Who are the New Atheists?

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Sabahat Ali Rajput, Missionary, Mexico

The 21st century has fathered an opposition to faith unparalleled in history. The concept of God has become so skewed and misconstrued by the followers of the various faiths, that unravelling the truth and distinguishing facts from fables seems all but impossible for the layman.

Indeed, more than ever before, it seems that mankind has lost its Creator in the perpetuating welter of its fragmented thoughts. Even more dismaying is the dangerous cocktail of negative publicity that religious extremism has earned in the popular press, combined with the often-biased projection of religious people in the news and information media.

From the awe-inspiring sub-atomic ventures of the CERN in Switzerland to the incredible efforts of leading scientists at NASA trying to understand the origin and evolution of life in the universe, scientific advancements have led many people to express the view that an interest in the existence of God, the Creator, has become a thing of the past. This is especially true of the “New Atheists”, who seem to regard the spectacular advances of science and technology as a materialistic substitute for God.

To them, the concept of God is something primitive, unscientific, and even dangerous.

Traditional vs “New” Atheism

A definition of traditional atheism given by Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891) – considered the most influential atheist of Victorian England – highlights the difference between new and traditional atheism. He states, “Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God.” (The Freethinkers Textbook, 1879)

The traditional stance of atheism was founded on the notion that one can simply choose to live his or her life without any concept of an externally existing divine reality. Traditional atheists did not generally go out of their way to openly criticise and discourage other people’s belief in God. “New Atheism” surfaced largely as an intellectually aggressive reaction to the tragic events of 9/11 terrorism and sought to blame religion for being the cause of the unprecedented tragedy.

Even today, 19 years after the tragic incident, no single, commonly agreed upon, definition of New Atheism has emerged. According to the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

“The New Atheists are authors of early twenty-first century books promoting atheism. These authors include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens … A standard observation is that New Atheist authors exhibit an unusually high level of confidence in their views.” (www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/, retrieved 9 December 2019)

Suffice it to say, New Atheism is a much more hostile approach to denouncing the concept of, and belief in, God than traditional atheism. It has even been called “fundamentalist” and “militant” by its critics (www.npr.org/templates/story/story.phpstoryId=113889251&t=1583242979963).

Whereas traditional atheism had a far more passive approach, New Atheism seeks to actively demean, denigrate and degrade religious beliefs and strongly insists on the non-existence of God, claiming that it does not stand upon the pillars of science. New Atheists not only denounce religious faith but claim that it is the root of much of the evil prevalent in the world.

The New Atheist premise

The writings of those who identify as New Atheists mostly surfaced in the wake of the tragic events of 9/11. Sam Harris, for instance, admits to having started writing his book, The End of Faith, on 12 September 2001, just a day after the tragic incident. (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason)

Secondly, unlike traditional atheists, New Atheists categorically reject the “NOMA Compromise,” – an acronym for “Non-Over-lapping Magisterium.” This compromise urges that even though faith and science ask and answer a different set of questions, the two domains of enquiry can still coexist peacefully.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins quotes Gould, the founder of the compromise. Gould writes:

“The net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the old clichés, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.”

The shallow wordplay in this quotation is obviously not an acceptable substitute for any substantive ideas. However, New Atheists have discarded this academic compromise; for them, scientific reasoning altogether diametrically juxtaposes and concretely contradicts religious thinking. (The Rhetoric of New Atheism)

The third distinguishing characteristic of New Atheists is the outrage and boldness with which they carry out their rhetoric in public. Their cavalier self-assuredness is asserted through an array of linguistic techniques, which far outstrip their use of argumentative methodology and logic. They use a series of rhetorical devices to confuse, distract from the actual subject and emotionally manipulate their readership and audience to demonise the belief in God and religion.

The aporia of New Atheism

The New Atheists are up against an intellectual roadblock: “Why does the world actually exist?” (“The Basic Question”, The New York Times, August 04, 2012)

To evade this vital question, they have employed several logical fallacies and distracting techniques to get around the responsibility of responding to this. Despite their best efforts, the ultimate cosmological question of why anything exists at all is left totally unanswered. This is the brick-wall that lays bare the inevitable limits of logic and reason, especially as far as atheistic thought is concerned.

For instance, Sam Harris only skims this question and quickly tucks it away, unaddressed to satisfaction; just stating that it is “a mystery absolute.” (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason)

The only example of a New Atheist who dares enter the scholarly skirmish is that of Jim Holt, author of Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. After having spoken with various theologians, philosophers and scientists, he concludes that there may be “an answer,” but dissappointingly never actually reaches a conclusive verdict. Then, when Holt puts this question of why the universe exists to David Deutsch, yet another world-renowned physicist from Oxford University, he is told, “I don’t think that an ultimate explanation of reality is possible.”

He goes to the extent of asking Steven Weinberg – a household name and Nobel Laureate (1979) in Physics, and a wellknown scientist who has worked on the unification of fundamental forces, electromagnetic, weak and strong forces – to describe the formation and functioning of the universe; why does the universe exist at all? He also leaves the question totally hanging with the words, “I don’t see any way out of that mystery.” (Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story)

Even Harry L Shipman admits, while concluding his book, Black Holes, Quasars and the Universe, “Who created the material that exploded as Big Bang? For this the astronomer has no answer. We may be able to look back to the early seconds of the evolution of the universe, but our vision stops there.”

Evidently, even the most accomplished minds in the scientific world are totally at a loss to answer the fundamental questions about the existence and the Creator of the universe. Regarding such an intellectual impasse – one which every atheist inevitably faces – the Promised Messiah, peace be upon him, observes:

“I would like to point out that the reason why an atheist is able to argue with a rationalist regarding the existence of the Eternal God is that the study of creation does not provide factual testimony of His existence; that is, it does not prove that the Creator actually exists, but only that He ought to exist. Thus, evidence regarding the existence of the Creator of the universe, based only on reason, becomes ambiguous in the eyes of an atheist … Therefore, anyone whose understanding of God is limited to the study of creation alone is in no position to affirm that God actually exists. Rather, the reach of his knowledge extends only to the possibility that He ought to exist, and that, too, if the person is not inclined towards atheism.” (Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya, Part III, pp. 42-43)

This is the reason why past philosophers who confined themselves merely to rational arguments fell into grave errors and created hundreds of controversies, but passed away without resolving them. Their lives came to such a restless end that they, having harbored thousands of doubts and misgivings, died as atheists, naturalists and heretics and the paper boat of philosophy was unable to carry them ashore.

(To be continued)

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