I am not particularly friendly to the so-called New Atheism.

While I respect (and often respectfully disagree with) Dan Dennett, I have been a fairly strong critic of Dawkins, Harris, and the late Hitchens (not to mention other NA’s, such as Jerry Coyne).

I have even written a technical paper analyzing the NA movement from a philosophical perspective. 

So it was with some interest that I recently read a piece by David V. Johnson at 3QuarksDaily, entitled “A refutation of the undergraduate atheists,” which promised to deliver some guilty pleasure for my weekend readings. It did deliver, but only in part. In the following I will outline Johnson’s arguments and where, I think, he goes astray. I have also invited him to respond here at Rationally Speaking, and he has graciously agreed, so stay tuned for a follow up.

Johnson adopts the (obviously derisive) language of philosopher Mark Johnston, referring to the NA as “undergraduate atheists” (notice that while Johnson seems to be some kind of deist, Johnson is an atheist). Since the NA’s themselves are notorious for their, shall we say, aggressive sarcasm, I think that’s a fair enough shot.

More substantively, here is the summary of the Undergraduate Atheists’ Thesis (UAT): “Humanity would be better off without religious belief.”

Before anyone cries “simplistic!” let me add that that’s also my own understanding of at the least a prominent position endorsed by the NA and their followers. So, let’s proceed to examine Johnson’s arguments against the UAT.

He unpacks the notion in the following way: “[the UAT] asks us to compare two different lines of human history, one in which the vast majority of human beings have held and continue to hold religious beliefs, and one in which they haven’t and don’t. Their argument is that the world will be better off in the latter scenario.”

Johnson’s first (and indeed, chief) objection is that to demonstrate the UAT is impossible, because it would require endlessly complex (and highly subjective) calculations, comparing the actual historical time line of humanity to the alternative world imagined by the NA. He therefore accuses the New Atheists of making a statement that is impossible to substantiate with empirical evidence, and that amounts to nothing but faith (ouch!).

This strikes me as entirely correct, as far as it goes, and it exposes the kind of simplistic, scientistic, anti-intellectual streak of self-professed “rational” thinking that too many atheists quickly and shamelessly engage in. Even though I don’t agree with Johnson’s judgment that endorsing the UAT is just as bad as “the ranting of any superstitious windbag,” it’s still pretty darn bad. We talk a lot about supporting critical thinking in the skeptic/atheist community(es), but we aren’t necessarily that good at cleaning up our own sloppy reasoning.

Johnson — again, rightly — accuses the NA of thinking that their alternative time line would have obviously been better for humanity, supporting this bold conclusion with (mostly cherry picked) examples of the evils allegedly caused by religions throughout the ages.

The problem, of course, is that some of those evils were justified using religious grounds, but more likely perpetrated because of the usual suspects: greed, political power, and the like. And similar evils — pace Dawkins’ convenient denial — have demonstrably been carried out by “atheist” governments, as recently as, well, now. Just think of Stalin’s Russia or the recent and current China. Ah, but those are not really the fault of atheism, the NA’s loudly complain, they are cases of political ideology taking up the cover of atheism. Sure, and what, exactly, makes anyone think that the same argument cannot be applied to the Inquisition, or to the various Christian massacres (often aimed at other Christians)? It’s called the no true Scotsman fallacy, you know.

There is, however, an important assumption behind Johnson’s reasoning (as well as, ironically, that of his targets), which one need not buy into. The two-timelines comparison is an exercise in consequentialist ethics, but if one is inclined to adopt either a deontological or a virtue ethical framework the whole idea of criticizing (or defending) religion on this basis crumbles into logical dust. Both Kantians and virtue ethicists, for instance, could object to religion on the grounds that they are based on untruths, as within both frameworks it is not acceptable to believe in things that are not true just because they make us feel better.

It is also a bit naive, I think, of both Johnson and the NA’s, to set up the problem as the comparison of two alternate time-lines. As Johnson says, this comparison is actually impossible to carry out, so either side can easily claim victory based on the “obvious” fact that their time-line is overall better for humanity. But if that were the only way to compare alternative scenarios affecting human wellbeing, then the same exact problem would apply to, say, political ideologies, with neither conservatives nor liberals ever being able to rationally make a case in favor of their programs. Instead, as any serious consequentialist would argue, these kinds of complex problems need to be broken down into smaller bits for which we can actually claim sufficient epistemic access to make at the least a reasonable guess as to the most likely outcome.

For instance, we can measure the effects of superstitious beliefs on people’s decision making and life quality, though the outcome of such analyses may not come down in clear favor of the New Atheist position. Indeed, it may very well turn out to be the case that atheists are better off staking their claims using deontology or virtue ethics (which is ironic, given that many of them seem to be consequentialists).

In a similar vein, Johnson points out that there are well documented cases of positive emotional effects from religion. Even though from an atheist perspective these are akin to placebo effects (and, the atheist would argue, unlike medical placebos they likely have ill “side” effects), Johnson’s argument remains valid. Remember, he is not defending the existence of gods, he is just trying to undermine the UAT.

Still exploring the alternative timelines argument, Johnson writes: “in this alternate universe, there would be no religious wars — but I suspect there would be wars. There would be no superstition — but I suspect there would be nonsense and folly all the same. But what this universe would lack is the ability of human beings to have religious faith and reap its subjective psychological benefits.” My hunch is that he is correct, but the crucial point is that we don’t know. That is, Johnson doesn’t have to show that the alternate universe would still suffer from huge problems, or even that the actual timeline is better all things considered. All he has to do is to show that the positive claim at the core of the UAT cannot be empirically substantiated, and that, a fortiori, it is far from obviously true.

In the second section of his essay Johnson takes on studies showing that religious belief comes naturally to human beings, that we are somehow hardwired for it. This is likely true (though I tend to be somewhat suspicious of any neuroscience- or evopsych-based claims to hard-wirededness), and needs to be addressed by the New Atheists. Indeed, the most astute of them, Dan Dennett, has devoted a whole book to “breaking [that particular] spell,” so to speak. (See also this technical paper of mine on the merits of various scientific hypotheses for the origin of religious belief.)

However, even if we buy Johnson’s premise of hard-wired beliefs in the transcendent, it doesn’t follow that people wouldn’t be better off without them, nor that this cannot be accomplished (you’d be surprised by how much genetically-influenced behavior turns out to be plastic, i.e. alterable by environmental influences). For instance, we are also naturally bad at reasoning about probabilities, and yet we can be taught how to avoid been duped by casinos.

But Johnson goes further and presents a thought experiment of his own, inviting us to imagine what an alternate world where people where incapable of religious faith would look like. After a brief nod of regret that such world would be unlikely to be populated by the likes of David Hume (I’m in complete agreement with that regretful sentiment!), he calls our twin-earth equivalents “Dawkinsians,” named after you-know-who: “Would Dawkinsians dread their own deaths? Would they have any capacity for mystical feeling? Would they suffer existential angst? Would they worry about the ultimate grounds of good and evil? If they did, then they would likely be worse off, I submit, than a world of human beings with religion. If they didn’t, then Dawkinsians are a species that is so unlike ours that it’s not a fair comparison.”

But wait a minute. To begin with, now Johnson seems to be making the exact same sort of unsubstantiated statements that he accuses the New Atheists of so carelessly engaging in (after all, the Dawkinsians are imaginary creatures). Moreover, we know that real human beings can and do cope with those problems, at least in part. Plenty of people in the world are non religious and yet do not seem to suffer more existential angst than their religious counterparts — for instance many within the so-called Buddhist “religion,” not to mention of course most atheists and agnostics. And religion is demonstrably not the only way to deal with these sort of problems, as plenty of philosophers and philosophical schools — from Epicureanism to Existentialism — have amply demonstrated. These aren’t hypotheticals about Dawkinsians, they are statements of fact concerning real human beings, statements that can be scrutinized and whose evidentiary weight can be assessed. Except, of course, that many atheists don’t care too much to study either comparative religion or philosophy.

In sum, I think Johnson’s main point is essentially correct: too many (new) atheists make bold claims without evidence, and they ought to be rebuked for that. However, the UAT can be refined and improved at the least to the level of a Graduate Atheists’ Thesis, if not better, by pursuing some of the lines of argument and inquiry I have outlined above.

Originally appeared on Rationally Speaking