what really is the rift that divides atheists?

Just the other day, NPR published an article that got quite a bit of attention on Facebook: A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists. Basically, it talks about the difference between “new atheism” of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – “a more aggressive, often belittling posture toward religious believers,” and more tolerant forms of atheism.

Unfortunately, the article is kind of shallow. In particular, I think it totally runs over some important distinctions that can be made about kinds of objections to the new atheists. There are at least three possible interpretations of the objections:

1. Epistemic objections: One might complain that the new atheists, as a group, inappropriately ignore or discount the evidence for theism and wrongly interpret the evidence for atheism. As such, their atheistic conclusions and efforts to persuade people to believe them are contrary to good knowledge practices. Or, less strongly, one might think that the new atheists’ high level confidence in atheism or high probability ascription to atheism is unwarranted, and ought to be lowered.

2. Moral objections: Quite apart from whether the new atheists follow good knowledge practices or not, one might think that the new atheists are reprehensible just because of the way many of them purposefully insult and provoke theists. Even if they are correct about atheism, treating even people with mistaken beliefs such as theists in this way is morally unacceptable and evidence of faulty character.

3. Prudential objections: Finally, you might simply think that the tactics of the new atheists, while not contrary to good epistemic practices or morally wrong, are simply unlikely to help them achieve their ends of converting people to atheism and are therefore imprudent. For instance, inflammatory books and speeches may actually have the effect of galvanizing the fundamentalist religious base, doing more harm than good to the atheist movement.

(Note that 1-3 are interrelated in complicated ways. For instance, you might think that people have moral obligations to engage in epistemic good practices in addition to epistemic obligations to do so. Or, you might think that insulting religious believers would only be morally wrong if their beliefs were epistemically unwarranted. And, moral and prudential reasons often overlap. But we can disregard all this for now).

So, what is *really* the criticism against the new atheists by the old atheists? I think if the old atheists have an epistemic objection, it is the weaker one I suggested above, and that they think new atheists ought to have more epistemic humility, even if their conclusion is ultimately the correct one. But I can’t really tell to what extent their objection about new atheists insulting theists is a moral objection, and to what extent it is a prudential one. If the insulting tactics of the new atheists did no harm whatsoever to the atheist movement, would they still be wrong? If so, then the wrongness is probably moral and not prudential. Anyone have any thoughts on this? What kind of difference really divides the atheists?


  • Based on conversations with atheist friends of mine who have a problem with folks like Dawkins and Hitchens, I’d say it’s mostly the moral objection. But there is probably a bit of the epistemic objection at work as well – that they think Dawkins and Hitchens aren’t warranted in being *quite* as confident as they are, which makes it morally worse that they are so aggressive in pushing their atheism on others.

  • Thanks, chaospet, that’s helpful – I don’t really have any atheist friends with whom I discuss such matters, so I am lacking evidence of this kind.

    I would have guessed it was mostly the moral objection, but sometimes it’s hard to tell. Claims like that the new atheists are “arrogant” could be read as moral or epistemic objections. Although, I doubt many men on the street really think explicitly in terms of whether the new atheists are justified in drawing their conclusions.

  • (Here’s a comment from Peter T. that I copied over from Facebook)

    I’d actually spring for a more basic explanation: Affect. A lot of “old atheists” who are wary of snark directed at moderate religious beliefs are perfectly okay with snark directed at, say, full-blown Creationists… as long as you’re a conservative Christian rather than a conservative Muslim, of course, in which case your views demand respect and understanding in some historical context.

    And I’m not trying to be dismissive here – I really think it just boils down to the cognitive biases which are discussed in moral psychology. “Old atheists” are more exposed to religious moderates and see them as ideological allies. This ties to the prudential arguments, but I think they go much deeper, since what is actually prudent often does not track these group biases.

    For example, the other day, my mom (the token leftist in my life, I guess) approvingly mentioned a local hospital that was refusing to hire doctors that smoked, on grounds that someone who made such poor health choices in their personal life had no business managing the health of others. I mused as to whether this would be similar to a university refusing to hire theists in their scientific departments because clearly theists have such poor epistemological habits that they shouldn’t be in charge of educating future generations of scientists. Of course, to her this was completely different… until I replaced the generic theist with a Creationist, at which point OF COURSE these people had no business being professors! I’m sure that one could offer a strained explanation for the consistency of these views – but I think it’d just be a post hoc way of justifying some more-fundamental group biases…. Read More

    Prudentially, I agree that going after religious moderates isn’t very productive for the Vast Atheist Agenda (hail Satan!), but I don’t think that strategic concerns are what motivates the backlash against New Atheists.

  • Peter,

    I agree with you that cognitive biases and differing affective responses to religious people probably explain much of the negativity towards new atheists. That’s a good point too, about many people being ok with snark directed towards full blown creationists but not moderates, revealing a possible inconsistency.

    However, even if non-rational factors are the causes of these beliefs/attitudes/behaviors, I’m still interested in the way people would discuss them, and people do this by offering reasons to justify their beliefs/attitudes/behaviors. So, if pressed, an anti-new-atheist should have reasons for not liking them, and I’m interested to know whether those reasons are (or would be) moral, epistemic, or prudential, even if the reasons did not actually *cause* the dislike. Because if someone cannot produce adequate reasons, this can sometimes be pointed out to her, and sometimes the affective response can be consequently refined. Although I am certainly not overly optimistic about the prospects of changing one’s attitudes towards all matters at will.

Leave a Reply