Philosophical Atheism vs. New Atheism


When I first started engaging with apologetics as a teenager, my main concern was the truth: I wanted to know whether or not God existed. I still hold that aim. I eventually became a bit of an anti-theist, sharing Bertrand Russell’s sentiment: “I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue.” And today, even though I wouldn’t label myself an anti-theist, there are obviously harmful forms of religion, including quite popular forms of fundamentalism. But combating harmful and widespread forms of fundamentalism is largely unrelated to the first aim of figuring out whether theism is true. They’re two distinct projects: figuring out the way the world is and trying to make the world a better place. 

These are both worthwhile, yet there’s a conflict among many atheists. This dispute is something I used to wrestle with internally quite a bit: Should we address popular versions of theism – beliefs that are widespread and have the most influence in the world? Or should we address the best, most defensible versions of theism, which are bound to be less popular? 

The boring but entirely true answer is that it depends what your goals are. If you have goal X, then action A will make more sense than B. If you have goal Y, then action B makes sense, and doing A might seem bizarre. One who’s concerned with activism and improving the world should spend their time differently than one who’s concerned purely with figuring out what’s true. (Most atheists care about both.) As is so often the case, there are unavoidable trade-offs in how one spends their finite time. Trying to reduce the harm caused by religion is a good thing – it’s a public service. But focusing on what’s widely accepted in the pews is not the same thing as trying to figure out whether God exists.

If you’re more activist-oriented, then you’re probably concerned with fighting religious abuses, maintaining the separation of church and state, protecting education from the influence of religious fundamentalists, and liberating people from the illegitimate constraints placed on them by religious authorities and traditions. I gladly join hands with these people. But if you’re primarily concerned with these goals, there may be trade-offs with regard to another goal: uncovering the truth about God. 

To explore the question of God’s existence, we must engage with the better forms of theism, which will probably not have multi-million dollar theme parks dedicated to them. As philosopher Michael Huemer put it in Knowledge, Reality, and Value, “Who cares if you can refute the craziest version of a view? … The way to learn is to address the most interesting defensible views, not to spend our time discussing trivially false ideas.” Even if those trivially false ideas are widespread, wield lots of influence in the world, and are positively dangerous, they’re still trivially false. If your primary goal is to uncover the nature of reality, it doesn’t make any sense to spend your finite time attacking less plausible versions of theism, even if they’re more popular and harmful. The (uncomfortable to some) consequence of this is that you’re bound to spend time examining views of that world that very few people believe in. If you’re more activist-oriented, this seems totally absurd. Why would you waste time talking about something that wields no influence and that people aren’t affected by? If no one in the pews would accept it, why spend time thinking about it? On the other hand, if you’re simply pursuing the truth, it seems wasteful to spend time talking about beliefs that are obviously false – their popularity and harmfulness is irrelevant. 

There is simply not much overlap between what I’m calling the activist project and the philosophical project of getting closer to the truth about theism. But the trade-offs needn’t be too serious. Maybe you’re dunking on Frank Turek as one hobby among others for the common good while you strive to engage the best of theism in your private life. If so, great. But that’s clearly not what most activists are actually doing. 

Philosophers are often harsh to the activist-oriented crowd, but that’s rarely due to opposition to the activist project – it’s because there’s often false advertising on their side. Virtually all atheist podcasts, blogs, and channels claim to be able to provide good reasons to disbelieve (or lack belief) in God or gods. This includes those who don’t primarily concern themselves with apologetics or philosophy of religion. The problem is their insistence that they have provided good reasons to reject theism without ever engaging with the best versions of theism! If you want your rejection of a hypothesis to seem warranted, you should engage with the best form of that hypothesis, not the worst. It makes no difference to add that it’s very popular or very harmful. 

A vast number of atheists are spectacularly overconfident in their atheism. The late philosopher Quentin Smith lamented in The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism that even within academic philosophy, the widespread belief in naturalism is largely unjustified. Among atheist activists, however, the situation is even more depressing. An attitude of “anti-philosophy” is fairly common. It seems to be an entirely acceptable form of anti-intellectualism among activists. However, the highest-level discussion of theism vs. atheism is mostly going to take place in philosophy, since thinking hard about the question and analyzing every relevant concept and assumption with a microscopic attention to detail is basically a description of analytic philosophy. So if you think concepts are best left unclear, and assumptions best left unstated and unexamined, then you should look somewhere other than analytic philosophy to explore the question. 

In the past, I’ve defended new atheism from its critics on the grounds that new atheism was a socio-political-cultural response to the malignant influence of certain strains of fundamentalism. It was not an attempt to contribute to cutting edge analytic philosophy of religion. On the existence of God, they helped cross off a few bad answers, if we’re being generous. But I can’t ignore the fact that many fans of the new atheists wouldn’t like my defense, since they clearly think Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, and that other one put the entire issue to bed. Before I knew anything about the debates that have taken place at the highest level for the past several decades, I had come to a similar conclusion. However, the forms of theism that the new atheists reacted to do not represent the best that theism can offer. 

There are three variables that tend to influence the conversation here: popularity, plausibility, and harm. If you max out on plausibility, then popularity has likely taken a big hit, and vice versa. If a belief is unpopular, implausible, and benign, then your time would be better spent engaging with something else. But if you alter any of those variables, I think there’s some decent reason to address it. Still, depending on what you care about the most, different actions make sense. A balance needs to be struck between these distinct projects, especially if you intend on doing them well. Assuming you want to actually be good at whatever it is you’re doing, both projects are time-consuming. 

On my podcast and in my life, the balance may tilt a little more towards pursuing the truth and a lot less towards harm-reduction, since I spend more time thinking about universalist Christianity and the best arguments for theism, even though neither of those things wield any influence at all in the Christian communities in which I was raised. I don’t care. The Christian worldview espoused in those communities is obviously false. But to think that refuting a literalist and infernalist form of Christianity means Christianity is false is a painfully stupid mistake. If you spend all your time fighting those forms of Christianity, you’re not getting any closer to the right answer. You’re merely spending your finite time meditating on a particular set of bad answers. (Which, depending on how harmful and prevalent they are, might be a good way to spend your time – provided that you’re willing to make that trade-off.) 

I hasten to add that there’s nothing wrong with spending time wrestling with popular-level apologetics – even if your goal is to get to the truth of the matter – assuming that those apologists represent a worldview that is a live option for you. If the more popular material is interacting with what you believe (or recently believed), then it makes perfect sense to spend your time with those videos, podcasts, texts, and so on. For me, it used to be a big deal that a certain narrow conception of Christianity was false. But since I wanted to figure out whether or not God exists, I didn’t stop there. Refuting the version of Christianity that I used to believe is frankly not that hard. If you want your rejection of Christianity to be rational, you should engage with the best of what Christians have to offer. Camping out on the least plausible versions forever doesn’t actually advance your understanding beyond eliminating a couple bad options. At worst, it’s deeply dishonest to refute the worst version of an idea, stop there, and act as if the entire idea has been refuted. 

Professor Huemer, after discussing paradoxes of omnipotence in his book, Knowledge, Reality, and Value, shared a few thoughts that I think have wider relevance in the discussion of theism vs. atheism: 

These sorts of puzzles are entertaining but of no deep import. The most they should be able to accomplish is to make the theist refine his definitions [of God], which means that they do not get to the heart of the dispute between theists and atheists. It is reasonable for the theist to respond to these sorts of puzzles by refining definitions so as to eliminate the puzzles, because in general, a good definition should (usually) not be contradictory. Thus, if someone succeeds in showing that the traditional definition of “God” is contradictory, that just shows that it’s a poor definition, and we should replace it with a definition that isn’t contradictory. There are limits to this. If the traditional conception of God is so confused that there is nothing anywhere close to it that is logically coherent, then we should just declare that there is no God. But if there is something in the neighborhood that is coherent, then we should interpret “God” as having one of the coherent meanings that is close to what is traditionally said about God. That’s because our purpose is to learn, not merely to score points against people. The way to learn is to address the most interesting defensible views, not to spend our time discussing trivially false ideas.”

“Ken Ham is wrong” is not synonymous with “Christianity is false,” even though some activists (and Christians!) seem to think it is. It may be the case that an extremely popular apologist doesn’t have the slightest clue what they’re talking about, but that doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist. Why does this obvious truth seem to elude so many atheists? 

Unlike many activists, I think there’s no reason to disparage the activist project or the philosophical project. The best exemplars of both are admirable. And as stated earlier, the trade-offs need not be serious. Maybe you do contemplate God’s existence, but since you were freed from the constraints of fundamentalism by others, you spend much of your time trying to do the same for those who come after you. Perhaps you even feel an obligation to do so – to help others in the same way you were helped. Freeing others from the illegitimate spiritual and moral and intellectual constraints placed on them by religion is a commendable way to spend one’s time. (There are religious people who do that as well – I’ve met many of them in philosophy of religion.) I also think it matters whether or not God exists, so that’s an interesting way to spend one’s time as well. Yet, those who are focused on the truth of the matter are often perceived as elitist by the activist crowd, and the activists are often perceived as ignorant by the philosopher crowd. 

Though the philosophical and activist projects are far from incompatible, it’s nevertheless a bit hard to imagine one person who truly excels at both. Assuming you want to do what you’re doing well, these projects will occupy a lot of time. It’s not that they are contradictory; they’re just distinct from one another and we only have a finite amount of time in this life. That’s why these trade-offs present themselves to us. So, what kind of balance will you choose to strike? How much of your time will be occupied by the worst forms of theism, and how much by the best? 

The main issue with the activists is that they seem to think they’re the best at both projects, despite never engaging with the strongest versions of theism. Unfortunately, some are incapable of admitting that there is any gradient of quality in the first place. I’m sure some of them are reading and thinking, “There are no plausible versions of theism! They’re all equally implausible!” If you sincerely can’t detect any difference between I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Frank Turek and The Existence of God by Richard Swinburne, then no one should care what you have to say about theism vs. atheism. But let’s be honest, you haven’t read the latter – or if you did, you didn’t have the tools to understand it. That’s why you think there’s no gradient, and that all forms of theism – everything from Ray Comfort’s theism to David Bentley Hart’s theism – are equally implausible. 

Why can’t we just agree that we’re doing different things and call a truce? When two people have different goals, it won’t make sense to act in the same way. It’s not as if the activist crowd is unconcerned with the truth. The activists are generally more concerned with attacking the truth of influential beliefs that make the world worse. (This is entirely sensible.) Philosophers are generally more concerned with addressing the best versions of each side, since that’s the best way of figuring out whether we should be theists, atheists, or agnostics. (This is entirely sensible.) Again, my main issue with the activist crowd is that they seem to think they’re the best at both, despite never engaging with the strongest versions of the view they reject. 

One footnote: I think some anti-theists, new atheists – whatever you want to call them – are sometimes operating under the assumption that the most widely-subscribed forms of theism are truer to the core ideas of theism or Christianity than the “watered-down” forms that I’m considering to be more defensible. I’d very much like to have that argument out in the open, so please – make that argument explicitly, if that’s what you think. I might not be entirely unsympathetic to it. After all, we’re talking about revealed religion. Are we supposed to believe that God revealed it poorly? If God is concerned with his followers having the right beliefs – say, if salvation depended on it – it would be really weird if the right beliefs were held only by a tiny minority of theists. (I think that theists who represent the best that the tradition has to offer possess resources for answering these sorts of problems that fundamentalists lack.) 

On a more conciliatory note: The activist and philosophical projects, though distinct, can certainly help each other. The work of addressing the best forms of theism can indirectly assist the work of activists by laying down intellectual roots. Consider, for example, that much of contemporary animal rights activism can be traced back to Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. If atheism is seen as an intellectually worthy position, that can help improve the social viability of atheism, as well as denature some of the toxic characteristics of fundamentalism. (Additionally, activists who seek to deconvert as many believers as possible should be happy that philosophical defenses of atheism exist, so that the few who go deeper are not left disappointed and disillusioned. If the only defenders of atheism around were the various hosts of YouTube call-in shows, I would probably be a theist by now.) 

Quentin Smith, in The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism, distinguishes “philosophically governed versus social activist behavior” and describes how the two projects might be synthesized: 

…since the [Naturalist], insofar as she is a philosopher, is continuing to pursue knowledge, her epistemic state will always be changing in some respect and, not being naïve, she will recognize that she may well hold a false belief about naturalism and secularization. This recognition not only requires that the commitment to the belief in naturalism be tentative, but also that the pursuit of the naturalist cultural goal be tentative and conditional upon the fact that the most important philosophical aspect of pursuing this cultural goal in a philosophically governed way is producing better arguments (to put matters in a simplified way) than the theist, which requires an openness to a fair-minded evaluation of good arguments for theism. When a philosopher engages in a philosophically governed act of achieving a cultural goal, her action is considerably more tentative and open to opposing views than a social activist who does not pursue this cultural goal in a philosophically governed way. Human history is the partly philosophically ordered wreckage created by humans pursuing their goals in all sorts of ways. Nonetheless, this sort of wreckage is (philosophically) better than one that contains no partially philosophically ordered aspects.” 

So, one could pursue their cultural goals in a “philosophically governed way” – i.e., in a completely different way than that of the current crop of activists. Who knows, maybe I should be more optimistic. Look at the evolution of an influential atheist like Alex O’Connor, whose drift away from the shallowness of new atheism into the deeper waters of philosophy of religion typifies the journey of many atheists, myself included. 

The way that I see it, some atheists are primarily concerned with harm-reduction and helping others. As a result, they see no point in spending time on things that have no significant influence in the world. Other atheists are primarily concerned with getting to the truth of the matter. As a result, they see no point in endlessly beating up on creationism, literalism, inerrantism, and other ideas that to them seem trivially false. Whether or not God exists does not hang on whether infernalism is true! It doesn’t depend on whether this or that harmful form of fundamentalism makes any sense. You could be right that a particular form of Christianity is false and harmful. And yet, it’s entirely possible that God exists, and will someday say “Well done, good and faithful servant” to those who fought the evil committed in his name. 

In the future, I will continue to defend the controversial claims that there is a distinction between the best and worst forms of theism and that we only have a finite amount of time on the earth. Most atheists seem to err on the side of using that time to address the worst forms of theism rather than the best. Personally, I don’t care which trade-offs you make in your personal or public life, as long as you don’t pretend that you’ve debunked theism merely by addressing a few harmful forms that you have the most personal experience with. 

There have been quite a few subjects raised that are worth addressing further. I could have written a post like this aimed instead at theists who have mostly concerned themselves with attacking the most popular forms of atheism, atheist memes, and the Four Horsemen rather than the best forms of atheism. It’s not as if the overconfident theists in the apologetics space have adequately engaged with Paul Draper, Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, J.L. Schellenberg, or J.H. Sobel. Most of the loudmouths online haven’t done their due diligence, regardless of whether they’re atheists or theists. 

Theists often bemoan the low quality of contemporary public atheism, and in a way, I agree with them. But they’re not blameless. Contemporary atheism wasn’t formed in a vacuum: It’s a response to contemporary theism. Most atheists are former believers who left the faith. What they’re responding to is their idea of Christianity, which they formed when they were a part of the Christian community. You can criticize the quality of contemporary atheism and contemporary Christianity, but you can’t just criticize atheism without acknowledging one of the major reasons it is the way it is. There’s no intelligible way to dissociate the shallowness of contemporary atheism from the shallowness of contemporary theism, specifically Christianity. One Christian who is consistent in this regard, David Bentley Hart, has written scathingly about both: 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Christianity has never really taken deep root in America or had any success in forming American consciousness; in its place, we have invented a kind of Orphic mystery religion of personal liberation, fecundated and sustained by a cult of Mammon.” 

Hart, D.B. (2020). Three Cheers for Socialism. Commonweal. 

The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.” 

Hart, D.B. (2010). Believe It or Not. First Things. 

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