The very public argument between the “new atheists” and religion was big news a decade or two ago, but it seems to have faded away.
So what has happened to the players on the two sides, and what has happened to the arguments? Are we any closer to the truth?
A long look back
In my previous post, Logic or feelings, I mentioned when, back in the day, the “four horsemen” of the “new atheism” were riding triumphantly into the best-seller lists, internet arguments between atheists and theists seem liked they were important, and atheists confidently predicted the demise of religion.
My post was part reminiscence – after all, while I found many of the discussions contained more light than heat, I made some good friends and found some respectful protagonists. But I thought I had said enough on that topic.
But two things have come to my attention this week that lead me to delve a little deeper.
Whatever happened to ….. ?
A decade and a half on, who still cares? Here’s a quick rundown on what I used to find influential. And this week I came across some articles that showed some of the main characters haven’t aged well.
On the christian side
Premier christian debater, William Lane Craig still maintains his Reasonable Faith website. He doesn’t seem to have debated publicly in recent years, though maybe Covid has caused that. Other christian apologetics websites like Apologetics 315 and Wintery Knight are still running also.
Meanwhile in Sweden, the indefatigable Michael Grenholm is going strong, still blogging speaking on radio and he recently published a book documenting miracles.
It seems these days the christians in the US are more concerned about politics than apologetics. I don’t see that as necessarily a problem, because the kingdom of God inevitably has political implications. But it seems most US christians have moved to the right politically and the more ugly face of this (seen in the combination of American and Jesus signs at the January Capitol riot) has driven many more moderate christians away from the church.
The foolishness and obduracy of some self proclaimed “prophets” and the perennial problem of rich pastors behaving badly aren’t helping. And just this year, the sexual misconduct of christian apologist, the late Ravi Zacharias, have been investigated and admitted by his organisation, which published a report and an extended apology.
So it seems christianity in the US is divided and weaker than it was back then. Many christians who would have once entered into discussions with atheists are likely preoccupied or disillusioned. Some serious re-thinking needs to happen. On the other hand, the church in the UK seems to be having a new lease of life.
On the atheist side
A number of atheist websites and forums have closed now. The excellent Secular Web site is still running and making much useful reference material available. John Loftus is still posting at Debunking Christianity though it seems less relevant to these times. The old Richard Dawkins forum was lively and pugnacious, but his current forum seems to be less dynamic and combative.
Luke Muehlhauser closed down his Commonsense Atheism blog a long time ago. The Why Won’t God Heal Amputees website still exists but the rambunctious forum has long gone and the site doesn’t look very current. The Atheist Think Tank forum also closed down long ago though the Twitter page still exists. The Is God Imaginary forum (which I helped establish) is still running, but it is a more non-aligned than atheist.
Nate Owens’ excellent blog Finding Truth was a place where I made friends (and became an enemy to a few commenters), leading to a number of encouraging offline conversations and friendships. It still exists but Nate hasn’t posted for 3 years. Like many others, I guess he has better things to do.
Many of the main players in the so-called “new atheist” movement seem to have shifted ground and become more politically conservative and intolerant. In a surprising parallel to what seems to be happening in US christianity, atheists seem to be really divided on many matters. In this article, Phil Torres sharply criticises a number of atheist luminaries for misogyny, sexual abuse, racism and intolerance, and it seems many of his fellow atheists agree with him.
Why these changes?
The demise of several forums and the lower profile of protagonists on either side seems to have been a result of declining interest. People are less interested in argument these days, perhaps because it achieved little, it was often unpleasant, they have more pressing things to do, or because they have decided that there are better ways to arrive at truth.
But the move by some prominent people on both sides to more polarising and unattractive views is harder to explain. I think it may come down to three words – power, fear and control.
Having influence over people, whether from a pulpit, a podcast, a Youtube video or a book, can be a heady experience. I imagine it could make you feel important, clever and on a mission. It may only be a small step to abusing that power in some way, or being rude to lesser mortals, or getting angry when some people refuse to recognise the worth of your opinions.
These attitudes may lead to overstepping physically or sexually, or making pronouncements on matters where you are not knowledgable, and coming across as ….. well I’ll leave you to put your word here.
We can have low levels of fear if we feel our reputation is under attack (especially if we know the accusation are true!). Perceived threats from people who we have demonised (it may be christians, atheists, Muslims, blacks, socialists, the coal lobby, etc) may cause higher levels of anxiety that may lead to more extreme responses.
Politicians and opinion leaders can fear losing influence, but have learnt that demonising opponents and instilling fear is an effective means to retain wavering voters and followers. Fear can be a vicious circle.
Both power and fear can lead to control, whether subtle or overt. The fear of losing persuasive power can be a potent cause of opinion leaders exercising undue control. Controlling behaviour is a form of abuse, and can lead to other forms of abuse.
Of course there are many other factors in all of this, but these three seem to me to be important.
Hard lessons learnt?
A few lessons are obvious.
Heroes don’t always live up to expectations
We are all fallible, even the people we look up to. But too often, when people are made heroes by others, it seems to affect them and they try to exercise greater power in some way – to influence, manipulate or even abuse. Christian apologists and evangelists, atheist authors and bloggers, all can be affected by this, apparently.
Fashions come and go
Cultures and societies can go through phases where certain subjects and attitudes are fashionable and of interest, and other times when they are not, regardless of actual importance. It seems that there was particular interest in atheism vs theism for a while, and now that interest has waned. The issues are still important (I think, hence I’m continuing this website) but many people have moved on.
This seems to me to be a good thing. Divisive and insulting argumentation serves little purpose except to build up egos. Those who remain interested can continue their discussions with less rancour, while others can get on with something else – like changing the world!
What has happened to the arguments?
Some of the arguments stand up well. These are the ones that have been around for years: Cosmological, Design, Problem of evil, etc, still stand as persuasive, even though clearly not provable or disprovable.
But some other arguments have rightly disappeared. Here are a few:
Religion is a delusion?
This was a favourite for a while. Some atheists avidly proclaimed that religion is a mind virus and believers are sick. They saw ridding them/us of the virus as a righteous cause leading to eliminating religion from earth. This led to some extreme statements about “public health policies designed to contain and ultimately eradicate faith”.
Not only was this language offensive to many other atheists, it is in the main manifest nonsense. Numerous studies show that religious believers are not, generally, mentally ill. In fact, overall, religious people have higher than average levels of mental and physical health.
Fortunately, these arguments seem to have mostly disappeared.
No verifiable evidence?
Another favourite argument of atheists used to be to ask for “verifiable evidence” for God. By this they generally meant scientific evidence, that is replicable and objective. This may sound like a reasonable requirement, but it ignores that very little of what is most important in life meets this standard.
Relationships, ethics, aesthetics, politics and most views on philosophy and religion, whether positive or negative, cannot be supported by verifiable evidence that proves the point. There are of course many facts about these matters (including religious belief) which can be known or believed with reasonable confidence. But the fact that there are reasonable and thoughtful people on both sides of most life questions shows that few life questions can meet the standard being asked of theism. The most that the facts can do is provide justification for a viewpoint, not to demolish the opposing view.
Some atheists argue that only scientific “facts” can really be known and all else is subjective or even meaningless. Logically, this ends up in total epistemological scepticism, which no-one can really live with. So most of us get on with life, making decisions on all these matters on reasonable bases. And religious believers do the same.
This argument still does appear from time to time, but most thoughtful unbelievers tend to be sceptical rather than making such a negative ambit claim.
Atheists are just rebelling against God?
This can be a common one among some christians. It has a theological basis in the doctrine of sin, but is unhelpful and unable to be demonstrated in discussion. We don’t know each others’ motivations (we often hardly know our own!), so claims like this are guilty of a logical fallacy (poisoning the well or ad hominem).
Thoughtful christians recognise that making allegations like this and using them to dismiss the opposing viewpoint achieves little more than closing down the discussion, making the atheist feel angry and helping the christian feel superior in an argument they might otherwise have lost (or learnt something from).
Hopefully we’ve seen the end of this in discussion.
Religion poisons everything?
This was another common generalisation without much basis. Of course it is true that religion and christians have hurt others and done deep harm in the world. Regrettably, there are plenty of examples in history, and in the present day. This has been especially evil when religious belief is allied with governmental power. But that isn’t the whole story.
- Some claims are exaggerated or mistaken. For example, religion has caused far less wars and terrorism than most people think.
- Atheists and agnostics have also hurt people and committed atrocities. This has also been especially evil when atheism is allied with governmental power. Christian aligned states have committed atrocities over a longer time period, but atheist aligned states have killed more in one century. Neither “side” has a proud record.
- Studies show that religious people tend to be more altruistic, for example, giving more to both church-based and secular charities than non-believers. In The Closing of the Modern Mind, Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says: “members of religious communities are simply better citizens. They give more, not just to their religious communities but to their society in a variety of ways”.
So the more correct statement would be that people can spoil or poison anything as well as be highly altruistic. Religious people may do good or bad with greater fervour than non-believers, but they tend to be more prosocial.
You weren’t ever a REAL christian!
If an atheist describes how they were once a believer but came to see things differently, some christians attempt to blunt this personal experience by claiming the atheists wasn’t a true christian in the first place. It is a foolish claim. The definition of a “true christian” is arguable. And there is no way anyone can know the depth, or otherwise, of a person’s belief. The argument is useless and better left unsaid.
Hard lessons learnt?
It’s easy to talk outside our area of competence
It is too easy for people with competence in one discipline to somehow assume this gives them competence in others. Scientists speak about philosophy and theology with little apparent awareness of how little they actually know – sometimes they try to overcome this by disparaging the discipline they don’t know. Non-scientists think they can pontificate on science (e.g. climate science or epidemiology) as if they can correct the knowledge of those who’ve spent a lifetime in their field.
It results in much that is written being contrary to science, history, psychology or anthropology, even by famous people.
Confirmation bias can affect us all
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says we make most of our life decisions, including religious belief and non-belief, based on intuitions and emotion, and then justify our beliefs rationally. If this is so (and not everyone agrees), then it is easy for all of us to grab hold of arguments that have emotional appeal but aren’t based on evidence.
If we want to be evidence-based, we have a duty of care to avoid plausible but unjustified arguments and to check all supposed facts. The evidence suggests that both theists and atheists too often fail this duty of care.
What a time it was
It had its moments. Many of us thought the discussions were significant. And for some people they were. A few people gave up their faith, a few moved the other way.
But most of us stayed the same. And now the times have gone, and we get on with life.
Photo by Meruyert Gonullu from Pexels