The limits of “new atheism”
- Published on 14 March 2012
- Written by Nicholas C. DiDonato
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“New atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens insist on a fundamental incompatibility between religion and science. They see science as destined to replace religion, especially as science makes a religious worldview less and less plausible. For them, scientific advances reveal the truly natural and so negate religious additions. Against this “subtraction story,” Andrew Linscott (Boston University), following Charles Taylor, argues that the new atheists underestimate the complexity of what “natural” means.
At first, it may seem obvious what “natural” means. It may seem even more obvious to the new atheists who rely on science to define the realm of the natural. The problem occurs when one asks whether democracy or equality is natural. As Linscott interprets Taylor, values such as these change gradually over time, rather than always “obviously” existing.
This matters for understanding scientific progress in the West. As Taylor sees it, the new atheists tell a (false) story about how science challenged and defeated supernaturalist religion, leaving people free from arbitrary constraints and authorities. That is, with religion out of the way, people could experience the natural world for the first time without supernatural add-ons. In this natural state, ethicists could finally distinguish genuine values such as “thou shall not murder” from artificial values such as not eating a goat cooked in its mother’s milk.
Channeling Taylor, Linscott accuses the new atheists of reading the Western values that they take for granted (largely derived from, ironically enough, Christians) into rather than out of the natural world. As such, the new atheists “naturalize” the values of their own culture, the liberal West. Are they right to do so, or is there a limit to what new atheism can contribute to morality?
Linscott answers in favor of the latter. He points out that monarchy, oligarchy, slavery, and xenophobia stand much closer to Darwinian evolution than democracy or equal rights. On a Darwinian account, why should all people have equal rights rather than letting natural selection determine social power? Isn’t that more natural? Democracy and equal rights seem “obviously” morally correct for Westerners not because of nature but because of Western culture. While the new atheists may try to provide an evolutionary rationale for why humanity should subscribe to altruism rather than xenophobia, the fact remains that they both reap benefits from an evolutionary perspective.
At best, then, evolution can explain why humans act altruistically or xenophobically but not whether they should act in one particular way or another. As the philosopher David Hume argued, the “is” cannot determine the “ought.” Put more simply, a description of reality cannot give any insight as to how reality should be. For instance, altruism and xenophobia may both optimize social cohesion from an evolutionary perspective, but the question of whether they both exhibit moral optimization remains unanswered.
Taking it a step further, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that Western values such as equality in fact oppose the natural order. Stupid and weak people do not deserve equal say in a society. As such, equality actually hinders evolutionary progress. Thus, for Nietzsche, not only are Western values not natural, they are anti-natural.
If Nietzsche’s argument stands, then the discussion comes full circle: the new atheists rely too much on non-natural additions to reality. Their value system hardly comes from nature. They tell a story such that their values seem natural, but then so would medieval theologians. They still must answer the question, “Are our morals and values grounded in anything?” The theologians appeal to God, Nietzsche insists that they aren’t grounded in anything, but the new atheists have no answer. They want to ground their morality in nature, but this confuses the “is” and the “ought.” It appears, despite their best efforts, that they still have to do philosophy.
For more, see “The Presumption and Insight of New Atheism” in Theology and Science.