David Bentley Hart on “The New Atheists”

David Bentley Hart has written a rather searingly critical essay on “The New Atheists” (e.g. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris). He laments the loss of the true skeptic of yesteryear (such as Hume, Neitzche, et al) and the shallowness of the New Atheists.

It’s a very long essay.  But from what I can tell, Hart is a master of the English language. The article is worth reading for that reason alone.

… a true skeptic is also someone who understands that an attitude of critical suspicion is quite different from the glib abandonment of one vision of absolute truth for another—say, fundamentalist Christianity for fundamentalist materialism or something vaguely and inaccurately called “humanism.” Hume, for instance, never traded one dogmatism for another, or one facile certitude for another. He understood how radical were the implications of the skepticism he recommended, and how they struck at the foundations not only of unthinking faith, but of proud rationality as well.

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

…As a rule, the New Atheists’ concept of God is simply that of some very immense and powerful being among other beings, who serves as the first cause of all other things only in the sense that he is prior to and larger than all other causes. That is, the New Atheists are concerned with the sort of God believed in by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Deists. Dawkins, for instance, even cites with approval the old village atheist’s cavil that omniscience and omnipotence are incompatible because a God who infallibly foresaw the future would be impotent to change it—as though Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and so forth understood God simply as some temporal being of interminable duration who knows things as we do, as external objects of cognition, mediated to him under the conditions of space and time.

There are a number of books in this category I ought to read, including both Hawkins’ (The God Delusion) and Hitchens’ (God is Not Great).  But those should be read together with Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate and Hart’s recently released The Atheist Delusion.

Will I get to any of those books any time soon? Alas, it is unlikely.

24 thoughts on “David Bentley Hart on “The New Atheists”

  1. becky

    Oh, I rather enjoy hearing religious critics lament over the current atheist wave not being “authentic” enough for their liking. If that’s the harshest criticism they’ve got, bring it on. And don’t get me started on what it means to be a supposed “atheist fundamentalist.”

    In terms of Eagleton, I don’t think he’s the best advocate against the New Atheists — did you ever listen to his interview on The Current? [http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2009/06/june-19-2009.html] I thought it was utterly infuriating. Interviewer Evan Solomon couldn’t even get Eagleton to admit he prayed — when believers get so liberal in their beliefs that they end up saying nothing at all, I’d much rather have a conversation with a fundamentalist (who can at least have a theology with substance).

  2. Scott

    Let us stir the pot, shall we…
    I have read the God Delusion and there is an interesting point that Dawkins makes: All of us are atheist to most gods. Christians do not “believe” in Allah, Thor, Shiva, etc. Muslims are atheists towards Yahweh, Krishna, Zeus, etc… Atheism is really the default position, and one then moves from there to belief…

  3. Jerry

    “Atheism is the new faith. But that’s not a secret.”

    Faith in what? And could you explain to me what you mean by “faith”?

  4. Marc

    I think we’ve discussed this before. I’m sure we will disagree from beginning to end and get into discussion of what faith is and what an atheist is, etc. And it will be tiring and frustrating for everyone involved.

    But here’s the short version:

    If faith is the confidence that something is true without having empirical certainty.

    And if reason alone cannot prove or disprove the existence of (a) god(s).

    Then both the assertion that (a) god(s) exists or (a) god(s) does not exist are ultimately faith assertions.

    Perhaps you say atheism is not the assertion that there is no God, but the rejection of God (or some such) even if he does exist. But then we’re talking about the term “atheism” in a way that it hasn’t been historically used–certainly not in the way that the term applies to Dawkins (and presumably Hitchens).

  5. Andrew

    I enjoyed the interview with Eagleton on the current. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Solomon couldn’t get him to admit he prayed – he clearly says that if by prayer he means being on his knees, etc, then the answer is no. Eagleton’s point, as it is in the book Marc mentions, is that the “new atheists” use sweeping generalities and straw men arguments that ignore the varieties and subtleties of religious belief.

    Eagleton isn’t a ‘believer’, by the way; he’s extremely critical of Christianity as well. As far as I know, he’s an agnostic.

  6. Toni

    Marc – I twice posted an answer to Jerry yesterday – the first time it didn’t appear and the second time the software told me (correctly) that I had already posted that comment.

    It doesn’t matter, really, except that you might be losing other comments too.

  7. Scott

    Actually, the first definition for ‘faith’ in most dictionaries is simply having trust or confidence in something. There is no reference to not having empirical evidence. Religious type faith is the second definition…

  8. Marc

    Scott: I don’t think that makes a difference. “Trust” and “confidence” imply the possibility of error. They mean something different than “know” or “certain” (in the empirical sense). I think even with your primary definitions the point still stands.

  9. Marc

    Anyway, this post wasn’t about “faith” and who does or does not have it, but merely pointing to Hart’s essay on the New Atheism.

  10. Scott

    I know, but it is fun to stir and argue and… And I do not concede your point – you have faith in the designer of a bridge or car, but it is not the same as the faith you have in God…

  11. Marc

    Obviously God and an engineer are two different things. But is the basic principle behind the faith any different?

    Of course, the question posed in this instance is not God vs. Something Else but God vs. No God. Both sides have, in a way, to do with God.

  12. Toni

    Scott – you might talk to a Toyota owner about faith some time.

    BTW Marc – I can’t seem to comment reliably on here. Several times I’ve tried to post, only for the comment not to show.

  13. Jerry

    At first, I was more annoyed than anything when I heard Christians and Muslims repeatedly equating believers and non-believers in the sense that both claim to be certain about the existence or non-existence of god(s). But lately, it’s become more of a fascination.

    It seems that there are plenty of monotheists that not only have dogmatic opinions about their own views, but also about the views of atheists no matter what atheists themselves have to say about it. Now, why would any believer want to dogmatically hold onto this misrepresentation of atheists?

    Marc, you say Dawkins “and presumably Hitchens” make “faith assertions” about the non-existence of god(s). When you’re in a book store, flip open to the contents page in Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, and read the title of chapter 4. It reads, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”. [bold mine] Would a fundamentalist atheist use the word “almost”? How about a Muslim or a Christian? Would you say you were ALMOST certain about God’s existence when you preach and pray before others?

    I’m not saying you never intellectually doubt your certainty. Look, if your prayers include phrases like, “God, even now, as I’m speaking to you, I wonder if I’m talking to no one but myself,” what are your feelings for God when you’re saying prayers like this? When you say prayers like this, what are your feelings for the role God is understood to play in this world? And if you ever felt that God seemed dead to you, were your feelings for this world colored by the mourning of a divine loved one?

    When I became an atheist, whatever mourning I had (for what I once assumed to be a living, divine being) was gone.

    Atheism, for myself and many others, is one answer for one question – “Do you believe in God?” And our answer is, “No.” We are WITHOUT a belief in god(s). And if you truly are interested in knowing what we are certain about, here it is: We are certain that we have no certainty one way or another about the existence of god(s). And we are certain we have no feelings for a god(s).

    Have you ever had THAT kind of doubt?

  14. Pingback: Clinging to a Belief that Atheists are Dogmatic « daydreamer

  15. Marc Post author

    Toni: it seems that for some strange reason that your comments got caught in my spam filter. I have no idea why. My apologies for not catching it–comments are often a matter of timing.

  16. Toni

    No worries. Opera on the Macbook may have something to do with it.

    Wonder if this will post or get caught.

  17. Marc Post author

    Is that link supposed to go to an article? It goes to the secular humanism page, but not any article in particular…

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