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D.B. Hart on the New Atheists

posted by Scot McKnight

A longish, I admit, clip from First Things:

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).

But how long can any soul delight in victories of that sort? And how long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists–with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for?

I am not–honestly, I am not–simply being dismissive here. The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture–some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds 
of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets–a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.

But 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.



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Paul

posted May 4, 2010 at 5:39 pm


Oh my GRAVY!
This is a seering and all-the-way-Hartian response that is long overdue to the recent repositories of the new atheists (I won’t adorn them with proper nounly spellings).



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DRT

posted May 4, 2010 at 5:45 pm


I feel like I am talking too much lately, sorry about that.
Thanks for this. My 17 year old son is an atheist and he is a better christian than most christians I know. I get to debate theology with him forever and his arguments are well thought out and worthy. Better than mine in many cases.
His atheism is much better than his christianity ever was. If there is a heaven he is going there.
Dave
ha! I like Captcha – was joyriding (that’s good for my wayward son…)



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Helen

posted May 4, 2010 at 10:28 pm


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.
I wonder how many Christians are ‘truly profound’ Christians, based on this standard.



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Jeremy

posted May 5, 2010 at 9:31 am


Interesting response by Myers. I would respond that he misses the point though. He’s amusingly reinforcing Hart’s piece by attacking things he’s not even trying to say. His critiques of the New Atheists (which should be strongly differentiated as a specific group within atheism) are pretty spot on.
Hart isn’t trying to prove there is a God in his piece and makes it quite clear that you can’t get to the Christian God through the cosmological argument. What he’s saying is they’re absolutely uninterested in trying to comprehend what they’re arguing against, which I think some of them have openly admitted, comparing religion to believing in unicorns. Sure, I haven’t invested a bunch of time in confirming my disbelief in unicorns, but I’m not writing books about it either.
Atheism is here to stay, but this crop of “New” ones are absolutely horrid philosophers. Their only real contribution will be to give dull atheists something to shout about. The smart ones I know backed away from Dawkins, Hitchens, Myers, Overall and company a long time ago.
Ok, ok, Myers is right on one thing: The piece itself was dangerously close to TL;DR, but then again, some points just can’t be made in 2,000 words.



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Ray Ingles

posted May 5, 2010 at 10:51 am


Sure, I haven’t invested a bunch of time in confirming my disbelief in unicorns, but I’m not writing books about it either.
As soon as there’s a “White House Office Of Unicorn-Based Programs”, I’ll regard this as a fair and honest comparison. :->
Atheism is here to stay, but this crop of “New” ones are absolutely horrid philosophers.
In my experience, their philosophy hasn’t been that bad. Their chief sin is not using the terminology of philosophy (see comment #30 here).



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