Baddeley on the New Atheists – Reductionistic, Contemptuous and the Rest of It.

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An excellent set of articles from Mark Baddeley in the Briefing on the New Atheism. Here’s some choice highlights,

A few years ago one speaker lectured on the question, “Can the natural sciences answer all questions?” To my surprise, it turns out his answer was: “Yes. The natural sciences can answer all real questions.” He apparently argued strongly that asking questions like “what is the meaning of life?” or “what is good and evil?” or even “what does it mean to be a human” are not real questions. Real questions involved the chemical composition and molecular make-up of bits of the human body, questions about the rate of fusion in stars and the like. Only questions that can be answered by scientifically analysing nature are real. All other questions are merely errors in thinking.

…this isn’t primarily an assault upon God. It’s primarily an assault on everything other than the natural sciences. Yes, obviously he is attacking the validity of theology as a discipline and whether there is a God to be known. But he’s also throwing philosophy under the bus as well. Not just philosophy—history, questions of what happened in the past are not ‘real’ questions either. Literature—the study of great written works, is also out.

But it goes further—psychology, education, sociology, anthropology, the ‘social sciences’ also ask fake questions—because they are also interested in questions that can’t be answered by the natural sciences. It is a rejection of the validity of any discipline other than natural science. Only natural scientists ask real questions. Everyone else is wasting their time. This is a kind of radical empiricism that would warm David Hume’s heart. But its appeal is only ever going to be to a very small group of people—natural scientists, and people who wish they were natural scientists.

This leads to the second issue. It’s a terribly dehumanizing viewpoint—somewhat ironic given that atheists tend to join forces with humanists. Removing the validity of all questions of our human experience results in saying that pretty well all the things that makes human beings distinctive are lacking any substance. “To be or not to be”—not a real question. “What does it mean to be human?”—not a real question. “What is the meaning of life?”—not a real question. “What is the good life?”—not a real question. “How should we respond to the threat of terrorism?”—not a real question. “Should we encourage societies to be based on human rights?”—not a real question. Almost every question that normal people ask in daily life and in affairs of state are, on this view, not real. Only the natural sciences have the answers, and only questions they can answer are ‘real’.

The problem is not just the viewpoint. It is the contemptuous way it is put forward. The complete dismissal of the sense people have that life should be meaningful, that right and wrong are not arbitrary creations we make for ourselves.

There’s no difference between the dark and the death of a human being. Why fear either? There is nothing to be afraid of—your fear of your own death just shows you are so much less rational/intelligent/brave (take your pick) than us New Atheists who are not scared of the dark. And if you reflect on that you’ll realize that if I shouldn’t be afraid of my death, then I shouldn’t grieve your death either. Did your husband or wife die? Did a child die? Well, would you be sad because a light was turned off? It’s no big deal. Stop being scared of the dark. Throw the broken computer away. Death is just the end of some biochemical processes, the turning off of a light, the breaking of just one of many computers, any of which can reduplicate the work of the one that has ceased functioning. (Reflect on this for a bit and one can see why New Atheists seem to, on the whole, support euthanasia.)

The third reason is more simply stated. Most New Atheists (with some notable exceptions) in their books or in their comments on threads online come across as world class jerks—smug, contemptuous of views they disagree with and those who hold such views, making points tangential to the discussion and the like. They give every impression of preaching to the choir—of writing and speaking primarily to win the approval of fellow New Atheists. All of that behaviour may be justified. Those of us who have religious faith might indeed all be so stupid and ignorant that contempt is the only valid response. New Atheists might well be so staggeringly smart that a degree of self-consciousness about their cleverness is warranted. Nonetheless, it’s not really attractive to anyone other than another New Atheist ‘true believer’. People don’t like jerks and don’t particularly want to become one. Even jerks don’t like other jerks, by and large.

The thing to realize about New Atheism is that its atheism is not its important feature—there are other forms of atheism out there. Its radical commitment to the idea that only the natural sciences ask real questions is its important feature. People with a knowledge of the last two hundred years (i.e. not most New Atheists) will know that this idea gets pushed from time to time in western societies as we come to grips with what a powerful tool science is. The idea makes a buzz for a while, and then fades away again. It is too inhuman to have staying power. For that reason, New Atheism will have its five minutes of fame, but it will be yesterday’s news fairly quickly.

Go read both this first article and the follow-up 2, 3 and 4.

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