Scientism and the Downfall of New Atheism

Why authentic atheism is philosophical and pessimistic

Image by Jaime Spaniol, from Unsplash

So-called “new atheism” was a fad and the fad has run its course.

That’s the impression you receive now from the mainstream media that have shifted their attention elsewhere, having first flocked to account for those book sales so soon after 9/11, sales that marked a backlash against blind religious faith. The media platforms thus helped to turn certain atheists into stars and propelled the new atheist movement in the first place.

First you support a media phenomenon by providing its stars with airtime and then you seize the opportunity to explain why mass attention has gone elsewhere after the media platforms have looked for new trends to exploit.

That’s a tidy business tactic which has nothing, of course, to do with whether God exists. Atheism itself is alive and well — and obligatory if we’re talking about the exoteric gods of the mainstream religions.

Religion, by contrast, can hardly be accused of being a whipped-up mania. People all around the world are born into their religion; they’re indoctrinated from a young age, as they have been for thousands of years. Likewise, the Western civic religions of secular humanism and neoliberalism aren’t mere flashy media creations. These are ideologies welded to social systems that run the human world.

There are, however, more substantial reasons why new atheism fizzled out, one of which is that the movement was internally divided along political lines, between progressive and conservative or hypermasculine atheists.

The intersectional feminists and #MeToo social justice warriors introduced the wedge issue of Atheism Plus, alleging that rationality entails not just atheism but progressive politics, so that if you reject certain findings of political correctness, you’re on the side of knuckle-dragging religious fundamentalists. The more masculine atheists balked at that effrontery and stewed in their lairs in the intellectual dark web.

So new atheism is like a mighty tree that’s fallen in the woods and that nurtures various movements that have grown up in its place. Certainly, the internet facilitates the projects of those with short attention spans, as we’re trained to look for the newest hot take, meme or buzzword to avoid missing out.

New Atheism was Science-Centered

But there’s an even more substantive reason for the collapse, which becomes apparent from the discipline which most leading new atheists brought to bear. Here’s one list of well-known new atheists, based on the popularity of their publications. This list includes thirteen authors only four of whom have training in philosophy (AC Grayling, Michael Onfray, Peter Boghossian, and Sam Harris).

Here’s a more complete, albeit outdated list of the top fifty celebrity atheists (published in 2011). Eleven are philosophers or at least have training in philosophy (Ophelia Benson, Michael Onfray, Patricia Churchland, Paul Kurtz who died in 2012, Alex Rosenberg, Sam Harris, AC Grayling, Daniel Dennett, Kai Nielson, Michael Martin who died in 2015, and Peter Singer).

If we focus on, say, the top thirty, another interesting pattern emerges. Here are the names in order from bottom to top: Ray Kurzweil, John Brockman, Susan Jacoby, Victor Stenger, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Fang Zhouzi, Jerry Coyne, Robert Wright, Richard Carrier, Michael Onfray, Steven Pinker, Patricia Churchland, Paul Kurtz, Peter Atkins, William Provine, David Sloane Wilson, Alex Rosenberg, Sam Harris, AC Grayling, Lawrence Krauss, Christopher Hitchens (who died in 2011), Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, EO Wilson, Daniel Dennett, Quentin Smith, Kai Neilson, Michael Martin, and Peter Singer.

Curiously, the list-makers rank philosophers as the top five. But after ranking the members again in 2015 according to the search engine results of the time, the top five became Michel Houellebecq, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and Woody Allen, none of whom are philosophers.

More tellingly, sixteen of the top thirty have training in science or history of science (Hecht), or specialize in the culture of science (Brockman). Even some of the top philosophers in the list are also scientists (Harris, Churchland), specialize in the philosophy of science (Smith), or see themselves as handmaidens of science (Rosenberg, Dennett). If we add those quasi-scientists to the list, fully twenty-one out of thirty of these leading new atheists become science-centered.

I view these rankings as largely arbitrary, but I think it’s telling that so many recent leading atheists come from science rather than philosophy. Why does that matter? Because the question of whether God exists is thoroughly philosophical, not scientific or even religious.

Science rules out God’s existence with its pragmatic commitment to methodological naturalism, while religion presupposes that God or at least the supernatural exists, based on its requirement of a faith-based commitment. Only in philosophy, in which absolutely everything can be doubted, can we rationally entertain the question whether theism is true or what it even means to speak of the existence of God.

Whether they’ve known it or not, when scientists or theologians have pondered those questions — as they have for centuries — they were doing philosophy, not practicing science or religion. They were setting aside the principles of their disciplines (pragmatism or empiricism, dogmatism or sanctimony), and speculating more freely to clarify the relevant concepts and to assess the theistic and atheistic arguments.

Of course, anyone can speculate, but philosophers are experts at it if only because they’ve read more deeply in the history of great speculations, which is the history of philosophy, and because they’re more practiced in speculating in an intellectually-responsible way.

The Siren Call of Scientism

Suppose we stipulate that new atheism was centered on science rather than philosophy, or at least that science carried an undo weight in the movement. In that case we might have expected the movement would soon run out of steam, because the overextension of science would have amounted to the bankrupt prejudice of scientism.

Scientism is the cultural prestige that scientists enjoy, because of the evident power and success of their methods which have transformed the world. Science was lauded during the Enlightenment for freeing us from the benighted Middle Ages and from the centuries of ignorance that the Church exploited.

The cold war between reason and faith was comparable to that between capitalism and communism. Just as communism retains its demonic associations of being the inherently flawed economic system of an evil empire, thanks to the American propaganda campaign, science has kept its aura of being a heroic discipline that can do no wrong.

Scientists are proud of the rigor of their methods and of the power and indispensability of their theories’ technological applications. Succumbing to the temptations afforded by their mystique, many scientists are inclined to condescend to philosophy for being comparatively loosey-goosey, notwithstanding the efforts of both continental and analytic philosophers to reinforce their speculations with intimidating jargon and exhaustive analyses of quibbles to make philosophy seem scientific or at least intellectually impressive.

As a result, scientists have no compunction against slumming and pontificating on philosophical topics, being careful to avoid calling attention to the fact that by doing so they’re engaging in philosophy. Acknowledging the philosophical nature of the fundamental questions about God would entail the irrelevance of scientific prestige to that discussion, which would amount to surrendering the scientist’s chief advantage in that venue, namely the presupposed argument from authority on behalf of atheism and the scientific world picture (otherwise known as philosophical naturalism).

The scientistic case against theism goes something like this: “Religion is irrational, because its creeds are contrary to scientific knowledge, and science eliminates miracles and the supernatural at the outset. All knowledge is scientifically established, the rest being opinions, propaganda, emotional outbursts and the like, and whatever science explains thereby becomes understood as natural. The so-called ‘supernatural’ is just the unknown which is perhaps only temporarily mysterious.”

By contrast, the philosophical case against theism recoils against scientistic or science-centered atheism: “Defining knowledge as whatever can be scientifically explained is only a semantic trick. Besides, scientific knowledge is much more about what can be controlled than what can be understood. As far as we can tell from science, nature is thoroughly counterintuitive and not well understood by anyone, not even by the most rigorous scientist.

“The scientific empowerment of our species has little to do with rationality. Thus, science-centered atheism is disingenuous since we’re really pitting two nonrational worldviews and agendas against each other, theism which is meant to pacify and domesticate the human herd, and science or naturalism which is supposed to conquer nature and blot out the latter’s inhumanity with our self-serving, artificial environments.”

The new atheist’s unstated defense against that kind of dark philosophical rejoinder was to lean on the authority of science, to appeal to the social progress of modernity which has been sustained by advancements in scientific “understanding.” In short, new atheism was scientistic in that these atheists weren’t just assuming the content of scientific theories; they were presuming the supreme merit of the institutions of science and technology, of secular modernity in general. Science wasn’t just true, it was glorious and progressive and heroic in its triumph over the ancient religious mindset. That scientism or philosophical prejudice has been latent in the West since the idolization of science began in seventeenth-century Europe.

Eastern Pessimism and the Peril of Scientistic Atheism

Assuming, then, new atheism was scientistic, why was that such a weakness? The weakness was the incoherence of that strident, optimistic variety of atheism, which is better known in its ongoing positive form as secular humanism or neoliberalism. Presupposing that the atheist’s science-centered worldview is purely rational, whereas religion is faith-based and embarrassingly obsolete is untenable, because the philosophical nature of that debate compels even those atheists to question their scientistic presuppositions.

Once that happens, new atheism becomes old atheism, the type you’ll find in Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, or Spinoza. Once scientism is dismissed as obsolete positivism or as a faith-based early-modern cult which science itself undermines by humbling us with a portrait of nature’s inhuman scale and monstrous, impersonal, and absurd self-creativity, we’re led from a consumer-friendly celebration of American values (individualism, political and economic liberty), to a more Eastern, pessimistic outlook.

When new atheists condemned religion for being irrational, what they really meant was that religion can’t afford to maintain consumerism as a lifestyle. What the atheist values, of course, isn’t the mere negative fact of the world’s godlessness but the positive Western culture of modernity which has been driven by scientific progress. Paradoxically, the United States has led that growth of secularism even as American culture has been saddled with Third World religiosity.

The point of new atheistic optimism, such as that captured by the atheist bus slogan promoted by Richard Dawkins was that “there’s probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life,” and that was an allusion to neoliberalism. Religion was being condemned as an impediment to the Western way of life. Only science could keep improving our living standard, and science presupposes that there are no supernatural deities or miracles.

The incoherence of that optimistic atheism is glaring, since consumers would have to be kept in the dark — about the villainy of the corporations that bring them their cheap products and about their greed’s environmental impact. That instrumental ignorance would call precisely for some suitable reworking of religious faith, to keep the masses preoccupied with nonsense. By contrast, the critical thinking practiced by scientists encourages not mindless consumption of the world’s resources, but something like a socialist revolution against our virulent form of self-destructive capitalism and against the delusions of American egoism. Again, old atheism and Eastern renunciation and pessimism are waiting in the wings.

Eastern atheism, pantheism, and mysticism are far more enlightened than new atheism, because they’re not so anthropocentric. To be sure, a secular humanist, for example, understands that nature isn’t made for us and that our planet isn’t central to the universe. But this atheist’s actual values and lifestyle, her individualism, consumerism, and neoliberalism are human-centered. Her science-powered society is just an artificial world that replaces nature’s indifference towards her with intelligent designs that cater to her whims. The secular humanist may not believe the universe revolves around us, but she yearns to replace that universe with an artificial substitute that we create in our image.

By contrast, schools of thought in Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism are more straightforwardly ascetic and pessimistic, while the Chinese traditions of Daoism and Confucianism are more humbling or pragmatic. This is why Westerners view Eastern religions as being more philosophical than theological, because Westerners are used to seeing religions that operate mainly in bad faith. Judaism is more Eastern in this respect, as shown in Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job, and the secularization of most Jews.

By contrast, Christianity and Islam revel in casuistry and preposterous delusions of grandeur. According to monotheists, the Creator isn’t just smitten with our species, but with select tribes that worship God by name. How delightful that some clever primates think they know the name of God; now if we could just stop picking our noses and scratching our rear ends, we might have reason to take that pretention seriously.

Again, the Eastern outlook isn’t so childishly parochial. Jainism is pure anti-naturalism, comparable, say, to Platonism and Gnosticism, the idea being that the material world is a polluting illusion, an original sin that ensnares us. We free ourselves with saving knowledge and by not participating in the charade, by renouncing certain bodily instincts and appetites.

Hinduism neutralizes this ascetic posture by incorporating the anti-natural logic into its sprawling body of systematic doctrines. But Hindus still revere freedom from rebirth into nature as the ultimate aim of life — not the Western freedom to do whatever we want in our civilizational playpens, to be predators in business, to earn a fortune and indulge in all material pleasures, but the liberation from the suffering and absurdity generated by embodied existence. Buddhism, in turn, focuses on the change of mentality needed to obtain the relative emptiness of enlightenment.

Those two competing Chinese philosophies likewise revolve around this tension between nature’s inhumanity and the artificiality of our preferred lifestyles. Daoists say we should submit to nature’s simplicity and spontaneity, because we’re little more than playthings of a larger whole.

Confucians are more like Aristotelians and secular humanists in saying we should seek to flourish by cultivating compassion for each other in our social refuges from nature’s indifference, since the human way of life is impossible in the wilderness. Although Confucians regard the secular techniques of self-cultivation as sacred, because of our transcendent potential to be perfected, their outlook is largely pragmatic.

I don’t mean to suggest that tenable atheism is found only in these Eastern religions. But the “old” Western atheists such as Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, Freud or Sartre often shared with the Eastern traditions the pessimism and humility which are incurred by fearless philosophical inquiry. Other older deists or atheists such as Voltaire and Marx were more optimistic about the prospects of secular society because they, too, were scientistic cheerleaders for liberty or for reason. Likewise, Sam Harris is exceptional not just for his philosophical background but for his embrace of Buddhist spirituality. So there are exceptions that prove the rule on both sides.

At any rate, we might ponder the reasons for the demise of the new atheist movement. Instead of a circus that degrades most of us in rapacious, self-destructive and self-deluded plutocracies, we might want to appreciate how we’re at war with the world’s absurdity and are honour-bound to prefer philosophy to propaganda, even at the cost of our peace of mind.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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