I’m pretty much over the New Atheists these days, probably because the one Facebook friend of mine who posted Dawkins and Hitchens quotes most frequently left Facebook. Funny, how our worldview can hinge on such inconsequential matters. Even when we know all about selection bias and problems with small sample sizes, it just takes too much cognitive power to keep a constant watch on unruly intuitions.
In any case, this is a particularly good take-down of New Atheism (specifically: of the late Christopher Hitchens) and, surprisingly enough, it comes from Salon.
I also thought how it might be a really great thing for someone to come to Christianity after a life of atheism rather than the other way around. So often the folks who are raised in the faith have a hard time coming to grasp the value of what has always been right in front of them. Does a fish really understand what water is? Because someone wandering through a desert absolutely will.
It might be a bit premature to declare victory, but this piece from The Spectator on the New New Athiests (or Newer Atheists) is still exciting. In it, Theo Hobson first provides a succinct and compelling explanation for the rise of the New Atheist after 9/11 and then sketches out their demise. In a nutshell: the New Atheism was a silly attempt to pretend that religions is neither compelling nor complex, and the moment is over because most people now realize that was a bit silly all long.
I expect it will take time (months, years) for this awareness to trickle down to the level of my Facebook experience, but I’m looking forward to not having to deal with immature arguments about how religion is the root of all evil and fundamentally irrational. Some diehards will never give up, of course, but I’ll be quite happy if it becomes not longer a legitimate topic of discussion, as it never should have been.
There’s been a great deal of research on the connection between religiosity and happiness, and the consensus finding is that religious people tend to be happier and to suffer less from anxiety, depression and stress. (Summary via Wikpedia.) I don’t think this necessarily tells the whole story. A study by the Council for Secular Humanism argued, essentially, that if you looked at “resolute atheists” (instead of merely non-religious people) that finding disappears. That seems reasonable, and in my mind the simplest explanation is that people with extreme beliefs are happier because they experience less cognitive dissonance.
But every now and then you’ll find some particularly militant atheist who simply cannot abide the scientific evidence connecting religiosity and happiness. The most recent such eruption occurred on AlterNet a couple of days ago. The basic thesis is this: states with high religiosity have higher anti-depressant use, ergo religion makes people sad. This isn’t a new theory, it goes back to at least the 1990s when Cherrill Crosby wrote an article for the Salt Lake Tribune called “The Ups and Downs of Prozac” in which she implicated Mormonism for making Utah women unhappy. Unfortunately for the decades-old thesis, the doctors that Crosby interviewed wrote a rebuttal stating, in part, that Crosby had decided to:
ignore one of my most important observations: the fact that Prozac is widely used in Utah may be evidence that [psychiatric] treatment in Utah is superior to other parts of the United States which might benefit from increased prescriptions of antidepressants. Epidemiologic studies clearly show that depression is markedly under-diagnosed and under-treated in the United States. How different the article would have been had the author used this point as her underlying assumption!
So, to recap, militant atheists for the last 20 years have chosen to ignore solid, direct evidence that religiosity makes people happier. Instead, they prefer to rely rely on shaky, indirect evidence and unreasonable assumptions to believe the opposite. So much for science, eh?
What’s really telling to me, however, is that this is a win-win proposition for atheist. If religion makes people happy, it’s the opiate of the masses, and atheist depression shows that they are suffering for their integrity. It religion makes people depressed, it’s an oppressive institution and atheist joy shows they are enjoying their liberation from captivity.
If there’s one thing that human beings are good at it, it’s finding a narrative to fit the data that protects their preconceptions. It’s not surprising that religious people do this (after all: isn’t religion just one big story to shield us from our fear of mortality?) but it’s a bit richer in irony to the see the scientific skeptics engaging so brazenly in the same sort of inventions.
My guest stint at Times And Seasons went well enough that they decided to let me join as a permablogger, for which I am both grateful and excited. This coming Monday, I’m going to start posting weekly with the first in a series I’m planning about modern secularism and Mormonism. But I’ve got some general comments about the claims of modern secularists that I want to get to right now.
1. Atheism and Christianity: Not Apples to Apples
Any debate between a modern secularist (i.e. New Atheist or New Skeptic) and someone of religious faith starts with a tactical advantage for the atheist because atheism, as a category, has no history, no text, and no dogma. There’s virtually no content and therefore nothing to defend. The representative of religion, by contrast, is expected to answer for the history, text, and dogma not of theism (which, like atheism, is a mere category), but of Christianity (or other religions), which is a particular instance of theism.
A fair debate would either pair generic atheism with generic theism, or it would pit a specific instance of atheism against a specific instance of theism. It’s not as though there are no organized instantiations that fall under the broad umbrella of atheism, after all. Maoism would be one particularly unpalatable example, since it clearly embraced atheist belief in the non-existence of God and drew the conclusion atheists often draw which is that religion is irrational and dangerous. As a result, Mao bloodily repressed religion during the Cultural Revolution. Am I suggesting that atheism ought to be held responsible for the actions of every instantiation of atheism? Absolutely not, nor am I suggesting that Maoism is typical of atheism any more than radical Islamic terrorists are representative of religion (or even of Islam). I’m just illustrating how much of a tactical advantage it is to only have to defend a generic abstraction.
The reality is that the New Atheists actually do make specific, concrete claims that deserve scrutiny and require defense. In particular, the New Atheism entails myopicy materialism, radical reductionism, and extreme empiricism. Each of these is a contentious philosophical proposition, and none of them can be defended by pointing to scientific, quantitative experimentation. Nope, it’s experimentation itself that actually requires philosophical defense.
It’s not that modern secularists are deliberately avoiding these tough questions, of course. It’s more a matter of the fish not knowing what “wet” is. Scientism is so ascendant in particular regions of Western civilization that folks aren’t even aware that they have a specific paradigm, and much less that it might have feet of clay.
My friend Kelsey Hazard founded a pro-life group to help diversify the largely religious tenor of the movement called Secular Pro-Life. I think it’s a great new voice to add diversity to the pro-life cause.