Richard Dawkins. Daniel Dennett. Christopher Hitchins. Stephen Pinker. Peter Singer. These are some of the names of the “new atheists.” These individuals are “crusading atheists” who sincerely believe that belief in God is dangerous for society. Their hope is that religion disappears and is replaced with a “scientific,” naturalistic world view.
Yet when one examines their arguments, there is nothing new in them–the “new atheism” is actually the “old atheism” reincarnated. For example, the argument that religion results in strife between human beings and wars has been asserted at least since the seventeenth century. At that time, after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) in which Roman Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other in Europe, philosophers decided that religion was intrinsically harmful if used as a basis for the structure of society. They relegated religion to the private realm and advocated a “scientific” approach to ethics and social-political philosophy. Philosophers as diverse as Descartes, Hume, and Kant belong in this category, despite disagreeing among themselves about the existence of God.
But in France, Voltaire, a deist, argued that specific Christian claims about the divinity of Christ and about miracles in general were primitive superstition. It was not a great leap to argue that such superstition only causes division and violence among people. Bertrand Russell argued this way in his book, Why I am not a Christian.
But the claim that religion is more harmful that good is problematic. True, religious people killed others in the name of their faith–both in war and in religious persecutions. But if one adds up the number killed in the twentieth century due to secular, atheist ideologies (such as Nazism and Communism), the death toll stemming from these systems outnumbers those killed in religious wars by an astronomical margin. In addition, religion has helped set up hospitals, help the poor, and perform other positive actions to benefit society. The “new atheists’” old argument fails.
Another claim parrots the Freudian argument that religion finds its origin in wish-fulfillment fantasies and childish superstition that looks to the transcendent to be a father-figure and to overcome death. Thus, both God and immortality have their basis in our wishes–and in nothing else.
That old argument fails as well, since it commits the genetic fallacy–the origin of a belief, whether psychological or sociological, tells us nothing about its truth or falsity.
Then Dawkins and Dennett raise the old, tired arguments that evolution implies atheism, since all biological development, including human development, can be explained through the non-purposive process of natural selection. Again, this argument is problematic. To treat biological entities, such as organs, tissues, or cells, as “having a function” but lacking a purpose does not make sense. Is it not true that the heart has the purpose of pumping blood? To deny teleology (ends or goals) at least in biological science ignores the facts. And even if God is not needed for the evolutionary process itself, God is necessary to continually keep the universe in existence, as Aquinas pointed out in the thirteenth century. If the very existence of the universe is not a “surd,” an unexplainable fact, which does not sit well with the contingency of the universe, it makes sense to say that an overarching intelligence both brought the universe into existence but also keeps the universe in existence.
It is possible to argue endlessly with the claims of the “New Atheists.” But there’s nothing new about the arguments they make, and nothing new about the refutations of their case written long ago.