Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett—the twentieth-century “four-horsemen of new atheism” as described by Georgetown theologian John Haught—are (were) confident and self-assured, certain that believers (and the unfortunate beliefs they espouse) will eventually disappear.
It’s a reasonable assumption in their view.
But in his downtown luncheon lecture, “Science, Faith, and the New Atheism” (February 19), John Haught—Professor Emeritus of Theology at Georgetown University—described the ideas put forth by Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett as “soft-core atheism.” He prefers engaging the “hard-core atheists” (Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx) whose arguments he presents in the classes he teaches at Georgetown and finds “much more challenging.”
Nonetheless the new atheists have been successful in captivating public interest.
“Faith is belief without evidence. Every instance of faith is dangerous,” says the neuroscientist Sam Harris. He argues that all the unnecessary suffering and violence in the world originates from religious belief. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, famous for his The God Delusion, adds that religion is supposed to make us moral but doesn’t. The late writer and literary critic Christopher Hitchens, author of the caustically witty God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, claimed (in one of his nicer statements) that religion is an “intellectually indefensible idea.” The philosopher Daniel Dennett wonders why religion is still around. He turns to evolutionary theory to explain that religion has helped our species adapt and survive, and it lingers in our consciousness still because it is “in our genes.”
According to Haught, what the “new atheists” are saying isn’t new at all. Their arguments—rooted in 17th century scientism (the view that science alone can render truth about reality)—have in fact been articulated better by other thinkers.
Many believers nonetheless feel intimated by the arguments of the new atheists.
Haven’t monstrous atrocities been committed by people in Christ’s name (i.e. The Crusades, The Inquisition)? Debating morality—as people often find—doesn’t get very far. Atheists express their disgust with religious hypocrisy, with religion’s bloodstained history; believers fight back with examples of atheist tyrants (Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot). It’s an inconclusive effort. Each side can always make one more point, offer one more example.
Haught prefers a different approach, that of examining the intellectual assumptions made by the new atheists. They say to take nothing on faith, and yet it takes faith to accept scientism. The bottom line is that when you get to the essence of its philosophy, new atheism is “self-refuting, self-contradictory, built on sandy soil.”
The main point of his lecture, Haught said, was that human beings, scientists included, “cannot help but having a faith, a trust.” They have a faith that the universe is intelligible, a belief that truth is worth seeking, a belief in the rightness of honesty (of sharing their data and research), and a belief in the capacity of their minds to make judgments. All this reveals just how intrinsic faith is to everything they do. To say that faith is irrational is to disregard the most fundamental aspect of our humanity. “To be human,” Haught argued, “means to be already engaged in a life of faith.”
New atheists ignore another deep truth about the human experience. It is our awe before the mystical and sublime. Scientists, if they are honest with themselves, experience this just like everyone else. “Something like a surrender is going on tacitly in the minds of all good scientists,” said Haught.
This surrender, Haught explains, is at the heart of what it means to be human. We surrender, become vulnerable, when we love someone; we surrender when we are carried away by beauty. New atheists, in their crusade against faith, are somehow blinded to an essential truth. That is that much of life—what is tender and beautiful in it—defies experimental control.