Novelty in the new atheism … or theism

Oct 22, 2011 Comments Off by

Post–9/11 atheist works have been characterised as the New Atheism. Many atheists have objected that atheism doesn’t come in strains; you either lack a belief in a god or gods, or you have one. They add that the arguments on both sides haven’t changed much historically either. They concede only one new aspect of atheism, namely its assertiveness (in the best sense of the world). I want to argue against this conventional view, and instead argue history has seen several overhauls of both atheist and theist arguments, if not of the positions themselves.

Let’s begin with atheism. It dates back at least as far as ancient Greece. Aristophanes said, “Surely you do not believe in the gods. What’s your argument? Where’s your proof?” We have grown so accustomed to atheists saying things like “Science has answered many mysteries and in particular some of the biggest ones, and never once has an answer been supernatural” we forget there was a time no such argument was available. Aristophanes couldn’t say anything like that; whatever their scientific achievements, the Greeks didn’t have anything remotely comparable to what we now know of the Big Bang, abiogenesis (of which our account is evidentially incomplete), evolution etc. Science as we now know it is mostly attributable to the current, global but European–in–origin scientific period of 1543 onwards. For its first three centuries or so atheism was virtually absent in both scientific and lay circles, but this gradually and persistently changed to the current state of the science–religion relationship. Why have scientists gone from being almost entirely Christian to their current state, where most of their best, and almost all of their Nobel laureates, don’t believe in any god at all? Because of new arguments. Even in the last few years there have been new points to raise, primarily due to two lines of argument most commonly associated with (but not limited to) Stephen Hawking and Victor Stenger.

Now consider theism. When you listen to theists’ arguments, they come in two types, those I may as well be hearing from someone out of the dark ages and attempts to misconstrue modern science and its handful of gaps to somehow make theism seem like the conclusion of forensics. However bad we may think this latter group of arguments, there is something new about them; the parameters in physics were not cited by theists before Eddington. At any rate they show more novelty than do the cosmological (Kalam or otherwise), ontological (frequently reinvented in surprisingly dissimilar formulations but ultimately a recognisable type of argument) and design (as I argued in a previous post, this includes teleological, transcendental and “moral”) arguments. A medieval atheist who had time travelled to join us here, upon listening to modern theists, might remark, “Are you guys STILL using those arguments?”

There is another way in which theism shows some form of novelty. Every now and again a claim their religion’s book and/or authorities championed – be it about nature, history or ethics – becomes so untenable it’s no longer viable for that religion to cling to if it wishes to not be humiliated. (Some such claims come from the authority but contradict the book, e.g. the RCC holding to Aristotelian geocentrism in their conflict with Galileo, or from the book while contradicting the authority, e.g. Protestant literalism of which the RCC never approved – but then that’s another religious tradition anyway.) This is problematic because all religions require a “It’s true because the authority and/or book says so” principle to justify their claims, and each consequence that would have if universally applied they no longer wish to heed to requires them to accept such a principle AND some rule about exceptions to it. “It’s a metaphor.” “That was only relevant before Jesus.” Blah, blah, blah. It is worth noting religions always change their minds about such things in exactly the ways you would expect them to if you thought it was because they had no choice but to do so here in the real world. So, there is a new theism every now and again too – and hopefully, one day they’ll give up on the charade.

Biology, Neurology, and Medicine, Catholicism, Christianity, Physics and Cosmology, Protestantism, Religions and other Belief Systems, Sciences

About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.
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