What really scares the ‘new atheists’?

John Gray’s recent Guardian article threatened to unearth the ‘New Atheists’ Achilles heel; what we are really afraid of. Yet, in reality, he provided nothing more than a few digs of the ‘atheism will never win’ type, swiftly backed up with apologism on behalf of religious atrocities/against atheistic atrocities, all wrapped up in a cosy ignorance of the difference between actual science (the scientific method and its results) and bad philosophy (people who advocate social Darwinism falsely under the banner of being scientific). Perhaps he hasn’t read a great volume of atheist writers in recent times, but the more succinct and sensible of the ‘new atheists’ do not claim religion is a conspiracy for war, or that it poisons everything, but rather we point to the problem of faith. With the use of shameless references to Marvel and its characters, which I in no way intend to be offensive to people of religious faith (unless that faith is toward DC comics), the following is a response to Gray’s comments. Here’s hoping that you, dear reader, are that niche philosophy and super-hero fan market I’ve been hoping to unearth.


The honesty and humility to admit one is wrong is where progress lies – both moral and technological – and whilst we humans are filled with psychological bias, science provides us a system with which we can be proven wrong and thus be better. Religion, on the other hand, is a custom-made mechanism for avoiding disproof. Inbuilt into it is the dogma of ‘faith’, which disciplines scepticism and rewards loyalty. The discipline and reward that religion invented was of such a grand nature – eternal damnation or eternal satisfaction, respectively, in many mono-theistic religions – that it serves as the most severe form of stagnation you could imagine. Consider, for a second, what physics would look like if Galileo, Newton and other great theorists had built in this kind of systematic belief protection – a mythical system of discipline and reward for encouraging people to keep believing and never progress any further – and you would be looking at a far less developed world than at current. Scientists are full of the same bias as any of the rest of us, but scientific method keeps them in check.


Still, many on the side of religious apologism don’t disagree with the use of science. Like Gray, they seem to want and respect physical science whilst saying that it has no place in wider academic discussions like morality. We like our computers, our planes, our skyscrapers and our space travel, but we’d like our morality to remain mystical and primitive, please. Not because of our personal, religious opinions, of course, but because science can not justifiably interject on matters of morality. Science can measure, observe and hypothesise about the physical world, but it has no place in morality.


These kinds of arguments have been the trigger to my own work on this subject, mostly because they represent – at least to some degree – a good argument. The more academically inclined will recognise it as the ‘is-ought’ problem, which I find to be one of the most fascinating and yet misunderstood in philosophy. In a nutshell, this is the logic that tells us that science can tell us how a thing ‘is’, not how it ‘ought’ be.


Of course this is true, in part: science has no true ability in determining ‘ought we allow for euthanasia?’. Science (in its widest sense of including logic and maths) might help us with calculating the annual number of deaths, the number of people experiencing locked in syndrome, or excruciating, terminal cancer symptoms. Similarly it might even be able to help with telling us how likely it is that scrupulous people could take advantage of euthanasia laws. But we are very sceptical as to whether it could tell us what we ought do about any given situation. This was a logical path originally set out by David Hume and still revered by many philosophers today.


To posit religion as an answer, though, is to assume that the lack of power in science to answer moral questions is not shared by religion. Science is reliable at testing many of religion’s claims, in fact – from the miracles to the meta-physical – and has yet to find justification for religious belief anymore than it has for David Blaine being an actual miracle worker, or Spiderman currently residing in Butlins Skegness. Positing religion as a potential answer to subjects that science can’t help with, is like positing alchemy as a solution to the unanswered problems of chemistry. Even if science can not answer moral questions, religion is no more an option to turn to than Marvel comics.


This has traditionally been the point at which devout religious leaders have shrieked “moral nihilism!” in order to close down debate and force belief toward religious dogma and away from science. If we believe science is the great tool it has shown itself to be, and it shows morality to be unscientific, but also religion to be unscientific, then we are left – religious leaders claim – with moral nihilism. That is: morality doesn’t really exist, and we are each out for ourselves. So quickly queue up for this wafer in the name of vanquishing all that is science!


Except, of course, that the scaremongering is just that: baseless scaremongering. The premises – that science has disproved religion, but that natural morality is also the thing of myth – are true, but the conclusion – that we should all be moral nihilists – is a wildly illogical jump. Science is our tool. We use it, it works and let’s be honest, it tells us that God is highly unlikely to exist. We can doubt its conclusions about this, in the same way that we can doubt that Spiderman is fiction, however that level of doubt is not significant. But just because religion, comics and other possible sources of justifiable morality are the stuff of fiction, doesn’t mean we can’t still have our own values that we define and follow socially. In fact, the majority of laws in society – with their constant amendments and additions – are not about religion, or mentioned in any holy book (or comic). They are a matter of pragmatism, and they exist because morality is useful.


The problem with our current moral norms – be they legally entombed or not – is that they were often developed from a base of religious principles, which were predictably hit or miss in relation to a well functioning society. For instance women’s place as male property was enshrined alongside the more useful stance against murder. They were reflections of moral culture at the time, backed by a fictional story. It’s no surprise that some still reflect moral thought whilst others are entirely wrong.


What we can do, as increasingly secular nations, is to dissect and analyse what we currently have with the use of reason rather than tradition. We can ask what still makes sense as a basic moral value, what follows from it, and what has been pointlessly added or ignored. Most of us, if not all, seem to still agree that morality is useful: we, like vampire bats and ants, find social norms to be compelling even when we don’t think that God wants us to believe it. If we collectively agree that we want morality, then we can have it. And we can make it rational by extending our basic moral beliefs to logical moral outcomes.


In the same way that we have and enjoy art galleries and cinemas, science’s inability to judge what we ought to value or enjoy seeing at the movies does not mean that either science is wrong or that we should be artistic nihilists. To argue that case is to argue illogically. We can still just decide to have values because we want them.


What we ‘Militant New Atheists’ – or ‘rationalists’, as philosophical history rather than media opponents would have us labelled – are truly scared of is dogma. Its ability to close down debate, its posting of inaccurate logical quandaries, and its dogged admiration for religion rather than the values of the people cowering behind it (whether that cowering is learned or not). What we are not afraid of is doubt, perhaps surprisingly to those such as Gray who profess this to be what we want freedom from. Given evidence, I will doubt everything I know: including what the term ‘evidence’ could or should entail. Doubt is the only constant I can throw my whole-hearted support behind, in fact, as it is all that ensures against comfort with outdated or improvable views. It is that niggling doubt that has prompted each and every progression in history – technological or moral – as it leads to further interest and ideas.


Is that actually true?” “Couldn’t we do better than that?” Doubt is perhaps the only unifying feature of modern atheism which proponents are likely to throw their arms around and embrace.


So will we see John Gray issue a rebuttal, updating his article in tomorrow’s Guardian to accept these comments, straight from the horses’ new atheist mouth? I doubt it. It’s up to you whether you think that says more about him or me, though.