeals to me. Perhaps this is no more visible in one of Hitchens’s autobiographical anecdotes.

One may doubt that Hitchens was not taught to share. movies. Would it remain good to donate blood even if it had no appeal and provided no such satisfactions? Of course it would. Morality without God? Hitchens tries hard to retain the objectivity of morality by locating it in evolutionary biology (something unsuccessfully attempted by others). in Twilight of the Idols. That is the penance they pay there. a resonant with his culture. By breaking one main concept out of it. the satisfaction of helping other people. but it remains a pervasive one in Western culture. that within an atheistic and naturalistic worldview moral assessments reduce to emotive expressions of preference. Perhaps Friedrich Nietzsche was suggestive when he criticized Georg Eliot. But would it be so within an atheistic worldview? One is at pains to see how it would be. But this anecdote takes us back to our earliest suspicion. and English atheists more generally. It is embedded in our histories. at least in part. Our neighbor in need is our neighbor indeed. lesser forms of the Golden Rule have been used to support distinctly ethnocentric ends throughout history. he is aping something altruistic and ethically upright. It appears that what we encounter here is precisely what we noted earlier: moral claims reduce to preference claims within an atheistic world. Hitchens does it because he likes the resultant feelings. Our culture rewards generosity both socially and emotionally. tribe. He supposes that mimicking personal sacrifice (and it is only mimicry that he admits to. as he sees blood donation as not truly sacrificial in that he loses nothing). After all.xii This is precisely the limitation countered in the parable of the good Samaritan. In the anecdote above. “In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. “They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality….When the . He may not recall the lesson. Hitchens conflates a feeling of satisfaction with a moral imperative. one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet… Christianity is a system. I find it interesting that he even attempts to retain some semblance of universal moral standard and impulse. fairy tales and poetry. a whole view of things thought out together. nation or ethnic group.” Nietzsche continued: We others hold otherwise. Hitchens prefers the appeal. the faith in God. a parable that likely has also informed Hitchens’s moral sensibilities. Thus Hitchens’s feelings are. When one gives up the Christian faith. In addition. with “the other” to whom one should do good being restricted to members of one’s family. one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands….” wrote Nietzsche.

. the philosophical naturalism of atheism. For information on the centre. that image is permanent. the fallacious diversions. The attempt to retain morality absent the Deity is desperate and incoherent. Nor need one wholly agree with Nietzsche to notice the rationality of his comments: when one removes God. morality is not yet a problem. to be fair. Having misplaced the foundation for moral outrage. one removes the foundation for morality. the thoughts that arise from them as human beings made in the image of the Deity they deny. we can be glad that many atheists insist on recognizing a difference between good and evil. such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. But it’s wrong to steal. and the non-physicality of moral truths combine to show that the “new atheists” strike an implausible pose. when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality. Thankfully. It also explains why their bullish announcements of moral criticism smack of so much bluster. Applications for the fall of 2008 are now being received. citizen on the 13th of April.S. We can be glad for their intuitions.summit-oxford. we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten. He has expatriated from Britain. For the English. 2007.English actually believe that they know “intuitively” what is good and evil. Kevin James Bywater directs the Summit Ministries Oxford Study Of course. Christopher Hitchens became a U. In the end.xiii Now. they pilfer from the Christian worldview. please visit www.

Norton. January 5. including The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin.html#. van Kooten (of the University of Groningen) during a discussion of the Golden Rule (and its many permutations) at the British New Testament Conference at the University of Exeter in early September 2007.1941) holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and is the author of numerous books. xi Hitchens. C. Hitchens (b. “Introduction. accessed 18 January 2008. ix C. 2007).1954. an awarded journalist.An earlier and shorter version of this essay appeared in the January 2008 edition of the Summit Oxford Stenger. 2006). Among his most recent books is his bestselling God Is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve Books.0. xiii Available online: http://www. I would note.handprint. x As quoted in.” xvi.L. Douglas Wilson on the Christianity Today website: “Is Christianity Good for the World?” http://www. http://www. 2007.1942).org/wnet/religionandethics/week1019/cover. 2007). a publication that may be downloaded from the blog at www. Victor J. his 50th birthday). vii This seems particularly acute in the case of Hitchens’s debate with Rev. He is the author of The End of Faith: Religion. 2006). however. accessed 18 January 2008. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin. that I see D’Souza’s work as inadequate or misleading particularly with regards to his embrace of evolutionary theory and his attempts to downplay the tensions between this theory and tenets of the Christian faith. ii C.W. Hitchens.g. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin. “The New Atheists.christianitytoday. and an incredibly prolific author.1967) holds a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience. 2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf.1961). Richard Dawkins (b. 2007). George H. iv Christopher E. vi Among a heavy stream of published responses. “Introduction. I highlight this volume since it interacts with several of the significant “new atheists. v E.” Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. 1977). ed.1949) is an ex-patriot Britain now an American Citizen (as of 13 April 2007. PBS. 38. See also Hitchens. There are many other very helpful responses being published right now. Terror and the Future of Reason (W. 2007).” and does so with regards to so many facets of their arguments. iii Sam Harris (b. see especially Dinesh D’Souza (b. xiv.pbs. God: The Failed Hypothesis (Prometheus. i . Daniel Dennett ( “Introduction. editor of Skeptic magazine).” in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Michael Shermer (b.html. What’s So Great about Christianity? (Regnery.” xvi-xvii. xii This was pointed out to me by Prof..html (accessed 18 January 2008). Hitchens (London: De Capo. 2006).summit-oxford. viii J.

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