Nostalgia for the Old Atheists


Last night I watched a 2007 debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox on 5 of Dawkins’ theses from his book The God Delusion. Lennox (who recently visited Australia to speak at the Easter Convention here in Katoomba) was delightful and made some strong statements. Dawkins was, to me, surprisingly earnest. But I did see in Dawkins’ responses to Lennox support for the observations of David Bently Hart that I read in a recent post by Justin Taylor. The new atheists are not the same as the old atheists:

David Bentley Hart, author of Atheist Delusions (Yale University Press, 2009), reviewing 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, laments:

How long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for? . . .

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

If that seems a harsh judgment, I can only say that I have arrived at it honestly. In the course of writing a book published just this last year, I dutifully acquainted myself not only with all the recent New Atheist bestsellers, but also with a whole constellation of other texts in the same line, and I did so, I believe, without prejudice. No matter how patiently I read, though, and no matter how Herculean the efforts I made at sympathy, I simply could not find many intellectually serious arguments in their pages, and I came finally to believe that their authors were not much concerned to make any. . . .

I came to realize that the whole enterprise, when purged of its hugely preponderant alloy of sanctimonious bombast, is reducible to only a handful of arguments, most of which consist in simple category mistakes or the kind of historical oversimplifications that are either demonstrably false or irrelevantly true. And arguments of that sort are easily dismissed, if one is hardy enough to go on pointing out the obvious with sufficient indefatigability.

You can read the whole thing at First Things. He goes on to examine the “anecdotal enthymemes” of Christopher Hitchens, and later argues that “The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche.”

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2 Responses to “Nostalgia for the Old Atheists”

  • Michael Canaris Says:

    What an utterly turgid thread replete with non-sequiturs followed DBH’s article in FT! On my rough counting, at least two thirds of commentators therein spent their time bashing each-other over their respective stock-notions of Aquinas, oblivious to Hart’s status as an Eastern Orthodox.

  • Byron Smith Says:

    Hear, hear! More Nietzsche is good for the soul.