Monday, September 11, 2017

What exactly is new about New Atheism?

On Sunday I went back to the book fair with my family, and of course I bought another few books. One of them is a collection of essays written by Bertrand Russell. As its title is Why I am not a Christian it is unsurprising that its first chapter is his talk of the same title, which he originally gave in 1927.

Summarising in order, the talk makes the following points:

He starts by giving his definition of Christian. For Russell this requires at a minimum belief in the existence of a god, in immortality, and that Jesus Christ was "the best and wisest of men".

Next, Russell disposes of several common arguments for the existence of God, observing along the way that the most frequently used arguments have become less respectable over time. The first cause argument falls flat the moment somebody asks "who made God?", because if God is allowed not to have an explanation then one could just as well allow the universe not to have an explanation.

The natural law argument does not work because it conflates human laws, which are prescriptive and indeed have law-givers, with natural laws, which are merely descriptive, merely scientific descriptions of what happens instead of prescriptions of what should happen. As such they do not need a law-giver. Russell also points out that science has shown them to be largely "statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance; and that makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than it formerly was." Finally he adds a Euthyphro style argument, that laws are not really laws if God just made them up, but that God is not required if they are truly laws of nature.

The argument from design was destroyed by Charles Darwin, and in that context Russell also introduces the argument from evil to show that the world does not look as if it was created by a benevolent, omnipotent being.

The moral argument is quickly disposed of by applying the Euthyphro dilemma.

Russell calls the argument for the remedying of injustice, i.e. the idea that god must exist or else there would be no ultimate justice in the world, very "curious", and I can only agree. I have only once seen it used in seriousness, and it is such blatant wishful thinking that it hardly needs refutation.

Having dealt with the existence of God, Russell transitions to the character of Christ. He calls "excellent" several of Jesus' teachings that I would consider unrealistic, for example 'turn the other cheek', but sarcastically points out that Christians do not actually follow those teachings. ("I have no doubt that the present Prime Minister, for instance, is a most sincere Christian, but I should not advise any of you to go and smite him on one cheek. I think you might find that he thought this text was intended in a figurative sense.")

As an aside, Russell mentions that "historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all".

More importantly, Russell says that there are "defects" in the teachings of Jesus the character of the gospels, most prominently that he mistakenly believed that the end of the world was imminent and that he believed in and took "a certain pleasure" in hell, i.e. eternal torture. The undeserved killing of a fig tree also gets a mention.

At this point Russell has explained why he is not a Christian. He now deals with the idea that even if religion is wrong it should still be promoted because it makes people behave morally by pointing out that it does the exact opposite. "You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step towards the diminution of war, every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised Churches of the world."

The talk ends by arguing that fear of the unknown and of death is the foundation of religion, and that it is time to dispose of it and build a good world on a new foundation: "Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations."


Russell was certainly an excellent writer, at least to my taste. He was concise, clear, and to the point. But really what struck me most when I read this talk / essay is that there really is no New to what has been called New Atheism these past fifteen years or so, i.e. the movement often considered personified by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens.

Because what really is its claim to novelty? Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is the claim that religion is not just wrong but harmful, and that its influence should be reduced. But go back a few paragraphs and you will see that Russell said the same in 1927.

Another idea is that its novelty might be in the view that science in particular has made belief in gods untenable, a position that is often derided as 'scientism' by philosophers who believe that they have a monopoly on refuting religious beliefs. Again, nothing new: where today some New Atheist might argue from evolution, astrophysics and neuroscience, a hundred years ago an atheist like Russell argued from evolution and astrophysics. And to be honest, neuroscience has found nothing in the last thirty years that refutes the concept of an immaterial soul more thoroughly than what people could already observe in the bronze age, for example that a strike to the head or drinking alcohol confuses our thinking.

Even rather specific side-issues have remained surprisingly unchanged. Richard Carrier et al. have in recent years made a lot of waves with the argument that Jesus never existed, and would you not know it, ninety years ago Russell mentioned this idea in a tone that suggests it was fairly widely accepted among educated people.

Really I don't think that arguments for or against gods have made much progress since 1859, and if somebody wanted a short but reasonably thorough introduction to atheist thought they would even today be well served with reading Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian.

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